Life and Death Beyond the Edge

I watched a man die, for the first time, on the Green River.  Witt was vertically pinned against a tombstone shaped rock at the bottom of Chiefs.  I was scouting Gorilla when I heard shouting.

“He’s pinned” a panicked voice rang out.  I turned and looked back at Witt.  He was vertical but not moving.  Water slammed against his back.  In an instant, the boat collapsed violently and Witt was buried in a liquid avalanche.

We ran up river to help, but it was hopeless.  I will never forget his hand.  It reached up to the surface desperately.  He was still alive and reaching, praying, hoping that somehow we could get a rope to that weakening hand and rescue him.  He struggled for a couple of minutes before going limp.  I could not see his hand after that.

Hours after the water was turned off we extracted Witt’s body with the help of a rescue crew.  His femurs were both broken in half, his legs limp and deformed like bags of jelly.

The second drowning I witnessed was five years later on the Russell Fork, a notoriously deadly class 5 run in Kentucky.  The rocks there are like Swiss cheese, full of holes.  John was an older man and he was rag dolled in a hole for minutes and minutes.  Eventually he flushed out, still in his boat.  A friend pulled him out of the kayak and onto shore.  CPR was initiated, but it was far too late.  John’s skin was a blue-ashen pale.   His life was over.

In both instances, I paddled class 5 the following day.

My Dad got me into kayaking when I was only a kid.  We lived thirty minutes from the Nantahala in North Carolina in what seemed like the whitewater epicenter of the universe.  What more could an eleven-year-old boater ask for?  I spent several years learning the basics, and by the time I was thirteen I was ready for the Ocoee.

The Ocoee is a class 3+ play run, but, at the time, it was a rite of passage.  I stood atop the long concrete ramp that leads to the water and stared at the maelstrom of whitewater in front of me.  I was intimidated, scared but excited.  I don’t remember anything else from that day, but I have a vivid image of the view below the ramp.  Beautiful, enticing, rushing water led to a bend in the river.  Beyond that the river was unknown to me-but I wanted to go there.

As time passed, I became a better paddler.  I ran Section 4 of the Chattooga as a sophomore in high school.  I was comfortable in class 4 and 4+ whitewater, but my Dad would not let me step up to class 5.  At the time it seemed unfair, but I appreciated his conservatism later because it taught me patience.

I graduated from high school and got a job as a raft guide with NOC.  It rained during the spring raft guide training.  A group of us went to the upper Nantahala and ran the Cascades.  At the time it was the steepest thing I had run.  Big Kahuna, the crux rapid, felt like it was 28 feet tall (it’s about 8 feet tall).  It was the first time I had to look up to see upstream.  The rush and sense of accomplishment hooked me.  I loved being in control and so intensely focused that nothing but the water, gravity and me existed.

A natural progression occurred. Paddling difficult whitewater 200 days a year paid off.   I became an expert hair boater.  A year or two after the drowning on the Green another experience changed my life forever.

It was a cold December day.  My buddy Obie and I were running the Green.  We knew the water would be high, but we did not expect the raging monster that we found at the put-in.  Arriving at Gorilla, Obie began the portage.  I stayed in my boat.  “What are you doing, man?  Are you fucking crazy?” he said.

“I can do this.  Will you hold a rope for me?”

I ferried across the lip of the entrance, boofing clean into a big eddy.  I looked over at Obie, and he held up his rope to show me that it was frozen solid.  I was on my own.

A second ferry and I hit the meat of the Notch with all of my conviction.  I typewriterred into the main flow and took a couple of quick strokes before flying off the main drop, a narrow 15 footer.  Exiting the flume I punched a couple of large sliding holes and dropped into a final eddy.  I had never felt so alive.  I had entered the world of big time class 5 and 6 whitewater.  I never looked back.

The next ten years held countless river days, countless adventures.  There were solo runs on the Cullasaja, Linville, and Taureau; doubles and triples of the Taureau and Linville; class 6 descents of standard portages in NC, Colorado, and California.

One day I found myself alone, vertically pinned on the Cullasaja with the entire river pouring onto my back and head.   I did not have an air pocket.  I was doomed.  But, as suddenly as I had pinned, I popped off the rock and continued on my way with sore legs and a broken boat.  The next day I returned to the ‘Saja, solo, and ran the same rapid that had nearly killed me.

