Celebrating the Women Who Raced Kayaking’s Most Extreme Event

As Pavlina Zasterova dropped her kayak on the ramp above the Class V+ Jacob’s Ladder rapid to kick off the first-ever women’s division in the North Fork Championship finals, the crowd clustered along the length of Idaho river bank went wild, rippling with energy. Zasterova proceeded to crush her first lap to the extent that she brushed off taking another, and took second place.

Zasterova made history alongside 18 other women who paddled the eighth iteration of the North Fork Championship, labeled the World Championship this year — a distinction that, paired with a women’s division, drew some of the best female paddlers on the planet to this infamous race.

“I was in as soon as they labeled it the world championships,” said Mariann Saether, who took first place to claim the title as inaugural Queen of the North Fork. “With that label, I could finally get sponsor support to make an NFC visit happen. A women’s category also meant a higher chance of paddling on Jake’s, and that is the real motivation factor.”

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Yes.. at times it was deep in there! I am stoked that the @northforkchampionship took on Worlds, and opened it up to a women’s class. – – – I am forever stoked and impressed by Katrina @titsdeeep for racing Jake’ s for the first time years back, and for @nourianewman to buckle up and placing top 10 in the Men’s division a couple of years back. Much respect! I flew in on tuesday. Wednesday I buckled up and practised Jake’s. There were no safety, and the couple of men out there were busy with their own thing. In the same day I had to run S-turn for the first time, and learn the race lines for Quali. Thursday saw me put in more practise runs, after first winning the Kokatat Qualifier. I was aiming to make the gates, not miss them to hit sneak lines. Though I understand and respect that approach 100 %. Friday.. After winning also this quali I went back to Jake’s – my daily routine. The first day I ate shit a lot – but by now I was making the gates. I went to bed feeling good – except I felt bad because I had been approached by some competitors to «take them down» the course before the comp the next morning. How could I say no? But at the same time how could I say yes? My feeling were that I had enough with getting myself safely down Jakes at 3000 CFS..And.. not only women had not done training laps on the course either, until they made it to finals. 🙄Some of the men had not either. I find that poor. Strange. Never just go down a section because you «earned» a spot. Some got lucky on race day and made it down nicely, despite horrible practise laps earlier in the week. Or NO practise laps… Some trained very little, and made good placements. Some, like me, trained a bit and made it ok. Some trained very hard, and did not make the final round. Guttering. I find the @northforkchampionship such a worthy course for a worlds, and I am so stoked I could be there! Thank you @micheleramazza for race lines, dinner and chillness! And to @hannahkertesz for In general being a bad-ass. Photo: Eric Seymour

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Natalie Anderson, who took fourth place, nailed the long-term impact of opening up a women’s category in what’s long been known as the most extreme whitewater race in the world: “It was awesome to be able to be there, to feel I’m paddling really strongly right now, and be with other women who all performed really well. It was really inspiring, and that was the big goal for me. There aren’t many of us who could comfortably compete on Jake’s. We needed to be there so we could be visible, so the next generation of female paddlers could see us, so they can be inspired and train and do it even better in the future.”

Anderson traveled to NFC with her 2-year-old son, and squeezed in practice laps on S-Turn rapid, where the qualifiers and semifinals took place, and Jake’s between trading the toddler with her husband. At the awards ceremony, she took the stage with the her son on her hip, and then set him down on the first-place podium to a roar of delight from the crowd. As Saether noted, three of the five top qualifiers were mothers with children under the age of 3 — including Saether herself. There are some who might argue that until we announce every father on the ramp, we shouldn’t identify the women by motherhood. But Saether and Anderson agreed that in this case, being able to paddle Class V alongside the men, on top of the disproportionate time and energy women take on with small children, was a level of accomplishment worth distinguishing.

The race’s new elimination format (the top 40 advanced from a qualification race, with the top-20 finishers in the semifinal moving on to the finals on Jake’s), led to some surprising absences of NFC stalwarts in the men’s category. Kyle Hull, a regular NFC top-10 finisher, came in at 51st in the qualifier, missing advancing to the semis by two seconds. Favorite Ben Marr and former King Louis Geltman were knocked out in the semis.

Dane Jackson took home the coveted world title victory on the men’s side of NFC VIII. Mike Leeds / NFC

“There was maybe a false expectation that the paddlers most familiar with the North Fork would dominate it,” said Ben Stookesberry, who raced in the qualifier despite a recent injury. “But in many ways, it was very much an international representation. And you know, it was pretty cool to see that leaderboard littered with folks from all over the world.” Dane Jackson (pictured above) regained his title as King of the North Fork, and third-place finisher Tad Dennis are both American; Joe Morley, in second place, hails from the UK. On the women’s side, Saether is Norwegian, Zasterova is Czech, and third-place finisher Jennifer Chrimes comes from the UK.

As winners were announced, the best male and female paddlers stood side-by-side on the podiums, and the first Queen of the North Fork was crowned alongside the King, brandishing equal giant paychecks to seal the deal.

The men’s and women’s division winners of NFC VIII, side by side.

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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