Racing by night

Raft racing quietly booming in Colorado

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— Every summer, a distinct seasonal subculture of semi-employed river guides migrate to the Arkansas River Valley, Colorado's capital of commercial rafting.

With more than 60 outfitters located around Buena Vista, the concentration of restless guides has resulted in a unique breeding ground for the development of a sport on the fringe -- raft racing. As a competitive vent from the daily drudgeries of entertaining clients, races turn river sections a guide sees every day from rote exercises in tip-earning into friendly battlegrounds for bragging rights.

For the past four years, guides that run the technical Pine Creek section of the upper Arkansas pick a night to organize a downriver race starting just above Pine Creek Rapids, constricted chute of whitewater running parallel to Colorado Highway 24 that can present menacing hydraulics with terminal consequences, depending on water levels.

Asked by some old guide friends if I would like to paddle as hard as possible for 40 minutes for last Tuesday night's annual race, I threw my ageing rafting gear in my car and headed to Balltown. Located near the race put-in, about halfway between Buena Vista and Leadville, Balltown is home to a Vail-based outfitter's highway outpost that operates out of the once-notorious, now-defunct Balltown Lounge and provides improvised housing for the guides on our team.

Getting our boat ready amongst four others teams at the put-in, we joked that we would at least get fifth place. As bus- and vanloads of competitors arrived with carbon paddles and custom PVC rafts, the jokes quickly turned to talk of our six-man team's obscene lack of race experience and game-time readiness, made apparent as we got stuck on a rock while floating to the starting area.

With 15 men's and five women's teams registered, volunteer timers launched the boats a minute apart. As the sixth boat to launch, we started digging as we rounded the bend into Pine Creek Rapid. We flew by spectators lining the boulder fields and safety kayakers on either side of the river, hitting the main hole dead on. Flowing at 600 cubic feet per second, this is an acceptable race line and we punched through and kept paddling to a boulder-littered portion home to a move called "Squeeze Play." Despite guiding this section every day, Bill and Seth -- sharing our team's line-picking responsibilities -- agreed to a shortcut that wedged us right in the squeeze. Losing precious seconds trying to shimmy our boat over the rocks and back in the current, we attributed this line to our 12th-place finish and definitely not our overall fitness levels.

Paddling nonstop for five miles to get a raft downriver in 36 minutes didn't feel great on the joints. Losing to teams with names like "Team Pinchie" and "Team Hot Dog Down a Hallway," along with my sister's all-female team, didn't help.

To her credit, my sister guides the section every day and spent last summer training with her raft team, which won the U.S. nationals to earn the right to represent our country last October in the World Rafting Championships in Ecuador.

Working for Arkansas Valley Adventure, the outfitter that organized this year's race, has made it easy for her to race in every Pine Creek Race. She was ecstatic to see more women's teams turn out than any year in the past.

Her team of AVA guides placed second in the female division behind some of the remaining members of the U.S. women's team.

Hardened through international competition and sanctioned by the International Rafting Federation, these races combine a downriver event, like the Pine Creek race, with a slalom and a bracketed head-to-head sprint event.

In this skilled international field, among European teams whose private rafting clubs receive government subsidies to train and travel to events, the U.S. men placed third in the world last fall behind Russia and the Czech Republic.

This Vail-based team of guides, named "Behind the 8-Ball," came to the Pine Creek race in their jet-black race boat and matching gear. With powerful and uniform strokes, 8-Ball cruised through the course for the fastest overall time of 31 minutes, 43 seconds, beating the next team by nearly two minutes.

Mark Joffe, on hand to time the race with his event management company Rapidpulse, saw Tuesday's race as more evidence of the sport's potential to grow.

"If the sport takes off like mountain biking or snowboarding, it could be considered for the Olympics as early as 2012, but you need 72 countries as registered members," said Joffe, a board member of the USA Rafting Association and director of the 2005 World Championships. Joffe said the number of countries present in Ecuador, 23, will grow to a contingent of 40 for the 2007 worlds in Korea.

For the time being, Joffe would like to see more participation from professional guides and local paddling enthusiasts, but he thinks Colorado has more potential for the sport than anywhere else in the country.

"We tried to do (the U.S. National Championships) in West Virginia and other places like California, but more Colorado teams show up than any state we do it in," Joffe said. "There's awesome rivers and more races here than any other state. Since 2000, every U.S. team has been from Colorado."

As the sport of raft racing quietly grows under the radar of national media coverage, it may not be long before corporate sponsors begin paying attention and pumping in the necessary funding to thrust the sport into the "action-sport" spotlight it claims in many countries.

Joffe said Warren Miller Productions will be on hand to film this summer's U.S. national races for Fox Sports Network.

Many Routt County residents may be surprised to find out these races are Aug. 19, just outside of Kremmling on a technical course down Gore Canyon.

-- To reach Dave Shively, call 846-1129 or e-mail dshively@steamboatpilot.com

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