I guessed what was about to happen and knew it was wrong. But, what was I going to do about? I was only 16, and it had happened so many times over the past few months it was almost funny. I was sitting in an eddy above a blind drop on a class V river somewhere in the northwest. Maybe BC, it is such a blur now that I can’t remember exactly. Daniel DeLaVergne and Raymond “Bubba” Cotton were next to me. Daniel was in his standard creek boat of choice, a Riot Glide he’d nicknamed the “creek glide” due to the fact that its edges and hull were so beat and rounded one could barely believe it used to have a planing hull. With his typical guilty smile, Daniel said something like “It’s in the guidebook so it can’t be that bad,” and paddled off the lip. No scouting, no nothing. Raymond and I had learned that 9 out of 10 times Daniel would reappear in a pool below and start waving us down as if he could not believe we were still wasting time wondering if he was okay. Not this time though. The first thing we saw was his paddle floating in the pool, then his boat, and, finally, he surfaced and starting swimming towards his gear. It ended well except that he lost his paddle and had to hike out. All in all, this seemed an acceptable price to pay.
We were a couple of months into the 1999 Riot Bus tour, a team Riot USA paddling mission that included Raymond, Daniel, and me with Bo Wallace, Jed Selby and others joining occasionally. ’99 was a unique year in the world of whitewater kayaking. Freestyle competitions were extremely popular, boat designs were changing quickly, and the general consensus was that our sport was on the verge of blowing up. Paddling apparel and gear companies were popping up out of nowhere. The number of “pro kayakers”, as in people who were actually paid to paddle, was growing quickly. Unlike today, the junior division at freestyle events was packed with kids who wanted to ‘turn pro’. Parents were sending their children off to expensive, kayaking-centered adventure high schools like Adventure Quest with the hope that they’d become the next Eric Jackson. While kayaking companies had always sponsored athletes, factory teams going “on tour” was a relatively new and untested concept. It was a free-for-all compared to the past and future. Today companies expect their team members to visit dealers on a regular basis, give clinics, paddle with locals as much as possible and be upstanding role models. In ’99 we were stoked to get boats, gear, and a little money with almost no strings attached so we could go paddling. The Riot bus was right there at the heart of all this paddling mania, and I was an adolescent along for the ride.
Raymond Cotton and Bo Wallace bought the bus in South Carolina during the spring of 1998. They were already sponsored by Riot at the time and had a goal of traveling the country in search of epic paddling. Naturally a gutted, repainted, logo covered, 8-mile-to-the-gallon bus was the perfect vehicle for their dream trip. For Riot Kayaks, a relatively new company trying to break into the U.S. market, turning a school bus into a huge traveling billboard seemed like a great idea. Especially since all they had to kick in were a few giant stickers and a little gas money. Thus, the original Riot bus was born. Riot actually liked the concept so much that they bought a mini school bus for some of their international team paddlers, notably Dan Campbell and Steve Fisher, to use when on tour in the states.
In 1998, just as the original Riot bus crew was in the midst of their first full blown tour, I had begun to makes progress toward my childhood dream of becoming a professional kayaker. I was one of those kids aspiring to a profession that had only come into existence just recently. Spencer Cooke, a paddler and sales rep for Riot Kayaks at the time, took me under his wing and recommended that Riot and a southeast kayak shop called Whitewater Destinations add me to their regional teams. I feel incredibly lucky to have met both Spencer and subsequently Whitewater Destination’s owner, Don Hege. I knew almost nothing about Whitewater Destinations, but right from the start and before I’d won a single event, Don treated me like I was already a top-level pro.
Now, 14 years later, I vividly remember speaking with Riot Kayak’s President, Jeff Rivest, for the first time. It’s difficult to explain, but just hearing him say, “Yes, you’re on the team” was a turning point in my life. It meant the diligent and sometimes painstaking practice was paying off and I might actually be capable of paddling at an elite level. It was the first time I had been recognized for being exceptionally good at anything. Those few words had a profound impact on my future. I met both my best friend and my future wife as a result of my relationship with Riot kayaks and Spencer Cooke along with a slew of other life-long friends. Looking back it’s clear that Spencer did much more than just hook me up with a couple of sponsors and bring me to events. He also introduced me to industry insiders and paddlers such as Dan Gavere, Eric Jackson and Clay Wright. People I’d idolized ever since I started kayaking three years before at age 11.