My greatest fear was not death.  My greatest fear was losing my edge.  My greatest fear was shoulder dislocation.  I lived to paddle and paddled, literally, to live.

In the shadow of all the insane boating, I led a normal life.  I graduated from paramedic and nursing school, working in the field for over 10 years.  I married and had a beautiful little boy.  We named him Ryland.  I was aware that as I forged my way through life, running difficult water, my responsibilities were increasing, but the idea did not bother me.  Nor did it change the way I paddled.  I became a little more conservative as I aged-it’s inevitable.  But I was still running class 5+ whitewater consistently.

Last August, rain fell in New England.  My main paddling partner Alan Panebaker and I ran Glover Brook.  Glover is steep, shallow and blind.  Full of wood and pin rocks, it’s a true gnar run.  We approached a blind slot, and I hopped out to scout from the top.  I glanced downstream and everything looked clear.  I got back in my boat and shouted some directions to Alan.   As I ferried into current, I felt a twinge in my gut; “something ain’t right,” I thought.  But it was too late, I was committed.  As I dropped over the edge, I stopped dead.   I could not tell what was wrong, but I knew it was bad.

“What the fuck?” was all I had time to think before I was ripped from my boat.  I swam under a log breaching the slot.

“I should be dead,” I thought as I gathered my gear.

“If you had stopped in there, I would just be standing on the shore in a panic right now” Alan said grimly.

“Yeah, there’s nothing you could have done for me, that’s for sure”.

The close call did not have a lasting effect on us.  We were immediately back in our boats running class 5 and 5+ whitewater.  We laughed at danger.

Maybe we should not have.  Alan died a month later.  I watched him broach and pin against a sieve with a tree in it.  He fought for his life, but he was on his own and there was nothing he could do.  He flipped and went into the sieve.  We were below him in a walled out, smooth granite bowl.  By the time we got back up to the sieve he was nowhere to be seen.  We weren’t even sure he was in the sieve but threw ropes into it with fading hope.  He was there, but his hands never grasped our ropes.

An hour or two later, with more manpower, we were able to move the log around and free his body.  He floated through the rapids before coming to rest in a large recirculating eddy.  I ran to my boat horrified, and paddled up to my friend.  He was the pale blue hue that is unmistakably dead.

“Ohh Alan” I groaned under my breath as I clipped my tow tether to his lifejacket.  I ferried out into the flow and Toby grabbed his body.  I caught an eddy and clambered onto a rock to help.  We pulled Alan’s cold body out of the frigid, clear water.  I lay across the top of him, hugging him.  I looked up and saw tourists taking pictures of us with their smart phones.

“This can’t be real.”  I was in a daze hiking out of the gorge.  I called Alan’s girlfriend fifteen or twenty times before finally leaving a message.  “It’s Adam.  Call me.”

We drove to her house that afternoon.  I quickly got drunk on a bottle of Knob Creek whisky. Its warm burn was the only thing I could feel.  Everything else was a surreal numb.

When we arrived at her house, we hugged and cried.  I apologized over and over.  “I’m so sorry.  So sorry.  I never wanted it to be like this.  I never wanted to make that phone call.”

Buddy, Alan’s dog, barked nervously like he expected Alan to walk in the door any minute.

The next ten days were a blur of alcohol and logistics.  We corralled boats and gear, called family members and friends, planned a memorial service.  We drank and drank some more.  It was the hardest week of my life.  I can only imagine how Alan’s family felt.

Now I sit here, trying to make sense of the senseless.  There is no moral to this story.  Alan, Witt and John were in the wrong place.  They died.  I have many other friends who were in the wrong place.  They died too.

I love the sport.  It has taken me to places physically and figuratively that most people will never see.  And there are more good lines than bad ones-more near misses and close calls than fatalities.  Kayaking dangerous whitewater is often forgiving.  The problem is that when it’s not, the toll is too high.

By Adam Herzog

Adam Herzog is a fun hog based out of Asheville, NC. When he's not on a trail or river he can be found stuck in traffic.

72 replies on “Life and Death Beyond the Edge”

A thoughtful and heart-felt meditation on the risks of the sport. Thanks for sharing this, Adam. I’m sorry for the losses you’ve faced but grateful you still hold the joy of paddling.

