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Chris Hipgrave Named Southeastern Paddling Athlete of the Year

Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine lays it on the lanky one.
by Nicole Crane Haller

This article is reprinted and distributed with permission from Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine.

January 22, 2003 -- Bryson City, NC

When most people think of paddlers, they picture short guys with beefy arms who can stuff their legs into tiny boats and do cartwheels on waves. Meet Chris Hipgrave, 2002 US Wildwater National Champion and one of the true ambassadors to the sport of paddling. At 6' 4" and a lanky 175 pounds, Hipgrave is anything but your typical paddler.

"I was having an affair with Princess Diana and the family found out."

Chris Hipgrave, explaining in jest why he moved from his native England to North Carolina. He's been winning paddling competitions on both sides of the Atlantic since 1991.
(photo 2003 Nicole Crane Haller)

In 1991, Hipgrave, a native of England, was the British whitewater rodeo champion, winning every rodeo that year but one. So yes, he can jam his lengthy legs into his plastic playboat and do gymnastic tricks on the water. But more often than not, Hipgrave is flying down rivers in a glass wildwater boat.

Wildwater is a bit different from whitewater rodeo; in wildwater, paddlers race point-to-point on fast-moving, big-wave water. They don't go through gates, or stop and do tricks, or eddy out. Wildwater is all about going as fast as possible from start to finish.

The glass boats designed specifically for wildwater racing are long, fragile, and tippy. Hipgrave estimates at least 30-40% of wildwater paddlers capsize and another 50-60% break their boats in competition. The 2002 US Wildwater Championships in West Virginia's New River Gorge produced several such crash-and-burns, but Hipgrave made it through unscathed.

According to Hipgrave, the most difficult section of the river was Fayette Section Rapid, where paddlers had to follow a fast, dicey line beneath an overhanging undercut rock. Hipgrave's first run went well, but his second run wasn't as smooth, and he found himself in third place heading into the final round classic. To make matters worse, a thunderstorm rolled in just minutes before the final round, producing squirrelly upstream breezes.

"I figured I was pretty much done at that point," recalls Hipgrave.

Hipgrave's plan was to go all out in the flatwater section, then try to hang on through the rapids, where it would be harder to gain time. Such a strategy can quickly sap a paddler's endurance, but Hipgrave believed he had the conditioning and fortitude to put it all on the line. It worked. Hipgrave made up all of the time he had lost in the previous round, giving him the national championship by a scant 1.5 percentage points.

Along with his 2002 national wildwater title, Hipgrave represented the U.S. Wildwater Team at the World Championships in Italy. He also competed in two World Cups in Austria and Slovenia this year, along with a host of regional races.

Recently Hipgrave has participated in two successful expeditions to explore the unpaddled rivers of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. He's also kayaked Class-V rivers in Central and South America.

He's excelled in virtually every form of paddling-wildwater, whitewater, rodeo, even sea kayaking and slalom racing—though he says he'd like slalom better if all the gates where downs and there was no turning.

Why did the England-born paddler move overseas in the first place?

"I was having an affair with Princess Diana and the family found out," jokes Hipgrave.

In truth, Hipgrave became increasingly frustrated with lack of access to rivers in England.

"We have this stupid riparian law in England where if you own property and a river runs through it, you basically own the river," says Hipgrave. "You own the water, the river bed, and the river banks. So if you don't want people paddling on the river, you can just say so. It stems from the royal family not wanting people to poach on their property."

Hipgrave heard the paddling was great in North Carolina and sailed ship 11 years ago. Today he resides in Bryson City, NC, where he works as a sales rep for several outdoor gear manufacturers, including Liquid Logic Kayak. He also serves on the Nantahala Racing Club's Board of Directors and coaches youth paddlers.

When he's not on the water, Hipgrave and fiancée Trish Chambers like to eat cheese, watch Austin Powers movies, and listen to trashy Euro techno music.

Nicole Crane Haller is a photographer and a freelance journalist living near the Nantahala Outdoor Center in western North Carolina.