Fasten your spray skirts and take note of the wet exits because the Clearwater Kayak Festival is wild—in or out of the water. Story by Vince Hempsall. Feature image by James Huser.
“If you win, we give you a hundred bucks, a case of Busch beer, and a big fat doobie,” says Mat Kasunich, organizer of the annual Clearwater Kayak Festival in British Columbia’s Wells Gray Provincial Park. “They’re all the things Ben loved.” Kasunich is describing the prize for Most Adventurous Paddler, and the winner also receives an original oil painting of Ben Earle, the Australian expat who launched the festival in 2007 and tragically died the following year on a first descent of Finn Creek in nearby Avola, leaving behind his wife and two young children.
Since then, Kasunich and others have continued hosting the three-day event in Earle’s honour, and it is now the longest-running kayak festival in the British Columbia interior. (It was on hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic.) The Clearwater River is world-renowned among paddlers, and the kilometre-long stretch called Sabretooth Canyon is one of the biggest sections of commercially rafted rapids in the province. These rapids are the site of the festival’s Adrian Kiernan Boater Cross Race, named for a friend of Earle’s who died while kayaking in Nepal in 2018. In this race, participants start at the same time, which means as many as 40 boats could be jostling to cross the finish line. “You can’t take your hand off your paddle to grab another person,” says Kasunich. “Basically, that’s the only rule.” There’s also a boater-cross race for intermediate-level paddlers; a freestyle event for best ride or biggest trick; and, of course, the award for most adventurous paddler. “It’s always given to someone who brings it, not the best paddler but the one who [embodies] the spirit of the event,” Kasunich says. The winner in 2019 was Nia Williams of Calgary, Alberta, who borrowed a kayak to paddle the high-water rapids. She was six months pregnant.
The festival is also renowned for being rowdy out of the water: 85 paddlers competed in the 2019 event, but over 300 came for the after-party that featured three live music acts at the Clearwater Ski Hill. “It goes off,” Kasunich says, going on to describe the time a festivalgoer won a kayak and “woke up the next morning to find people had somehow put it 40 feet up a tree.”
The 2021 Clearwater Kayak Festival is slated for August 6 to 8.