Perched on the bridge above Fish Creek, Kevin Dombey said that doing a kayak entry-launch into the raging water would be a roll of the dice.
The Steamboat Springs resident dropped from the bridge and hit the water paddling to start the downriver creek race at Monday's Paddler Magazine Pro Invitational, but up against stiff international competition, he rolled a pair of twos. On a day that the Fish Creek gage was at 2 feet, 2 inches, Dombey ended up placing 22nd in the men's creek race division.
"The launch went perfect, but I hit a rock right after that, which wasn't optimal," Dombey said. "In triple-drop, I got flipped, I spun around once -- I've only paddled that boat one time before."
Fortunately, Dombey was able to improve his standing by gaining points in the afternoon freestyle event at the Yampa River "C-hole," adjacent to the Bud Werner Memorial Library, with a respectable eighth-place finish.
"I wasn't staying in long enough to consistently set up, but I definitely hit the moves I wanted," Dombey said.
Celebrating Paddler Magazine's 15th anniversary, the Pro Invitational combined the points from the morning's timed Charlie Beavers Classic race on Fish Creek and the afternoon's judged freestyle event.
Only 39 seconds separated the men's last place finisher from the first in a technically demanding creek race, in which every rock in the kayakers' path meant another second added to their times.
Gypsum's Brad Ludden managed to find the quickest line of the day down the mile stretch, with a winning time of 4 minutes and 15 seconds.
"My whole strategy was looking way ahead to line up," Ludden said. "There was a lot of luck because there were a lot of rocks. Paddling Fish Creek normally is challenging, but going full speed, you can never let your guard down. Add the altitude and the cold water, you can't relax. By the end, I was so lactic my thumbs were aching."
In a race she said was one of the toughest she's ever done, Australia's Tanya Faux won the women's creek division in 4:28.
Faux did not stop there. She continued to display her talent in the freestyle event, entering her surf in the finals against Tanya Shuman with a perfectly executed front loop. Faux went on to win the overall women's title, edging out her fellow southern hemisphere friend and mentor, New Zealander Nikki Kelly.
Decided from the points of two one-minute rides, the male competitors were also whittled down to two finalists, pitting the youth of recent high-school graduate Todd Baker against the experience of veteran pro kayaker "All Day" Jay Kincaid.
Although Baker threw some of the biggest inverted aerial tricks the "C-hole" has seen this season, Kincaid's consistency and variety of tricks convinced the judges.
Taking third in the creek race with a time of 4:18, Kincaid's freestyle win gave the Reno, Nev., resident the overall men's title and a $1,500 prize.
"These competitions are usually on much smaller features," Kincaid said. "It was cool, you could do wave and hole moves here when it's sometimes one or the other."
With the exception of one swim on a practice creek run and a flip in the hole by a rogue citizen canoeist known only as the "Manure Man," the event went off safely, in part because of the safety precautions taken by the Paddler staff, volunteers, racers and Routt County Search and Rescue.
"This is the most people I've ever seen at a freestyle event," Paddler editor-in-chief Eugene Buchanan said. "This is what the city based their water right filing off of, and this proves we have a world-class feature. Mother Nature also really cooperated with us, with the sun and yesterday's cool temps bringing Fish down to a nice, safe level. I don't think the race could've been handled or run better."