July 28, 2006
-- Denali Park, Alaska
The Nenana Downriver Race is Alaska’s longest running annual whitewater race that sometimes
draws international competition. This continuous 3.5/4 mile section of river provides continuous
class III big water section that attracted over 30 competitors from across the state and the country.
With a great snow pack and an unusually cool spring/summer provided great levels for the occasion.
The weeklong festival featured three whitewater competitions: a downriver race, whitewater rodeo,
and the first ever “slalom survivor” challenge. The featured event for the week included a kayak
workshop on Thursday and Friday coached by Olympic Paddlers, Joe Jacobi and Bob Campbell, who taught
new and long time Alaska boaters new tricks for efficiency on the water.
This year was no exception to another great Nenana Whitewater Festival. Surprises are never
uncommon whether it involves the river or the racer. Paul Schauer was this year's winner for the
K-1 Men’s class followed by Denali local Jeff Shelton and Joe Jacobi in third. Paul’s younger
brother Karl Schauer was fourth. Pat Fleming was the only contender in the OC-1 class with a
beautiful low brace maneuver through Rooster tail rapid.
The Nenana Whitewater Festival has had a rich history over the past 30 years. It began as an
extension of a paddling class at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and became an annual summer
river ritual. “I think in other areas, the boating communities evolve, mature, then disappear, and
a new group rolls in,” said veteran kayaker Peter Finnoff of Fairbanks. “Here, we’re still kicking.”
Finnoff helped inaugurate the first downriver race, and even talked his employer Atlantic
Richfield Co. (ARCO) into donating $500 for medals, hot dogs and soda at the finish line. ARCO
continued that support for the first six years or so. The race rarely sought official sponsorship
after that. Only six boats raced the first year, but there were LOTS of spectators, as the race
course runs right along the George Parks Highway, right outside Denali National Park. The race weekend
became an annual gathering of Alaskans. In the 1980s, few paddlers from Outside visited here and local
paddlers all learned from each other. Not many took the competition too seriously. In 1989, volunteers
added a slalom race. A wildwater rodeo began in 1995. Both those events are also easy to see from shore.
Well-known Alaska kayaker Andrew Embick of Valdez started showing up in a sleek downriver racing boat.
Everyone else was paddling whitewater boats – in those days Prijons, Mirages and Dancers. So the
following year, Fairbanks boater John Schauer entered in an ocean kayak – something not really suited
for the colliding diagonal waves of Rooster Tail rapid. He even taped a large dorsal fin to the back
deck. He got knocked off course in Rooster Tail.
In the early 1980s, the downriver race changed to a LeMans-style mass start. Racers sprint to their
boats form the beach, jump in and scurry off the shore, all at the same time. It’s an exciting and
sometimes comical sight for spectators, wild fun for non competitive participants and a nightmare for
boaters who really want to win. Such as this year, when last year’s winner Tyler Dyer who raced his
downriver boat was left at the start for a minute, because he could not get in his boat and was then
was wedged between a raft and the shore allowing other racers to get a good start. Tyler, however, made
it from dead last to seventh place.
There are always a few folks who are very competitive, however. In past years, they sometimes became
the target of practical jokes. One year, a local secretly put rocks in Andy Embick’s racing craft. It
didn’t slow him down. He won handily.
One year, Chris Roach of Anchorage fell into the hole at the finish line while in second place. When
he finally flushed out, he was in sixth place. Maybe that’s why he said, “The best part about these
races is the end. That’s when you get to sit around and talk about it.”
For the 30th anniversary festival, volunteers have gone all out and added an educational aspect, a
water safety program for kids, and national sponsorship. Kokatat is providing a dry suit to raffle off
AND more importantly, providing kid-size dry suits for the new Denali Borough Water Safety Team, a
group of kids who meet twice a week to learn river skills.
And yes, that is Joe Jacobi in the K-1 Class.