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The Southeasterns, The First Forty-Three Years: A History
August 10, 2012 -- Bryson City, NC
The Georgia Canoeing Association (GCA) has sponsored its Southeastern United States Wildwater Championships on North Carolina’s Nantahala River for forty-four years. The races have left us with many fond memories.
The Southeasterns are the oldest canoe and kayak races in the Southeast, and the slalom portion, held from 1969 through 2008, was the nation’s second oldest slalom race that was continuously held at the same venue by one sponsor. The first canoe race on the Nantahala was held by the GCA on July 4th and 5th, 1969. The GCA’s 1966 founders, Horace Holden, Sr., and Bill Crawford, together with Payson Kennedy, had in 1968 visited the Canoe Cruisers Association of Greater Washington D. C.’s Petersburg races on the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. They were impressed and met many experienced racers who were excited about the idea of coming to the Nantahala to race the following July 4th. Thus was born what was ambitiously termed the “First Annual Nantahala Race… to promote the sport in the Southeast, as well as advance the cause for wild rivers.”
Horace Holden, who in 1972 founded the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) and whose son and namesake was to race C2M Slalom in the 1996 Olympics, chaired that first race. He was supported by Ben Falmen, Director of Safety for the Red Cross, and four founding members of the GCA who would later be elected honorary life members: Payson Kennedy (Rules), Bill Crawford (Publicity), Bill Close (Art and Photography) and Claude Grizzard (Advertising). Claude printed the race applications that year and for many years thereafter. GCA life member Ramone Eaton provided invaluable guidance and enthusiastic support. Since 1993 the Ramone Eaton Award has been presented to the fastest OC2 Wildwater team.
Forty racers competed in the first slalom race in the Southeast, an eleven gate course at Delabar’s Rock, on July 4th 1969. Payson and Claude Terry made the poles and gates, and John Sweet, who won the C1M class, and Stein Leikhart designed the course. Slalom scoring was different then, as penalties on each gate were assessed for one and two pole touches (10 and 20 seconds), for improper negotiation (50 seconds), and for lack of negotiation (100 seconds!). In addition to upstream and downstream gate, there were reverse gates which had to be run backwards, and black and white free gates, which could be negotiated any way and typically were hung in challenging and exciting spots. Charles Seaman won the K1M class with a day’s low score of 115 seconds. Doug Woodward placed second in two classes and had the only clean run. Other slalom winners were Bev Sullivan, K1W; Brent and Kevin Lewis, C2M; and Carrolle and Swede Turner, C2Mixed.
Roy Wood, a GCA honorary life member, manned the P.A. system and made a jovial emcee. Shortly after the race, he approached Percy Ferebee, who owned the Nantahala Talc and Limestone Company and much of the lower Nantahala Valley. Roy asked Ferebee to donate a few acres at the slalom site to guarantee access and parking for future races. This initiative led directly to Ferebee’s generously donating to the U. S. Forest Service almost the entire river valley adjacent to U. S. Highway 19, more than 6,000 acres, while retaining for his company quarrying rights. Thus, as an outgrowth of GCA’s first Nantahala race, the river’s pristine riparian environment was largely protected for future generations. Ironically, the slalom races were never again held at Delabar’s Rock, near the site of the present Ferebee Park. In 1970 and 1971, they were set at Patton’s Run. From 1972 through 2004, they were held at Nantahala Falls, and since 2005 the course has been set just upstream of Wesser Falls.
One hundred three competitors raced on July 5th 1969 in the Nantahala’s first wildwater race. They paddled the 8.2 miles from the confluence of the old riverbed and the outflow from the powerhouse to what is now known as “finish rock,” just upstream of the present site of the NOC, at that time Tote-N-Tarry store. Winners that day included David McCallie and Alex Wheeler, OC2MJr.; Anne Davis and Claude Grizzard, OC2Mixed; Hugh Caldwell, OC1M; John Sweet, C1M; Bill Funk, K1M; Horace Holden and Billy Crawford, OC2M; Carrolle and Swede Turner, C2M; and Brent and Kevin Lewis, C2M.
