Sights and Sounds From the World's Gnarliest Kayak Race

by David Miller Nov 10, 2017

The Green Race is a mile-long whitewater sprint through class V rapids on the Green River Narrows in Western North Carolina. It’s been held each November for the last 22 years.

While the Green Race began as a half-baked (or more likely, fully baked) event among friends, it’s since evolved into an international competition, with the world’s best boaters and a rowdy group of spectators hiking into the gorge to witness epic lines and inevitable carnage.

To understand the race you have to understand the terrain. The mountains and rivers here are comparatively small. The Green River itself is little more than a creek. For people living in the American West or up in Canada or other places with huge mountains, the terrain may not appear very grand in scale.

What began as a half-baked (or more likely, fully baked) event among friends has evolved into an international competition.

But rivers are deceptive. The danger and difficulty of rapids isn’t always a matter of size, but technicality of the moves required and the hydrology of the riverbed. The Appalachian Mountains are the oldest in the world, and the rock is incredibly eroded and undercut, meaning the water flows under and sometimes even through the rock itself. This makes for super dangerous entrapment hazards.

Probably the main characteristic of southern whitewater is that it’s tight. Notice how narrow the “notch” is here in the entrance to Gorilla. The entire river gets funneled down literally to just three feet wide.


To understand the Green Race, you also have to understand the community. Because class V whitewater sections are usually dependent on snowmelt out West or rainfall events in the East, they do not typically run very often. But the Green is unique in that it’s a dam-controlled Class V run that flows 300+ days a year. It’s less than an hour away from Asheville and several small towns in Western North Carolina and upland South Carolina, so over the last two decades, an amazing community has developed around this place.

Adriene Levknecht, 2017 women’s champ and overall title holder for the Green Race (she’s won a record 8 times), put it best right before this year’s race: “Look at all these rad people. So good.”


The Green Race probably demands more of the spectators than any other 20+ year sporting event. To get down to the race, you have to hike in over an hour through the Green River Game Lands. Once in, you have to position yourself in a slick and very dangerous terrain.


Once you’re in the gorge, it’s very difficult to move up or downstream unless you’re prepared to either (a) paddle, or (b) bushwhack. I was able to move upstream all the way from Gorilla to the top of the race by bushwhacking on river right. Definitely ill-advised; there is no trail, and to make it upstream you have to go high up over cliffs and then down to riverbank in various places.


The Green Race sees some of the world’s best paddlers and some epic lines, but every year there is carnage. An amazing live bait rescue team works “the pit” down in Gorilla as well as Go Left and Die, which is among the hardest rapids on the river.


The 2017 Green Race saw record-setting times by local hero Pat Keller and French racer Eric Deguil (who won the event). Above is Pat’s run through the notch into Gorilla in the longboat category, and the final run is of Eric’s entrance into Frankenstein, the first rapid in the Narrows. Notice how smooth their lines are.

VISITOR’S INFO: The timing of the Green Race makes it very interesting for spectators and racers alike. Early November can still be warm with amazing leaf color like this year, or it can be snowing with full-on winter conditions as was the case a few years ago. If you’re interested in visiting, check out the Green Race website.

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