Adrift: Savoring and Suffering in the High Sierras

Photos by Ian Buckley

The Hike In  

Starting the hike in at 10 pm may not have been my first mistake. At least that was what I was thinking by midnight. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be there, I didn’t even know if we were on the right trail. Sage and mules ear flashed in and out of my headlamp’s bright beam. Imagining what lurked beyond helped to keep me moving; I was not slow enough to quit, but not fast enough to catch up. I lagged painfully in the back of the pack, wondering if I even belonged on this trip. Twelve miles over Mule Pass didn’t sound so bad in Culley’s kitchen. But now it was hard to picture. We packed for seven days. I’m not sure what my Jefe Grande weighed, but it was way too much. I flagged, stopped, and fell way behind. At some point Ian slowed down to let me catch up, and he provided the last push of encouragement I needed to make it to camp.

The plan was to run Paiute Creek, a remote tributary of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite via an Eastern Sierra approach. We would ascend Mule Pass to 11,000 feet and paddle down Paiute into Yosemite National Park. Our group consisted of Cully Thomas, Macy Burnham, Chris Tully, Nathan Hunkapiller, Cody Howard and myself. We brought a ground support team (Amanda Marusich-Burnham and Ian Buckley) as well. They would traverse the drainage to assist in negotiating the landscape. Cully hatched the mission over a few years of staring at gazetteers on truck hoods and in his kitchen after other Sierra paddling trips.

I did not sleep much the first night. I don’t know that anyone else did either.  I was not sure I was cut out to be there, mid-thirties and new parenthood looming. It seemed like a stretch, self-doubt bubbled through each choice. All that plus the anticipation and planning piled onto my mind like a psychedelic sandbag, turning sleep into a fractured kaleidoscope of worry and exhaustion.

Regardless I woke up feeling fantastic. The previous nights trepidation had worn off, and the optimism of a pre-mission morning had taken over. The majesty of the terrain above us was breathtaking. We started the morning on the shore of a series of picturesque alpine lakes, like emerald stones inlaid in granite. We traversed the lakes, ascended above them, then quickly ran into snow. Patches at first, then as it got heavier, we realized we had a lot of elevation yet to gain. The winter of 2010-11 had been a big one, and even in June snow remained in the high country.

Somewhere around 10,000 feet it became clear we were going to have to do something we dreaded. What appeared to be the final chute leading to our summit at the shoulder of the Sawtooths, was 800 feet of steep snow. It required kicking steps with 100 pound sleds on our backs. A few of us brought bamboo sticks for trekking poles but some of us had opted out, myself included. I untied my paddle to use as a walking stick and we set off.

Our fear was that a slip would result in an 800 foot high speed slide for life into the sub-alpine boulder field below the pass. The nine foot plastic toboggans strapped to our backs were the issue. Loaded with seven days of gear, they felt like brightly colored rockets pointed for the bottom. After negotiating an inevitable false summit or two, we gained the pass. Looking into the headwaters of Paiute, a 3000 foot descent would be necessary to reach the river in the couple hours before night fall.

The descent to the creek was on a 30 degree slope, lightly treed, of light talus and dirt. And in the beginning, the going was easy. Digging heels in, it was easy to ski and walk down the hill. But after a few hundred vertical feet, the quad burning began. By the time we were near the river my IT bands on were on fire, and my posture had deteriorated to a horrible Quasimodo like state. After we had spent so many hours ascending the pass, a fever set in to descend as quickly as possible and get to camp. We located a nice camp on the creek about an hour before dark. The mood was celebratory, and everyone was excited to get in the boats the next day.

The last couple of years these trips had taken on a different tone. I found it  harder to disconnect from life and focus on paddling. I could focus on the water, but the planning and traveling, the coordination and family logistics added a new dimension. This was new-I never felt any guilt or remorse before, happily blowing off work and social obligations for extended paddling trips. But leaving the family was becoming more bittersweet. A trip’s end was more readily anticipated. Cully and I had sons roughly the same age. At the time, we were the only ones in the group who did, and our conversations often turned to them. We fielded the occasional question from our friends, but mostly we talked together about the struggles and questions around having a family and a paddling life. The change in feeling came into focus upon waking up in the western shadow of the high ridge, perched at the headwaters of our objective.

