By Brandi Underwood
Records and strength will be tested during the 21st annual Animal Upper Gauley River Race, set for Monday, as boats manned by expert paddlers slice through the rushing whitewater with one goal in mind: reigning victorious at the legendary 9-mile race event.
“It used to be uncommon to race on difficult whitewater,” said Donnie Hudspeth, founder and organizer of the Animal Upper Gauley River Race. “When the Animal was first held, it was one of only two whitewater races in the country.”
Started in 1993, the event served a dual purpose as a fun competition that also highlighted the world-class Upper Gauley whitewater. The race has expanded over the years from 30 kayakers to now more than 120 paddlers, including U.S. and international champions from as far away as Japan racing neck to neck with local river professionals.
Paddlers must negotiate the “Big Five” rapids on the Upper Gauley, beginning in the shadow of the Summersville Dam and finishing after a 12-foot drop affectionately referred to as Sweet’s Falls.
Olympic athletes, national champions and professional paddlers from all over will gather this year to take their stab at one of many cash prizes, including a $200 cash purse each to the fastest male and female paddler, as well as $200 being awarded to the fastest male 6-person raft and the female raft of the like.
In addition to the cash awards, Hudspeth said that there will be a pretty extensive prize table, as well as the intangible bragging rights of racing on the “Beast of the East.”
“The event has grown to be a reunion of people that love paddling the Gauley,” Hudspeth said, noting that while the competition is thick, the mood is always light and friendly.
Onlookers can catch a glimpse of the action at the Sweet’s Falls finish line, where Hudspeth said it will be likely that paddlers will be racing in tight packs until the very end.
Registration is $30 and includes a free event T-shirt, as well as after-race dinner to refuel at the Burrito Bar at Breeze Hill in Lansing. Participants should gather at the Tail Waters put-in area between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. for registration, which may be completed in advance as well as the morning of the event. The race kicks off at noon.
For more information or spectator access, visit www.gauleyrace.com.