One wild river. One wild weekend.

The North Fork Championships

From the top of the ramp, the lone kayaker looks down into the surging whitewater below.

He takes a deep breath, and with one powerful push he slides down into the violent currents of the river. The roar of the waves drowns out every other sound, and all he can see is endless whitewater.

Without missing a beat, he gets into the familiar rhythm — left, right, left, right — as his paddle slices through the water. It takes nearly everything out of him to battle the force of the Class V rapids.

Photo courtesy of Mike Leeds

These are the conditions world-class kayakers face at the North Fork Championships.

“The North Fork of the Payette is like the Mount Everest of kayaking,” says James Byrd, the original founder of the NFC. “It’s a world-renowned river that draws in kayakers from all over the world.”

For one weekend in June, the NFC brings together the world’s best extreme kayakers for an intense competition on the North Fork of the Payette River. Over 100 world-class athletes from 20+ countries each compete in three qualifying races for the title of World Champion.

“It’s the granddaddy of them all,” James says. “This is Woodstock for the kayaking world. Everyone shows up no matter what.”

One Wild Idea

James and his wife launched the NFC in 2012. As an avid kayaker himself, he had just moved to Boise a few years ago to be within an hours’ drive of the North Fork. With nearly 15 miles of Class V whitewater all accessible from the Hwy 55, it made for the perfect training grounds.

Working as a nurse during the week, James spent nearly any free time he could out on the river.

“There’s nothing like the feeling of freedom when you get into your kayak and leave the shore behind you,” James says. “You feel like you can go anywhere.”

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But when James got a shoulder injury that kept him from kayaking, he quickly realized that there were few opportunities for kayakers to gather together, compete and celebrate the sport, even in the Pacific Northwest. He knew he had to start something on the North Fork.

Photo courtesy of Mike Leeds

“We had this amazing whitewater, all so close to the road,” James says. “It made the perfect venue.”

So, James reached out to 30 of the best-known extreme kayakers on social media, and invited them all to race on the Payette River in summer 2012. That first year, 50 record-holding kayakers competed at the NFC, and a local ski instructor from Boise took home the grand title. Hundreds came to watch the race.

“There was just so much energy that was brought into the kayaking world,” James says. “It really brought everyone together.”

Photo courtesy of Mike Leeds

One Wild Weekend

In 2019, the NFC has officially taken on the title of the World Kayaking Championships, and 180 professional kayakers from 24 different countries will compete in this year’s race. The local and international kayaking community will travel from all over to watch the competition, celebrating with film festivals, live music and more.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Allen

On Tuesday, the week kicks off with a Wild and Scenic Rivers Conservation Night at Payette Brewing. Here, conservation experts and activists discuss the ongoing environmental issues that the rivers in the Pacific Northwest face, along with how and where anyone can get involved.

“This is really a catalyst for helping people take action in protecting the whitewater we love,” James says.

Thursday morning starts off with the first of two qualifier races, where the 180 kayakers will compete in a downriver sprint through S Turn Rapid, just near milepost 90 on Hwy 55.

Photo courtesy of Lachie Carracher

Later that night, the seats of Boise’s Egyptian Theater are packed with people to see some of the best documentaries, photography, conservation efforts and athletic feats happening in the kayaking world at the Whitewater Awards.

Photo courtesy of Mike Leeds

Friday afternoon, the top 40 men and the top 10 women who made it through the Kokatat Qualifier compete head-to-head in the North Face Semi-Finals. The Whitewater Festival kicks off just a few hours later at Weilmunster Park with live music, local beer, yard games and other “general ruckus,” according to James.

Photo courtesy of Mike Leeds

Saturday is the big day, the big race. The 20 male finalists and 5 female finalists all compete in a giant slalom race through the Class V+ whitewater. Paddlers charge off the Red Bull ramp above Jacob’s Ladder, weaving through the gates. James says the irregular river bed and surrounding blast rock along this section of the Payette makes for the most challenging conditions, even for the pros.

Photo courtesy of Mike Leeds

The winners will each earn the title of King and Queen of the North Fork Championship, becoming the World Champions. Attendees can watch it all for free, from just feet away along the banks of the river. (
Find more information about races, events, directions and more here.)

Need a place to stay during the Northfork Championship? Check out our places to stay nearby in Boise, Cascade and McCall.

One Wild Community

Photo courtesy of Mike Leeds

But for James, the best part of the NFC isn’t the kayaking — it’s the community.

Over one weekend, professional athletes, locals and visitors all enjoy live music, drink beer, play games, and celebrate the sport side by side along the Payette River. After the races are over, most of those attending the NFC stay for the rest of the weekend, camping alongside the river and getting out in the whitewater with their own kayaks.

“That just doesn’t happen in most sports championships,” James says. “The North Fork is unique like that. This couldn’t happen anywhere else.”

Photos are all courtesy of Mike Leeds, Jeremy Allen and Lachie Carracher.

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