Anticipation was high on day three. We got a late start cooking breakfast and organizing gear. The first order of the day was to negotiate a landslide of epic scale where the entire north rim of the drainage had crumbled. Car and house sized boulders choked out the valley and rushed up the other side for over half a mile. The scale of the thing was hard to take in. We worked our way around the south side of the Slide and cut back to the river where it subsided. My lower back had been rubbed raw by the boat the day before. I was using a commercial pack system that put the bottom of my boat against my back. It was fairly comfortable for shorter hikes, but for anything over five miles most systems become problematic. Putting the yoke back on was excruciating, aggravating the open sores on my hip bones rubbed raw from the preceding days.

After a couple hours of negotiating the thick trees on the margins of the Slide, we hit green meadows and the small stream that would be our passage west.

The River

Paiute creek drains the west slope of the Sawtooth Mountains, a prominent ridge seen from the town of Bridgeport in the eastern Sierra. The crown jewel of the Sawthooths is the Matterhorn, a peak of some note in the climbing world.

Paiute creek begins in the slide meadow as a tiny creek, full of golden trout. It meanders through woods and meadows, occasionally rushing through a small gorge here and there, but all that ends abruptly as it enters the granite.

Yosemite is a special place. The granite walls and slabs are world renowned for holding so much of the history, and the future, of technical climbing lore. The geological wonder that attracts climbers and tourists the world over also facilitates the formation of fine river drainages. The southern Sierra rivers tend towards long approaches to multi-day runs, requiring paddlers to carry food and shelter on their backs and in their boats. Expsoure is high on these runs, but the rewards are equally appealing. Some of my fondest memories involve Huck Finn early summer multi-days in the picturesque backcountry with just a few friends, no one else around, nights spent eating freshly caught trout on moonscape granite slabs, the sky lit near daytime brightness by moon and stars.

The gradient picked up, and the riverbed went slabby. The first big drop was a no go, wild, steep, and shallow. It was all impact and no glide. The steep portage felt worse than it should have, with a body battered from two days of tough hiking. My knees were shot. I took it slow, and soon enough we were into steeper whitewater. We ran a few short sections of creek that were decent in quality, but quickly the river gorged up. The gradient tipped past reasonable, and the stream became choked with large boulders and no eddies. Lines existed but there was no hope for safety or control. We portaged a long section and found ourselves at a crossroads. A short pool facilitated a crossing to scout a long deep gorge. A few of us hiked high on river right, while Macy and Cody stayed at river level on the left. I could see Benson Lake, our objective for the night, a mile and hundreds of vertical feet below us.  Evening was coming on. From my vantage travel at river level appeared impossible, a tight “butt-crack” type gorge with many unrunnable drops. The boys at river level had found a portage option, and were trying to communicate that to us. We were concerned they couldn’t see the whole picture, and a hasty drop into the gorge would require running some drops we couldn’t see and weren’t comfortable with. Meanwhile they wondered what was taking us so long. A small standoff ensued, my conservatism deteriorating to doubt. We descended back to river level to talk it out and after trusting their judgement we followed them into the gorge. Our trepidation was unfounded. A narrow ramp against the left wall lead us to a clear portage path on river left.

The river was class 2 for a mile or so, meandering through the bottom of a stunning valley. It eventually emptied into Benson Lake, a midsize hanging loch in Yosemite’s backcountry. We were concerned with keeping a low profile at the lake, and paddled to the far end to find a nice nook where our fire would be hidden.

We found a camp with amazing little lichen encrusted ledges, perfectly flat sand filled pockets. We sparked a fire and ate dinner. The next morning I was up early. I brought a spinning rod and I walked downstream to the inlet of a trickling creek and began casting. I experienced some of the most sensational trout fishing of my life. They were uneducated and aggressive, swimming at high speeds from many feet away to thrash small lures. I began by releasing a few, until Nathan joined me. He had his rod as well, and quickly we had enough fish for a nice breakfast. As people started to rise we returned with the catch. We probably lingered in camp too long, but the food was good and the setting too beautiful to rush.