Despite my complete lack of coaching or regimented training, the first year traveling with Spencer I placed in the top 3 juniors at almost every competition I entered. While I had some skill, there were other talented paddlers in the junior class who were arguably better. I believe the way in which freestyle was scored at the time allowed me to usually keep up with more talented competitors. For some reason, I excelled at vertical (the highest scoring) cartwheels in flushy playspots. This was partly because I was a small kid in a relatively high volume Riot Glide. Many of my competitors, on the other hand, were larger kids in smaller boats. The combination of my particular skill set, my boat, and the scoring system of the day allowed me to stand out from the large crowd of talented juniors. Had I started competing at a different time, it’s hard to say whether I would have had the same success.
How I ended up on the Riot Bus in 1999 is not entirely clear. Spencer was good friends with Daniel and Raymond, and I suppose he recommended that they bring me along. Although he barely knew me, I heard later that the ever generous Don Hege put in a good word for me as well.
However it came about, the idea of me going on the tour with team Riot was outrageous. I was a 16 year old with a learners permit and had practically nothing in common with Raymond and Daniel other than kayaking. I was a shy, admittedly dorky play-boater who had never paddled anything harder than the Fish Ladders at Great Falls, Maryland. Daniel and Raymond were already accomplished creek-boaters and routinely paddled the hardest runs in the southeast. While they enjoyed play-boating, they mainly wanted to paddle as much hard whitewater as possible. I’ve often wondered if my inclusion on the Riot Bus was to round out the team’s skill set, and it seemed the sentiment at freestyle events was, “Alright Dre, this is why you’re here, go kill it.”
As ridiculous an idea as it was- and ridiculousness seemed a part of pro-kayaking then-, the plan was set for me to join the Riot Bus Tour. First, I’d join up with Daniel and Raymond at Rock Island, TN, and then we’d head out west on the bus. Raymond and I had never met; I’d only hung out with Daniel a couple of times. We had one short conversation about me coming along where Daniel’s sole advice was “You’ll probably need $500 a month for food and whatever else. Oh, I guess you’re not old enough to drink, so $300 would probably be fine.” I had no paying sponsors at the time, and my life savings worked out to about $200 – $300 for each month that we’d be on the road. The lifestyle afforded by ~$10/day was adequate but not glamorous. I had no health insurance, credit cards, or emergency funds. One trip to the emergency room would have brought the whole thing to a halt and put my family into debt. Going on tour was a larger than life adventure, and I wasn’t about to pass it up for anything.
I remember feeling a mixture of fear and excitement as Raymond, Daniel and I pulled away from the Rock Island parking lot and began the long, 55mph drive out west. It also hit me that I was merely along for the ride. Raymond owned the bus, and both he and Daniel had secured gas money from Riot. They would choose were we went, what we paddled, and with whom we paddled. This worked well since I had no interest in logistics and just wanted to paddle. It was also clear that, despite my lack of creek-boating experience, I’d be expected to keep up on any and all runs.
Life on tour was unlike anything I’d experienced. Every couple of weeks the full entourage of pros and aspiring pros would descend upon a small river town to compete. Any parking lot that happened to be close to the competition site was fair game for a makeshift camp. The absence of a “No Overnight Parking” sign was taken to mean “make yourselves at home for as long as you like.” A couple hours after at the tour arrived, there would be throw-bag drying lines strung up everywhere, people cooking with camp stoves on the pavement, and boats and paddles heaped near every vehicle. We must have looked like a traveling circus to non-paddlers. Dan Gavere always had the best parking lot toys: remote control cars, scooters, trials bikes, unicycles, you name it. Someone was always messing around with their outfitting which mean the smell of contact cement and pieces of foam lying around were ever present. Gear was always getting run over. Boats would usually come away with just a few deep gashes, but there’s nothing quite like the sound of an AT paddle crunching under tires. It was a mini version of a Grateful Dead tour, except without tie dyes and patchouli. Police weren’t pleased and non-paddlers stayed away. The Riot bus, since it was one of the larger vehicles, was often overrun with paddlers from when we parked to when we pulled away. Raymond, Daniel and I basically had no private space. Many times I’d come back from a paddling session and there would be people I’d never met hanging out in the bus. Sometimes they’d stay for hours and, upon their departure, we’d discover no one had any idea who they were.
