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40th Annual Upper Yough Race

I’m a new observer of white water paddling and all that it entails. A year ago, I didn’t really know about these men and women with broad shoulders and calloused hands who regularly use the word ‘boof’ in conversation. During the time of coronavirus, kayaking was never completely canceled. In reality, while many of us were gaining the ‘covid 15’ around our middles and binging Netflix, whitewater kayakers continued to scale rock faces barefoot with a boat draped over one shoulder, powering against currents, and leaping off of waterfalls. The boat becomes an extension of their bodies. They do this in all conditions and often against all odds. There is some larger internal calling that brings them to the water on days that most wouldn’t want to leave the house. Cold temperatures toughened their immune systems this spring. The heat of the sun fortified them with vitamin D. Clean air filled their lungs and blood pumped through their veins preparing them for any physical challenge to come. Mental toughness isn’t a suggestion, but a requirement. This sport was made for social distancing but still provides a deep sense of community support and camaraderie. It’s a healthy past time from a pandemic standpoint, sure. Add racing into the equation and it must still be noted that pursuit of danger is the actual nature of the sport.

The Upper Yough race was one of the first ‘extreme’ kayak races. While the race has become more accessible to a broader field of paddlers, it’s still an incredibly worthy challenge and an accomplishment for any boater. This was its 40th year and the call went out to bring in as many skilled female competitors as possible into the fold. While other races may have averaged 6 female competitors, just over 40 badass woman signed up to take part in this year’s race. I am so fascinated with these women: many have impressive careers, some are in school, some mothers or grandmothers, and in their ‘down time’ they load their boat and all their gear with the purpose of careening down rivers in class 4+ whitewater. They do it in the same way that some of us may jog after work and then train for a casual 10k. They don’t pat themselves on the back for daily accomplishments that most would deem extraordinary in a lifetime. Most of the men in the sport arrive with a sort of ubiquitous boyish playfulness whether they are 16 or 60. There is a profound love of nature among them. Before the race they ride one-wheels and throw frisbees, rest in green grass in the sun, and help their ‘competitors’ unload gear. I didn’t note nervousness at the put-in, but a general energy that could be likened to a fun-loving family that gathers with a common affection for the Youghiogheny River. Even though there was a record number of over 120 competitors this year, it’s worth noting that the paddlers were considerate of maintaining distance before putting on the river. Unlike a concert or other venue, there was not one scrap of trash or litter to be found after all had departed which further shows the love of nature that thrives within the sport.

The Glorious, 40th Annual,  Upper Yough Race

The race ends in the town of Friendsville- a quaint river town with a rich history rooted in a love for life on and near the water. I hiked up the Kendall trail to watch at the finish line. The trail is gorgeous with lush rhododendrons, water flowing down rocky hillsides, and the sound of whitewater ever present as a glimpse of the river sparkles through the trees. The finish timers sit on a rock ledge at the end of the course. Each boater is given a staggered start based on their finish times in previous races. In the time of coronavirus there is no crowd to cheer the racers and all are told to disperse soon after they come in. I asked Jason Beakes who keeps everyone safe on a course where you are largely alone most of time, and he told me that everyone is responsible for their own safety. That said, it’s part of the culture of the sport that if you come upon someone in trouble during your run, you stop your own race to help your fellow boater. Racers continue a staggered return to Friendsville where Chris at Water Street Cafe is serving his famous pepperoni rolls outside for hungry paddlers. You can see his smile even from behind his mask as he jokes with different customers about their results. Paddlers converse at a distance outside recalling the obstacles in detail, setting goals for next year, and talking about the man, Roger Zbel, who still holds the record as the fastest competitor in that event for decades now. As I overhear various conversations I realize that the undercurrent of rich history supporting the sport of whitewater kayaking runs deep here. The results start to trickle in, congratulatory texts sent (since congregating is discouraged), and the members of the boater family start their journeys home – some to Ohio, some to West Virginia or Tennessee. I’m a grateful observer- grateful for the honed discipline of these inspiring men and woman, and grateful that there are still events that can be held safely in the times that are reshaping our world.

-Submitted by : Jason Beakes