We paddled a few hundred yards down to the outlet from the lake and the creeks character was markedly different. The volume was higher, the terrain more open, granite slab land with pockets of manzanita, chinquapin, cedar and pines filled the cracks in the huge slabs. The creek flowed out of the lake and into a short series of great rapids, ledges and ramps in the easy class V realm. Things were looking up.

We scouted an amazing low angle slide with a big pine tree growing out of the middle of it, and after running through, we approached one of the longest and largest chaotic slides I’ve ever seen. It was so big, it was difficult to get a read, difficult to predict where a particular route might take you, difficult to judge where you might end up. Macy ended up running a nice line through the rapid, and the rest of us opted for the scenic route.






As we approached another horizon line the river became more channelized and gorged up. The first of the gorges would have been exceptional, but there was more water than we wanted. The holes were sticky, the eddies surging. Many of the gorges were inescapable. We walked a couple, and ran one amazing series of slides. We worked our way downstream; lots of scouting, portaging, a bit of shit running into the late afternoon. At a major trail crossing we came upon a camp of backpackers. We saw the smoke from their fire first, heard their voices. We decided to portage around them, trying to hide. As we worked our way away from the bank Cody took the lead. His marine experience in Iraq took control, and we all felt like the stakes were a bit higher than they really were. But it was fun to pretend, and we made it around them and past the crossing to another fine camp, perched on the edge of the next big loss of elevation.

Talk in camp was heavy. We were in the midst of it, deep in Yosemite, negotiating marginally runnable whitewater, portaging a lot, and facing the steepest section of the creek the next day. Considering the water level it did not seem likely that much of what we would find downstream would be runnable. Talk turned to home. Cody expressed his disbelief that Culley and I would do this as some kind of vacation. I was baffled by it as well. My body was worn down. I had come to this trip with no training, straight off the couch into one of the biggest trans-Sierra approaches in the state. The river wasn’t the concern, it was all the hiking with a heavy boat. The trail was one thing. Bushwhacking in the western sierra hell fuck was wearing me thin. Fatherhood hadn’t done anything productive for my fitness level.

Macy and Cody where in their element, seemingly inexhaustible and fired up in their own ways. Macy was always positive, quick to do something to lighten the mood and get everyone going. Cody was more stoic, the marine in him coming out. He was very fit, often way out in front on the hikes, quick to give someone shit for falling so far behind or taking breaks. He provided strong motivation in his own fashion.

Nathan discussed his desire to hike out to Hetch Hetchy. The trail crossing where we were camped led back 20 miles to the lake where we had multiple vehicles. None of us liked the idea of him doing it alone. Ian agreed to go with him. I couldn’t imagine 20 miles of hiking being better than moving downstream. But I also was not looking forward to the inevitable portaging we faced the next day. I didn’t know the half of it.

In the morning the hikers departed, leaving only Amanda as ground support. As it turned out, we didn’t paddle a bit that day. Right out of camp we started working our way on river left around a huge cascading waterfall, walking down until a steep cliff blocked safe passage. We set up an anchor off of a small pine at the cliffs edge. Cody rappelled down into the trees below, and we lowered boats to him. When all gear was down, we rapped one by one down the ledge. The hiking that ensued after will forever be burned in my muscle memory.

After rapping into the tributary drainage, we had to climb back out through 400 vertical of awful manzanita. Everyone reverted to throwing out lines from Vietnam movies of our childhood, we were reduced to grunts humping out the days miles.

The rest of the day continued like that, up and down through some of the roughest country out there. One hundred pound packs, mosquitos, heat, and the thick bush beat us down. By the time the sun began to flag, I had had it. I broke down 400 yards from camp. I still believe it was the hardest physical day of my life.

Camp was set next to a set of unbelievable slides, beautiful slabs tilting towards the Yosemite valley. We were getting close, the anticipation of what we would find weighed heavy. When we hit the Tuolumne, we would have a decision to make. If the river wasn’t too high, we would continue down to Hetch Hetchy reservoir, if it was we would leave the boats and hike out the White Wolf trail, many miles up to rally point B. Neither of these plans was particularly exciting to me. But I wasn’t sure I could handle the hike. Conversely, the river was no joke. The bottom section of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne had a reputation as a stout run, and we’d been grinding relentlessly for the last four days.

