Kayakers Duel in the New Haven River

BRISTOL — The temperatures were up on this past Saturday afternoon to about seventy degrees Fahrenheit for the 11th annual New Haven Ledges kayak race down the New Haven River in Bristol, and so were the water levels.

Forty-nine whitewater paddling competitors dipped in at the starting gate just above Eagle Park on the Lincoln Road before plunging into a 1.3-mile course that required them to navigate waterfalls of up to 15 feet in height — that one’s called “The Toaster.” Overall they would drop around 130 feet in elevation in a little more than a minute and a half.

When water levels are at their normal depth, this stretch of river is classified as Class Four, on a scale of one to six, where six is extremely dangerous and potentially impossible. But the water was especially high this year, with flows on the course rivaling the first year the race was held, in 2009, according to race organizer Ryan McCall.

“We had 56 people register, but only 49 took bibs because folks were uncomfortable with the water level,” McCall said. “Fortunately, the weather was warm and the competition was stiff, so for the folks who competed, it was great to see them take on big water like that.”

McCall said the race saw a great turnout this year and that the quality of competition was high. “We had some world-class boaters turn out, even some of the best in the world. Some of these folks have paddled in Russia, South America and to the far reaches of the world for big whitewater,” said McCall. “Last year the competition was pretty stiff and we’ve always had great boaters, but the level of competition just keeps getting higher every year.”

This year, the New Haven River offered those world-class competitors some serious flow. “Though the levels were some of the highest ever, it’s hard to say exactly what the flow was,” says McCall, who said the race’s insurance permit does limit how high the water can be for the event to proceed.

Reed Hutton of Victor, Idaho, a Middlebury College graduate, takes on a big rapid in
the New Haven Ledges Race on April 13. Hutton tied with three other racers for 13th place in the
men’s category with a time of one minute, 43 seconds. Photo by Bob LoCicero

According to one USGS gauge, the river was clocking in at over 1,100 CFS during race hours. “But that was 6 miles downstream of the start,” says McCall.

Seven competitors bailed from their craft or were thrown and “swam” and had to be rescued by waiting support crews before they tumbled over the waterfall at the course’s terminus at Rocky Dale.

Course volunteers were ready to scoop them out of the water. “It helps that the course is roadside, so we can put people in all of the primary locations we expect folks to swim,” said McCall. The big water this year kept volunteer rescuers on their toes. “We had a number of what we call live bait rescues this year, where someone tethered to land or a boat jumps in the water and grabs the swimmer. We kept somebody ready and tethered at the pool just below Rooster Tail and above Toaster so no one would go over the falls without their boat.”

Greg Lee of San Francisco took first place in the men’s category, smoking fellow competitors by a full six seconds to complete the course in 1 minute, 34 seconds. Jason Kahn of Quebec tied with University of Vermont student Ryan Mooney for second place, each completing the course in 1 minute, 40 seconds.

Franconia, N.H., resident Leanne Bernier took first place for women with a time of 2 minutes and four seconds, with Jessica Sterling finishing second with a time of 2 minutes and 25 seconds.

“This year, people had a lot of trouble with the Rooster Tail,” said McCall, referring to the rapid just above Toaster created by a big granite slab. On Saturday, it generated a big hole, or churning circular spot in the river.

McCall called Lee’s performance impressive. “Usually everybody at the top is pretty close. He came out of nowhere and smoked everybody, beat the next two guys by a full six seconds. All of us boaters were like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Turns out he’s from California and does a lot of paddling in the Sierra, where you can find some of highest quality whitewater in the world.”

Overall, with more than 200 spectators, McCall called the event a success.

“We have an amazing team of folks who help out with this event and we couldn’t do it without our sponsors and incredible volunteers,” he said.

Featured photo caption: Greg Lee took first place in Saturday’s race by a full six seconds. Here, he sets up for a drop on the New Haven River during the 11th annual New Haven Ledges race on April 13. Photo by Bob LoCicero

If you liked this story, check out The Whitewater Cowboy. For more epic Vermont whitewater events and dam release schedules, check out Here’s Where to Find Epic Vermont Whitewater.

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