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Kayakers come from all over the world to paddle the North Fork of the Payette River

Posted at 2:12 PM, Jul 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-20 16:12:19-04

BANKS, Idaho — Every June the best kayakers from around the world would come to our own backyard to race in the prestigious North Fork Championship.

This past winter the North Fork Championship was cancelled for a variety of reasons including insurance, sponsors dropping out and the event just got too big along Highway 55 and during the after party in Crouch.

Even without the race kayakers still come from all corners of the globe to paddle the infamous North Fork of the Payette River, a 15-mile class five proving ground for anyone wanting to step into another level of kayaking.

"When I was young I watched the videos from the North Fork Championship and for me it is like a dream to be here because all these sections are really perfect for stout kayaking," said Juan Ilabarga who came from Chile to paddle this summer in Idaho.

Kayakers enter Crunch the final rapid on the North Fork, but it's about a mile long

We saw Juan and two kayakers from the Czech Republic navigate down Crunch, the final rapid on the lower five section and later that day they would take on the upper five. The race happened on Jacob's Ladder in the middle five section which is Juan's favorite section.

"It’s big, I like it," said Visek Beran of the Czech Republic who came to Idaho to work as a raft guide at Cascade Raft and Kayak and paddle the North Fork in his spare time. "Many rivers I do in the Czech Republic are jumping between rocks, we don’t do that here, we jump between holes."

Juan & Visek at Banks Cafe

These two foreign paddlers help us highlight why this area around banks is so special and it starts with easy access. The North Fork, the South Fork and the Main Payette all run along the road making it easy to shuttle, run these rivers and even get out if things aren't going well.

We had an incredible high water season this year. The water has dropped, but because of the dams we are blessed with consistent water levels until around Labor Day while typically most other rivers in the west start drying up.

A kayaker boofs into Hounds Tooth the first rapid of the Lower Five

"Yeah we have water all the summer that is really amazing and really special," said Ilabarga. "The put-in and take-out is really easy."

The North Fork draws in expert paddlers. Rafting companies won't take customers down that river because it is too dangerous, but another advantage of the Payette River system comes with the variety.

Payette River Company takes people over Little Falls on the South Fork Canyon

If you are looking to cool off this summer raft companies will take people down four different stretches. It's the safest way for families with no river experience to enjoy the river. You might even get Visek as a guide.

"I really like this place, the people and the culture," said Visek. "I love the mountains so I’m really in my preferred environment."

Banks Cafe and Bear Valley Rafting Company

We met these two at Banks Cafe on a Wednesday and it's easy to see why Banks is referred to as the center of the universe for whitewater.

I spend a lot of time in this area during the spring and summer and I've paddled with a husband and wife from Norway, a group of friends from New Zealand, Australia and people from the east coast come to Idaho throughout the season.