In the morning, we packed camp and some of the group hiked up and ran the camp slides. Afterwards our path crossed a major trail, and we used it to get us down to the floor of the valley, and to the river. Once at the bridge, we had a decision to make. The river looked high. There were a lot of people on the trail. We were stuck for a while deliberating about what to do. After some time, we elected to run the river. We found a quiet spot and suited up.

The river was high, and after our days in the mountains hiking and running short sections of small creek, it felt like the ocean. Cody took the lead, and we bombed into big Sierra rapids. After a half hour or so I settled into the rhythm and size of the drops. The Grand Canyon is a Sierra gem of the highest order. Big holes and waves, fun, big boat scout moves and a few portages around outlandish looking drops. It’s a fantastic section that is not seen by many paddlers.

We dropped into the foothill zone, punctuated by oaks and poison oak, high heat and dry grass. The rapids picked up in intensity, until we reached the zenith of the lower reach, a huge ledge drop, something that needs a name like Land of the Giants, something out of your dreams. It has a line, but a hero line to be sure. It is a line that exists only in your head, a rapid that makes me recall Bodie from the movie Point Break paddling out into the biggest swell of the century and never returning.

We worked our way downstream until we hit the lake. Hetch Hetchy sits in a stunning gorge surrounded by high walls. The valley was flooded in the early 20th century to supply drinking water for San Francisco, and boating of any kind is strictly prohibited. Our plan was to wait out the remainder of the day at the inlet, and paddle the two miles of lake at night to avoid detection. We would camp at the far end campground, and Ian would drive in in the morning to pick us up. Then, we would simply drive out. Sounded simple in Cully’s kitchen. Sounded like we were getting tickets at lake level. We found a great spot, fished, laid in the shade, swam, and made a half-hearted attempt to hide from a tour boat that came by late in the afternoon. As evening came on we cooked the last of our meals and packed up.

The Paddle Out

The paddle out was nerve wracking. I tried to stay quiet. We paddled in single file, latched to the tail of the one in front, afraid of falling behind. There was no moon to speak of, and it was a deep pitch black. The only sound the water slipping past boat hulls. After an hour or more, we spotted the lights illuminating the walkway on the dam. We stayed to the north, and made land on river right, away from the campground and dam station. We made our way through a tunnel in the wall, across the well lit walkway, and up the long hill to the campground. We stashed the boats between the back of a pit toilet house and some brush, and racked out. I slept well, like a guilty man who knows he’s been caught, tired from a very long day, and we hoped, the final leg of our trip.

In the morning I could not see how we were getting out of there. People milled about everywhere. Rangers drove around, hikers departed. We brewed coffee and acted like everything was normal, like there weren’t a bunch of bright plastic boats sitting back behind the shitter.

Ian showed up in Macy’s truck around noon. We stacked boats in the back and piled in. We had to clear the gate at the head of the campground and talk with the ranger stationed there. As we pulled up I had that feeling like I had stolen something, and wished to just get it over with. As we pulled up, a female ranger eyed us with a stern gaze. She leaned out the window, gave us a nod, and said, “Have a nice day.” and looked away, back to her paperwork. I was in shock as we drove away, I couldn’t believe we had made it.

I recall thinking on the long drive out of the park and back over to the east side of the park, that the run would probably be a first and last for a long time, the work to run ratio was bad enough that it wouldn’t see another descent for a very long time. The Heart of Darkness vibe and the regulation in the park was enough to keep groups out. But a crew went in the next week, hiked up from the bottom via the White Wolf Trail in the park, and no doubt paddled more than our group did. However they had a run in with a ranger at the dam and were ticketed.

The next generation will look at photos of Paiute and wonder. As a child I dreamt of boldly forging into the mountains of California to pioneer the next classic, and basks in the glory that would inevitably follow. The video would inspire awe and stories passed around and embellished for the next generation. The reality was much more humbling and personally meaningful. In the face of all the unknowns, route finding, group dynamics, and forced improvisation, a different kind of glory was achieved. Though the water level was too high to run most of the whitewater, we were there as comrades. Better yet the experience added to our own collection of stories. I don’t know what possessed us to go, but I’m sure glad we did. 

