They say winners are made, not born. To earn the winning title at a North Fork Championship—a notoriously rowdy whitewater race on one of the world’s most challenging sections of river—you must be made from something pretty darn special. Whatever the secret sauce may be, 23-year-old Hayden Voorhees from Meridian, Idaho is clearly sipping on it.
The making of the last North Fork champion
The fresh-faced athlete took the win at last year’s Men’s Elite Race final on the Jacob’s Ladder rapid, paddling smoother and faster than all 29 fierce competitors from around the world. Voorhees even pinched the crown from field-favorite and reigning champion, Dane Jackson.
So, how did Hayden pull it off?
For a start, it doesn’t hurt that Idaho’s Payette River, the staging ground of the North Fork Championship, is Hayden’s home river. “It is such a special place for our family, the foundation of our kayaking skills, and our favorite river,” Hayden says. All five members of the Voorhees family are fully immersed in the whitewater scene, including Hayden’s older brother Alec who often competes against him.
Playing on the Payette River
Navigated in part for the first time in 1975 by Idaho kayakers Roger Hazelwood, Tom Murphy and Keith Taylor, the tumultuous rapids of the North Fork of the Payette have since become a rite of passage for any class V boater. The Payette is also the perfect playground for skill progression, thanks to its many sections—namely, the North Fork, South Fork and Middle Fork—which offer varying degrees of difficulty to paddlers. The river certainly fostered the progression of Hayden’s skills, allowing him to gain his first sponsorship at age 10.
More recently, Hayden’s connection to the Payette was further strengthened. The original North Fork Championship organizers, Regan and James Byrd, retired from their roles just before the Pandemic struck. The event needed saving, and the Voorhees family wasn’t ready to lose it. They organized the race for two years, during which time the event grew in popularity.
Unfortunately, the Voorhees family announced the cancelation of the North Fork Championship in January 2023, citing various obstacles from logistical challenges to changes in insurance coverage.
Voorhees’ recipe for success
Beyond paddling infinite laps on the river growing up and organizing the event itself, Hayden has ample experience racing on the Payette—another factor that surely gave him the competitive edge for his 2022 win. He and his brother have been top contenders at the North Fork Championship for a number of years, Hayden having raced every year since 2017 and Alec since 2014.
Alec puts the recipe for success down to “being as consistent as possible during practice,” but notes it can be extremely difficult to nail all the gates during the actual event.
“Jacob’s Ladder is already such a demanding, pushy rapid on its own, and putting incredibly challenging gates in makes it so tough. Usually there is one gate per year where half the field gets a miss penalty,” he says.
As much as we can try to deduce the winning formula, it seems the true beauty of the North Fork Championship was that it was anyone’s game.
Hayden Voorhees taking on Jacob’s Ladder. | Feature photo: Daniel Stewart