Winnipesaukee River to challenge some of the nation's best paddlers

Winnipesaukee River to challenge some of the nation's best paddlers

Concord Monitor | June 23, 2017

NORTHFIELD -- Like a ferryman methodically pulling a barge across a river, Sonny Hunt reels hand-over-hand a thin nylon cord. He's hauling striped wooden poles into place on wires stretched above the fast-flowing Winnipesaukee River.

Hunt and a group of dedicated volunteers were busy rigging a 21-gate course in the rapids across from the Tilton police station in preparation for the Winnipesaukee River Whitewater Slalom, which takes place Sunday, June 25.

"It takes strength, flexibility and a lot of boat control. There is a lot of technique," said race volunteer Michele Barbin of Snow Shoe, Pa. Her son, Alden Henrie, just completed his sophomore year of high school, and will be among the paddlers pitting themselves against the river and the clock.

"When it comes to addictions for 16-year-olds I'll take it," Barbin said.

On Monday, Henrie is leaving for Europe to test himself against those under ages 18 and 23 in the Whitewater World Championships in Bratislava, Slovakia.

"It's a lifelong sport. Low impact on your body and burns a ton of calories," Barbin said.

Keech LeClair and his wife, Ann, of Ossining, N.Y., arrived on Thursday, towing their travel-trailer, which they parked riverside on conservation land on the Northfield side of the river at the end of Granite Street. The couple has clinched the national tandem canoeing championships five times and travel throughout New England to attend whitewater paddling events.

"Whitewater is not something we do - it defines us," said LeClair. He estimates that they have paddled some 35,000 miles together.

Since Ann was sidelined after undergoing knee surgery, Keech, who is approaching 80, now competes in the open canoe master class for single paddlers age 40 and over. The American Canoeing Association is the sport's governing body.

Whitewater slalom paddling came to the U.S. in the '50s, after being developed in France. The sport combines precise boat-handling skills with speed. Each paddler gets two chances to run the course and is timed racing through a series of gates - poles dangling from wires stretched across the river. Gates are set in both directions: both downstream - with the current, and upstream - against the current.

Time penalties are added - 50 seconds for missing a gate. In the kayak and closed canoe division, a two-second time penalty is assessed per gate for touching a pole. In an open canoe, a touch is 10 seconds per gate. The better of the two runs is used in the final rankings.

A red canoe juts from the roof of LeClair's SUV. Made of Kevlar and carbon fiber, it's 15 feet long and weighs a scant 32 pounds. It has a curved or "rockered" bottom so that it can be maneuvered in whitewater through the series of gates.

"The crew here are all volunteers. Many of them take a day off from work to come help set up the course. People show up and say thanks," he said.

"It keeps me out in nature," LeClair said of his attraction to the sport. He retired from IBM, and his wife is a high school guidance counselor.

"It's a lot of fun. You can watch people (paddle) and try and emulate what they do. Most races have a potluck dinner, and there is a lot of camaraderie."

Thirty years ago, The Friends of the Winnipesaukee River, which organizes this weekend's event, started working with local communities to look at the ribbon of water with fresh eyes. They were able to convince town officials of the benefits of including recreation and conservation on the Winnipesaukee in their master plans. The Friends of the Winnipesaukee River envisioned a future when the river would again be an economic engine, but instead of powering industry, it would enhance recreational opportunities for locals and attract visitors.

The municipalities of Tilton, Northfield and Franklin were receptive and each conserved shorefront along the Winni River or developed an abutting park. Plans are also in the works to create a whitewater park in Franklin, the first of its type in New England.

Hunt, who is chairing the race with his daughter, Amy, said typically the state approves a dam release to create ideal conditions. But persistent rain already has the river running at 1,200 cubic feet per second, three to four hundred cfs more than during the four prior races.

A resident of Concord, Hunt is no stranger to the lure of whitewater. He and his daughter have claimed a national title in the open canoe mixed division.

"I enjoy bringing (the sport) to different towns and letting people see what's out there. We do lessons and beginner courses," Hunt said.

He has been organizing the Blackwater Slalom race in his hometown of Webster for the past 34 years.

Eighty to ninety boats are expected at the Winni race, which is a stop on the New England White Water Slalom series. Paddlers will compete in a variety of categories for canoes and kayaks, both men and women, combined, solo and tandem divisions. Novices are encouraged to come out and give it a try.

On Friday, after the bulk of the course gates had been set, John "Kaz" Kazimierczyk who designs and builds some of the hottest slalom open canoes right here in the Granite State, took to the river and showed why he has been Open Canoe National Champion 10 times. In addition to slalom, he is a three-time Downriver National Champion and has won a whopping 68 national titles.

"He is just playing," said LeClair as Kazimierczyk appeared to effortlessly maneuver his canoe around a giant boulder in a vortex of current. Many of the competitors are using the Winni race as a final tune-up for the nationals to be held in July.

Surges in the popularity of the sport, LeClair said, typically track the cycle of the Olympic Games. Following the Games, footage of the whitewater canoe slalom is the most requested video, according to LeClair.