Returning to these memories of sought after hardship and adventure is all we are left with after a life punctuated by moments of clarity has mostly passed us by. We can not stop the inevitable grind of time, though we may try. We are left with these stories to share with our friends and hopefully be remembered by.




Birthdays mark the beginning of life. Mine marked the end of Shannon’s.

I arrived in the Great Falls parking lot for some race training and birthday laps, and I heard that something had happened. Things always happen: broken boats, broken paddles, bloody knuckles, and dislocated shoulders. It’s nothing new, just pieces of a story; war wounds to brag about.

I paddled out to the falls and dropped over the first major rapid, Grace Under Pressure. I caught the eddy below and took out to do another lap. I hiked back up river, and upon gaining a better vantage point I saw her boat floating in an eddy. I surveyed the situation. Her lifejacket mysteriously floated up. What I remember next is full of inaccuracies. I was in shock. More paddlers arrived and assisted with recovering her body. It took hours. It was terrible. It was dangerous. But she deserved a proper burial and her family deserved closure.

The river I loved had killed an innocent 23 year old girl. I remembered her smile as I walked up the final bit of the rock next to Great Falls. Like a great big sunflower reaching up to the sky, the sun would shine just for her. But instead of the sunflower following the sun, it was the sun that followed the flower. Shannon was the flower.

She lit up as she looked at the falls. Her heart sang with happiness as she gazed at the rapids. It was clear why 60 Minutes chose her to star in their episode on Washington, D.C. whitewater.

I could not process it. This was the place I felt safest. I was betrayed. The river was not my friend. It was no one’s friend.

The next few days were tough. The next few months were tough. The years were tough. I would quit kayaking for months at a time only to be drawn back to the river. The cycle continued.

When I did paddle, my goal was simple: to be better than I was before. That was the only way that I would kayak again. If I was better than before I might be able to escape my fears of drowning. But it was hard not to think about drowning.

Stuck, barely beneath the water, panic setting in. Wishing I had made different choices. Hoping I would make it through but knowing I would not. Fighting for my fucking life and giving up. Giving it all up. Dying in the water. My body limp. My life jacket slipping off my torso and floating away. Being recovered. My mother receiving an unexpected call with horrifying news. The cancer she was fighting returning with a vengeance. Crying, lots of crying.

I know it’s wrong to think about death in such detail. For years I shut fear out. I shepherded my thoughts like sheep. Each one was guarded. Every thought was evaluated and I decided whether a thought would be allowed to flourish. Positivity was fed and given what it needed to live. Negative thoughts were extricated and disposed of. I’m a gardener; my mind is my garden. I’m also a snake charmer. I keep cobras in baskets and try to tame them before I kiss them on the head.

I moved to California and after some time I was coaxed out to explore some rivers. I attempted perfection. I was terrified at times. I stayed up all night conflicted about whether I should keep paddling. I paddled anyway. I cultivated joy. I forged new friendships. I befriended a kid named Louis. He went to university nearby, and unless I picked him up he didn’t get to paddle. He loved paddling. It scared him too. He was a bundle of joy out there. Jacked up on excitement, he would chatter endlessly about nearly nothing. He spread infectious stoke. It was not long before I looked forward to paddling again.

We were nearing the end of the North Fork of the Mokelumne. Known as Fantasy Falls, it is one of California’s famed jewels of expedition kayaking. I had been paddling well on the multi-day trip. Years of obsessing over safety and precision were showing. I had not flipped on the run. I was still scared. Always scared, never forgetting that one small mistake could mean death. Images of Shannon burned into my head.

We stood above a huge, wild rapid. Tracy said “You should run it.”
I gazed at it in awe. My fragile formulas failed me. We joked that going into this rapid was making an agreement to swim, and if you escaped it was luck not skill. We were far from help, deep in the cascades; away from everything that California is famous for.

Our strongest paddler went first. He took a savage beating in the final hydraulic. His paddle was ripped out of his hands before he ejected. He emerged unscathed. I was not eager to experience a similar thrashing. More paddlers fired into the beast. They were all unbelievably skilled but had varying levels of success. It was amazing to watch from the sidelines, where I intended to remain.