Thanks for sharing Adam. Your words are very well written. It seems to me that if you boat long enough, you will be around someone getting hurt real bad and sometimes killed. It even happens on class III and maybe even the shuttle. Just thank God for everyday you spend here with us and have faith that there is a golden waterfall in the sky for all of us.

Dennis Hough 724-344-4725
Past President of Three Rivers Paddling Club in Pittsburgh PA,
Associate Vice President of Whitewater World Championships, Inc. (AKA 89 Worlds on the Savage River, MD)
Husband, Dad & Cancer Survivor.

Good on you for writing this article. I imagine it wasn’t an easy one to do. Nonetheless it’s an important insight. Thanks.

Truly eloquent. I have many friends who left the sport because they could not paddle at a high level. I understand; some days I’m very aware of ghosts of my past abilities and feel like a creaky shell of who I was. But when you’re ready, there’s a good life after class V. My 40’s, 50’s and 60’s have been wonderfully sweet, actually more fun because I know I can’t prove anything and don’t feel I have to. The beauty, the camaraderie, I wouldn’t have missed it. But sometimes I wish I could do the big stuff.

May I put this on the AW Safety page?

It’s hard to hold back and not run something that you know will probably be fine except for that chance that it might not be. When someone says he/she died doing what they love, I want to punch them out. Nobody wants to die and the consequences to self, friends and family are just not worth it. It only takes three minutes. Perhaps this is called maturity or unfortunately, experience.

Hi Adam. Good article. One of the unfortunate things about our sport is that while it can deliver the highest of highs, it can also deliver the lowest of lows. Lives change when those close to you leave. Unfortunately only those who have lived it understand it best. Sharing what you’ve lived may save the lives of those who choose to listen.

Been there, done that….lived to paddle another day. Much more careful now, and have no need to prove myself by going bigger. I just enjoy the rivers, my friends, and each new day that God grants me. Sorry for your loss 🙁

A very gripping read; profoundly impactful. I was close once, had given up, but somehow I surfaced and my good friend pulled me out. My deepest sympathies for the loss of your friends.

Adam, I know you through friends of friends in the Johnson City area although we never boated together. The first paragraph caught in my throat, and when I hit the 5th a sob emerged. John was very instrumental in teaching, fostering, and growing me as a boater. One of the most kind, humble, and influential people I have ever met. He gave me a patched together set of the OLD Yakima loop stackers when I went to run my first river. I still have those stackers and don’t foresee letting go of them; it’s all ,in the tangible, I have left of him. His death did the opposite for me as it did to you. I quit pursuing “stepping up” and lost a bit of the joy that day. I have hunted and hunted for it and it escapes me. I miss the drive I lost that day. Maybe, in the end of it all, that day has saved me and I just don’t know it. “If all else fails, paddle like Hell.” Thank you for writing such a solid article and the Dirty South looks forward to your return.

I wrote a book and am attempting to get it published about how “forgiving” whitewater can be and the places it can take you figuratively and physically. I had a couple of class 5 swims and a dear friend, Ed Gaker, die. It probably won’t be published until sometime in 2014. It’s titled “River Class.” If your interested in getting a prevriew, look me up on facebook. I’d be more than happy with sharing a chapter or two. Godspeed.

Well written Adam. Ive always valued time on the water with you, as do all who get to boat with you. Lookin forward to having you back in the SE.

Thanks Adam, Your approach and insight toward paddling have long been a source of inspiration for many including myself. Going all the way back to those early days we spent at the NOC and including the many years since, you’ve maintained a superhuman presence in this sport like very few others. This tragedy for you, this essay you have written, and similar terrible stories told by many leave us all at our most human moment. Thank you for sharing. You continue to inspire in the face of tragedy, addressing the often ignored potential for loss that inevitably accompanies us every time we call our buddies and pull on spray skirts and peel out. Here’s to the many friends we’ve made and to the ones we have lost. I’m looking forward to your return to NC and the chance of paddling with you again.

Herzog, great piece of writing. Seems like yesterday we were all lapping Stone Valley. I remember you and Allen at the end of the bar with a couple really big beers and matching smiles. Thanks.

