The 16th annual Reno Riverfest attracts world-class paddlers

by Brian Bahouth

Three time world champion freestyle kayaker Emily Jackson does a flip in the Truckee River. Jackson is from Tennessee - image - Brian Bahouth

Reno – In 2003, the Reno -Sparks Visitors and Convention Authority and the City of Reno invested $1.5 million dollars of public money in a Whitewater Park. A little more than 2,600 feet of the Truckee River as it flows through downtown Reno was transformed from a wild and inhospitable river bed with no access to the water into one of the region’s most popular parks. The Whitewater park has become a popular beach during summer months and has enabled the annual Reno River Festival, an event that brings roughly 40,000 people to Wingfield Park where some of the best kayakers in the world will compete in a variety of events this year on May 11 and 12.

The Truckee River flows on either side of Wingfield Park island.

A plaque on a rock in Wingfield Park in Reno, Nevada – image Brian Bahouth

Cemented boulders placed around the entire island and much of the opposite banks form welcoming shorelines where spectators sit during various kayak and paddleboard competitions.  In the river, cement and grouted boulders form 11 plunge pools and channels for freestyle kayaking and slalom racing. People also swim in the holes throughout the summer.

One of 11 plunge pools in the Reno Whitewater Park – image – Brian Bahouth

Jess Horning is a partner at Liquid Blue Events, organizer of the Reno River Festival for the last five of its sixteen years. Horning says they hold the festival at this time of year every year because this is roughly when the river reaches peak flow before it begins its gradual decline to minimum flow in late summer.

According to Horning, the event marks the kickoff of the kayaking and Reno summer event seasons and attracts some of the top competitors in the world.

Hear an audio interview with Jess Horning.

“In the beginning, it started with the Reno/Tahoe Visitors Authority. They built that Whitewater Park right in the heart of Reno with of the idea of bringing some of the world’s best athletes to our town and showcase the outdoor adventure that is northern Nevada, and I think it has become a great branding tool for northern Nevada, and in Reno in general, it’s hiking, it’s kayaking, it’s Tahoe. More of your outdoor experience in northern Nevada. In the heart of Reno really showcases the area really well,” Horning said.

World class competition

When I went to the Whitewater Park to shoot photos for this article, a person entered the water in a tiny blue kayak with aplomb that showed a mature, expert facility. She wore a sparkly fuchsia helmet emblazoned with “Emily,” and with deliberate and playful confidence, the blue boat and Emily began doing masterful windmills and rolls and flips in one of the holes in the south channel around Wingfield Park island. Next to me on the south shore was a woman and two children who cheered when the paddler used the force of the river to nearly leave the water when doing a front flip.

“You chose the right person to photograph,” the cheering woman said to me with a New Zealand accent. “That’s three-time world freestyle champion, Emily Jackson,” said Courtney Kerin from Omaru New Zealand, a Silver Medalist at the 2011 World Freestyle Kayak Championships and one of the leading female kayakers in the world herself.

Emily Jackson in the Truckee River – image – Brian Bahouth

Emily said kayak competitions for the initial Reno Riverfests were by invitation only, and she was one of the original invitees.

Hear an audio interview with Emily Jackson.

“The Reno River Festival, it was a first actually for one of the original whitewater events in the sense that when it first came out it was an invitational event, so it actually brought out about 20 of the very best paddlers of the early 2000s out here over and over again, and when they opened the event, everyone wanted to come to compete with us top paddlers, so it really was a unique venue for that.

“It’s not often that you compete in a downtown atmosphere like this, so you get to expose a lot of people who would otherwise not get to see a lot of whitewater kayaking,” Jackson said. “It’s right downtown for them, so it’s really really neat in that sense.”

Jackson said she likes the way the Reno River Fest integrates with downtown and uses different concepts every year as add-ons to the competition. This year the festival will once again feature the Reno River Roll, a bike ride and parade that attracts some 400 cyclists guided by a police escort. A mother-daughter look-alike contest is a crowd favorite, and a craft village features the work of many regional artists selling their wares. A “craft beer experience” highlights the beers of three local breweries. There will be two stages for live music to include the band-shell in Wingfield Park, but for Jackson and other competitive kayakers, it’s about the water, and this year, the Truckee is brimming.

“The water is just one of the trickier things,” Jackson said. “The crowd that travels west when you guys were in a drought. It really affects people’s decision to make that travel and that effort because sometimes you guys didn’t even have a feature available, but now it’s really really great to see this year. You guys have so much water. The river is looking really healthy. It’s really nice to see that, and it’s really awesome that you guys have this flow right now because it’s not every time that you get that.”

The water level has been high for the past three years, and according to Jess Horning, extra water has enabled the festival to conduct an expanded palette of events in this and recent years. The water level has been high enough but not too high to hold a slalom competition in the south channel around Wingfield Park island. 2019 marks the third year in a row Riverfest organizers have been able to hold the slalom event.

“Now the water that we’ve had, especially the last couple years has really opened up our ability to do a variety of different style events,” Horning said.

An unidentified man practices the slalom course in the Truckee River – image – Brian Bahouth

A new Boatercross competition is planned for this year in which competitors will race each other downstream and around a course of buoys.

Also new this year are several paddle-boarding events to include a slalom, paddle-boarder-cross race, and stand-up paddleboard surfing, which is much like the freestyle kayaking event, and according to Horning, Reno is one of the few places in the nation that can accommodate a stand-up paddleboard slalom competition.

Davide Sortoni surfing the Truckee River – image – Brian Bahouth

By initial design, the Whitewater Park is part of a larger effort to make Reno more of an outdoor recreation destination than a gaming town. With two new non-gaming hotels in downtown and the Whitewater Park, I asked Jackson how she sees Reno. Is it a gambling town or a city and a region known for outdoor sports?

“Reno is really unique because I think it’s a combination of city style, casino gambling town, but it has the amenities of all the outdoor things that you would want to do, so for me I see it as an outdoor town simply because of the fact that I come here and I go hiking,” Jackson said. “I go biking and I go kayaking. I go rafting. It has everything to make it a top outdoor venue. At the same time, it really does have that city atmosphere, so it’s really an eclectic group of people.”

I asked New Zealand native and world-class freestyle kayaker Courtney Kerin how she views Reno.

Hear an audio interview with Courtney Kerin.

“I see it as a great outdoor recreation place. Since I’ve got here I’ve been up hiking to waterfalls, some trails in the desert, went to a rock climbing gym today, lots of kayaking. Got to go with some of the locals on several river runs around here, and so yeah, I’ve just been living the outdoor life since I got here, and honestly it is such a sweet place to recreate and stay fit and make the most of our outdoor playground.”

Kerin is in the United State traveling the competitive kayaking circuit in preparation for the world championship in Spain running from June 29 to July 6, 2019. Kerin said Reno is an important competition that attracts the very highest level of competition.

“You’re going to see a lot of the world’s best paddlers here this weekend,” Kerin said. “A lot of ex-world champions will be competing between the men’s and women’s categories, so it’s going the be a pretty high level. It always is a pretty solid level of competition here in Reno.”

Jess Horning operates Liquid Blue Events with his brother Neil. They are sixth generation Nevadans who are proud to bring this event to downtown Reno.

“Our family has been in northern Nevada for a long time. We take great pride in northern Nevada and Reno itself. There are not a lot of cities in the country that actually have a natural river right in the middle of their town. I think that Reno has done a very good job growing and developing its restaurants, its culture, its arts, everything down in that area,” Horning said.

For much more from Jess Horning, Emily Jackson and Courtney Kerin, listen to the audio interviews embedded above.