Tracy smiled big at me again. “You should run it.” The seed had taken root. I wondered why bother. It would be no indication of my skill. The rapid was largely luck. But it did look glorious. Despite my best efforts, the seed germinated and blossomed.

I found myself atop the rapid peeling out into the flow, fully focused. I slid down the huge slide and shot into the air, pinballling through the huge waves and finally shooting through the bottom hydraulic. I was ecstatic. I cheered then I started to cry. Water flowed down my cheeks. I was confused. I felt reborn. All my sins were washed away. For a second I had experienced freedom, life without fear. I set down the weight, my fears, my visions of death, and I existed on a new plane of existence. I cried. It felt so good to let go. My mom’s cancer no longer existed. Life without pain. Freedom. It lasted less than a second but my life was forever changed. I realized how hard it is to be human. All of our fears, preconceived notions, and imagined inadequacies prevent us from experiencing life. This is the deal we make when we get a body. It comes with a boat load of fear and troubles. Death is life without fear. I was embarrassed by my flood of emotions and I did a roll to clear my head. I made my way to shore and saw huge snake. I chased it down through the rocks and snatched it up. Ever since childhood I have been fascinated by snakes. I recently learned they are a symbol of rebirth.

Our group collected and we took a picture. The stoke was high. We all had the trip of a lifetime. We swapped stories of our experience in the rapid and continued downstream.

As my childhood kayak teacher Tom McEwan said, “I just bring him to the water, the river does all the teaching.”

I was absolved of all sins. I was pure. Lightness. In an instant I was finally free.


Linville Gorge: Triumph and Tragedy

Editor’s note: On April 28, 2018 a small team of kayakers paddled North Carolina’s Linville Gorge from Pine Trail to Lake James three times in one day. Linville is one of the grittiest runs on the East Coast. It is long, hard, and dangerous as a rattlesnake. The triple involved paddling 45 miles and dropping a vertical mile through a minefield of sieved out whitewater.

Although the first descent was attempted in the early ’70s over several days, Linville was not paddled regularly until the  early 2000s when Lunch Video Magazine popularized an abbreviated 4 mile section known as Babel to Conley.

In 2004 a crew paddled from Babel to Conley twice in a day, and 2008 saw the first Babel to Conley triple. Until recently no one had attempted to run the entire gorge multiple times back to back. Dylan McKinney, Steve McGrady, Michael Welch and Clay Lucas successfully completed the triple in fourteen hours.  But at the end of the day elation turned to horror when they paddled into a tragic scene. Dylan dropped by sitezed world headquarters after a late evening Green lap to tell the tale of the first true Linville triple.

SZ: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you guys plan and prepare for the triple?

DM: We had always talked about doing the triple when we were in college at ASU but we never acted on it.  Two years ago I was headed to work and got a bunch of text messages: “We are going for the Linville triple tomorrow.” I was super bummed I could not make it. They attempted it but I guess they didn’t plan it well enough…the first lap ended up being a little too long. They got to the put in for the second lap and completely axed it. They just took their time on the second. I was kind of stoked they did not get it, “All right, sweet. The door is still open.”

SZ: Who was the ring leader for the successful trip?

DM: Steve McGrady is always the motivator for anything that involves pushing limits. He sent a text out and we ran with it. We had always talked about it, but you can’t plan for the rain. I ran Horsepasture the day before Linville. I got back into town and Steve had been texting us, “Y’all are jangling, y’all aren’t gonna be there.” He had run Linville that day. He was camped out at the lake. I told him we would be there, “We’re gonna show up. We’ll get up at 4 a.m.” Michael and I got there at midnight and he still had to put a seat in his boat.

SZ: What time did you get to sleep?

DM: Around 1 a.m. Steve was sound asleep. He didn’t think we were gonna show up. He was calling us out the whole time. He was putting doubt in our minds about the level but we just stuck to the plan, “We’re gonna do this. I got food. Let’s go. We will be sleep deprived, but it will be fine. Let’s go.” I remember my alarm going off at 4:00 and just being like, “Ah shit. We gotta wake up.”

