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Gorge boaters take charge at Wind River Whitewater Fest

Seventh-annual event kicks off Western Whitewater Championships

DOWN THEY GO: Competitors in teh recent WRWF negotiate reapids on their way down the event's 3-mile course.

John Currier Photography
DOWN THEY GO: Competitors in teh recent WRWF negotiate reapids on their way down the event's 3-mile course.

Names like Ram’s Horn, Initiation and Balls-to-the-Wall hint at the caliber of some of the best- known rapids on the Wind River.

Located on the Washington side of the Columbia near Carson, the Wind is one of several pristine waterways that have given the Gorge yet another claim to fame in recent years — in this case as a whitewater lover’s paradise.

As the opening race of the 10-event 2014 Western Whitewater Championship Series, the Upper Wind River Whitewater Festival was held March 15, and with recent rainfall bringing the river up to high but manageable levels, conditions were ideal for roughly 70 competitors in attendance at the seventh annual downriver race.

Gorge-area residents topped the charts in the one-run, mass-start event with the simple objective of getting down the 3-mile course as quickly — and safely — as possible. The fastest group down the course was the men’s longboat category, which encompassed boats 9 feet or longer. Ben Marr posted the fastest time of the day — 19:37 — to beat out Rush Sturges, Galen Volckhausen and Geoff Calhoun, all finishing in less than 20 minutes.

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Women's winner Nicole Mansfield of White Salmon.

In the Men’s K1 category, encompassing standard-length kayaks under 9 feet, Trevor Sheehan posted a time of 20:50 to edge out Kris Korbulic, Dan Rubado, Max Blackburn and Dave Gorski in the top five out of the 22-man division.

The women’s field was stacked with Gorge-area talent. Nicole Mansfield posted the fastest time in the field by about a minute, at the 22:05 mark. Christie Eastman was second at 23:01, followed closely by Sara James, Heather Herbeck, Elizabeth Tobey and Roberta Grant, who all finished within 30 seconds of one another.

Rafting categories saw Jamie Crone and Tim Brink win in the two-person division out of nine pairs in 25:34 while the four-person category saw the team of Tim Brink, Jamie Crone, Daniel Sutherland and Jeff Steeher post a time of 23:42 to edge the second-place team of Greg Babikoff, Bryan Carrington, Ben Sigler and Matt Lindland by a mere nine seconds.

Hood River resident and former event winner Drew Eastman, husband to this year’s female runner-up, has been involved with the event for several years, both as a competitor and volunteer. This year he was one of several class V safety boaters who kept an eye on competitors as they made their way down the challenging course of rocks, rapids, plunges and other obstacles.

“With the rain we had before the event this year, the water level was pretty much perfect,” Eastman said. “Any higher and they would have considered postponing it.”

Eastman, executive director of the Columbia Gorge Ecology Institute, ranked that section of the Wind River as a stepping stone to the holy grail of neighborhood rivers, the Little White Salmon.

“I consider the Wind to be a good training ground for the Little White,” he said. “It’s one of the stepping stones to get to that level. People usually say a good starting point around here is a run like the lower Hood River, from Tucker Bridge down, or the Klickitat. Then they progress to the (middle) White Salmon. Once they’re confident with that, the Wind River is a good stepping stone. After that the next level is something like the Green Truss section of the White Salmon. Once they’re feeling good with that, the Little White is the next level.”

Eastman said the turnout for this year’s race, organized by the Portland-based Oregon Rafting Team, was considerably higher than in years past — a testament to both the continued momentum for the sport and the distinction the Gorge has gained from of its many natural wonders.

“There’s a huge paddling community in Hood River and White Salmon,” he said. “And it continues to grow. People are coming here from literally all over the world for the whitewater, and for all the other activities in such close proximity that are just icing on the cake.”

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