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The Benham Bash, Central Oregon’s premier downriver whitewater event, is about as grass-roots as you can get, even in the kayaking world. Typically consisting of 10 or so racers, the Bash is a great opportunity for Bend locals to get together, show off for their non-kayaking friends, and compete for the coveted first prize, the Golden Bucket. This year the competition was stacked, with more than 20 racers throwing their hats in the ring for a chance to take it all.

The Bash takes place on an action-packed half-mile of whitewater. The race course begins in the flatwater above Benham Falls, moseying into a fun class III-IV warmup section before turning 90-degrees into “The Crux,” a series of four ledges culminating in a tight pinch before the finish line. The entire course is lined with steep terrain, sheer cliffs and towering ponderosas overlooking the rapids. It’s not unusual for at least one elderly couple to approach you after a lap on any given day, “I got the best video of you going down! What’s your phone number? I’ll text it to you!” Race day boasted nearly 100 onlookers scattered across the overhanging ridges.

Gnarvana Takes 2nd at the 2022 Benham Bash

The day’s festivities began with check-in, our lovely announcer, Megan Somloi, taking notes from racers regarding how they should be introduced to the crowd. Waivers signed, gear donned, the practice laps began. I’d spent much of the previous week painstakingly determining which routes through the course would be fastest. I’d made my decisions, and was dead set on refusing to watch anyone else’s lines for fear of having my mind changed. I hiked my brand new Gnarvana to the put-in without so much as glancing at the rapid and allowed my nerves a moment to settle before I climbed in.

The Bash is a game of perfection, not power. The podium times are usually separated by a couple hundredths of a second. Every rock you touch, splash of water that comes over your bow, every missed opportunity for a forward stroke could cost you the win. As a result, I was focused on having the cleanest lap possible. Forget speed. As I pushed into the water for my first lap of the day, the mantra of my old coach, Clay, rang loud in my head, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast!” The practice lap was as smooth as could be. No rocks were touched, no back strokes were taken, I even managed to keep my bow dry through the final pinch (typically the champion killer of the course). I wasn’t feeling particularly fast, but I’d take clean lines any day of the week.

Gnarvana Takes 2nd at the 2022 Benham Bash

I shouldered my boat from the river back up to the parking lot and rejoined the crowd. The energy in the air was palpable, only a few minutes left before the first racer of the day started their descent. Megan hopped on the megaphone to welcome competitors and spectators alike to a day of pure shenanigans. Following some brief introductions and safety information, there was a flurry of excitement as racers grabbed their boats and members of the public scrambled to get the best viewing seats. Boat on my shoulder, paddle in my hand, I hustled back to the top of the race course surrounded by some of the finest people Central Oregon has to offer.

Racing began at exactly 1:00pm with each racer separated by a minute, allowing ample time for beatering to take place without fear of getting run over by the person behind you. I patiently waited my turn in the middle of the pack, nothing much running through my head save the few boxes I knew I needed to check: slow, smooth, fast, no rocks, forward strokes, dry bow. As I pulled into the start eddy my heart began to thump. My focus shifted to my breathing as I waited for the inevitable “5, 4, 3” to begin. I heard Joe Hovorka’s voice behind me, “Next racer, JT Hartman, starting in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… GO!”

Gnarvana Takes 2nd at the 2022 Benham Bash

The Gnarvana accelerated to top speed in no more than 3 robust forward strokes. I kept my stroke rate high as I graced through the flatwater into the first rapid. Around the corner, over the first boof, through the wavetrain, onto the next boof. Next came “the minefield,” 100 yards of shallow, slow moving class II. ‘This is where the race is won,’ I thought to myself, and allowed my mindset to shift briefly from ‘grace’ to ‘power.’ The next drop was my favorite, a single delayed boof stroke; I came blasting over the foam pile, onto the next (and potentially most important) move. I miscalculated my approach as I was trying to split the difference between two rocks and ended up tapping both of them, such is the game of downriver racing. As I recovered from my back sweep, I glanced upwards and saw the entire cliffside lined with people watching from up above. I rounded the final corner into the crux and focused what little energy I had left on keeping my bow as dry as possible. Through the coliseum, I floated over the final ledges and squeezed through the final pinch, cranking out as many strokes as I could towards the finish line.

Spectators and racers hollered from all around as I touched the golden bucket (also serving as our race finish). Hands numb, lungs burning, I couldn’t help but smile as I looked around at the incredible Bend community. I knew I’d made at least one big mistake during my race lap, but I was ecstatic just to be in that beautiful gorge, surrounded by some of my favorite people in the world. Once all the racers had finished, we paddled down to the takeout and began the climb back up to the parking lot, celebrations awaited! All were welcome at the festivities. Joe’s famous chili was served alongside brews and even a birthday cake for the one and only Axel Hovorka (happy 18th homie!). Then came the moment of truth.

After much deliberation, the timing team had some announcements to make. First, the number of racers and volunteers had eclipsed those of years past. Next, the two-minute mark (previously the benchmark for a competitive time) had been broken by an astounding 13 people. And finally, the previous course record (1m50s) had been shattered by not one, not two, but FOUR racers. Then, the results. In third place, none other than event organizer and birthday boy himself, Axel Hovorka. I claimed second place myself, a mere 0.2s behind the king of the Deschutes, true Central Oregonian, Kyle Anderson.

Gnarvana Takes 2nd at the 2022 Benham Bash

My mistake in between the rocks undoubtedly cost me the golden bucket this year, but it was hard to find anything to be disappointed by as some 120 people let out a chorus of celebratory whooping. The show concluded, the festivities wrapped up, and we all loaded our boats back onto our vehicles, prodding one another’s ribs and saying how hard we’d be training for next year. Keep your eyes peeled, folks, it’s anyone’s game out there, and everyone is hungry for their chance to take the bucket!

A special shout out to the organizers of this fantastic community event: the Hovorka family, Axel in particular, dedicated loads of time to help set up and run this year’s Benham Bash. Axel was as motivated as anyone to keep this tradition alive and in addition to setting up the race logistics, single handedly promoted the event and pulled more paddlers and onlookers than I’ve ever seen up at Benham for this small race. To our timers, announcers, friends, family, and random community members who happened to be passing by, y’all are what make this place incredible! See you next year!

Photo Credit: Keeler Frangooles and Tom Rodhouse