Cashion Porter-Shirley was only 11 the first time he attended the Green Race, an extreme-kayaking competition that draws hundreds of athletes to the infamously boulder-congested “Narrows” portion of Polk County’s Green River.
Porter-Shirley had slipped through the crowd of some 2,000 spectators and perched atop a granite slab overlooking Gorilla, the river’s most iconic rapid. From there, he remembers staring as paddlers hurtled through a four-foot-wide slot of foaming whitewater and then propelled down an 18-foot waterfall. The maneuver left many participants bloodied, bruised, and gasping for air.
He couldn’t wait to try it for himself.
“It was so epic,” Porter-Shirley says. “I kept thinking, ‘I want to race.’”
Four years later, he did just that, taking fourth place in the 2020 juniors division. The next year, Porter-Shirley moved up to third. Then, in 2022, a 103-degree fever knocked him back to fourth.
Slated for November 4, the 28th Annual Green Race will be Porter-Shirley’s last time competing in the Juniors division, and he’s gunning for the podium. Backed by a slew of sponsorships, several years of freestyle and river-racing experience, and a season working as a whitewater guide in Idaho, Porter-Shirley feels confident. But competition will be stiff.
“This October, the International Canoe Federation is hosting the Kayak Freestyle World Championships in North Georgia,” Porter-Shirley explains. “I think a lot of the competitors will stick around for the Green Race, so we’ll see some of the best kayakers from around the world out on the river.”
Luckily, Porter-Shirley has the home-court (or, in this case, home-current) advantage. As an Asheville native, he grew up rafting regional rivers with his father, who learned to kayak while living in Boulder, Colorado, in his late twenties. “There are pictures of my dad paddling with my brother strapped to his chest, and I’m at the front of the raft, just taking all the waves,” Porter-Shirley laughs. “My dad really wanted me and my brother to be comfortable around water.”
But comfortable may be an understatement. At the tender age of 10, Porter-Shirley ditched the family raft for his own kayak. “I loved being able to shoot around the river in my own vessel,” he says.
Four years later, after countless hours on the French Broad River, he finally felt confident enough to run the Narrows. “It instantly became my favorite river,” the 18-year-old says. “I didn’t want to paddle anything other than the Green.”
This love doesn’t come easy, though. As phrased by the American Whitewater Association, the Green River “remains the bread-and-butter of the Asheville area Class V paddling scene.” But, the organization adds, it’s a “mighty big sandwich to bite into.” That’s all thanks to the river’s massive, Volkswagen-sized boulders and comparatively low water volume.
“My knuckles are all scarred up from the Green,” admits Porter-Shirley. “Many of the lines require that you bounce off rocks. There’s really no avoiding them.”
Gorilla, the rapid that demanded Porter-Shirley’s attention back in 2016, is notorious for breaking bones and busting teeth. But the Asheville contender is prepared — if not to win, then to simply be in the presence of the river that raised him.
“This river and the community surrounding it has given me so much over the past seven years,” he says. “I can’t wait to get out on the water again.”
The 28th Annual Green Race happens Saturday, Nov. 4, at noon. Spectators can hike in from the Cove Creek Trailhead (3851 Green River Cove Road, Saluda) or the Pulliam Creek Trailhead (4134 Big Hungry Road, Flat Rock). However, the trek down is only recommended for experienced hikers. To learn more, visit greenrace.us.