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Covey Baack, front left, Andy Baxter, front right, Matt Dopp, back left, and Pete Newport train Wednesday for this weekend's national rafting championships at Ti'lomikh Falls on the Rogue River near Gold Hill. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

River-rat race

GOLD HILL — Pete Newport and his three rafting teammates have little trouble bombing down the Rogue River's Ti’lomikh Falls with the raft and crew remaining in the upright position.{br class="hardreturn" /}
But two teams in identical red, white and blue rafts bombing down the Class IV rapid as fast as they can? And at the same time?{br class="hardreturn" /}
"It'll be beautiful," Newport says. "Whoever hits the hole wins. Whoever doesn't? That won't be beautiful."{br class="hardreturn" /}
The winner of one of these beautiful things could end up representing the red, white and blue next year in a Middle East desert as America's entry in the world rafting championships.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Heats of head-to-head races Saturday morning will kick off the two-day United States Rafting Association's national championships, which have come to the Rogue for the first time, bringing the country's best river rats to some of the Pacific Northwest's more iconic whitewater.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Ten four-person teams from across the country will join three Oregon teams in the two-day event, which kicks off with time trials today at the old Powerhouse Rapids just upstream of Gold Hill. It concludes with a long sprint Sunday down the Upper Klamath River.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The winner will represent the United States in the world championships next year in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Coming to Gold Hill will be the reigning champion team out of Colorado, which trains year-round on a man-made course. Whether the championship trophy stays in Oregon or returns to Colorado will be decided after the teams battle through three events over two days, with the top score winning it all.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Hosting the race is a coupe pulled off by a Gold Hill contingent that parlayed its success from hosting two years of the annual King of the Rogue races at Ti’lomikh Falls.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"I think it's an incredible opportunity to recognize what a fantastic resource we have here," says Ashland's Andy Baxter, a two-time member of past national championship teams and a member of Newport's team this weekend.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"People have been spending tens of millions of dollars to create something that we have locally and for free," Baxter says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
 

The events can be viewed for free from both banks of the Rogue at the falls — from the river's north bank or from a pullout along Upper River Road off Interstate 5's exit 40 ramp at Gold Hill.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The competition begins at 4 p.m. today with time-trial sprints that will be used to seed the four-person teams for Saturday morning's head-to-head races. Saturday afternoon will feature a slalom course created by pole "gates" dangled by ropes over the rapids.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"The river creates the course, and it's already hard," Newport says. "We'll make it even harder with gates."{br class="hardreturn" /}
The championships will conclude Sunday with a six-mile race down the Upper Klamath beginning at Caldera and ending at the Oregon/California state line.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The events are timed. Teams have penalty time added for missing or hitting gates in the slalom. Lowest overall time wins.{br class="hardreturn" /}
To create an even playing field, SOTAR built six identical 14-foot rafts painted red, white and blue just for the races.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The rafting runs will not be anything like the splash-and-play trips these rapids normally host. It's four powerful rowers working in sync to move as quickly as possible through some of the most technical rowing water in the region. {br class="hardreturn" /}
"It's a different way to go down the river, that's for sure," says Matt Dopp, a Medford paramedic and former rafting company owner who, along with Covey Baack, rounds out the team based out of Sawyer Paddles and Oars, which joins SOTAR as the event's co-sponsors.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"You're working as one unit, going down the river as fast as you can go," Dopp says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Sometimes they'll be going upriver.{br class="hardreturn" /}
During the slalom event, four of the nine gates are suspended over eddies that the raft teams must hit, then paddle upstream around the gate.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"Everybody has to be in sync or the boat doesn't go anywhere and, obviously, that's not good," says Newport, co-owner of Sawyer. "I think it's the most beautiful form of rafting."{br class="hardreturn" /}
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.{br class="hardreturn" /}

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