Brent and Kevin Lewis were the fastest down the river that day at 54 minutes, 9 seconds. Also competing was a postman from Brevard, NC, named Charlie Patton. His time of 1:18:24 was only good enough for sixth place in a field of eight OC1M competitors. Charlie probably knew he was not going to win that race when he decided to compete, since he only had the use of one arm! His efforts have epitomized the spirit of the Southeasterns over their forty-four year history and challenge us all today to take part and do our best.
Since 1972, the first year that the Southeastern name was applied to the GCA’s annual Nantahala races, an award has been presented in Charlie Patton’s memory to the fastest single-bladed wildwater racer. It has been won fourteen times by John Pinyerd, four times by David Mason, and three times by Angus Morrison and Michael Beavers. The following were the ten fastest C1 racers in the Southeasterns’ first 43 years:
Angus Morrison owns the open canoe record, 50:12 in 1983. Bill Baxter’s time of 51:53 that year still stands as the second fastest open canoe run.
The fastest times in the wildwater each year have usually been in the K1M Championship class. This class was dominated for many years by Atlanta dentist David Jones, who won each race from 1974 – 1980 and also in 1992 and 2000. Here are the fastest wildwater kayakers and their best times:
In 1973, the K-1W slalom championship class was won by Julia Ann Wilson, daughter of the late Ross and Elizabeth Wilson, GCA charter members. She grew up paddling with the GCA and was well-known and loved by its membership. Tragically, she drowned the following spring on the West Fork of the Bruneau River in Idaho paddling with Walt Blackadar at what is now known as Julie Wilson Falls. Since 1974, an award in her memory has been given to the fastest female wildwater competitor, usually in the K1W class. It has been won for the last six years by Tierney O’Sullivan and three times each by Carolyn Porter and Kathy Bolyn, who holds the women’s record of 45:20 from 1989. Close behind Kathy were Carolyn Porter (45:50) in 1997 and Cathy Hearn (46:39.91) in 1996.
Bill Baxter and Les Bechdel set in 1983 the OC2 record of 50:06. David Jones and Mike Hipsher hold the C2 record (45:11) from 1989. For many years the GCA has offered $100 to any racer who breaks any of these wildwater records.
There have been many great slalom champions over the years. Michael Vorwerk and Eric Giddens have each won the K-1 championship class four times. Ken Cooper and Scott Shipley have done so three times each. David Dauphine and Steve Thomas have each won the C-1 championship slalom three times. For many years, Steve Thomas and Mike Larimer, father current C2 Canoe Slalom Olympian Jeff, dominated the C2 championship class.
From 1983 until his tragic early death, Frankie Hubbard raced regularly in open canoes of his own design and won all but one of the many slalom classes he entered. Tandem open canoeists Carrie Ashton and Bunny Johns were for many years equally unbeatable. Steve Scarborough, Mark Warren, Allen Hedden, Art Fowler, Phil Foti, David Simpson, and Michael Abernathy have also had long and distinguished racing careers at the Southeasterns in the championship open canoe slalom classes, which were dominated by Dooley Tombras in 2008, the most recent slalom race.
It would be impossible to recognize the many hundreds of racers who over the years have competed with distinction in the Southeasterns. Payson Kennedy, Doug Woodward, and Bunny Johns competed in 1969 and are still racing. Payson has raced eighteen times and won the OC-1 master’s wildwater race in 2007 at the age of 74. Roger Nott has competed every year since 1980. Current Wildwater Masters World Champion John Pinyerd has raced for 27 years, and Allen Hedden has competed in 22 annual races. Other racers who have competed fifteen or more years include Fritz Orr, Mark Warren, David Jones, Michael Collier, Larry Castillo, Steve Thomas, and Doug Woodward. Each of the above has earned numerous medals. Among the women Gabriella Schlidt and Bunny Johns have competed the most often.