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Hey Adam. Nice piece. Hope to see you out on the river before you split. These things are very difficult to process.

Read like a tale around the fire. Cheers brother.
I Appreciate the clarity. Somthing i have knawed on most of my adult life. Loss vs Light = clarity
As a father and as kayaker/adventure aholic there is nothing that makes ones life so full and alive as the experiences shared in the outdoors with your children and your partners. The Good days & the hard ones all teach us how precious these moments are. And so armed with that knowledge back out we go in to our worlds to explore that river of life.
Thank you for sharing!, see you on the river.

Well, written, Adam. Thank you for writing this. We’ve had some good conversations about all this stuff, and I’ve thought about the consequences of whitewater more than ever since Alan’s passing.

Also missing Alan and continuing to contemplate my paddle. Thank you so much for sharing. Alan would certainly appreciate your written word.

Witt was my roommate and friend. I lived with him and his sister here in Oregon in the late 90’s. I knew Witt as a musician, a friend and as a man who changed the way I look at life.
The funny thing was I did not know Witt as a paddler, in fact had no idea he even kayaked until I heard of his accident. I began paddling out here when Witt moved to NC. I think about him every time I pull my spray skirt on and know that anything can happen, be safe and enjoy the trip. I still wear the Hamm’s baseball cap he gave me under my helmet as a visor in the summer.
DeWitt, forever missed and always loved,

Great article Adam about a very sad event, especially here in both Alan and your hometown. I think that you treated it with the horror and respect it deserves. Haven’t seen you in a long time, but it is great to hear your (literary) voice.

Powerfully written & powerfull stuff.

I like Charlie Walbridges comments and try to live them myself. I never paddled at the levels described put my passion han’t wained in a 30 year career on the water. I’ve watched too many boaters who, when their skills wouldn’t allow for the very harriest, abbandoned the sport. I’ve been careful to keep canoeing flat water, class 2/3 and kayaking 3/4 but my days of 4 plus are over. What I won’t give up are all the special opportunities that happen when sunshine finds water, water flows, freinds gather and watching the bow carve it’s place through this life with me aboard.

It doesn’t have to be deadly to be special.

Alan was such a great person and his passing was tragic. I am not a kayaker, but I used to ride on snow and asphalt with Alan and he was always astonishing. He was loved tremendously by many.

Adam- thanks for writing this. it really hit home hard for me. I was witness to one of my best friends drowning in 2009 and it has scarred me in ways that are hard to describe. I think about him a lot, every time i put on my skirt. It was a long rode back onto the water for me, my wife (who wanted me to quit) and my kids (who still ask me what happened and if I am being safe).
Thanks for your honest reflection. You are on a “cutting edge” of kayaking with this piece.

Did some of the scariest climbs in the world back in the day … Whitewater is as scary, hell, scarier to me. You guys all got the right stuff but leave yourself a 1% margin. It’s no way to go out…

Adam, thanks for helping those of us who’ve been through similar circumstances, and those of us who knew Alan, have fitting words to our feelings. I agree that there’s good life to be had after class V and getting to the point where I don’t have to prove anything. Peace.

I feel for your story, I walked the same path about 5 years ago with my buddy Adam. I wasn’t on the river with him the day he passed down on Vallecito but I did my best afterwards to help out his family in the aftermath. We were some of the first to go to his house after the accident and his mom cried so hard her nose bled all over my sweater. That was so tough. Going through his phone to call people we knew was really really hard.
It has been helpful ever since for me to remember that i carry some memory of him with me through the rest of my life. He lives on in some form in the memories and lives of all of us he left here. I hope a similar sentiment can help you through your present hard times, good luck and god bless.

The post by Zog was strong, heartfelt and real. In reading his article you can feel both his joy and pain that the river has brought to him. “Tragic” is the only word that describes his loss. It was not because of nelegence, it just happened. As paddlers the most that we can do is to be prepared for when something like this happens. Even in my years of paddling I have seen and have been in incidents that still make me think twice while sitting in an eddy above a big or consequencially known rapid. Sometimes I’m not feeling it and I portage, while other times I have made the calculated decision to run a rapid while knowing what a slight mistake may cost me, my friends and family.

