Oh Be Joyful Steep Creek kayak race this Saturday

Thrills and chills

By Than Acuff 

Oh Be Joyful creek comes pouring down off the backside of Mt. Emmons and into the Slate River and is on the “to do” list of steep creek kayakers this time of year as the melting snow provides optimal flows for the class V creek descent.

The creek offers waterfall drops, slide rapids and tight corners requiring a combination of pinpoint precision, quick decision-making and quality paddle strokes from kayakers looking to run the creek.

“It takes a good kayak and a smile,” adds Freedom Center ombudsman Milo Wynne.

While vehicles from around the state and beyond have been seen rolling into Crested Butte the past two weeks for the start of creek season, the paddling comes to a head on Saturday, June 8 at the annual Oh Be Joyful Steep Creek Race.

Tim Kegerman, Jack Barker and Dan Hicks are credited with the first descent of Oh Be Joyful back in 1992 and as interest grew, talk of hosting a race circulated amongst the growing throngs of steep creek kayakers and the first race was held in 1995. The race has seen many iterations over the years and disappeared for a short stretch but has been reborn over the past seven years thanks to the effort, interest and energy of Paul Raymond.

Each year the event gains more organization and Raymond has partnered with the Chamber of Commerce and HCCA in the past. This year, he stepped it up another notch creating a nonprofit called Class V River Racing. The nonprofit is the organizing entity hosting the race this Saturday.

“I’ve always been toying around with creating an organization to host the race,” says Raymond. “There are similar races all over Colorado, some of which have disappeared, and I think that’s really sad. We want to help with existing races, advise or even start new races to promote paddle racing of all different levels.”

The racing Saturday starts at noon with the first of two runs for all competitors. The second round is tentatively slated to start around 2 or 2:30 p.m. with the title going to the person with the fastest run of the day.

Last year there were 40 racers with the winning time around five minutes. This year may be a bit faster given the flows and the weather forecast leading up to the race.

“Flows are great,” says Raymond. “When we paddled it Sunday, it was the high side of medium. With the weather this week it should go up. Not crazy high but similar to what we had in 2019 and that year was awesome.”

As of press time, 33 had signed up for the race with a total of 50 allowed according to the permit with the Forest Service. Most of those signed up are coming from outside the valley.

“I only have about five or six locals signed up so far,” says Raymond. “I’ve got people from all over the place. From the Front Range and some coming out from the East Coast.”

Given the backcountry location of the event, Raymond asks that race fans and the steep creek curious bike, walk or carpool to the Oh Be Joyful campground out the Slate River valley and tread lightly as they head up to the venue, climbers right of the creek.

“Stay on the road and people will see a trail that breaks off to the viewing area,” says Raymond. “We want people to stay on the trail. We will have it marked and volunteers helping to direct people. There are some steeps sections along the creek, we want people to be careful.”

Speaking of volunteers, Raymond needs them. Not just helping to direct foot traffic and fans but help with registration, timing and parking as well. Volunteers can find the sign-up sheet on the Oh Be Joyful Facebook page or just show up at the Oh Be Joyful campground at 9 a.m. the day of the race.

If you’re thinking of racing, registration can also be found on the race Facebook page, but the race is not for the faint of heart or someone looking to test the waters of steep creek kayaking.

“It’s experts only,” says Raymond. “I usually know most of the people signed up but if I don’t, I’ll ask them about their experience. If someone’s not qualified, we’re not going to let them race.”

As always, no race would be complete without the Freedom Center, so expect to see the Stars and Stripes hanging creekside. Wynne admits it’s been a while since he ran the creek but was there in the formative days of the race. As for who will win, he believes the outcome is determined by a couple of things.

“It comes down to experience and who has the biggest smile,” says Wynne.   

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