Saturday, April 30, 2005

Luke Spencer slips off the last waterfall before the finish line at the Canyon Creek Extreme Race April 30, 2005.

Oregon Cup - Canyon Creek Extreme Race

I've got a bunch of new friends at Next Adventure, a sporting goods store in Portland, Ore. Among them is Luke Spencer, and he's really into whitewater kayaking.

Luke invited me to come along to the first two races in the Oregon Cup (presented by All Star Rafting and Kayaking and Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe), a whitewater kayak racing and rodeo competition. I'd never shot whitewater, so I was excited to give it a try. I borrowed a Necky flatwater kayak and other necessary gear from Next Adventure's demo program in advance, then met up with the organizers and racers on Saturday, April 30, where the bridge on Washington Highway 503 crosses the upper reaches of Lake Merwin. From there, several observers were going to padde up to the place Canyon Creek dumps into Lake Merwin, to watch the most dramatic part of the race. There were two big "class five" waterfalls in sight of the finish line, and participants were going to have to run them to complete the race.

I carried my boat, paddle and Pelican camera case to what I thought was the water's edge, and discovered the lake was at least 30 feet below. The obvious access point was a chute of rocks and mud, bodererd on both sides by moss and ferns. A canoe was tethered to a root at the bottom of the chute. This must be the place, I figured. I decided to take it really slow. About a quarter of the way down, the chute sort of flattened out, so I let go of the boat to go back for my camera case. Suddenly I heard knocking and scraping, followed by a big splash. My boat was gone! And it still had pretty good speed as it continued out into the lake. I scrambled down to the water and wondered what to do. How would I get the boat? I climbed into the canoe and tried to reach my boat with my paddle. No good. I climbed out of the canoe and thought a little more. Looks like I'm going swimming. The water was so cold I could hardly breathe. I got to the kayak, pulled it toward me, then gave it a good shove back to shore. What a way to start a day!

After a soggy paddle along the righ-hand bank of Lake Merwin to Canyon Creek, some spectators helped me beach my boat, and told me which waterfalls the spectators and photographers usually sat in front of. We started the short hike to that area, which required some tricky hiking on slick, steep terrain, or tricky wading on slippery boulders in fast water. I'd watched others go in front of us, and they'd hiked, so I did the same. At one point, I had to jump from a fallen tree to a muddy bank. Again, I'd watched others do it, so thought nothing of hopping across the two-foot gap. In a flash I found myself scraped raw by the face of the cliff I'd tried to land on top of. I looked up, and realized I'd fallen nearly 10 feet. My Pelican camera case had taken much of the fall for me. I sort of rode it down like a sled. Battered and humbled, I opted to carefully wade to the place I needed to be to take pictures.

Lots more spectators arrived, and soon, racers were appearing at the top of the waterfalls. Participants were timed as they sprinted through boulder gardens and waterfalls. The course was not particularly long, with most athletes finishing in less than four minutes. Despite my serious setbacks earlier in the day, I got some memorable images. I need to rest up. Tomorrow morning I'll be back at it again, shooting pictures at the second race in the Oregon Cup series, "Boater Cross," at the Hyacinth Bridge on the East Fork of the Lewis River.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

TRIOBA Sprint - Kenmore

TRIOBA Sprint - Kenmore Rains, Then Shines

On April 16, 2005, I photographed the TRIOBA Sprint adventure race in Kenmore, Wash.

Rain pounded my giant golf umbrella as I walked from the parking lot to the race headquarters at St. Edward State Park in Kenmore, a suburb of Seattle. The sound of the drops rattling above my head was disturbingly familiar. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d photographed an adventure race on Mt. Hood, Ore., and wondered if a lifejacket should have been on the list of participant’s mandatory gear. This day could end up being as miserable as that one was.

Nearly 50 teams had come to race, but nobody was moving very fast. Mountain bikes were lined up along the bike stands, and gear boxes, lids on tight, were snuggled up next to the bikes. A few athletes, easily identified as rookies or stupid, were puttering around by their bikes and boxes in the driving rain. Everyone else was huddled under a scattering of Easy Up shelters, wondering if the race would start on time. It didn’t.

Joel and Justin Yeager, organizers of the TRIOBA series of adventure races, called a pre-race meeting. They apologized for the weather, and then lined everyone up for the start. Maps were handed out at the last second, along with the admonition, “Do not look at the maps!”

The wail of an air horn told the teams to run run run to the first checkpoint. Some did, and ended up turning right back around. The first several checkpoints were nearby, but not every team’s map had the points in the same order. Following the fast teams (a common strategy in adventure racing) was only good if the fast teams had the same map you did! Utter chaos ensued for about 15 minutes. The photos were comical, showing teams running in opposite directions.

After the initial melee, teams grabbed their inflatable boats and headed down to Lake Washington. What some didn’t realize was that Lake Washington was about a mile-and-a-half down the hill. Because the rain was still pouring down, I decided to walk a few hundred yards toward the lake to shoot photos of the teams carrying their boats. I’d skip the paddling, thank you very much. I sure didn’t want to hike a mile-and-a-half uphill from the lake if the rain wasn’t letting up!

Soon, the fastest teams were on the way back up the muddy trail, carrying their boats back to the starting area. There, they began another trekking section that would take them to all parts of St. Edwards State Park. I got some shots of teams launching themselves off the trails in search of checkpoints. The rain was unrelenting. My camera soon stopped shooting. Was it finally soaked through? No, my memory card was full. No way was I changing it in the rain when my car was in a parking lot a short walk away. Back to the car I went. I swapped out the card, and, while I was in a dry spot, my camera’s rechargeable battery as well.

I went back to the headquarters popup tent to ask about the mountain bike leg, because so far, I wasn’t happy with the pictures I’d made. I was told there was a good single-track (hiking trail) section nearby. I decided to go there. As I was leaving, the first-place team, called Team DART, was running toward its bikes. I was going to have to move fast to beat them! I drove to a mini-mart near the trail and hurried to the checkpoint all teams would have to ride to. Just as I arrived, so did a team, but it wasn’t DART. “We’re in third place,” they told me. Man! I missed two teams! At least I knew I was in a spot that the remaining 45 would have to come to. The faces of most of the racers were splattered with muddy water. Photo op!

I scouted up and down the trail and found a spot where I thought I could shoot each team twice. I’d get them once on a flat part of the trail as they approached the checkpoint, and once again on a steep section of downhill single-track right after they left the checkpoint. I felt like a genius! But this strategy only worked on the teams that stayed on the single track after the checkpoint. For the dozens of teams that decided to take a paved road to the next checkpoint, it meant there would be half as many photos of them. I figured the teams all knew they couldn’t use the road, so I hiked away from checkpoint 18, in the direction of checkpoint 19. Very few teams came in the hour I stayed. A wiser move would have been to walk from 18 back toward 17. Every team had to get to 18, and there was no alternate route. Next time, I’ll think a little harder!

I headed to another spot the bikes had to hit. The rain had stopped and the sun was poking through white, fluffy clouds. I shot a few more teams at and near the checkpoint. Then I went back to the headquarters. The awards ceremony had already ended. Stragglers were showing up. There was hot food. I got a plate and filled up. Then I got in my car and made the three-hour drive back to Vancouver, Wash., with a big, goofy grin on my face. What a blast!

The 400 shots have been edited down to about 100. They’re all now online. I’m especially proud of the mountain bike pictures I made at this race. It’s never easy to shoot adventure racers. Once the race starts, they do everything as fast as they can!