The 59th Westfield River Wildwater Race

waiting to paddle
The WestfieldRiver Wildwater Race is the oldest continuously run whitewater race in the country because it combines hill town charm, a beautiful course and an ability to improvise which no other event can match. Despite low water, the 59thWestfield River Wildwater Race was the highlight of my kayaking life!

 

  
The race has been run for 59 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 has evolved to include a novice and expert race which are typically run on different 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.
Thanks to a snow-less winter the river’s flow was down substantially but that didn’t stop the race. This year the novice and expert races started at the same time to give everyone a chance to enjoy the increased water flow from the dam release. The organizers also shortened the start intervals from 1 minute to 30 seconds to give every paddler a chance to enjoy the dam release. 
waiting in line
I arrived to the start area to get my boat in line with the 73 other boats that were already there. The forecast called for sun with a high of 70 so I left the wetsuit at home. I killed time by scouting out the river to check on the water levels which looked pretty low from shore. 
Finally, 15 minutes before the start, the race organizers held the safety meeting. In most years this meeting is used to tell paddlers how to handle the big water on the course. This year we heard that the water was at record low levels and that the notorious Hill and Dale rapids were weaker than usual. And with that the 59th Westfield River Wildwater Race was underway!
The actual race start is very anti-climactic as one boat starts at a time. Many canoe teams started the race by walking their boat to deeper water which looked more like a bobsled start than a canoe race.  With the reduced start intervals I found myself in the water in no time. Amazingly my kayak didn’t even scrape the bottom and I did not have to get out and walk which was a pleasant surprise.
By the time I got to the main river the dam release had increased the water flow nicely and I enjoyed the 1 mile of flat-water paddling to the first portage. The Texon rapid is the first significant rapid in the race and it starts immediately after the portage. This is a risky rapid that heads straight into a rock so it requires paddlers to pick an angled line or to execute a turn to avoid getting trapped. The weaker flow gave me a little more time to find a gentle line and get through the rapid with no incident. 
Canoe carnage, photo by
After that come a few miles of choppy but easy water that leads to the Hill and Dale rapid which is the only class III section of the course. Many spectators wait here to watch helpless paddlers get flipped by the merciless rapid and this year was no different. Despite the lower flow, I saw the Hill and Dale rapid flip 4 boats right in front of me; I was determined to make it through. I picked a line between two menacing rocks straight down the middle of the rapid. It was a rough ride but thankfully I was in a forgiving whitewater boat.
Turtle Bend is Immediately after Hill and Dale. This is a rapid that goes around a sharp turn with huge rocks on the outside and slow water is on the inside. Many canoes got turned sideways and thus flipped here. I was able to skirt along the edge of the slow current and shoot through.  The race essentially becomes a multi-mile flat-water race after this with 1 or 2 choppy sections. It took a lot of effort to keep my kayak in a straight line but I kept my focus on end. I crossed the finish line with a huge smile on my face. I look forward to paddling the Westfield River Wildwater Race for years to come!
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