The Westfield River Wildwater Race is a New England tradition that combines hill town charm with the rush of whitewater paddling. I took on this race for the third time on April 16 and cannot wait to do it again.
The race has been run for 58 years straight which makes it the oldest consecutive whitewater race in the country. It started as a canoe race between two bars with cases of beer going to the winners. Today it is run over two days with the novice and expert races on separate days. The novice race navigates an 8 mile stretch between the Huntington DPW yard and the Woronoco Dam. The course features 2 damn portages, several class II sections and the famous Hill and Dale class III rapid. The expert race runs 12 miles from the Knightville Dam to the Woronoco Dam with bigger water and slightly more intense rapids. However, the novice race is the main even that typically draws over 250 paddlers in many classes of canoes and kayaks. There are also always hundreds of spectators along the route who are eager to watch paddlers go swimming.
The race is judged purely on individual time. Instead of a mass start, paddlers go into the water one at a time at 1 minute intervals. Your position in line is determined on a first come first serve basis; some paddlers place their boats in line days in advance. As you might guess it can take hours for all the paddlers to get in the water once the race starts. This is where the Westfield River Race sets itself apart from other events.
You will never mistake the Westfield River Race for the Olympics. Some paddlers are more competitive than others but no one forgets this race is about having fun. This is evident from the pre race tailgating and the paddler’s costumes which can range from top of the line dry suits to a man in a Speedo who shaved his chest hair to look like a bikini. This creates an atmosphere that can’t be found at a lot of events. The race staff only adds to the fun with their friendly but safety minded nature.
This year the temperatures were in the high 40s, the water was flowing fast and cold, clouds were in the sky and rain was forecast. It sounded like a bad day for swimming so my goal was just to stay in the boat. I paid close attention at the safety briefing to learn the best way to navigate the obstacles on the course.
Then the race started, which is probably the least exciting part of the event since only 1 paddler launches at a time. I chatted with the people next to me in line and warmed myself by the fire while waiting my turn to get in the water. Two hours later I was next in line. I could hear my heart beating as the seconds counted down before I could start and then I was off.
I instantly noticed that the water was higher and faster than previous years as my boat didn’t hit any rocks. The 1 mile paddle to the first dam damn portage is flat-water and that was pretty uneventful. The water after the portage contains the main rapids on the course including the Hill and Dale rapid and Turtle Bend. The water was flowing fast and it deprived many paddlers of their boats and almost made the race look like a swimming contest which delighted the spectators on shore. Thankfully the race posts rescue boaters in these areas to make sure everyone gets out safe. After that the water calms down and it becomes more of a flat-water race. There is one more portage which is followed by a millpond that leads to the finish line.
I reached the finish line exhausted but excited that I was able to be part of a classic New England event. I hope to see you there next year.