This past Memorial Day weekend played host to Colorado’s annual kickoff to summer, the Colorado Kayak Supply (CKS) PaddleFest. Situated along the Arkansas River, this long-time event hosts clinics, sales, demos and instruction, along with a healthy dose of competition. The manmade whitewater play park in Buena Vista is the perfect venue for not only world class whitewater freestyle kayaking, but also one of the more challenging and highly competitive arenas for standup paddle river racing.

The CKS SUP-hill Downhill is a fairly unique event in that it puts whitewater SUP racers in a head-to-head format that has them navigate back and forth around rocks and buoys in an attempt to paddle about 50 yards upstream, only to turn around and paddle back downstream around the same obstacles in reverse order. All of this is in within feet of screaming spectators, a huge river festival, and is also during the Men’s Pro Freestyle Kayaking Finals.

This year, some of the quickest names in river SUP turned out: Dan Gavere, Brent Redding, Taylor Robertson, Charlie MacArthur, Ken Hoeve and Michael Tavares, to name a few. As the sun set over the Arkansas River, each round became more and more competitive as only the top two from each round advanced on. In a format where “rubbing is racing” and contact is inevitable, the Men’s and Women’s Finals were stacked with whitewater paddling talent.

The women’s division also saw some of the best in their field as Nikki Gregg, Jenny MacArthur and Haley Mills battled it out in a hotly-contested round that, in the end, had MacArthur on top, followed by Mills and Gregg in third. And while the women share a lot of camaraderie off the water, once the announcer started the race it was a full on fight to the finish! At one point Mills and Gregg were literally running each other into the rocks in an effort to gain the upstream edge and take the lead midway thru the attainment.

Then came the Men’s Finals. Gavere, Redding, Hoeve and Tavares lined up on river left, all facing toward the first turn on river right and the several hundred spectators that came to watch. In an unfortunate slip, Redding fell off his board, only to be swept downstream and out of contention. Tavares and Hoeve made the first turn with Gavere closing the gap. By turn two, Gavere overtook Hoeve and made a push to Tavares as they reached the top of the course and turned downstream. As Tavares and Gavere rounded the final turn a few yards before the finish, Gavere took an unexpected spill that put Tavares on the top of the podium and allowed Hoeve to close the gap. As they both rounded the turn and sprinted to the finish line, it would be Gavere that paddled into second place by a couple of feet and a near photo finish.

The spirit of whitewater standup paddling is at an all-time high in the Rocky Mountains, with several major events coming up. June 6 – 9th the GoPro Mountain Games return to Vail, Colo., with several SUP races on the mostly class II – III Gore Creek. Also, June 21 – 23 Cascade, Idaho will be the host of The Payette River Games and the largest whitewater SUP purse to date, $14,000. —Ken Hoeve

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