The Nantahala River runs swiftly through a narrow and steep gorge stretching eight miles from the main put-in to the take-out. Known as the Nanty by the locals, this stretch of constant rapids in North Carolina is a dream for whitewater paddlers.
Last month, five students from Orono High School, along with their enthusiastic instructor, drove across 13 states to launch their Old Town Canoes in the famous river and see if the Nanty was all they had heard. And they weren’t the only canoeists crowding the banks of the frothing river. Expert canoe racers from across the country gathered to compete in the 2012 American Canoeing Association Whitewater Open Canoe Downriver National Championships, June 19-22.
“The high school students did really well, and the experienced paddlers there welcomed them with open arms,” said their instructor Jeff Owen, a teacher at Orono High School and the founder of the school’s outdoor adventure club, GoActive. Owen also is an officer of the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization.
All five students are members of GoActive and have been competing in canoe races throughout Maine all spring, in addition to practicing their paddling skills every week on the Stillwater River in Orono.
Upon arriving in North Carolina for the national championships, the students — recent high school graduate Laurie Hamilton, senior Billy DeSisto and juniors Kailey Schmidt, Samantha Nadeau and Cal Hamilton (Laurie’s brother) — were eager to tackle a more challenging river with top competitors.
Two practice runs on June 18 gave them a taste of the rapids.
“The course snaked its way through the Nantahala Gorge, and nearly every corner had the current sweeping into really fun hydraulics,” Owen said. “You really had to stay on your game the whole way.”
The championship gave canoeists the option to compete in a variety of divisions over four days.
On the first race day, June 19, all five of the teens and Owen raced the full course, approximately 8 miles, with partners. Laurie and Billy, together, won their division, mixed-gender tandem, ages 16-18. And three of the GoActive teens teamed up with more experienced paddlers for their first race down the river.
“One of my favorite things about whitewater canoeing is how nice all the people who do it are,” Laurie said. “They’re always happy to see you around, and even if they’ve only known you for half an hour, they’ll offer rides if you need them, give you paddling and boat maintenance advice and agree to paddle races with you.”
Cal partnered up with Charlie Brackett of New Hampshire and won the junior/senior tandem division, while Samantha and Terry Wescott of Maine came in second place and Kailey and George Stockman of Michigan came in third place. Jeff Owen and his wife, Susannah Owen, came in fourth in the division for mixed gender, ages 40-54.
On June 20, the Maine group entered a series of sprints, 1-mile whitewater races.
“Padders were allowed to enter sprints in as many as four different divisions, making for a very exciting day,” Jeff Owen said.
All of the students, along with Jeff Owen, won first-place medals in one or more divisions that day.
The next day, it was back to full-course races, women’s tandem races and men’s solo races. Kailey and Samantha won for ages 16-18. And Laurie partnered up with Isabel Blue of North Carolina to win for ages 19-39.
“I met her for the first time about a half an hour before we raced, so I was a little nervous about how that would go,” said Laurie, who initially contacted Blue by email. “We had a good time, though. She had done less canoeing than I had, but she works as a raft guide on the Nantahala, so she knew the river really well.”
Cal Hamilton paddled solo and won for ages 13-15, and Jeff Owen won for ages 40-54.
The championship ended with a full course women’s solo race and men’s tandem race on Friday.
“My family wasn’t going to stay for the last day,” said Laurie, who had to rush from the championship to a family trip. “We managed to stay. I really wanted to do that race. I hadn’t done a whitewater race in a solo canoe before, and by that point in the week, I was exhausted, but I’d also been down the river enough times that I knew most of the rapids.”
Kailey also decided to enter into Friday’s race, braving the swift-moving river while kneeling in the center of her canoe, alone.
“She started a minute behind me and was on my heels the whole way,” Laurie said. “Despite being really tired, both of us got a bit competitive. She was racing to catch up with me, and I was desperately trying to stay ahead.”
The course has three noteworthy drops. The first, “Patton’s Run,” is just 100 yards below the put-in. This rapid, rated a class II-III, should be run river right to avoid the slightly submerged rocks.
“As fun as those drops were, it was the nearly constant Class I and Class II rapids and wave trains that made the race course so exciting,” Jeff Owen said.
Just below “Patton’s Run,” Kailey and Laurie navigated the smaller rapids of “Tumble Dry” and “Raft Trap,” formed by two rocks that are placed just wide enough for a raft to become stuck between. Then it was on to “Isle of Dumping,” “Pop ’N Run” and “Pyramid Rock,” all Class II rapids.
Three miles into the course, Kailey and Laurie passed the alternate put-in at Ferebee Park. Without much time to rest, the river threw them into a series of rapids: “Delebar’s Rock,” “Quarry Rapid,” “Root Canal,” “Whirlpool,” “Ledges,” “Little SOB,” “Blowing Springs,” “Panic Rock,” “Surfing Rapid,” “4 Eddy Rapid,” “Devil Kitchen Caves” and “The Bump.”
Nantahala Falls marks the last stretch of the course. This Class III rapid (IV in high water) has a lengthy entrance and offset holes, making it tough to find a clean line, according to the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Both Laurie and Kailey made it through the falls cleanly, finishing the race three minutes apart (meaning just less than a two-minute difference in their final times). Laurie won first place for the women’s solo race, ages 16-18, and ran the course in 1 hour, 7 minutes and 40 seconds; and Kailey came in second place in the same division, running the race in 1 hour, 9 minutes and 28 seconds.
Also that day, Jeff Owen paddled with David Benner of North Carolina to win the men’s double division, ages 40-54. And Bill paddled with Will Seigfred of New York, coming in third place for the men’s double division, ages 19-39.
“It’s pretty cool to be able to come back with six medals from a national championship, and more importantly, lots of great stories,” Laurie said. “I don’t know yet where nationals will be next year, but if they’re anywhere I can make it to, I’ll definitely be up for going again.”
Laurie may be leaving GoActive this year as she moves on from high school, but whitewater canoeing is something she plans to hang onto.
To learn about the American Canoeing Association and the national competition, visit fbcanoeracing.org/nationals.html.