Each year the Smalls to the Wall event is a bit different. For example, sometimes there is still plenty of snow on the ground. This year, the eighth year of the event, it was a sunny, comfortably cool, but definitely spring day.

Naturally, any event that takes place outdoors depends on cooperative weather. In this case, the water levels were the focus. Jake Risch of North Conway, NH, who runs the event, was keeping tabs by various means in order to help predict what to expect on race day. I spoke with him over the phone after the event.

“I was out there last weekend, and then I was out there early in the morning scouting it out and then, there’s people from the paddling community who have been running it all week and I was watching them on social media- people posting what they were doing. And then we watch the gage. The U.S. geological survey has a gage on the Sandy River in Madrid, and we watch that. It basically has to be above 125 cfs (cubic feet per second) for the Smalls Falls proper to be runnable and it was hovering right around 130 on the race day- 130-135. So, we were close, but we made it. The water was low this year but not too low, making for a more technical challenge. The pools aren’t quite as deep and so you have to be right on your line. The margin of error goes down when you have low water.”

Risch who has functioned as part of the safety patrol for the Smalls to the Wall event as a volunteer with the White Mountain Swift Water Rescue Team (where he is currently the Vice President) was happy to take over the event when original founder Andrew Cooper approached him about it a couple of years ago. He had always enjoyed the event and was no stranger to what a big outdoor competition entails as he heads the *Friends of Tuckerman Ravine (see sidebar) “Inferno Pentathlon” event held in March in New Hampshire.

When asked if this was the harder part of the race, he said yes. But perhaps too nice or too tired to disagree with my assumption. Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

Risch described what has changed since the last time I attended the Smalls to the Wall event back in 2019. As opposed to a time trial race where racers paddled two laps and the combined fastest times produced a winner, they changed it to a tournament style bracket race. “So, there’s only one person on the course at a time but the racers are racing head-to-head.” In this way 16 racers becomes 8, 8 becomes 4, 4 to 2, and then the champions. “So, the people who won had to do run the course 5 times.”

The vertical Smalls Falls run is short, about 45 seconds, and so it easily allowed for this type of format changed. Not grueling if you think about it terms of time. But grueling in other ways, I’m sure. I mean, for one thing, if you win your race you must proceed to carry your own kayak back up the steep slopes each time. Not easy-especially winding through all the many dozens of spectators. This part seemed more daunting to me then the paddling for some reason. I asked some paddlers, and they concurred.



So, that was the change that was made in 2021.

This year, changes were made to open up to paddlers of a wider ability level and include intermediate kayakers in a novice race in the rapids below the falls. “So, this year we actually had three courses that we were racing on. The easy/easier white water before the falls, then on Chandler Mills Stream- (we did the tournament on Chandler Mills because it has low water), and then we did a two-lap race at Smalls Falls proper at the end of the day.” Luckily, the water wasn’t as low as it was last year when they had to cancel that final portion of the day’s event. “But when it’s low water you can still do the Chandler Mill Stream side which is more like waterslides and less like vertical waterfalls.” Risch explained.

My ears perked up when I heard the words “waterslides”, “novice,” “easy.” Depends on the person, right? It’s all relative. So, to gain a better understanding (because all the contestants I chatted with seemed so chill about it), Risch patiently translated to me as though it were a foreign language. “In white water it would be an intermediate level run, and then Chandler Mills Stream would be an expert level run, and then Smalls would be an extreme run.”

Drew Bates estimates he’s done this run about 10 times. “It’s really fun. You’re doing a lot of vertical feet real quick. What kind of makes it tricky is that each of these drops on their own aren’t incredibly difficult. It’s just the spacing. If you mess up you have a real short window to right yourself before you get to the next one.” He added, “If you’re here doing this event you have a pretty good eye for white-water and some of these channels are pretty small so there’s really only one/two ways to get down depending on which drop.” Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

Expert level white water kayaker Drew Bates Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

Okay, so not something I can pick up like a new hobby I suppose, but Risch, who has been paddling white water since college, about 25 years now, was optimistic. “It’s a sport very similar to skiing, where you can get started at any age really, and once you get into it becomes a life-long passion.”

Risch was positive about this past event and also future ones. “It’s just a really fun event and it’s great to see all of the support from the community. All the paddlers really enjoy having the crowd there. They get excited about it. There’s a whole series of white-water races in Maine over the summertime and this is by far, this is the one that has the biggest spectator turnout. It’s really great.”

That is one of the aspects of the event that doesn’t change. The crowds have certainly not diminished. The folks who I chatted with who were standing among the tripods and rows of camera heavy laden spectators, had made a date of it and driven the 2 1/2 hours from Augusta. They thought it was the perfect daytrip. I agree.

SIDEBAR *Friends of Tuckerman Ravine “Inferno Pentathlon” Not for the faint of heart, the event includes fat bike riding, freestyle cross country, snowshoe, and a ski/snowboard mountaineering race. The Friends of Tuckerman is a non-profit organization works that with the U.S. Forest Service to help preserve, protect, and sustain the distinctive eastern slopes of Mount Washington, NH. For more information on that organization and/or the event, you may visit their Facebook page- Friends of Tuckerman Ravine or their website-  https://www.friendsoftuckermanravine.org/.

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