This should not be an article that stikes fear into us as paddlers, as fear can become the thief that takes away our joy of the river. It can paralyse us and make us weak. As paddlers we should come away from reading Herzog’s article with a heightend sense of why and how we paddle. We should find respect not fear, love not sadness, preperation and knowledge instead of lacking and uncerntainty.

We should all be aware of what we are paddling, with whom we are paddling and for what are we paddling?

Here here, Adam. This is so well written and such a great way to process such an intense situation. You capture the logical progression of becoming an elite boater over a long time and the equally illogical end of one catastrophic thing going wrong. As Mike said at the ceremony, it’s just a crushing irony. The very same thing that has given me the most confidence also scares me the most. The thing that has gotten me to places nobody else will never see could keep me from ever seeing anything. The thing that’s given me the best friends has taken the most friends. I’ve always gone kayaking because it’s what it means to feel alive, but now when I kayak I think about dead friends. You’re damn right that there is no moral to this story. The risk-reward with kayaking is almost perfectly linear–the better it is, the more dangerous it becomes. The only thing we can do going forward is try to make the best decisions we can with the information we have each time. Writing this was a great decision…and kayaking will be too in whatever form your bring it back. The best advice that I got was from you, which was to take some time and think about it. I had 3 weeks rowing the Colorado on the Canyon in November and thought about Alan a lot. I thought about him just before midnight on New Years Eve when I was reflecting on the year, and when the countdown happened, I was lost in a reflection about it. I’ve decided that remembering it and thinking about it is good, because it’s going to make every decision I make that much more considered going forward. Thank for helping that happen with this great piece. Take care–Jonny

The other day my wife writes me a text- it starts out “Hey, you know that kid XXXX from Deep Creek? ” My first thought, instantly and with an almost 100% level of certainty, is that the next sentence is going to be “He drown this afternoon”. Well, that wasn’t it. He was just looking for a job. Later, I told Kara what I thought she was going to say, and she said “Oh my god, I’m sorry. I should know better than to start a question off that way”. Thats the crazy thing- we both still love kayaking, but 30 years in the sport and a dozen lost friends has conditioned us to expect the worst.

Thanks for writing Adam. Many of us could have written something similar but very few of us could have done so as eloquently. I met Alan at Gauley Fest a couple days before his accident. What an amazingly vibrant, engaged and alive person he was! And there is the awful rub: the very thing that makes so many of us in our tight little globe-spanning community vibrant, engaged and alive, the very thing that, as Sprinkle points out, leads us to find one another, with a fair degree of regularity takes us at the peaks of our lives.

As I age the following passage from the Book of Norman only increases in poignancy:

“Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.”

Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”

Thank you for helping us to pause, reflect and remember the words under the rocks.

— Chris


Strong, precise, and honest piece. Same qualities with which I would describe your paddling. Thanks for writing it. May you find peace on and off the water.


Thanks to all for the thought provoking and insightful comments. I am glad to see this important topic is a part of the collective conciousness of our little world. Also-special thanks to Doug Ammons for editing.

Well-written and thought-provoking piece about pursuing goals and taking risks in order to receive the sweet rewards of euphoria and accomplishment, at any cost. RIP Alan, and all who have died doing what they love… we miss you and your great strength.

Very nice writeup Adam. It has been almost 15 yrs since Tim Gavins accident on the Upper Blackwater River back in 1998. The pain never goes away when you lose someone in that fashion, its way too personal. All we can do is take those amazing special memories we have of that person and time and adventures spent together…. and cherish them!
I have to say that the most therapeutic thing that our boating community in Harpers Ferry has done is to hold an annual event, The Tim Gavin Downriver race and Harpers Ferry Outdoor Festival, in Tims memory. We raise money to help keep WV Wild and Wonderful, supporting Friends of the Blackwater, Friends of the Cheat, Friends of the Shenandoah, and West Virginia Rivers Coalition. We have raised over $30,000.00 and that is really cool, and somehow makes something positive out of tragedy.
Paddle on!

Thanks for writing this article.

We, as participants in an inherently dangerous activity, make choices that we can only hope we know the outcome of. As the paddling community grows, and the envelope gets pushed it’s inevitable that some of us don’t end up on the side of the coin we had hoped for.

It’s always hard to lose someone we know even if it was when they were doing something they loved.

