While whitewater events sometimes take a back seat to ocean contests, the Payette River Games at Kelly's Whitewater Park in Cascade, Idaho is proof that SUP competitions have firmly taken hold in the intermountain regions. And the $14,000 prize purse only upped the ante.
The PRG combined a downriver sprint and a SUP cross event with competitors earning points for their finishes in each discipline. The first day saw the field cut from 40 to 10 for the final Sunday with both men and women battling for an equal prize purse.
In Sunday's final, Nikki Gregg greased the downriver race, making all of her lines. Then, in the SUP Cross final she was the only competitor to remain on her board, sealing up the $3,000 in prize money. It's been a summer of living dangerously for the hard-charging Hood River-resident as Gregg has placed in the top five in every river event she's entered including the Go Pro Mountain Games and FIBARK last weekend in Salida, Colo. "My mind is in the right place," she said. "I was really focused on this event and I was really honored that the people at Kelly's Whitewater Park wanted me to be a part of it."
On the men's side, Frenchman come San Francisco-resident Ben Sarrazin made a last second decision and flew up for the Games on Friday. A very solid ocean-paddler, Sarrazin has a whitewater background and it showed. He finished in the top three in the downriver race both days and most all of his lines were ultra-clean during the two-days of SUP Cross competition, where paddlers had to make turns on two upstream gates before charging through the largest wave feature at Kelly's Whitewater Park. "It's hard to get to rivers where I'm living so I do a lot of buoy turns to prepare for the whitewater stuff," he said. "I think that's where the event was won or lost – making buoy turns. "
The three-day event brought thousands of people to Cascade, Idaho, dwarfing the small town's population. But the community welcomed the event showcasing one of the West's finest whitewater facilities. Aside from river racing there was an expression session for young paddlers and demos all weekend set within the controlled confines of Kelly's, which is situated in Long Valley, a scenic locale in the heart of the Payette River drainage.
For event organizer Jeff Banks, the SUP competition opened his eyes to the broader needs of river SUP racing. As the whitewater side of the sport grows, most aficionados want to see the skill level rise with it. To do that, Banks thinks some commonality is in order. "I learned a lot this year," Banks said. "Our event was amazing and I'm stoked with how it turned out, but it showed me how important it is to have set rules. Whitewater SUP needs a governing body with official rules for event organizers. To progress the sport, we really need set rules that can be implemented across the board."
Still, the Payette River Games showcased whitewater culture at its finest. "I think as you see people start training for these events more, the competition is just going to get better," Gregg said. "But for me, it's about the camaraderie on the river. You just don't find that everywhere in this sport. I guess I'm just a mountain girl at heart."
1. Ben Sarrazin
2. Nick Troutman
3. Christ Gragtmans
4. Ken Hoeve
5. Eric Jackson
1. Nikki Gregg
2. Haley Mills
3. Courtney Kerin
4. Jen Kjellesvik
5. Sage Donnelly