The Race Is On

The first Saturday in each November, a spirited bunch of adventurers descend on a remote area of Polk County, North Carolina.

They’re here to prove that the lines of seeking and survival intersect.

Popular on the waves of upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina chatter channels, the Green River is commonly known to be more chill than violent. A place easy to guzzle a few too many out of a floating cooler down miles of lazy moving water. However, a space of this waterway is flush with terror demanding a relentless grit from those daring passage through the country’s most brutally mean churns. 

Every year in the prime of Fall, the best boaters in the world congregate at the floor of the Green River Gorge.

Names like Pat Keller, Adriene Levknecht, Dane Jackson, Jason Hale and Eric Deguil are among those who’ve sought challenge through these walls of treachery. They gather for a shot at the coveted piece of custom glass awarded to the man and woman carrying the title champ of The Green Race for the next 364 days.

No purse of cash goes out to the winner and that’s okay because it’s not why they’re showing up. Although sponsors will crawl into their emails and socials to attach brand to the magic of these mavericks, they’re here for the prestigious bragging rights that come with running the most unforgiving stretch of dam controlled water in the United States. 

For 28 consecutive years boaters have been getting pinned, worked, cheered, cracked and crowned for their efforts to move through this vein of Earth’s blood. Growing in size each year since 1996 with both participants and spectators, the Green Race remains a cherished strike on the calendar for this diehard community.

The sounds of cowbells clanging, cheers roaring and unified choruses of ooohs and ahhhs fill this cathedral like space. Tight nooks along uneven, slick rock permit standing or sitting room only as folks peer upriver for prime action sightings of man vs. wild. Spectating will illicit as much danger as participating for those careless, under the influence of drugs and alcohol or just plain unlucky. 

What started as an annual rally with just under twenty boaters competing and a handful of pals running safety has morphed into a full fledged spectated event. Now featuring over one hundred racers and well over a thousand spectators, it is by far the busiest day for traffic of any kind through the Green River Gamelands. 

While free to attend, there is an admission charged only in the currency of physicality. Starting on a nondescript trailhead, those wishing to access are required to hoof it. A 2.73 mile walk starts out strolling along wide, leaf covered trails until narrowing on descent for a drop into a canyon radiating with loud fall color. Lines of folks wait at big grades to get down wall steep pitches, drops requiring three points of contact and clusters of ankle breaking roots. Thankfully old heads and kindhearted souls have fashioned rope lines between trees to save some, but not all, serious injuries. 

Captured by drone footage, professional camera crews and even a scaffolding platform to nest a master of ceremonies, the Green Race can be live streamed worldwide with tons of features and angles day of for those unable to attend. It is a logistical spectacle considering such terrain and equipment. Spectators, friends, family and crew also pack out bags of provisions to help sustain the long day in the beautiful, hellish halls of glory and fate. 

Racers on the other hand have enlisted for a battle of crushing runs through continuous strings of Class V rapids with names like Go Left, Sunshine, Scream Machine and the infamous havoc inducing monster, Gorilla.

The goal – complete a (clean) lap for time and come out alive to find the water another day.

There is no break nor guarantee of safe passage and that notion is accepted by all participating. Although time and recognition have brought more in the way of extra safeties and rescue watermen, organizers of the race still advise most against running it. Holes, drops and hidden rock through these terrifying spans of shallow rushing water wait to produce carnage in every single forward inch of progress, yet they still go.

It is a hammer of a course providing great opportunity for beat down after beat down or worse, until the racer’s feet touch dry land. 

This willingness to pit one’s self against such specific chaos follows a redeeming beauty; some sort of ultimate for what can be endured by the brain and body. A rare vitality must rest at the heart of these men and women who seek such limits of survival. Some process where peace is born through violence of action. A real sense of commitment to see something through. Whatever they carry at this level can not be sold, purchased or feigned and it’s presence of possession is just as obvious as if it were absent. 

Once the race ends, folks make their way up canyon and out, if they can without assistance. This opens the doors for rec boaters to seal launch or pick and choose rapids to run or avoid. Hanging around post race gives visitors an opportunity to explore the once crowded now open to roam space for viewing the might of this natural world unbothered. 

The final whooping it up of the day begins when night falls over the well-loved and welcoming sight of the Green River Ranch. Beer flows like the rapids racers ran just mere hours before. Stories of glory, saves and future expeditions all get discussed among this tribe of outliers under the ink black blanket of night. Music and conversations reverberate around and off every solid piece of mass at the ranch.

That revered piece of colorful glass got passed into the hands of this year’s winner, boasting the fastest lap (04:05.9), during a lively awards ceremony. Kailen Friedenson took the big multicolored square home detailed with an etched paddler at its center, outlined by a soft metal diamond. For 12 months, Friedenson will hold the crown sought by several and worn by few.

As for the crews, racers and spectators, life will move with the day to day, week to week, month to month mystery of the unknown, but as long as there is a first Saturday each November, they will all continue to meet again. 


– Photos & Story by Clint Keels 

Read more by Clint Keels:

The Big Cook
Visiting Lake Jocassee
Bear Hunting
Cooking With an Open Flame

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