Dawn rises on Monarch Mountain’s closing weekend, 2017, and a peculiar assortment of party-goers arrive in its parking lot. There are tailgaters who have been parking in the same spot for 20 years, friends who coordinated wearing animal costumes, and that one guy in jean shorts and an American flag T-shirt. But, today, there are kayakers–by the car full, with boats strapped frontwards and sideways to roof racks, and brightly colored dry suits already hugging their bodies as they get out of their vehicles. They have their eyes set just past the base area lodge, at Monarch’s main drag, a run called Freeway, which has been transformed into the stage for a boatercross extravaganza called Kayaks on Snow.
To say the majority of participants are a bunch of dirty river rats emerging from their winter hibernation is appropriate, with the exception of a few folks who bought cheap boats at Walmart on the way up to the mountain that day. My nimble kayak, a bright red Dagger, is a loaner from a friend working at the mountain. Most competitors, however, show up with their own professional-grade equipment that’s meant for the rapids on the nearby Arkansas River, not springtime slush. “This is the only time I slide down a mountain on snow,” says fifth-time competitor, 32-year-old Josh Oberleas, standing next to me near the half-frozen pool at the bottom of the course. “I work on the rivers in Chile during the winter. I just got back to the United States yesterday.”
The What: Single-elimination heats of four dwindle participants down to a final few lunatic boaters. In 2017, 62 racers crashed their way down a course with two, 20-foot banked turns, leading into a 50-foot long halfpipe, and ending in a pool of icy snow melt pumped in from a nearby creek. The first kayaker to paddle and splash their way through the course and across the pond wins. It’s a simple dash to the finish–but with speed comes chaos.
Kayaks on Snow, which started in 2000, has seen its share of unforgettable wrecks, dislocated shoulders, and carnage. In the inaugural competition, a kayaker who caught air landed on his face, broke his nose, and left a trail of blood running down to the finish line. Ski patroller Rich Rogers, 33, has worked Monarch’s staple event since 2009, and thinks fondly of a time when other kinds of boats were allowed to race down the course alongside kayaks. “Every year it gets better, except for the year we took the rafts out…we had one fly out of the course, hit the race shack, and end up in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill.”
The Why: For some reason, it feels damn good to sit in a borrowed kayak halfway up a ski hill on a bluebird spring day, wearing a life vest, helmet, and Hawaiian shirt that smells like damp memories of last summer. It’s exhilarating in an unfamiliar way, waiting at the starting gate, knowing everyone wants you to crash, watching a snowcat cut a 90-degree wall into the second turn after a boater flew off-course and almost killed a 3-year-old in the last heat. Turns out there’s no better time or place to wear that Fred Flintstone costume and get your paddling muscles back in shape. And because it’s closing weekend at the hill, and the local community of rafters, kayakers, and commercial guides can’t think of a better way to kick off the boating season before nearly 900,000 tourists visit the area–a mecca for outdoor recreation on the Ark during the summer.
The WTF: Sitting with knees jammed against the inner-walls of my kayak at the top of the course, praying I don’t flip the boat, enter the water backward, or just simply break all of my bones, I’m watching one of the other three competitors in my heat spray a thick coat of Rain-X across the bottom of his watercraft for added speed. He’s really gunning for it–he’s been talking about “finding his line” for the past 10 minutes; meanwhile, it’s been five years since I’ve been in a kayak, and all I’m worried about is holding the paddle right-side-up.
The whistle blows, and we’re off. Gaining speed off the steeply angled start ramp, boats bump and bounce against one another, and my competitors paddle with impressive technique. Through the first turn, our acceleration begins to redline. We plow through football-size chunks of ice. Coming out of the second turn, we’re flying at mach speed.
Into the homestretch, I’m in last place, and thankful for it. Carnage unfolds before my eyes as the other three boaters launch into the water, churning the half-frozen pond of snowmelt into something resembling an Antarctic storm surge. Ker-plunking into the pool, I find paddling harder than I remember, and end up uncontrollably zig-zagging to the finish line. After the race, with the lower-half of my body freed of its plastic captivity, and solid ground back under my feet, I give a sigh of relief–mostly because I didn’t drown, but also because I can go skiing for the rest of the day.