Alec Voorhees charges through Jacob's Ladder. Izzy Lidsky photo.
In many ways, action sports are defined by the communities they create. Nine years ago James and Regan Byrd had a vision to have the rowdiest whitewater race on one of the stoutest sections of river in the US- and simultaneously create a family gathering for the small whitewater kayaking community. In 2012, this vision came to fruition and the first ever North Fork Championships - a series of races and a whitewater festival - took place on the legendary Payette river, a major tributary of the Snake River nestled between McCall and Boise, Idaho. The North Fork’s tumultuous whitewater was kayaked for the first time in 1975 when Idaho kayakers Roger Hazelwood, Keith Taylor, and Tom Murphy paddled the first two miles of the 15-mile run. Two years later, whitewater legend Rob Lesser and friends paddled the entire thing. Shortly after the river was crowned a gem of Idaho whitewater, several parties sought to dewater the river for various hydro power projects. In 1991, the first version of the Payette River Plan was signed making the stretch a “protected” river and therefore safe of dewatering threats. Since then, paddlers travel from all over the world to run the Payette whether it be the North Fork itself or the many miles of high quality whitewater the South Fork and Main Payettes have to offer. The North Fork has become a staple of any paddlers career and the North Fork Championship the best way to celebrate it.
The North Fork Championships itself is a series of races along with a whitewater festival. Each year, a selection committee chooses twenty paddlers to prequalify for the race. Ten of those racers qualified with their times from the year before and ten have landed on the radar of the paddling community and been deemed fit for the Elite Race. The event’s first two qualifying races are held on the last rapid on the river’s “Upper Five” section, S-Turn. The Elite Race is then held on the hardest rapid of the river’s hardest section, Jacob’s Ladder on the “Middle Five.” A series of gates is set up throughout Jacob’s Ladder requiring racers to hit features in the rapid to make the rapid more difficult. Between the difficulty of the rapid itself and the gates, the Jacob’s Ladder race is one of the gnarliest whitewater events to grace the sport.
Left: The rowdiest form of whitewater racing- Boater X. Right: Riley Frank in his inaugural Jacob's Ladder race. Izzy Lidsky photo.
But, just for a second, put the whitewater aside. The North Fork Championships is also one of the greatest examples of the strength of the whitewater community. In comparison to other action sports, whitewater kayaking is tiny. You can’t just go mountain biking on any old trail in any old state and run into someone you know or someone who knows your friends with any kind of likelihood. But with paddling, the degrees of separation between paddlers is pretty few. The sport grows even smaller when you consider the amount of people kayaking at a level high enough to run Jacob’s Ladder let alone race it. While not everyone who attends North Fork is kayaking at this level, or at all, the event attracts those who have found their home in the paddling community one way or another.
Left: The energy was at an all time high during awards this year. Right: Cole Moore getting a pep talk before his race lap. Izzy Lidsky photo
Over the years, the North Fork Championship held strong as flows on other rivers and the sheer liability of racing whitewater benched or changed other races. The event grew with the sport and welcomed new paddlers each year. But two years ago, there were whispers that NFC VIII might be the last. While no one wanted the event to end, it was apparent that the Byrds had created something special in the whitewater world and the possibility of change from a big corporation taking it over scared people. Here entered the Voorhees.
The local Meridian family who had been a part of the North Fork Championship since it’s inception heard the word that the event might not continue. For three brothers, Alec, Hayden, and Connor, who had been paddling the river since childhood, this was unimaginable.
Left Hayden Voorhees and right Alec Voorhees racing their way through Jacob's Ladder. Izzy Lidsky photo.
I was able to pull Alec away from the madness for a chat Friday night of this year’s North Fork IX and understand his relationship with the river, the event, and how his family took the reins. Alec stands about a foot taller than me, and when you see him smiling at his friends after a rapid, you can’t help but also smile. Naturally, when I got to pick his brain about an event he’s so connected to, it was easy to see the passion he holds for the Payette and the North Fork Championships. “Growing up in the Meridian and Boise area, the Payette was home,” said Alec of his family’s connection with the river. “It’s where I learned to paddle with my parents teaching me and my brothers when we were little.” Alec’s first top to bottom lap on the North Fork took place when he was only 11 years old. The river shaped Alec and his brothers into the paddlers they are today. When the North Fork Championship event was created, it was only natural for Alec to race. He paddled the qualifiers his first two years and since the third North Fork has raced Jacob’s Ladder every year. Although Alec has never won the Elite Race, he’s taken top five more than a few times and is the only paddler to have competed in every single North Fork Championship.