While kayak companies were spending unheard of sums of money on their touring teams and our sport seemed to be exploding, the free-style tour did not provide a lavish lifestyle. Without a family safety net, I relied on my $10/day and made sure every penny was well spent. Billy Craig and I were always happy to eat at the cheapest places possible. Fazoli’s, with its $1.99 slices of pizza and all you can eat breadsticks, was a favorite. Or if everyone else was eating somewhere that we thought too expensive, we’d just squat in the parking lot and cook. Sometimes counting pennies was not enough. Being on such I tight budget, I would make a point to eat items from sample trays at grocery stores. A friend of ours, who shall remain anonymous, liked to push this free sample concept right to its moral edge. He’d stand there and eat an entire tray of whatever sustenance was offered. One time, he grabbed a huge sample tray of cookies and walked out of the grocery store with it. He carried the tray- tray cover and all- right past all of the employees. While I didn’t exactly condone this behavior, I didn’t turn down the cookies either.
In between competitions, we focused on what we (well, Daniel) really came to do- paddle hard whitewater. Our approach was loose and spontaneous. We were game to get on any run, anytime, with just the bare minimum of logistical planning. A week spent creek-boating with the Riot bus crew would have been an uncomfortable and draining experience for most class V boaters. While we certainly cared about each other and took safety precautions, our laid back approach didn’t always come across as safe. Most groups would want to put on a run early to maximize time on the river for fun and safety; we usually hung around the put-in all morning messing with gear and outfitting and setting up shuttle. Once on the river, our demeanor would turn 180 degrees, and we began a mad rush to get to the take out. Scouting, unless absolutely necessary, was looked down upon because it slowed progress. Daniel made a point of asking locals if there were any truly dangerous features on a run. With this assurance, he could fully dive into running blind drops without scouting. My nickname “Peekums Dre” was earned during this time for my fondness for scouting, or ‘peaking,’ rapids. Whether because of herd mentality or the freedom of a fellow blind drop enthusiast, Daniel’s willingness to run drops blind would increase or decrease depending on who we were with. Daniel and Charlie Beavers seemed on the same page and together would push way past my comfort zone. I had very little experience on hard whitewater before the Riot Bus, and I was largely expected to keep up on everything Daniel and Raymond wanted to run. Keeping up meant making the “run or portage” call very quickly, and I never felt pressured to run particular drops. Each day I’d listen as they were talking about where to paddle and I’d be thinking “Oh god, I hope I make it through another day.” We ended up paddling 23 different class V or V+ runs, running many of them multiple times. Looking back, it’s lucky that I, a 16 year old with very little experience on class V, came away unscathed.
Overall the pro tour was a friendly, welcoming, and tight knit group that divided into subgroups of paddlers within the formed along economic, geographic, and boating lines, like creeking or playboating. The subgroups had nothing to do with the company that funded the athlete to paddle. Most pro team managers believed their paddling team’s allegiances were to the company and liked to think because their athletes paddled the same boats, the athletes camping together, ate together, and hung out together. In reality, which boat you paddled had little influence on your social circle. This lead to athletes on ‘competing’ teams spending more time together than on cultivating their team or its brand. Paddlers were more committed to their subgroup of creekers or play-boaters. Another division existed between those juniors who received coaching and those who did not. Sponsors did not provide coaching which meant coaching came to those athletes who could afford it. For juniors, there were few places that provided structured and regular coaching. The main structured coaching resources were the kayak academies which commanded steep tuitions. This created an economic dividing line within the tour amongst the juniors. I remember being jealous the Adventure Quest kids had a full time coach. While they were doing video analysis and getting real-time feedback mid-ride, I was on my own. I’d get an occasional tip from someone, but since we were all competing it wasn’t part of the culture for paddlers to give in-depth advice to one another. Ultimately, I believe this lack of coaching forced me to excel at breaking down, analyzing and learning moves just from watching others. It also made me try harder and my victories that much sweeter.
