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'Center of the Universe': Town of Banks offers world-class whitewater and community

More than 200 athletes from around the world will be in Banks this weekend for the North Fork Championship.

BANKS, IDAHO, Idaho — The North Fork Championship kicks off Thursday and world-class white water kayakers will visit Idaho to test their skills on the Payette River. The three-day event brings people from all over the world, but for the community of Banks, the area can offer much more than premier whitewater sports.

"I mean the community is really what draws a lot of us to this place," said Liam Kelly, a rafting guide with Bear Valley Rafting.

What first drew Kelly to first work in Banks in the summer of 2015 was the Payette River system.

"There are incredible rivers all over the place. Up and down the drainage there's a little bit of something for everybody," Kelly said. He added there are family-friendly routes on the Main Fork, to full-day stretches up the Canyon. 

Within the whitewater world, the town of Banks is commonly referred to as the 'Center of the Universe.'

"Really some of the best accessible hard whitewater in the world," Kelly said.

However, it's the community that's kept Kelly and others coming back each summer.

"It's really just like accepting and welcoming community," Kelly said. "It's people that are really excited about sharing knowledge, sharing skills and showing folks down the river."

Not too far from the river lies Banks Café. 

From food, to beer, to showcasing local art, to local entertainment; the Banks Café is where seasonal employees and visitors spend most of their time off the water.

"This is such a hub for the community," Katie Dandrea, an employee of Banks Café.

Dandrea, originally of Boise, has been spending her summers working in Banks, previously spent the last two seasons as a rafting guide and now works at the Café.

"While I think that there are really wonderful places that you can stop, I think the difference with Banks Cafe is the welcoming and warm energy from really everyone," Dandrea said.

She said living in the Banks community during the summer is something she's never experienced before.

"From sunrise to sunset, we're all together and we're all really supporting each other," Dandrea said.

It's the support from others she said that makes the difficult parts of living out of their car or a tent for the summer all worthwhile.

"You just get lost in conversation with folks that you probably wouldn't have met if you weren't up in Banks and they weren't brought together by the love of whitewater and the love of community," Dandrea said.

While many who work in Banks in the summer live elsewhere during the off-season, there are a few who call it home year-round.

"There's a lot more to Banks than just what meets the eye," said Katy Wentz, a waitress at Banks Café.

Wentz said she is part of one of the original 17 families to become residents of Banks. During the summer, the town grows and has around 200 people call Banks home for the season.

"We get people in here from Costa Rica, Chile, Europe," Wentz said. "It's just actually so awesome to know all these different people and get to learn about them.

While Wentz loves her hometown, she said she dreads winter because her friends leave.

"I've definitely developed lifelong friendships here," Wentz said. She added people are able to get a lot more than a good meal if they visit the café.

"The raft guide community is a very tight circle. Like once you're in that circle, you have friends for life," Wentz said.

However, looking at the friendly smiles and laughs around the Café it wouldn't be too hard to break into that community.

"I've got just a deep sense of gratitude for this place," Kelly said.

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