On November 3, some of the world’s best boaters will converge on Asheville to battle head-to-head in what is arguably one of the most intense kayaking competitions in the country. The Green Race is a lightning-fast downriver time trial held on the Class V Narrows section of the Green River in Saluda, North Carolina, 45 minutes southeast of downtown Asheville. Boaters launch one after the other at minute intervals, tackling a half-mile stretch of the Green packed with back-to-back rapids culminating with an 18-foot waterfall known as “Gorilla,” while spectators watch from the rock outcroppings adjacent to the drop.
This November marks the 23rd year of the race. There is no prize money at stake, yet the Green Race is one of the most revered competitions in whitewater because of the sheer intensity of whitewater packed into a short course, which is relatively spectator friendly. As a result, the Green Race has been dubbed all sorts of colorful monikers over the years, including “The Greatest Show in Sports.”
“There are other races with big cash prizes, but they come and go,” said Chris Gragtmans, manager for Team Dagger, who’s competed in the Green Race for 16 years in a row. “The Green Race is a tradition you can count on. You’ve got death, taxes and the Green Race the first weekend in November.”
The Green River cuts a steep gorge through the lush and rugged Green River Game Lands, a 14,331-acre forest managed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. In its steepest segment, known as the Narrows, the river drops an average of 178 feet per mile over the 3-mile section. It is dam-controlled by Duke Energy, which allows for roughly 300 releases a year from the Tuxedo Hydro Plant dam. Those regular water releases give the Green something that most rivers of its nature don’t have: consistency. Many steep, narrow creeks like the Green depend on rain and snow for water, which means kayakers have limited opportunities to paddle their rapids. This section of the Green offers one of the few situations where a boater can run Class V steep water some 300 days a year. The nature of the Narrows has earned the Green special status among Class V boaters.
“The Green is a benchmark river,” Gragtmans said. “It’s so well respected. People work hard just to be able to run the Green, then they work hard just to be able to race the Green. And if you’re one of the handful of people who have a chance of winning, you dedicate your entire year to that race. You train like an elite athlete.”
The first Green Race was a competition among 16 local boaters. This year, the race field is capped at 180, with boaters flying in from all over the world to compete. And as the field has gotten more competitive, the race has turned into a bona fide spectator sport. Last year, more than 1,500 people hiked over a mile into the Green River Gorge to stand on the side of the river and cheer on the athletes. Many kayaking competitions are held in remote locations that aren’t accessible to casual spectators, but the Green Race offers the rare opportunity to see some of the best kayakers in the world race through Class V rapids.
“The race itself hasn’t changed since the beginning,” said John Grace, who’s production and video company, AMONGSTiT, has organized the Green Race since 2006. “The essence of the course and the format of the race are the same. But it’s grown from a few locals talking trash into a global event with spectators traveling from all over to see the action.”
The Green Race has become such a popular event to attend that Grace is adding a festival to the event this year, with food trucks, music, a gear raffle and a highlight reel on a big screen before the awards ceremony.
The current course record holder and last year’s champion, Eric Deguil, can’t race this year because of a broken thumb, so the top spot is up for grabs. The stacked field includes Dane Jackson, son of kayaking legend Eric Jackson; professional expedition and freestyle kayaker Rush Sturges; and Pat Keller, who’s won the Green Race three times.
The race is held at high noon on November 3. Be prepared for a strenuous and technical hike to access the gorge, and expect three hours of fast-paced competition, a rowdy crowd cheering on the boaters and plenty of entertainment. Visit the Green Race for more info.