Even within the Riot bus there were divisions. Before his incredibly tragic and heartbreaking death, Daniel DeLaVergne would become a respected expedition kayaker, entrepreneur and videographer among other things. He was exceedingly motivated and virtually fearless. He would do everything in his power to help if you were in a bad situation on the river. He also seemed to be unshakable under pressure. Overall, Daniel was an excellent person, but he had a darker side that not everyone saw. At the time he loved paddling hard whitewater and seemed to look down on those who couldn’t keep up. He and I never really became friends. With the 6 year age difference and our different backgrounds it is to imagine us becoming close in ‘99. Having to be responsible for a 16 year old didn’t mesh well with partying at bars and meeting girls. In a way, I was probably cramping his style. It wasn’t by design, but it occurred to me while writing this that Daniel and I never paddled together again once I stepped off the Bus in ’99.
There were also divisions between local paddlers and the pro tour. Whether it was our competitive nature or divergent interests, this separation between local paddlers and pro paddlers was real. Eradicating this gap is now a major part of any sponsored paddlers duties. Back in ’99, it was just part of the deal. Daniel sat me down and warned me in all seriousness, “Look Dre, there’s one thing you need to understand about Colorado paddlers. They talk a big game. But when it comes down to it, they rarely run anything hard.” For better or worse, this was my introduction to the Colorado boating scene during that first year on tour. Harshness aside, I believe Daniel was getting at a feeling I’ve heard elsewhere about the cultural differences between competitive, hard-driving eastern boaters who push each other constantly and Colorado boaters who focus on getting on the river with friends and escaping the competitive atmosphere and work-a-day pressures. With this introduction, we pulled up to a kayak shop in Durango, Colorado. As soon as we stopped, a paddler recognized the bus and came over to say “hi.” Daniel, our unofficial leader, greeted the fellow boater, “hey, what’s up? We’re planning to hit Vallecito this afternoon. Do you know if anyone has been up there this year?”
“Vallecito? No, you guys probably shouldn’t go up there. It’s super high and full of wood. I think some people tried it and had to hike out. Sorry, but it’s no good this year.”
“Oh, okay well good to see you. We’ll be here for a while so I’m sure we’ll see you around.”
Daniel and Raymond did not even pause with this warning, so neither did I, and we were soon on our way to Vallecito Creek. This sort of interaction became normal. Locals would warn us that their local runs were dangerous, and we’d go run them anyway. Similarly, Daniel, and on occasion Raymond and I, were into running class V in play-boats such as the Glide or 007. This was partly because it seemed cool and partly because the Kix, Riot’s only creek boat, was pretty lame. Most would agree now that paddling a play-boat on a creek is dangerous and really not that fun. Nonetheless, this was one way in which we liked to push our limits. And I’d be lying if I said that rolling up to another group on a class V run while paddling a play-boat didn’t provide an ego boost. Both our disregard of advice from locals concerning runs, and our sometimes dangerous choice of boats, probably offended some people and made us a little notorious.
Our reputation for running hard whitewater didn’t always serve us well and sometimes in unexpected ways. At one point, a company rep was kindly showing us around his hometown of Fernie, British Columbia. He had scoped out a bunch of first descents and was pumped to finally have some good creek-boaters in town to take a look. We were going to be up there for a few days so he went ahead and planned out a first descent hit list for us. All seemed fine until he took us to the first one. We parked the bus and jumped out expecting to see the most amazing section of whitewater, and indeed we did. An absolutely beautiful rapid lay before us. An incredibly impressive series of perfect drops interspersed with huge ledge holes and undercuts. Beautiful yes, but it looked like if you ran it 10 times, you’d die twice. Our guide said something like, “This is amazing, eh! You love it, eh! You guys start getting ready and I’ll get the video camera!” There was no way we were running it. We just stood there wondering how to break the bad news. Eventually, after an extended period of inaction on our part, he got the point so we moved on to the next only to have an exact repeat. I’d never felt like such a disappointment for not running something.
