King of the Rogue

GOLD HILL — Jamie Billett paddles slowly Wednesday toward the lip of the Rogue River's Ti'lomikh Falls, through a particular slot known to rafters as "Grandma's Run." But the Ashland resident isn't sitting in a raft, he's standing on a board, and to him that whitewater slot is misnamed.

Billett already has crashed, fallen and done a face-plant into the water while trying to negotiate the rapid's entrance on a stand-up paddleboard. Now the ensuing 7-foot drop that less-experienced kayakers use to bypass the falls' main chute looks more than ready to separate Billett from his board.

"It's by no means a grandma's run," says Billett, 32.

Billett shoots over the falls, paddling furiously to help keep his balance. But the nose of the board drives into the pool below, catapulting Billett into a full front somersault before the aerated water breaks his fall.

"It ain't pretty, and it's definitely not graceful," he says. "Most of the time you fall, and you fall hard. But you pick your level of danger for yourself. And it sure is fun."

Billett and other extreme paddlers will go public with their craziness today as they take part in the inaugural "King of the Rogue" whitewater races set for Ti'lomikh Falls.

Billed as the ultimate whitewater challenge, the event pits kayakers, four-person raft teams and stand-up paddlers against each other as they race multiple laps through various parts of the Class IV rapids near Gold Hill.

The course was designed by Oliver Fix, an Ashland resident who was the 1996 Olympic gold medalist in whitewater kayak slalom for his native Germany.

On Saturday, participants will paddle the Grandma's Run part of the rapid, then paddle upstream in slack water and portage across an island to run the rapid again, but down the main chute regularly negotiated by commercial raft guides. The third and final lap is a sprint down the main drop of the falls and to a finish line.

Participants will be timed during trials to set up a final competition in each discipline. Cash prizes of $300 will go to the fastest kayaker and stand-up boarder, while the four-person raft teams will vie for a $600 first-place prize.

It costs $15 to compete, with registration running from 8 to 11 a.m. at 1275 Upper River Road, the upper end of Ti'lomikh Falls, the former Powerhouse Rapids that were renamed in 2008 for the American Indian village that was once there.

The event is the brainchild of stand-up boarder Pete Newport, of Sawyer Paddles and Oars in Talent, and Steve Kiesling, of the Gold Hill Whitewater Center, as a way to highlight the area's challenging water and introduce the extreme sport of stand-up boarding through whitewater — a level of insanity that's still in its infancy.

Paddleboarding traces its genesis to Hawaii, where natives have stood on surfboards and paddled around for years. But professional surfers there started adding paddles to their repertoires, and the watersports public in the mid-2000s took notice.

Sawyer helped fuel the sport's growth even though locals knew little — if anything — about paddleboarding. For years, Sawyer has made long paddles for the niche of stand-up canoeing, so they were a ready source for quality paddles fit for the erect sect.

Single-blade oars are typically 8 to 10 inches taller than the paddler, who can generate enough speed to travel about as fast as a kayak, but while standing instead of sitting.

Most paddling is done on lakes or calm portions of rivers. Only recently have paddlers started challenging whitewater icons such as Ti'lomikh Falls.

"There have been many attempts, from the entertaining to the painful," Kiesling says. "These guys are really pushing the envelope on this sport." And trying to get the better of Grandma's Run kicks that envelope across the room.

"Kayaks? Sure," Kiesling says. "Rafts? Sure. SUPs? Holy (crap)."

Few people have seen whitewater paddleboarding. But today, the layout of the rapids will allow gawkers to watch the first whitewater paddleboard races in Southern Oregon.

"We put it out there as a dare," Newport says. "We'll see who can do it."

So far, it appears that the only person not to become separated from his stand-up board through the former Powerhouse Rapids is Billett, a co-owner of a stand-up paddle shop in Ashland.

He's made it a handful of times, but most runs through there aren't clean.

"Most of the time you fall, but you fall on your board," he says.

He's dressed more like a motocross rider than a river runner. He wears a helmet, thick life jacket, elbow pads, shin guards, a mouth guard and sturdy tennis shoes.

With friends staged downstream with throw ropes for safety, Billett paddles down a string of short chutes before reaching the falls.

He's stayed on the board a handful of times through the falls, but he hopes to string several clean trips during Saturday's races.

"At this point, one out of five times I make it through there," he says. "I'd like to get it to one out of two."

Billett knows it's going to be tough to work out the kinks of running rough water while standing. But it's a sport that's all up from here, he says.

"Somebody has to go out there and try it, push it ... so it gets to the next level," Billett says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or Follow him on Twitter at

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