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Extreme kayaking on North Carolina's Green Narrows draws thousands of spectators

People crowd the steep banks of the Green River near Saluda, N.C., to watch participants in the Green Race, an event that organizers claim is the largest extreme kayak race in the world.
Rolando Arrieta
People crowd the steep banks of the Green River near Saluda, N.C., to watch participants in the Green Race, an event that organizers claim is the largest extreme kayak race in the world.

SALUDA, N.C. — On the first Saturday in November whitewater kayakers from near and far gather in the town of Saluda, N.C. — about 30 miles south of Asheville — for one of the most intense sporting events in the nation, the Green Race. The race takes place in the Green Narrow Gorge in the Green River Game Lands.

The only way to watch the race is to hike down a two-mile steep ravine — a trek so strenuous and technical that it parallels the vertical waterfalls the extreme kayakers are about to embark in. It's an event where it seems you couldn't have one without the other.

This year, about 175 expert boaters launched down a fast three-quarter-mile stretch of deadly Class V rapids.

Spectators — some 2,000 of them — make the descent deep into the narrow canyon and find a spot on the river banks to cheer the oncoming kayakers.

Every bit of rock is full as far as one can see downriver and upriver alike.

And being in the presence of thousands of friends and family, kids, parents, grandparents and pet dogs made for a surreal energy that is palpable – loud cheers resonating off the canyon walls.

Adriene Levknecht won the women's heat of the Green Race and remembers being energized by the crowd's roar and thunderous applause as she navigated the hardest section of the race and made her final stretch to the finish line.

"It's like kayaking in a stadium. Everybody cheering, yelling. When somebody runs Gorilla, the biggest rapid out there, you can hear the echo from the people all the way down there," Levknecht says.

Levknecht learned to kayak on the Green. She has been coming here with her mom and dad for 17 years.

"When I was 18, I got to be a really good kayaker and this is where it was."

But this is the first time that her 72-year-old dad was not able to hike in to watch her race.

"He called me at the top where it gets really steep and he's like, 'A, I'm not going to make it. I can't. My balance. I just don't want to fall. I don't want to be the one who gets carried out.' And so I was like, 'Dad, just watch on Livestream. It's all good'."

Her 70-year-old mom, Laurie Levknecht, was able to make it in and stood on the river banks with thousands of others.

"I remember the first time I hiked in here, and I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' People kayak this. They got to be nuts."

Adds Laurie: "But, you know, I love the Green race. I love coming in here. I know people who have been coming in for so long, watching these athletes, just watching the whole vibe and of course, watching Adriene."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rolando Arrieta
Rolando Arrieta manages the Ops Desk, the team that handles the day-to-day content production and operations for the Newsroom and Programming. He also works closely with software developers in designing content management systems in an effort to maintain efficient production and publication workflows for broadcast newsmagazines, podcasts and digital story presentations.