History of slalom events held in the southeast

It is an Olympic year! And an ambitious group of slalom kayakers will be working hard this summer to qualify for the few coveted slots on the US team headed to London. While slalom only hits the front page every four years, amateur slalom events have been a tradition in the southeast for 40+ years. The history behind the numerous events held in the southeast is long and noteworthy.  Many an Olympic paddler has emerged from the ranks of these southeastern races. Even more noteworthy is that many of the original participants and/or organizers of these southeastern events still participate today as friendly competitors, organizers and volunteers.

The magic behind many of the events held in the southeast is the community spirit.  Participants that come out to compete in the races have always- and still do include a line up of both professional athletes and recreational paddlers who enjoy the edge competition gives them.  Ages range from tiny junior paddlers to former athletes who may be now sporting some grey (or no) hair, but are still game to come out and give the young bucks a run for their money for a weekend.

Southeasterns: one of the oldest events

One of the oldest events in the United States is the Southeasterns.  Southeasterns were established and run by one of the oldest paddling clubs in the United States- the Georgia Canoe Association (GCA).  At its peak Southeasterns was one of the major race events in the US and boasted possibly the largest number of participants when numbers hit 400+.  In the history of the Southeasterns, Bill Nutt relates “The GCA’s 1966 founders, Horace Holden, Sr. and Bill Crawford, together with Payson Kennedy, had in 1968 visited the Canoe Cruisers Association (CCA) of Greater Washington D.C.’s Petersburg races on the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. They were impressed and met many experienced racers who were excited about the idea of coming to the Nantahala to race the following July 4th. Thus was born what was ambitiously termed the “First Annual Nantahala Race… to promote the sport in the Southeast, as well as advance the cause for wild rivers.”

Bunny Johns, one of the original participants in the Southeasterns, remembers fondly “A racer usually helped get the race set up, then raced, judged as needed and then helped take the course down.  We were tough back then and all in the spirit of having fun and being challenged by a slalom course.  There was also a downriver race.  My big remembrance is that in general to race during a weekend event, the racers had to help – otherwise there would have been no race.”

Southeasterns also fostered the idea of regional paddling clubs competing as teams. For many years, the “Southeastern Cup” was awarded to the paddling club whose members earned the most medals at the weekend event.  K1, K2, C1, C2, OC1 and OC2, as well as Wildwater downriver racing have all been a part of Southeasterns.

Southeasterns may hold the title as the “first annual Nantahala Race,” but it might not be the most “character building” event held in the southeast.  Many a boater has driven through the Nantahala Gorge in February and shivered at the sight of a line of professional and recreational slalom boaters walking upstream to run the gates through the Nantahala Falls. If there is ice and/or snow on the ground it is time for the Nantahala Glacier Breaker.  The Glacier Breaker has been held for 20+ years, and is one of the first events of the season for recreational athletes and many of the top slalom and Wildwater boaters who are dusting off their competitive edge after a winter off.

Glacier Breaker: the season opener

Ask former Olympic C-2 racer Horace Holden, Jr., about his “fondest” memories of Glacier Breaker and he is quick to remember “usually cold, but that was not a big deal because we had been training all winter in the cold. Wayner and I would do lake workouts at 6:30 am with the temps in the teens. One of my all time favorite Christmas presents was a hand made power bar warmer that rested over the defrost vent in my truck. (Thanks Wayner.) Broken teeth from frozen power bars were no fun. Training in the gates….It wasn’t uncommon to get off the water with a layer of ice glazed on your pfd and paddle jacket. I remember chipping icicles off the slalom poles.”

While the Nantahala River is a busy venue in the spring for whitewater events – it is not the only location in the south with a long history of annual events. Alabama is host to three races in the spring: the Locust Fork Invitational, Locust Fork Classic and the Mulberry Fork Race.

