Paddles and Horsepower - Sharing the River

The Avon Descent is a unique Western Australian sporting event which attracts both local and overseas competitors and spectators. Paddle and power craft compete making the event unique as most white water events don't have both disciplines competing at the one time.

The venue for this white-water event is the Avon and Swan Rivers. A variety of craft tackle the gruelling 124 plus kilometres over two days. Competitors paddle or power their way from Northam to Bayswater. Paddle competitors are divided into several classes – 10HP sports class, 10HP standard class, single kayak, double kayak, single ski, double surf ski.

The first of these events was held in 1973. There were forty-nine competitors and barely any spectators. There were also no rules, no checkpoints and no officials. Since that time the popularity of the event has soared and temporary campsites and facilities are organised and provided to cater for the people who flock to the area in their thousands to watch the event.

Avon RiverCredit: Wikimedia -Author Nachoman-au

Since the first event, over 25,000 people have competed. Novices, families, World and Olympic champions have all been represented on the course. Two thousand volunteers help with the event, the preparation, planning and management of which is undertaken by the Northam Avon Descent Association. In 2001, it was estimated that over $5M was injected into the local economy either directly or indirectly by the race. The race itself is highly visual and spectacular.

The Avon River has a length of 240 kilometres with a basin that covers 120,000 square kilometres and extends from Northam east to Southern Cross and from Dalwallinu in the north to Pingrup. In Walyunga National Park the river joins with Wooroloo Brook to become the Swan River.

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The starting point of the Avon Descent is the main Northam Pool, the only permanent stretch of natural inland water between Perth and Adelaide in South Australia. The river passes through some of the State's most picturesque country, not that the competitors have any time to admire the scenery. The Northam/Toodyay area is steeped in history (the area was the stamping ground of WA's bushranger Moondyne Joe) and supports agricultural pursuits. The river passes through national parks, steep gorges, and the vineyards of the Swan Valley area before reaching the tidal waters of the upper reaches of Perth's beautiful Swan River.

Conditions along the river vary from long, flat stretches of water to rapids which never fail to provide a few thrills for the watchers and spills to the competitors. In 2001, winners of similar white water paddling races from other parts of the world were formally invited to compete. This has led to an exchange of competitors and has raised the profile of the event. Competitors can now compete in both the Fish River Marathon in South Africa and the Avon Descent.

The inclusion of powered craft is unique to this event. A 10hp limit is set to reduce impact on the environment but speeds of up to 70kph still provide plenty of excitement for those watching. The paddle section includes both single and double kayaks, and single and double surf skis. Relay teams of two and four also compete. Since the early events, there has been a huge rise in the popularity of craft manufactured from polyethylene plastic.

The success of the race hangs on the level of water in the river. In 2010, only three power boats completed the classic. Day 1 is a 57 kilometre stretch which begins at Northam, 100 kilometres east of Perth. The course proceeds through the town of Toodyay. The overnight stop is at the Boral Campsite at Cobbler Pool 20 km west of Toodyay. Day 2 covers 76 kilometres and contains challenges and obstacles which test the resolve and fitness of the contestants. Once through the valley, there is a final 30 kilometre marathon section of flat water to Bayswater.

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The rainfall immediately before and/or during the race can produce dramatic changes in the water levels and race conditions. A high level of fitness is needed. The white water grades vary from Grade 1 to 4. Typically Grade 2 and 3 rapids are encountered.

In 2010, only three power boats out of 36 entrants completed the Avon Valley Descent Northam to Bayswater classic due to low water levels. A third of the paddlers also withdrew. In 2008 the water levels were so high the Katrine Bridge was closed because of concerns about the safety of the contestants. This year (2011), competitors covered the full 124 kms. Water levels were ideal for the race which was held on 6 and 7 August. The river was flowing across the Northam and Extracts Weir and there was plenty of foam through the rapids.

During the official practice, several of the power boat crews attempted the fast lane during official practice but an over turn ending up with a competitor sustaining a back injury.

A new set of problems emerge with high water conditions as half submerged rocks and logs can't be seen. There will be little need this year for crafts to be picked and carried over the most difficult sections unless they choose to do so to preserve their craft!

The paddle competition has been dominated by South Africans for over ten years. Hank McGregor of Durban, South Africa took out his second consecutive win in the men's single kayak class. Hilary Jean Pitchford, also of South Africa took out the women's single kayak class. Western Australia father and son team, Todd and Ian Williamson, took out the power boat class. Russell Wilson made his 36th appearance. He has won eight times with multiple partners – more than any other power boat competitor.

There are a number of vantage points from which to watch the race. At the start, at Northam Weir, spectators can watch from the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in Australia. The first obstacle is just 600m downstream from the start. The Chute assists competitors to shoot down the obstacle to begin their adventure. Seventeen kilometres from the start is Katrine Bridge. This is the first changeover for teams. The current is notorious for flowing at an angle to the bridge pylons and the slightest misjudgement can result in damage to the competitors' crafts.

Dumbarton Bridge is easily accessible as a vantage point and provides spectacular views. There is a high clearance here and spectators can see competitors approaching from a distance. Hazards are created by Sinclair's Crossing below the bridge. At 29km from Northam, Extracts Weir is popular with spectators. It is considered one of the most dangerous and menacing obstacles on the course. A 4 to 6km rapid provides a most spectacular sight.

The area known as the Ti-Trees is 14km from Toodyay following Cobblers Pool Campsite which is 57km from Northam and 25km from Toodyay. The Cobblers Pool campsite is the finish of Day 1 and the start of day 2.

Emu Falls is challenging for most competitors and is the first major obstacle on day 2. It takes the form of an S bend. There is a 100m stretch of rapids culminating in a main fall of about 2 metres. This area is very rocky and difficult to negotiate.

Walyunga National Park is 38km from Cobblers Pool and is located on the north side of the river. A 1.5km walk brings the onlooker to Syds Rapid (upstream from Long Pool). The thrills and spills which can be viewed from this point make it worth the walk. Bells Rapids is one of the most popular vantage points of the event.

The Swan Valley boasts numerous parks and reserves along the river.

The Finish Line is at Riverside Gardens in Bayswater. A day of riverside entertainment, family activities, live music, fantastic food and commentary is organised for those who come to support and cheer as the tired, wet competitors straggle home. The first crafts generally cross the finish line from 12.30pm.