I was hiking in the White Mountains that day & saw two kayakers at the edge of the water talking very intently. I wanted to go over & talk kayaking, how was the run, etc.

I was with a “non-kayaker” and had the feeling he would not be understanding of the stop or understanding of being able to walk up to someone you have never met & will never see again but being able to talk about kayaking like old friends.

I wish now I had stopped to see if there was anything I could do to help or support on that day.

I will never understand what pain you felt and still feel. I do know that you are a true friend & that you will keep Alan’s memory alive every day, every time you dip a paddle.

There is no better way to honor a friendship than that.

I met Alan when he moved to Steamboat Springs, CO back just a bit more than a decade ago. We played soccer together, became quick friends. What a gentle and honest person…not too many out there like him. I remember the very day he decided that he was going to Kacey’s pond to learn to roll. He got some cheap gear together, and took a quick lesson. From there, he was as avid as anyone I’d ever met about the sport. We lost touch after ’03 or ’04, running into each other only spontaneously when we both happened to be in town and out on the town. Somehow it didn’t surprise me when I heard the awful news, yet it hit like a ton of concrete…I kind of knew in the recesses of myself that something like that would happen to him, for some reason…How does the old adage go?…something about god only taking the best while they’re so young…He was so damn compelled to excel at everything that struck his interest, and anyone and everyone could tell as soon as he had begun that the boat was his calling. Thanks for the article Adam, it’s comforting to know he was with good company. Well written, though provoking and emotionally poignant. I don’t know what else to say, I’m rambling…RIP Alan, we all remember, love, and miss you.

Thanks for posting this Adam. I read it all…and while it’s well-written, it pissed me off. I seem to be a lone voice in this regard…but like many of us, I’ve known (and seen) people die doing this and other sports. And each time it happens, I grow more weary and angered by the common reaction—which is a kind of martyrdom where people say “He died doing what he loved.”

In my opinion, there is NOTHING noble or otherwise deserving of any merit about dying from pushing the envelope in any sport. Folks, death is final. It’s GAME OVER. And without even having experienced it, I can tell you that it would SUCK to lose my life—to never see my kids grow old, to cease experiencing all the beauty in this world. Nothing is worth that. Nothing.

I’m not telling anyone what they can/can’t (or should/shouldn’t) do—it’s a free country, people do whatever they want. But I’m just saying that—especially if one has a kid or kids—it is the peak of irresponsibility and selfishness to continue risking life (because I don’t give a flip how good you think you are—if you’re running Class 5 water, you’re taking a serious risk).

I also get tired of the old strawman people trot out by saying things like “Well hey, if we were so worried about dying we wouldn’t leave our houses.” Nope—there’s a HUGE difference between running class 5 creeks and walking down the sidewalk (or even running class 3 rivers). It’s called “unacceptably high risk.”

The bottom line (again, just my opinion) is this: there are an almost infinite number of ways to experience a challenge—and a high—in the outdoors without incurring unacceptably high risk. Many years ago, when my paddling skills reached the point where I could have started running class 5, I wasn’t willing to accept that risk—which I think was the smart and right thing to do.

Instead, I switched sports—I got into snowboarding. Then got into hang gliding. Then got into motorcycling. Then got into mountain biking. Doing many sports kept me away from that deadly edge of the envelope, because I got to experience the thrill and joy of something new and becoming proficient at it multiple times.

When someone does something for years without an accident, they typically think it’s because they’re good. (This has been proven in many psychological studies.) But the reality is totally different: it’s because they’re lucky—not because they’re good…and eventually the numbers catch up if you keep doing it.

So for all the reasons above, I don’t believe in anyone painting edge-of-the envelope feats of daring as anything other than foolish. It’s fine if you don’t agree. I value my life above all else, period—and I can feel every bit as alive as any steep creeker without putting my life at risk.

Okay—stepping off my soapbox—thanks for reading. 🙂 And none of this is directed at you personally Adam—just the adventure sports community in general.

I don’t know any other sport that kills such a high percentage of its practitioners. In most sports the risk is limited to cuts, scrapes, broken bones, and concussions, all survivable. In most water sports those risks are minimal, because water is soft. The unique risk of whitewater is that it can hold you underwater longer than you can hold your breath. In the ocean, big surfing waves will eventually dissipate and let you go. On rivers, freestyle wave riding and canoe slalom are generally safe because they use water free of lethal hazards.

