The North Fork of the Payette is one of the most powerful pieces of whitewater on the planet: 15 miles of Class V spilling from Idaho’s central mountains. And it’s one of the few places where the power and ferociousness can be translated to the general public. The North Fork is the Banzai Pipeline of whitewater kayaking: incredibly large, often terrifying and on full display to the masses as it tumbles angrily next to Highway 55, one of the state’s primary north/south thoroughfares. And as Pipeline is to surfing, it’s the ultimate test piece for the sport, a place where careers are built and unfortunately, sometimes ended.
The river’s crown jewel is a rapid called Jacob’s Ladder, a half-mile long cataract that literally makes a mountain of whitewater. The downriver race scheduled for this weekend through the rapid is essentially a world-championship event in the sport.
No one has done more to raise the river’s profile than the organizer of that event, James Byrd, a registered nurse, former college football player and gifted kayaker, who has run The North Fork Championships the last six years, guiding it as it’s grown into the sport’s most important weekend festival, including the Whitewater Awards ceremony held in Boise on Thursday night that is the Powder Awards or Surfer Poll of the kayaking industry.
This year is particularly dicey for the organizer. Because of massive snowpacks across the West, and especially in Idaho, the North Fork is running at nearly 6,000 CFS, a ridiculous amount of water for the steep, narrow streambed. I talked with Byrd on the eve of one of the world’s most dangerous events.
How’s everything coming together?
It’s going so well, definitely the biggest and best year we’ve had. Kind of with everything: athletes and sponsors are stoked. Everybody wants to be involved, as far as brands. And this year, it’s turned out like I always dreamed—
the best paddlers on this river in its true form at high water. But along with that comes the logistics: What more can you do for safety? Is it smart to run it? We have a fall back plan if it rains on snow and there’s a boost in water levels and no one wants to run it.
How do you make that call, whether to call it on or off?
I’m stoked to see how it goes. We had a crew in from White Salmon (Wash.) and they all ran it and were feeling good. But we also had people from New Zealand come in and were like, ‘no way we’re racing that.’ The athletes are very respectful of the river at this level and there’s zero peer pressure. For us (as organizers in charge of safety), if we don’t see (the athletes) out there running it and practicing lines, they’re not racing. We don’t want people probing it during the event for the first time (just because there’s safety set up). We’re not doing this thing loosely. It’s a showcase.
Jacob’s Ladder is the type of rapid kayakers are using Google Earth to find in far-flung places all over the world. The athletes involved would travel across the world to run it. But we want to do it safely and we want to do it smart. We’ve had really good talks with athletes leading up to it. And from weather forecasts it looks like it should slowly keep dropping, and stay at a manageable flow. Because of permitting with all the different agencies, it would be really hard to move but we’ve had conversations for backup planning.
I got on the North Fork Of the Payette at 4,700cfs with @aniolserrasolses a few days ago and it blew my mind! It was intense, scary, but mostly a lot of fun. The margin for error is super low so I was always on my toes! It's 🌶in there. Interested to see what the levels do this week leading up the @northforkchampionship @jackson.kayak @kokatatusa @jackson.kayak
So do you feel like you’re kind of protecting the athletes form themselves?
I think the safety of the athletes is paramount. And just behind that is the longevity of the event. We don’t need to be crazy to be crazy. The level of kayaking is there, there’s a handful that can do it and do it well and that’s something we want to showcase. As an organizer you take all these factors, weather, athlete feedback, my own experience with the river, into account to make the right call.
Is the safety of your athletes keeping you up at night?
We’re 100 percent about safety but it’s a seriously tough aspect of this event. We have 12 people certified in swiftwater rescue and we’ll tie or anchor a lot of them to trees so someone doesn’t become a problem because they’re pulled in trying to rescue a competitor. We’ll have safety below the biggest holes but there’s no way we’re putting (safety) kayaks up on the course. That’s a scary idea. Every athlete is about safety and not jeopardizing the event, being respectful. Essentially the athletes are on their own through the steepest part of the course, just because of the power of the water. This is not a weekend warrior’s event.
Alec Voorhees dropping into Rock Drop in Jacob's Ladder, at a burly 5,600-5,700cfs on the North Fork Payette River in Idaho. One of the most impressive human feats I have ever personally witnessed. Huge shout out and respect to @alecvoorheeskayak he is paddling extremely well right now. The @northforkchampionship is coming up next Thursday through Saturday the 17th of June. With a high potential for big flows it's a year to not be missed. I am looking forward to seeing everyone again on my favorite weekend of the year! Look for some pics of spring high water in The Banks Mag. #idaho #northforkpayette #northforkchampionship #nfc #kayaking #idahodaily #idahoexplored #wildernessculture #whitewater #holyshititshuge #banksmag #undertheradar #teamcanon #canon5dmarkii #northfork #thiskidisonfire #kayakingissick #locals #earthpix #visitidaho
The whitewater industry is said to be struggling. Is this the last bastion of legitimacy for the sport?
I know where the industry is, but as far as the North Fork Championships is concerned, companies and sponsors are supporting it and wanting to be a part of it and it’s only growing. I’m doing this to showcase kayaking and athletes and show that it’s just as sick as the X games, just as impressive as any other event, just as entertaining, every bit as legitimate as any of those other sports. And it takes a course like this to showcase it. Anyone, whether they paddle or not, looks at Jake’s and is like, ‘Holy shit, that is unbelievably powerful and impressive.’ It’s the same thing with a double backflip on a dirt bike or 720’s off 60-foot gaps. The consequences are the same at that level. As much as people have said the sport is hurting, I can honestly say that it’s not for us. It’s as strong as ever.
Is this the most dangerous event in sports?
You could say that but I can’t imagine being at the top of the Red Bull Rampage: four huge tricks on four huge features. So I’m not taking away from those sports, but I think you could say that. That’s not the goal, that’s not why we do this but it’s that serious, for sure.
The North Fork of the Payette is in its own league. I’m not trying to brag but the river is just a different animal. You see other courses and that’s what they have to work with. We brought the event to this river because of its size and ferocity. At the same time with the other races, there’s a sense that we’re all siblings, and we help each other to grow. This race, this river, there’s so much respect for it, and the athletes that compete in it, that aspect always impresses me.
Find information on the North Fork Championships this weekend including results and the Whitewater Awards here.