The Collegiate Whitewater Fest is a FREE race held every Autumn in Index, Washington. It is a staple of the PNW community. If you don’t know, now you know (you can always go next year). Students travel from around the PNW and British Columbia to race or offer support to one of two courses on the beloved Skykomish River: an intermediate course and an advanced course. Racers are currently attending grade school, an undergraduate program, or a graduate program. It was so inspiring to see a few young guns out there. Sadly, this was my last year of eligibility (unless I go back for more graduate school).
The Collegiate Whitewater Fest is headed up by the outdoor program at the University of Puget Sound (UPS) with World Kayak (an initiative supported by Jackson Kayak) as a primary sponsor. Outdoor Adventure Center hosts the event at their beautiful lodge and outfitter. Community members not only show up to race, but also to help with setting safety and contributing to logistics (e.g. shuttle drivers, registration, food prep, etc.). This is a REALLY well run grassroots event, which is why it’s attendance has grown year over year. …and it’s super competitive.
I will miss racing in this event. I will miss an opportunity to compete in a whitewater race that is inclusive of many different skill and experience levels. Many of the whitewater races popularized in the PNW are class IV and class V, and there are quite a few slalom races being set up locally on rivers like the Cedar River and the Chilliwack. There is a gap in the intermediate classification. Having lived in the southeast U.S., I looked forward to racing at the Ocoee Race every year, a wonderful class III-III+ race hosted in Tennessee. The Collegiate Whitewater Fest intermediate course features a high quality class II-III rapids and the advanced course features a high quality class III-III+ rapids with a significant class IV rapid named Boulder Drop.
Boulder Drop is the crux of the advanced course. It is also the FIRST rapid in the course. No warm up and plenty of adrenaline pumping. Boulder Drop has infinite possibilities for race lines and potential for mishaps. The Collegiate Whitewater Fest does a wonderful job setting safety for a number of potential scenarios that could go down. The advanced racers set safety for the intermediate race. Water levels vary the race course and difficulty significantly! At most levels, for the Boulder Drop entrance, you could launch off a pillow rock or take a sneak route with less concerns. For the “picket fence”, racers have three options. The most common line is a sweet boof known as in a slot named “Ned’s Needle.” After the boof, there are a number of strategies. This is the moment where most folks are gripping the paddle hard enough to drain blood from their knuckles. All options involve weaving through waves, holes, and swirly water. If you stay upright, in-control, and straight, you’ve done a good job.
The Skykomish River has a lot of personality. During the summer months, it’s a perfect place to practice creeking techniques in a Nirvana or Zen, or go vertical in a slicey boat like the MixMaster. During the rainy or snow melt months, the river transforms into a world class (and sometimes a bit terrifying for the less bold) big water river. River levels vary between 700 CFS – 50,000+ CFS. It becomes one of those runs for paddlers to train for the Stikine or other big water beasts. In-between those seasons, the Skykomish is a reliable whitewater paradise. Whether you’re in a Rockstar, a MixMaster, Nirvana, Zen, Karma UG, or some other paddle craft, this river is a blast.
For the race, I chose to paddle my Nirvana. This kayak provides me with a lot of confidence on race day, as it loves to stay in the flow, tracks well, fits well, and is FAST. The advanced course has a staggering amount of technical rapids and flatwater between rapids which zaps a lot of racer’s energy. This race takes about 10 minutes and every second counts. Riding an eddy line and spinning out costs precious seconds. Since paddling the Nirvana, I don’t have eddy line spin outs and have finished higher on the leader boards. The Nirvana having a planing hull is helpful to stay fast while navigating the flatwater.
As with most successful whitewater events, the Collegiate Whitewater Fest’s after party is first class. It features a grill out with plenty of delicious food for all racers, support staff, and spectators. I really enjoyed meeting other paddlers in the community whom I hadn’t paddled with before. It also features an incredible prize table. EVERY person who races or works on the support staff ends up with a prize. A big thank you goes to Jackson Adventures and World Kayak for supporting the prize table with many items! Every person that attends this events leaves with a smile. If you’re in the area, come on out Fall 2020 for the next Collegiate Whitewater Fest!