Kayak racers brave waterfalls in search of best time

Posted April 30, 2014, at 5:33 a.m.

It does not take much to start a kayak race. Select a body of water, pick a start and finish line and see who’s fastest. However, if you pick a course that includes several Class 5 waterfalls surrounded by sheer cliff — no matter how short the race — the risk and complication grows immensely. This race appeals to a new breed of whitewater enthusiast. They are not afraid and most of us would call them extreme.

Andrew Cooper has been a regular at such a spot on the Sandy River. Having run Smalls Falls in Township E near Rangeley frequently over the past few years, Cooper came up with the idea of a challenging, fun, picturesque and easily accessible race he named Smalls to the Wall. The distance is just about one-eighth of a mile, but the allure came from having to negotiate the 60 feet of vertical drop in the form of six waterfalls along the way. Cooper has been planning the race for a couple of years, getting sponsors and safety volunteers and even hiring an ambulance for the competition.

Finding kayakers who are able to paddle these waters is becoming less difficult because of the sport’s recent popularity. Similar events were started by Taylor Walker and Jeremy Cass on the West Branch of the Penobscot River and the Kennebec River three years ago. They both were well attended and will continue this year as the Maine Whitewater Championships under Walker’s leadership.

These events appeal to experienced whitewater kayakers who are looking for friendly competition. In some ways they are very similar to the downriver races held across the state each spring, only the bar has been raised. Many of the competitors know each other and spend a lot of time time paddling together.

The first Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race had 11 registered competitors, who each had two timed runs down the falls. They all managed to get through the course without major trouble, requiring no assistance from the extensive safety crew. The fastest man was Chuck Mathieu, paddling the course in 44.75 seconds, while Jane Koopman posted the women’s best time, completing the course in 57.22 seconds. Competitors and spectators said that the event was a lot of fun and they are looking forward to the 2015 Smalls to the Wall.