Granddaddy of Alabama Events

The Mulberry Fork is the grand daddy of Alabama events, hosting a 25-gate slalom course since 1981.  The Mulberry Fork race attracted many professional athletes who would come and join the ranks of southeastern boaters out to enjoy the race (and the festivities—which Alabama does well!!).  As a young professional athlete, Holden Jr. was part of the annual event. His favorite part of the Mulberry Race? “The best thing about the Mulberry Fork race was that it drew a different kind of racer. Not your typical hard core racer. Instead, lots of friendly folks from Alabama who enjoyed a fun day on the river even if it meant running gates. This was especially reflected in the open boat class. The atmosphere was very refreshing.” Following in the footsteps of the Mulberry Fork Race, the Locust Fork River has become the venue for two additional Alabama Cup Races – making for a trifecta of spring races in the deep south.

Attracting the Professional: The US Open

The first race of the season to attract the professional slalom paddlers is always the US Open. Held on the Nantahala River, professional slalom athletes and local slalom enthusiasts  come together for a little more serious competition.  This is great training for the upcoming season for the athletes, and a challenge to all because the Falls provides an opportunity for the course designers to add challenging gates.

Fun for All: The Nantahala Open

It is no secret that participation in US slalom events is declining; but out of the tradition of southern competition has grown a series of freestyle events.  What a slalom boater would once do when falling unintentionally falling into a hole….freestyle boaters now do intentionally and score points for doing so.   Once upon a time there was the Ocoee Rodeo; today there are awesome events like the Freestyle Shoot Out and World Kayak’s Homegrown Throwdown events— fun, easy and low stress events set up to encourage both community activity (playing together) and skills development. Similar to the slalom events, the freestyle events are divided into divisions that include juniors boaters that barely tip the scales to former “rodeo boaters” who still enjoy getting in to a good freestyle feature and throwing down.

The long tradition of community slalom and freestyle competitions, bringing together professional athletes and recreational boaters to enjoy a little friendly competition, has also spawned some great community-wide events.   Eight years ago Nantahala Falls became the venue for the first Nantahala Open Event – hosted by Endless River Adventures and Team Wave Sport. The Nantahala Open gained the reputation as the number one favorite fun competition on the Nantahala River, inspiring such prize winners as “best self rescue, cutest run through the falls and best surf in top hole.” It is a great day to see the professional members of Team Wave Sport playing in the top hole or hanging out at the top of the Falls giving encouragement to boaters preparing for their run through the Nantahala Falls.

Returning to the Nantahala: Camp Cup Challenge

Events continue throughout the summer in the southeast.  One of the most successful reintroductions to the paddling community has been the annual Camp Cup Challenge.  Western North Carolina is home to the largest group of summer camps—many of which have paddling programs that are over 90+ years old and going strong.  These paddling programs have introduced many young campers to canoeing and kayaking, and in turn have helped foster some of our best young kayakers. In 2007, former Mondamin/Greencove couple Sean and Kristin Bierle (founders of the Alzar School) had a dream: to see the dormant Camp Cup Challenge reinstated. The Camp Cup Challenge brings together all the summer camps for a two-day event that includes a down river event at Nantahala Falls and slalom event at the Nantahala Bridge Gates. What is remarkable about the Camp Cup Challenge is not just the enthusiasm of the campers themselves, but the counselors – including such luminaries as Lecky Haller, Fritz Haller and David Jones and guest coaches the likes of Pablo McCandliss Wayne Dickert and Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff—all coming together to make the Camp Cup Challenge a great community event.

The Camp Cup Challenge has been such a success that it has spawned individual club events such as the Carolina Canoe Club Week of Rivers Challenge, and most recently the NOC Club Cup Challenge.  Today these events continue the tradition of slalom and wildwater, but have also evolved to include Freestyle and Boatercross events.  The result is the same: bringing together whitewater enthusiasts from all corners of the southeast to enjoy friendly competition and time on the river together.

In 1968, the founders of the “First Annual Nantahala Race” probably never dreamed that the Nantahala would one day become the site of an international competition as a result of their hard work. The history of community support for events is what helped bring attention to the Nantahala River and the “wave” – now called the Nantahala Freestyle Wave.  The Nantahala Freestyle Wave will host the 2013 International Freestyle Competition—bringing international boaters to the Southeast to share the community spirit that Southeastern boaters have been a part of for many years.

For a list of many of the southeastern competitions check out the Endless River Adventures Whitewater Calendar of Events.