Since 1969 the majority of the U. S. Slalom and Wildwater national team members and our Canoe Slalom Olympians have competed in the Southeasterns, often from their early teens, as did current Olympians Casey Eichfeld, Eric Hurd and Jeff Larimer. Equally importantly, the races have given many GCA members and other recreational paddlers the opportunity to improve their skills and experience the excitement of competition in a friendly environment.
Vital to the success of the Southeasterns have been the hundreds who have volunteered year after year to organize and staff the races, including the competitors themselves. For many years teams of from forty to one hundred volunteers have been assembled by the Race Masters. Horace Holden performed this role for the first three years. Since then, the Race Masters for the Southeasterns have been Doug Woodward (1972-3), Tom Lines (1973-4), Jack Weems (1975-6), Ken McAmis (1977), Allen Lewis (1978), Bonnie Wolf and Gwen Bergen (1979), John Shumaker (1980), David Garrity (1981), Hoppy Eager (1982-3), Roger Nott (1984-6, 1989, 1996, 2007-8), John Pinyerd (1987-8, 2005-6, 2009-12), David and Karla Bowman (1990-1), Mary Trauner (1992-4), David Newbern (1995), Wulf Kuehmstedt (1997-8), Doug Klaucke (1999-2000), Brannen Proctor (2001), Gina Johnson (2002-3), and Bruce Fussell (2004).
John and Tee Brower have started each spring race since the mid 1970’s. For many years boat inspector Gary DeBacher was equally as visible. Other long-time volunteers have included Les Davenport, Havis Johnson, Mark Levine, Allen Hedden, Nancy Barker, Havis Johnson, Maggie Osborne Collins, and Ed Schultz, GCA Treasurer since 1988.
The name “Southeasterns” was first used in 1972 when the American Canoeing Association designated the GCA’s annual Nantahala race as the “Southeastern United States Slalom and Wildwater Championships.” Often the race was also the ACA’s Dixie Division Decked Boat Slalom and Wildwater Championships. Racers, whose annual numbers peaked in 1973 at 400, have represented their paddling clubs since the race’s beginnings. Many years since 1984 the Southeastern Cup was awarded to the recreational paddling club whose members earned the most medals at the Southeasterns.
The GCA could never have held the Southeasters for forty-two years without the considerable help of several important outside groups. The 1969 races were cosponsored by the Canoe Cruisers Association of Greater Washington D. C., the Bryson City Jaycees, and the operators of the Hemlock Inn. Duke Power has furnished water every year. The NOC and the Nantahala Racing Club have provided invaluable assistance and support since 1972. The Nantahala Rescue Squad for many years provided traffic control and medical support. In the early years, GCA’s Explorer Post 49 set the slalom gates. The Nantahala Gorge Association members, particularly the rafting companies, have cooperated so that river traffic could be regulated to allow the weekend slalom races at Nantahala Falls to proceed uninterrupted. The ACA and the USACK have provided sanctioning, publicity, and insurance, and the Forest Service has permitted and overseen the races since 1982.
Increasing river traffic on the Nantahala over the years has affected the scheduling of the Southeasterns, which have almost always been held on warm weather weekends. For the first five years, the race was run on the weekend of the Fourth of July. For fifteen years thereafter, they were held in mid or late June. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, they were moved to May or early June. Next the races were held in April. In 1996 and from 2007 to 2009 they were moved to the early fall.
Since 2010 the wildwater portion of the Southeasterns has been linked to the finals of Nantahala Racing Club’s Canoe Club Challenge slalom series on the third Saturday in August. This coupling has revitalized interest in slalom and wildwater racing and club competition among recreational paddlers. Ninety-nine paddlers, the largest group since 1981, raced the Southeastern U. S. Wildwater Championships in 2011.