Competitors in a whitewater competition on the Rogue River in Gold Hill Saturday often spent as much time swimming as they did paddling.
The second annual King of the Rogue tested the mettle of kayakers, rafters and stand-up paddleboard competitors as they plunged over insane rapids that pitched them violently, flipping many of them upside down.
“When you get dunked, you really notice the power of the water,” said John Jordan, a 61-year-old Gold Hill resident who was watching the event from a bluff overlooking the river that had a good view of treacherous Ti'lomihk Falls.
About 600 people showed up to watch the event and 75 participated. It was a big increase from last year, when about 150 people showed up and 50 participated.
Portland resident Sam Drevo took the crown with the fastest kayak, completing the course in 8 minutes and 31 seconds.
Amy Vankviken had the fastest time in the women’s kayak division at 14 minutes and 50 seconds.
Stand-up paddler Matthew James was the winner in 4 minutes and 28 seconds. Paddlers have a shorter course than other competitors.
The winning raft team, headed by Tim Brinks, was the Oregon Rafting Team out of Portland, with a time of 11 minutes and 20 seconds — two minutes faster than the next closest team.
The audience appreciated the competition and gasped when someone got dunked after their watercraft turned upside down.
Patrice Jordan, the 57-year-old wife of John Jordan, said it was difficult to watch sometimes.
Last year, she experienced a “near-death” experience on the lower Rogue when she was tossed out of a raft that hit the rapids wrong — and she wasn’t wearing a life jacket.
“I was totally freaked out,” she said.
Luckily, they were fished out of the river by some other rafters, but the couple has stayed out of the water ever since, content to look at the competitors from a safe distance.
“I still love it,” Patrice said. “I am really curious to see the paddle boarders come through.”
Paddle boarders struggled through the rapids, but rafters had their own grief, often getting hung up on a shallow ledge. Once they lost momentum, the rafts tumbled over and the four competitors took a bath.
“Swimmers — we’ve got swimmers,” cried out “Crazy” Pete Newport of Sawyer Paddles and Oar of Talent, which was one of the sponsors. The other two sponsors included Sotar Paddles in Merlin and Rogue Rafting Company of Gold Hill.
Newport, a stand-up boarder himself, created the event with Steve Kiesling of Gold Hill Whitewater Center as a way to promote this challenging stretch of river.
“We had some pretty spectacular capsizing,” said Kiesling. He said holding the event in August rather than September helped improve attendance.
This is the second year for the King of the Rogue at Ti'lomikh Falls, the former location of Powerhouse Rapids, renamed in 2008 for a Native American village that once stood there.
Paddleboarding got its start in Hawaii and became more popular with the general public in the mid-2000s.
Francesca Guyer, secretary of the North West Rafters Association, which has 70 members throughout Oregon, mainly in the Medford and Roseburg areas, said the rapids can be tricky to negotiate, pitching the watercraft from left to right, then dumping you into a hole at the end that can catch many people off guard.
“It’s a pretty good drop,” said the 58-year-old Roseburg resident. “These young guys make it look easy.”
Participants are timed during trials to set up a final competition in each discipline. Special edition King of the Rogue oars from Sawyer Paddles and Oars of Talent will go to the winners.
Reach Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.