“In the end, it’s all about fun.”
Nearly 200 racers and over 2,000 spectators came together in Flat Rock, N.C., this past weekend for the Green River Narrows Race—the largest extreme kayak race in the world. All eyes were on champion kayaker Dane Jackson who was gearing up to four-peat, while attempting the course’s first sub-four-minute run.
Scrolling through my Instagram feed the Monday morning after the race, I found a highlight reel of eager paddlers smiling ear to ear, a post announcing that someone’s phone had been found, photos of paddlers coming together to assist a rescue, and loads of positive comments. It is impossible not to feel the great sense of community, gratitude, and passion surrounding this race.
Eventually, a POV video entered my feed. It featured Jackson’s run, which included him unexpectedly flipping, and the accompanying caption, “It turns out upside down and backwards is not the key to sub 4.” I was shocked! I rushed back over to the results page to make sure I read them correctly and sure enough I did. There was Dane Jackson’s name, listed in first place with a time of 04:12.0.
“I was actually really surprised that I still was first,” Jackson told me in a post-race interview, after I asked if he expected to win after the flip. “I enjoy the racing, win or lose, but to come out on top again is really exciting. I can be very critical of myself when it comes to making mistakes. I trained as hard as I could to be as perfect and smooth as possible. So every mistake feels like a minute and a half.”
The Green Narrows features some of the steepest, most-technical class V paddling in the South. At points, the tight harrowing rapids come in quick succession, forcing creekboaters to maneuver with precision.
“The Green is a whole different kind of beast because you’re paddling a longer boat,” Jackson explained. “This is a longer race than most in the year, and on top of that you’re doing it in a boat that’s a lot longer which requires a lot more effort to keep in control. It’s harder boats and harder whitewater making it a really challenging, exhausting, and exciting race. I love how difficult it is, and it’s kind of a special thing.”
In advance of this year’s race, there was a lot of hype surrounding Jackson’s attempt to be the first boater to run the course in under four minutes. As someone who previously worked in the whitewater industry, I know a thing or two about trying to balance the pressure of loving the sport with professional responsibility. I asked Jackson, someone who inspires kayakers all around the world, how he handles that pressure.
“In the end, it’s all about fun,” Jackson said. “Although winning the race is great, having the perfect run is great, or getting sub 4 would be great, there’s still stuff after. Even though I put a lot of pressure on myself, I’m always making sure that I’m having as much fun as possible. Many paddlers put a lot of pressure on themselves to only be satisfied once they either win or they do this one thing, and then if they don’t get it, they’re just crushed. I try to make sure that I’m enjoying the entire process.”
The pressures of trying to prove myself as a female paddler got to me right before the pandemic hit. I felt like my every lap was judged as not “impressive” enough, and I was continually pushed out of my comfort zone. Missing the fun, I decided to take a step back. But as my boat has collected dust, I’ve greatly missed being part of the community. The photos of paddlers assisting the rescue of a fellow kayaker at the Green this past weekend reminded me of that.
“Kayaking doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. They think it’s a sport for unsafe adrenaline junkies,” Jackson said. “But the biggest thing people don’t realize is that we do have a lot of skills, and not only do we have the skills to do whitewater safely, but if something does go wrong, we have learned a lot of ways to keep each other safe. We’re always there to help each other out when we need it.”
That is what makes the whitewater community so cool. It’s a group of people who found a sport that brings them so much joy that they put in the work to understand the dangers of it and educate themselves on the best safety practices possible. They do it not only for themselves but for anyone interested in tapping into that joy. At a race like the Green, that becomes really clear.
“It feels amazing being back at the Green with all the spectators—it’s easily one of my favorite days of the year,” Jackson said. “When it comes to races like this, it’s pretty hard for people to access the area to watch. Something really special about the Green Race is that not only is it one of the few times we almost get a stadium feel coming around the corner, there are thousands of people, but they’re also getting to watch really hard racing proper.”
At the end of the POV video of Jackson’s run, he yells, “oh no!,” a few times. But you can also see that there is still a smile on his face. For kayakers, both highly competitive and casually recreational, I think the best way to apply Jackson’s advice of enjoying the whole process is by investing time. Take the time to hone skills, to make mistakes and learn from them, to build confidence, to meet new paddlers to learn from and be inspired by, and to keep yourself challenged in a way that feels good.
That smile Jackson had on his face at the end of the Green will bring him to the next starting line—and boaters like me back in the water.
Cover photo: Dane Jackson Paddling at the 2021 Green River Narrows Race. Photo by: Serge Skiba
More on Dane Jackson
- Going for Gold on the Green River
- Dane Jackson’s Spring Cleaning
- Great Dane | Q & A with Paddling World Champ Dane Jackson
- Daily Dirt: ICF Championships, Nyad Under Attack, Tokyo 2020