The hazards of class-five whitewater are not immediately obvious. I assume, since I don’t paddle class five, that if you go around or boof across the hazards, they don’t seem so bad. When I watch head-cam vodeos taken by paddlers going off the lip of Flatliner Falls on the Blackwater, there is nothing to indicate that allowing the water to push you left will kill you, as happened to two competent class-five paddlers in the last three years. It is a very intellectual thing, like allowing your king to be checkmated in a game of chess. You can’t always see it coming, and you can’t always avoid it.

The hazards of whitewater are: wood strainers, rock sieves, pinning rocks, undercuts, shallow rocks that can bread your neck if you are upside down, flush drowning, and keeper hydraulics. From the surface, these hazards often look benign compared to tall waterfalls and frothy whitewater which merely push you into a pool. But no other sport, including rock climbing with ropes, has this many ways to kill you.

I’ve known a lot of whitewater people over the past 40 years, some of the best. I think everyone eventually reaches one of two points. You decide that the risks of extreme pain, debilitating handicap, inability to support your family, and death, either your own or someone’s you’re responsible for, trump any positive returns from extreme adrenaline-fueled activities whether they be related to whitewater sports, speeding automobiles, motorcycles, substance abuse, climbing or jumping off extremely tall things, jumping out of perfectly flying airplanes, etc. Or you die. Usually of old age but too frequently before.

Thank you, Adam, for sharing your inner world, your fascinating experiences and grief through this powerful story. It is well written. It must have been very difficult to write and to post the real and raw emotions of life and death on the river. I am glad you did. Even though as a grandmother, I still worry, after reading this, in some strange way, I get it. You have my deepest respect and admiration.

Alan’s death was not senseless, Adam.

Maybe there is a euphoria greater than what you experience on the river. Maybe there is a peace that you can not find in a bottle.

Praying for you.

Thanks for sharing this, there is some insight here to the dark and unfortunate side of our sport. I also can relate as I was with Chris Schwer this past summer on the Truss when he passed away.

I have pondered much over the past months doing what you have titled, “Trying to make sense of the senseless.” I feel this is an accurate depiction of these unfortunate situations as there is simply no sense in them. It happened, people did what they could, and that’s it. One can look back and try to replay the whole experience in their head, over and over, but it doesn’t help. In the end, someone perished, and whether you were close to them or not fades into the darkness. You still feel pain, the flashbacks sometimes return, and you are left with a void in the once pure realm of how beautiful, fun, and challenging whitewater can be.

After such an experience, the struggles and flashbacks continue, I assuming like most who have unfortunately experienced these types of situations on the water. While I still try to muster the same intensity and desire to paddle difficult whitewater, the lingering thought of what could potentially happen still exists in my consciousness. Those close calls in whitewater now bear a realistic and harsh truth. Gone is the, “we laughed at danger,” instead it’s a nervousness of the past, the reality of death, and the simple fact that we are instead fragile, not invincible.

Superb article. You only have one short life and then you are dead forever, enjoy it while it lasts but dont thow it away recklessly, theres no heaven or hell just DEAD, dont forget it.
Safe paddling.

Great story, thanks for sharing. Between the early 70’s and mid 90’s, I paddled numerous class 5 rivers within the USA, Canada and Europe on a regular basis in kayak and decked whitewater canoes (In 1987 alone, I paddled over one hundred class 4+ rivers within the European alps..). As such, I could really relate to your story and some of your experiences sounded hauntingly similar to my experiences. Over 20 years, several skilled paddling friends of mine died while paddling difficult whitewater. And, I personally had several near misses on class 4+ water, once involving a sieve and log on a difficult section of the Chattooga River- a standard run for me at that time which I had previously paddled many times. But, on that run that day I was paddling a wildwater kayak (which was not a standard craft for me) very fast and I mis-judged my line which nearly resulted in disaster in a dead end rock sieve.. Luckily, I went through the dead end sieve and under a log hidden within the sieve (in complete darkness under a cliff) and rolled-up on the other side of a massive perforated rock formation. Paddling companions with me on that day who watched me disappear and reappear called my feat “amazing” and “very scary.” No matter how skilled one gets paddling difficult whitewater, the truth is on whitewater there is frequent unpredictable chaos and a certain amount of luck involved especially if one pushes limits too far… I call this the “wild card” factor. In retrospect, my “feat” that day was really not very “amazing,” rather I think it involved mostly pure luck. Like a Cheshire cat, I escaped disaster that day with a big smile on my face. After using up 8 of my 9 lives canoeing and kayaking class 5 + over 20 years, I am now mostly retired from that activity. Good luck and thanks again for sharing your story. Paddle safe and be there for your loved ones in the future, Adam ! -Bob O