When rumors spread that the 2019 North Fork may be the last, Alec was heartbroken. He went to The Byrds and asked if there was anything he could do to keep the event alive. James Byrd ultimately told him no, they were happy with what they’d created. But after several months, the Byrds reached out to Alec and asked if his family would still be interested in hosting the event. “If we didn’t do it, nobody was gonna do it,” said Alec of the deal the Byrds and the Voorhees eventually worked out. But for Alec, it felt easy to keep the spirit of North Fork alive. “It’s not only the best whitewater event out there, but one of the best events in general, so there’s nothing really to change,” he said. The pandemic thwarted their initial attempt to bring the event back, so when they decided to give it the green light for 2021, things felt a little easier. They’d had a year to get their feet under them and figure out the kinks. But after a year where events didn’t really happen at all, the energy going into NFC IV was full of new life. Their sponsors were stoked, they’d filled out all the necessary forms, and were able to put together the event's last details about three weeks prior.
Top: The Voorhees family during awards. Bottom: James and Regan Byrd sharing a moment with the Voorhees. Izzy Lidsky photo.
As a racer, Alec had even more on his mind than usual. Kayaking at that level already requires one of the strongest head games possible. Add being in charge of an entire event on top of it, and it’s sure to mess with your head. Not to mention the ligament surgery he’d had on his hand eight week prior to the event. The now 24-year-old was juggling a lot. “I’m not like Dane [Jackson], I can’t go all day and do fifty laps,” he joked. He’d thought his thumb injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise and helped him to focus more on the event than racing. But knowing the river clearly worked in favor of Alec. He took second in the qualifier race after one practice lap at 6 a.m. the same morning. The next day he swept the board in BoaterX. As we chatted, he seemed uncertain how his Jacob’s Ladder race would go the next day, but as I watched his race lap, I had high hopes. Alec ended up taking second place in the Jacob’s Ladder race finishing only three seconds behind Dane Jackson. His younger brother, Hayden, took sixth.
While the family sought to keep as many pieces of the puzzle the same, their unique relationship to the river also allowed them to add their own touch. In March of 2020, a magnitude 6.5 earthquake hit Boise, Idaho and its shocks were felt all the way to central Idaho. The North Fork of the Payette sits between highway 55 and an old railroad track. Where rocks were blasted away to create the highway and the railroad, sharp pieces of rubble now lie. When the earthquake hit, one of those rocks careened its way into the river below creating a new obstacle at the top of Jacob’s Ladder. In June of 2020, I was driving down 55 on the way back from a Main Salmon River trip and we stopped to look at the rapid. 2020 saw a much better water year and the North Fork showed it. As we admired the monstrosity of class V water in person, we saw several boaters hiking up to the road above to the rapid. The closer they got, I realized one was Liam Kelly, National Geographic and North Fork Championship photographer, and also a friend from high school. I asked if he’d run the new boof (when kayakers launch themselves off a rock, wave, or waterfall with an extra stroke) in Jacob’s Ladder. He shook his head and told me “Really only the Voorhees have been running it.” This made perfect sense given their comfort with the river - what was one new rock in the face of 15 miles of class V?
Third place winner Jeremy Nash launches his way off the ramp towards "the Quaker". Izzy Lidsky photo.
The new rock also presented the Voorhees with a task going into the next North Fork. How would they hang the gates to accommodate this new river feature? “It was fun being able to make the course with just me and Hayden,” Alec told me, “I wish the flow was a lot higher because at 2500 [cfs] it’s just the most glorious boof ever.” Alec had dubbed the new rock “the Quaker” and along with another new gate at Taffy Puller (another feature on the river) he and Hayden had made an already stacked race course just a little bit trickier. “It’s a really flowy course and when you nail it, it looks really good,” he said, his brain clearly somewhere in those gates.
Left: Carson Lindsay through the toughest of the gates. Right: Holt Mcwhirt crushing through the Oceana hole. Izzy Lidsky photo.
The Jacob’s Ladder race went off without a hitch the next day. 20 men and five women launched their way off the Red Bull ramp into the river. The energy was at an all time high as hundreds of people lined the river to spectate. Moving through the festival, you could see people with snacks and cold beer, prepared to post up through both laps, kayakers still in gear, coming from their Upper and Lower Five laps to watch, those of us running around with our cameras, and everyone in between. The athlete tent was full of energy, and chatting with several racers, some were more nervous, some were stoked to be racing at all, and some said very few words. When all was said and done, a crowd gathered in Crouch, Idaho, just up the road, to celebrate the victories of the winners and everyone who had raced and to dance until the wee hours of the morning.
Until the next time we're all gathered around Jacob's Ladder. Izzy Lidsky photo.
In comparison to the twinge of bittersweet energy in 2019, North Fork IX was dubbed ‘the Reunion,’ and it surely felt like it. I asked Alec about the future of the event and his answer was exactly the one I wanted to hear. “The North Fork is here to stay.” So don’t fear if you’re still counting the days until next year - each Voorhees brother along with their parents are in for the long haul to divy up the work there is and keep the event alive as long as the kayaking community asks for it. And until then, I’ll be mentally dancing the night away at the Dirty Shame with you.