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October 26, 2006

off the pavement

Burnt Ranch River Race

story and photos by BENNETT BARTHELEMY

Burnt Ranch Gorge and sick kayaking are synonymous in the paddler vernacular. So what better place to stage a kayaking competition? Charlie Cphoto of kayakers on Trinity Riverenter and Rush Sturges of and are working at promoting such an event, and Oct. 15 of this year was the second annual. Burnt Ranch Falls one, two and three are class IV/V attention-grabbers, and the scenery is epic. The hike in, down 70 degree slopes that had recently cut loose for shooting, was probably as thrilling as the drops the 20-odd kayakers sampled. I had heard I would be jostling elbows with Shawn Walker of the Times-Standard for photos but saw no sign (last year his shot ended up on the cover of the T-S). Instead I was in the company of my wife, an injured paddler, a significant other, a videographer and a dog the size of a Shetland pony that continually dove between our legs as we tried to negotiate the heinous trail. I silently wished I had rigged an anchor and a rope to rappel in

11:30 a.m., and no one had arrived. A noon start time seemed a bit ambitious. Eventually my friend Ben York showed up with his cracked boat (suffered on his 29th or so run of this same stretch two weeks ago) and circa 1980 helmet. Next, the Teva/VW Touareg pulled in next to us. Wow, Teva is sponsoring this? I thought. I asked my question to the driver and passenger. "No, I am a Teva and Volkswagen sponsored athlete," responded Rush Sturges. "They give you a car?" I asked incredulously. I was quickly handed a DVD (Dynasty) and its soundtrack CD by Rush, along with a Teva sticker as a kind of indoctrination.

Rush is a living legend in the kayaking world, yet barely old enough to order a drink at the bar. He's starred in a number of kayak movies from around the globe, and is the aquatic equivalent of Andre Agassi or Jim Thorpe. Passenger Charlie Center is no slouch himself, judging by the video we watched later -- my wife and I just kept looking at each other and saying, "What the f***? That's insane!"photo of kayaker on Trinity River

As we waited for other contestants to show up I asked the obvious questions of Rush and Charlie. I learned from Charlie that this was day two of the events. The day before, some 25 kayakers had battled it out in a big-air surf comp at Camel Rock, the heats having been drawn up very professionally on the back of a pizza box. Rush has favorite places to paddle, including the White Nile, runs in his backyard on the Salmon River. All of California Rush calls "local paddling." I snagged some lifestyle shots; Rush reaching over the bag of Chester Fried Chicken to get a kayak strap; Charlie sorting soggy gear in the back of the Touareg; the throngs of hardcore paddlers swapping stories and laughs. My plan was to shoot the start and bail to go climbing with my wife as I promised I would spend the day with her, having not had the opportunity in over a month. Instead the shout went out that they needed folks to drive shuttle vehicles.

It was understood by everyone but me that I would be shooting falls one and two -- the obvious spot. So I was handed the keys to the Teva-mobile. I shot an apologetic look to my wife -- climbing was out. I had to laugh at the impossibility of it all. What if I got in a fender-bender? What if Rush's sponsors found out I was behind the wheel? What if my wife would divorce me over this? Instead I submitted to the moment and put the car in reverse. Paddles poked me in the head, fried chicken grease wafted around the CD-strewn interior. We headed in convoy toward the falls and the take-out. I found myself lamenting that I had chosen climbing instead of kayaking. In the climbing world, sponsored athletes often have to grovel for a pair of shoes. I pushed on the stereo and was blasted out of my reverie by thumping bass and the most vitriolic, foul-mouthed rap I had ever heard. What a perfect moment. Just then a young fawn dashed in front of the Touareg and I learned the true meaning of good brakes and suspension.

I never found out who won until the next day, although I thought I saw Charlie Center in the front pack with two other boaters, bumping paddles and vying for glory. I made it down to the river in time to position myself on a boulder in the middle of falls number two just before the finish. Sun popped through intermittently as rain spattered my face and camera. Big leaf maple were changing leaves to neon yellow in contrast to the stark white and dark-turquoise of the river. Contestants backpaddled in an eddy to the edge just in front of me to choose their lines over the falls. Despite the adrenaline surges I am sure they were experiencing, there were many smiles exchanged, and several asked me if I was ready to shoot them before they paddled back into the current and over the falls.

Save a wet-exit on the second falls by one boater and Ben having to stop and empty his cracked and waterlogged boat several times, there seemed to be little drama. What was certain was that the men and women that paddled that day were incredibly adept at not only their sport but also at having fun, even in a competitive and scary environment. The winning seemed much less important than a day spent among friends in a gorgeous and dynamic setting. Time to find a good used boat.

Map of Trinity River's Burnt Ranch Gorge

dingbat dingbat dingbat

Email Bennett Barthelemy at,
or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, 95521.


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