By Steve Hubrecht

Columbia Valley whitewater paddlers will have to wait still another year for the return of what was once the premier whitewater race in the Kootenay region.

The Toby Creek Race started in 2015, and by 2019 had grown into a multi-category event that brought 80 to 90 racers and a couple hundred spectators to the valley each summer. It was one of the highlights of the Western Canadian competitive whitewater paddling calendar. Then COVID-19 put the event on ice in 2020 and 2021. It was set to return in 2022 but had to be scrapped due to high water volumes in the Toby Creek.

After a four-year hiatus, it was set again for its triumphant return on Friday, July 29 and Saturday, July 30 this year. Alas, water flow volumes were again less than optimal, and that in addition to a shortage of volunteers in key roles, resulted in the race first morphing in a social whitewater paddle event, and then being moved to the Red Deer River in Alberta.

“We fully expected to have it back, but due to people’s availability, we had to make those changes,” Aquabatics Outdoors representative Kaelin Sikma told the Pioneer. (Aquabatics is the company that organizes the Toby Creek Race.)

Sikma was glad that some sort of event was still able to be held. “It’s awesome that people were at least able to get out and paddle,” she said, adding that about 25 paddlers attended the renamed Toby Creek Social. She wryly pointed out that yes, the Toby Creek Social was not actually held on Toby Creek.

But organizers are keen to return to the Columbia Valley in 2024, said Sikma, adding Toby Creek is “an excellent venue, people love it there, and they love having it as a race. We’d love to bring it back to Toby Creek.”

In the past the Toby Creek Race’s  viewer-friendly location — on a stretch of the Toby Creek right alongside Toby Creek Road, close to Panorama Mountain Resort — has turned the event into a festive occasion. This is unique among whitewater races, which are often held in hard-to-access parts of rivers and consequently get few spectators. The Toby Creek Race, in contrast, often got really large crowds in the past.

Typically the event sees racers navigate their watercraft around slalom gates in a variety of categories including intermediate kayak (on a Class II/III section of river), a youth category, intermediate standup paddleboard (in Class II features), advanced kayak (on a continuous Class IV section of river), elite kayak (which usually includes the notorious Slipping Rock rapid), and boater cross.

Organizers in the past have lauded the valley for providing an excellent, fun atmosphere for the race and been delighted that the event attracts strong local participation as well as elite paddlers from around the continent.