As a 45 year veteran of the sport, I’ve seen a few fatalities as well. Your describe the feeling very well.

Perhaps the most poignant fatality I witnessed was a leg entrapment on the Chamberlain Falls run (North Fork American in California) in 1987. Although all fatalities are disturbing, this involved newlyweds where the husband had to watch his new bride disappear under the water, and not resurface until an hour or two later. Last I heard–and it’s been a long while–the husband never paddled again.

I also have an old friend who witnessed a leg entrapment at left crack in Crack in the Rocks (Section IV, Chattooga). She and another person were able to get to the guy, and even grab his hand as he extended it above the water. But they were unable to extract him and felt the life go out of him as this tugged on his arm. I know that this experience has forever affected my friend.

I love the river and take the risk. However, like others here, I now find my pleasure more from the river’s beauty than its threat.

Alan was an inspiration for me. I paddled with him on my home river, and we instantly became close. I just found this article. Adam, thanks for sharing. Ive met you, we have paddled on the same river, maybe not together. But Alan’s spirit lives on thru the river. I know anytime I get the personal satisfaction, the thrill of what we are doing, Alans soul is exposed in the river for that brief moment.

That must have been a terribly difficult story to write. It goes to show that if you paddle to live, inevitably friends will be lost along the way. I know that I would much rather go out in my element than any other way. Thanks for helping me get my wheels consistent all those years ago on the Noli Herzog. Best wishes.

Thanks again Adam,

I first read this article when you posted it a couple of years ago and, having lost friends on the river, it was therapeutic. Having just lost a friend and colleague in a recent car accident that I responded to, I find myself rereading your sage words.

Dennis Hanson and I pulled an ambulance shift together last year doing race coverage for a subaru road rally in the wilds of the Maine Woods near the Rapid River in the western mountains. We had a great day. It is now our final shift together.

He had since moved on to work security at a nearby hospital and was coming home late one evening when he hit a patch of black ice which launched him off the ramp of the snowbank where he clipped a powerpole about 15-20 feet up. He died prior to my arrival as the first in ambulance’s duty medic. During extrication of his body, he remained pronated due to the flipped over vehicle. As we rolled Dennis over, I supported his head and neck and realized who it was who had just died. He left behind a loving wife and 3 young daughters a week before christmas.

Again thanks for your thoughts and words, they still strike home as a paramedic as well as a paddler.

peace and happy surfing,
Gabe Gunning
Farmington, Maine

Just wanted to share a thought or two. First of all, sorry for the losses you have seen and been through. In the end, those are the moments that define you and leave permanent marks.

I am a true novice, after switching from surfing to occasional whitewater but so far no higher than class 4. It is truly the most amazing experience I have ever had. And yes, even though I am a googan…it IS dangerous.

Obviously you paddle well, but your writing is top shelf as well. That’s something I can appreciate as much as your river expertise.

Thanks for a gripping read.

A few years ago, I was one of those grey lifeless rescues. By some miracle, I was brought back. (thanks Rob!) I have learned that no matter how thrilling, the thrill does not outweigh my desire for life, to see my soon to be born grandchild, to see beautiful sunrises, to enjoy life as much as I can. I still paddle, but no longer need the thrill of challenging the rapids.

My mom once asked me why I did such dangerous things, like whitewater kayaking, and I responded quoting a book I had read the day before, “Mom I don’t take these risks to escape life but rather to prevent life from escaping me.” Let’s all presence this at our eulogies as I am sure the beloved kayakers we have lost would remind us of this, too. And they would remind us of this while seal diving into a river they love.

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