One of our last stops on tour was the Ottawa River Rodeo in eastern Canada. Since we’d be relatively close by, we decided to swing by Riot headquarters in Montreal. I’d never actually met anyone behind Riot before, so I thought it would be fun to hang out and paddle with them on the St. Lawrence River’s famous Lachine rapids. The scene we found at Riot cemented a theory I’d had since about midway through the tour; a theory that now seems representative of the industry as a whole. Riot did all kinds of marketing. Magazine ads, catalogs, videos, you name it. In all of this marketing material they featured me, Raymond or Daniel exactly zero times if memory serves. The well-dressed French Canadians who greeted us in the parking lot had almost no idea who we were, they barely knew what we were doing and certainly didn’t trust us to embody the Riot Kayak brand. It was an odd situation; I felt like I’d gone rogue and overstepped my boundaries as a Riot athlete. Raymond later filled in my understanding of our official relationship with Riot in ’99: they had put in a relatively small amount of money and Raymond and Daniel had picked up the rest. Riot’s investment in us had been low, but it appeared their desired return on that investment was a sum total of zero. I got the sense they were out of touch with the U.S. market, or more specifically the East Coast of the U.S., and getting access to that world was why they offered to sponsor us. We were loosely connected despite driving a giant billboard for Riot for months. I had been living in the Riot Bus but really wasn’t a Riot person. This became more evident when Spencer Cooke, who connected me with Riot, switched to another company, and I promptly followed. My connection was with Spencer, not Riot.
A couple weeks on the Gauley wrapped up the Riot bus tour of ’99, and I was ready for it to be over. Winter was coming and putting on wet, cold gear day after day gets old, especially since we had no place to warm up and no showers. It was with both relief and sadness that I stepped off the bus for the last time. The tour’s full implications hadn’t hit me yet, but it was my launching point into a professional kayaking “career” that lasted until around 2005.
Those around in 1999 would probably agree that there was a palpable sense of potential and excitement in the sport. It remains the most eye-opening and exciting year of my paddling career. Why there was so much hype around the sport is anyone’s guess. I always thought it was a “bubble” in the sense that kayak companies forecasted a period of incredible growth and were therefore willing to invest maybe a little too heavily in team budgets. I’ve come to believe that this bubble was created by paddlers just as much as companies. For some reason tons of kids thought that they could make a career out of kayaking, hence the packed junior competitor field, and high “kayak school” enrollment figures.
At the time there existed in me, and I believe others in the kayak industry then feel similarly, a fundamental lack of understanding that our actions as professionals must eventually lead to increased sales. I thought winning a competition had inherent value in and of itself. Or to put it another way, I thought I was being paid to win, not paid to sell. In many ways the rodeo in downtown Wausau, Wisconsin exemplified this era. Kayak team vehicles packed the parking lot and hundreds of spectators lined the river bank in anticipation of the men’s and women’s pro freestyle finals. It seemed as if the entire industry was present. Tensions were high. I remember hearing a fellow junior competitor’s father yell to his son, right in front of the whole crowd and the most of the other competitors, “Beat him! You can beat him! You’re better than him! You can beat him!” (Referring to me). An awards ceremony and extravagant party with live music followed the day’s seemingly endless number of competition heats. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mayor of Wausau was there. Wausau undoubtedly spent thousands of dollars supporting the event and building the play spot. Spectators, competitors, sponsors and parents were emotionally invested in the final results. The whole scene was a huge deal, but to what end? It’s not as if there were lucrative sponsorships or scholarships on the line. Were competition rides being broadcast to thousands of freestyle fans across the country? No. Were the throngs of spectators actually going to start kayaking because they watched a competition? Probably and unfortunately not. Were any of the companies being represented actually going to sell more gear because of this huge event? Sure, probably a couple boats or paddles. But when it was all said and done, I just can’t imagine that this, along with countless similar events, actually made financial sense.
Now, ~14 years later, it’s clear that our sport might never see the type of growth predicted in ‘99. I was lucky enough to be an adolescent boater at a time when anything seemed possible. As the industry and I matured, our views evolved and changed. Kayaking will never lose its allure to a small percent of the population, but I have a hard time envisioning it growing as I dreamed it would back in ’99. I’m no longer a professional kayaker, or a kid who stakes his dreams to the profession of kayaking, so this is alright by me. Now, I enjoy non-professional kayaking. Or as it was known before and after the pro era, just kayaking.
Andre now lives full time in Buena Vista, Colorado with his wife Alex. He enjoys rock climbing, financial modeling and occasionally scaring himself on hard whitewater.