BRISTOL — Whitewater kayakers from up and down the East Coast and across the border in Canada tore over Bristol’s infamous Bartlett Falls at last Saturday’s New Haven River Festival. Organized by the University of Vermont (UVM) Kayak Club and the Vermont Paddlers Club, the festival hosted 59 paddlers in its third consecutive year, up from 26 last year.
At the heart of the festival was a grueling 1/3-mile race down a technical section of the New Haven River that finished at Bartlett Falls. And, the stakes were high.
Head sponsor Bliss-Stick U.S., a kayak manufacture based out of North Carolina, kicked in $1,750 in prize money.
A wide range of competitors from pros to local legends to out-of-town river runners — including two women and one junior racer — pulled on their neoprene hats, booties and dry suits before barreling down the icy New Haven. Some did it for fun, some for cash, and some for glory.
In the end, Hugh Pritchard of Montpelier emerged as the overall victor, landing a $1,000 grand price. Joel Kowalski of Quebec came in second and grabbed $500, and fellow Quebec resident Patrick Gagne rolled in third for $250.
Middlebury freshman Daphnee Tuzlak of Canada’s Yukon Territory was one of the first two women ever to compete in this race.
“It was a really fun competition and really well organized,” said Tuzlak. “I think everyone was just there to have a good time.”
Co-founder and organizer of the festival Ben Guttridge explained why this stretch of the New Haven is particularly apt for this competition:
• “It runs reliable the first week of April.”
• “It’s continuous, which is more fun for racing.”
• “It’s challenging and an advanced-expert type of run.”
• “It’s all roadside, so it’s a great place to watch from.”
• “It ends with that awesome waterfall at the finish line!”
But it’s not just the terrain that kayakers pay attention to. Since the river is swelled with snowmelt, water temperature is also a consideration.
“Oh, it was cold!” Guttridge said. “It was probably less than 40 degrees, but this year’s weather was the nicest we’ve had by far. Last year our volunteers froze to the rocks they were sitting on.”
In addition to the race, the New Haven River Festival featured screening of a film by kayaker extraordinaire Doug Ammons in Burlington. The final, pending element of the festival is a free, all-equipment-provided beginners class.
“We want to help beginners that are into the sport get in a boat and start paddling,” said Guttridge.
Initially slated for Mount Abraham Union High School, the beginners class was switched to the UVM pool on Tuesday April 19 from 8-10 p.m.
“Our original goal for the festival was showcasing the sport of whitewater kayaking in the state of Vermont,” said Guttridge. “We want people from around the country to know about our rivers and let locals know more about the premier white water that we have up here.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]