CUYAHOGA FALLS — Erupting waves drench kayakers as they paddle through Welcome to The Jumble, an appropriately named, low-water section of the Cuyahoga River crowded entirely with boulders.

These whitewater navigators dodge the rocks with ease, flying off waterfalls until they reach the finish line. A kayak, wetsuit, oar, and 880 yards of 50-degree dashing water is what lies ahead for contestants in the annual Cuyahoga Falls Kayak Race.

Cuyahoga Falls resident Don Howdyshell has organized the race since 2016 along with the help of his promotions team and support from numerous local sponsors. His involvement in the event sprung from his love of kayaking and he participates in the race every year. When asked about the experience, Howdyshell joked that, “we’re basically throwing ourselves off waterfalls.”

The race takes place every year in downtown Cuyahoga Falls during late April; this year’s fourth annual race happened April 27. Due to the water temperature, participants must wear a wetsuit or they risk getting hypothermia. But even after chilling rapids and steep waterfalls, the kayakers’ competitive spirit persists.

“This year the first- and second-place winners [in the half-mile time trial], I believe, were [within] two seconds of each other,” Howdyshell said.

The event attracts all kinds of hardcore whitewater enthusiasts. Howdyshell said they typically have “as many as 49 people and as little as 29 competing.” This year there were approximately 39 kayakers.

“I’d say about one-third of our competitors are from out of state,” Howdyshell said. “People come from all over the U.S. We’ve had people from Washington, Maine, Alabama... We even had a few sign up from Canada one year.”

From such a large, diverse group of competitors, one can only imagine how many spectators also attend the event. Howdyshell said “hundreds” watched the races unfold. Kelli Crawford-Smith, spokesperson for the city of Cuyahoga Falls, experienced these crowds firsthand.

She described how “the race really brings people to [the city] and we’re absolutely thrilled they continue it here. It increases tourism, attracts people from all over the country that stay in our hotels, shop in our city, and go to our restaurants. And we love showing off our new downtown.”

The “new” downtown is a reference to the city re-opening a portion of Front Street to vehicular traffic last year. That section of the road was previously a walkway exclusively for pedestrians.

An even bigger change occurred in 2013 with the removal of the Sheraton Mill Dam and LeFever Powerhouse Dam in an effort to restore the river’s integrity, improve its water quality and provide recreational opportunities, according to city officials.

This combination of Front Street and the river’s proximity to Route 8 provides the “absolute perfect location” for an annual kayaking competition, Howdyshell said. It also gives back to the downtown Cuyahoga Falls community.

“Life has been restored back to our city and events like the one Don puts on really help,” Crawford-Smith said.

The event, Howdyshell noted, helps put the river in the spotlight.

“We hope to let people know about the river, educate them on whitewater rivers, and create a good time for everyone downtown,” Howdyshell said.

List of winners

Here are the winners of each race from the April 27 event:

• Short Boat (male): 1st Place: Bryan Kirk; 2nd Place: Ross Crocker; and 3rd Place: Dan Piros

• Short Boat (female): 1st Place: Heather Homberg; and 2nd Place: Julia Piros

• Long Boat: 1st Place: Adam Homberg; 2nd Place: Ross Crocker; and 3rd Place: Nic Williams

• Boater Cross: 1st Place: Jeff Hall; 2nd Place: Elliot Bonnough; and 3rd Place: Frank Johnson

Submitted by Nicole Dietzen