SZ: Who was there?

DM: Me, Steve, Clay Lucas and Michael Welch.

SZ: You had four cars?

DM: Yeah, four cars. When my alarm went off no one was moving at all. I was kind of thankful, “I’m tired, screw it.” Then Welch opened my door and said, “Get up dude, were going.” We all packed up, loaded up and rallied the dirt road in the dark. McGrady couldn’t believe we had made it.

SZ: There’s nothing better than a Linville dawn patrol. Where did you put on?

DM: Pine Trail. You can’t put on river right at the falls anymore so you would have to drive to the east rim of the gorge to put in at the falls.

SZ: What time was it?

DM: Six or so. We hiked in the dark the whole time. Not even a sunrise, just barely light, like it is now. The level was 2.6. We knew it was going to drop through the day, but it had ben an epic rain. This was in April. We had some friends camping out at Jailhouse on an overnighter. I don’t think they knew we were gonna do it. We passed their camp at 7 a.m. hootin’ and hollerin’ in the upper gorge. From there it was no eddys. Steve had been there the day before so we knew we were good with the wood situation.

SZ: Did you have any problems on the first lap?

DM: Run one went really well. It took just under four hours. We got to the takeout and there were a bunch of boaters there. It was just like clock work loading up again. We were on a program. We put on around 11:00 or 11:30 for the second lap. Everything went well until we got near The Wall down in the lower and Michael broke his paddle. It was funny, on the first lap we were like, “We need our breakdowns.” We forgot them. And on the second lap we were, “Let’s bring those breakdowns.” But we didn’t. So Welch was like, “Fuck it. I’m gonna do the third lap.” He hiked out on the Pinch In Trail. It’s heinous. He hiked all the way to the top of the gorge and we picked him up on our way up for the third lap.  The crux was the second lap, because when we got done we knew we still had time.

SZ: What were you eating?

DM: Ingles subs. We had a bunch of those and plenty of Gatorade and water. Some Yerba Mates. They were a life saver.

SZ: How was your energy level?

DM: The first one I was fine and the second one I was downing food even though I wasn’t really hungry. We were eating a little on the river but mostly on the drive. You’ve got forty-five minutes so it’s enough time to digest and get it moving on the hike in. I guess thinking back to it we were pretty defeated at the end of the second but we knew we had ample time. It was around 3:00 and we had daylight til 8:00 or 9:00. I never thought about it this way, but it’s one thing to run class V for a couple of hours; it’s another thing to do it for fourteen hours nonstop. Youre just checking behind you making sure everything is good. It was exhausting knowing we were tired and knowing we had to keep it dialed. We couldn’t let our guard down. At the end of the second we were prepping for our party lap, “Were gonna bring the speaker for the paddle out.” We brought that and a couple beers for the final hurrah.

The last lap, at the third rapid in Cathedral Gorge, Mike pinned sideways. I was behind him so I tried to grab him but he was stuck good. He bailed and his boat was floating down toward the next drop. We rescued his boat and put all that back together. We were crusing on down and no shit his paddle broke the second time not 100 yards from where the first one broke. We had breakdowns. We were getting exhausted. We didn’t want to deal with it. We could not get the paddle together, could not get it together. I brought mine and we got it together.

We got through The Wall. And after that it mellows out. The Pinch In Trail comes down to the river and there’s a big flat pool, a bunch of camping spots, and a shoalie section with a sieve. The first time I was there it was this oh shit moment. It’s a last minute move away from the sieve. Earlier we had talked about how once were below the last rapid of consequence, that rapid, we could break out the speaker and the beers. That was the pinnacle. That was our thing, blast the music and it did not matter. We would not need to be on guard anymore.

We floated through that rapid and we saw a throw rope stuck in the pin spot. We were like, “Weird.” We did not want to think anything bad had happened at that point. But we looked around and something seemed off. We floated down a little ways and saw a few boats on the side of the river. I saw Mac and Corey. I said, “What’s going on, are you guys good?”

None of them said a word.

They looked like they had seen a ghost. Mac didn’t say it but he kept mouthing something. I was thinking, “There’s no way he’s saying someone is dead, there’s no way.”

We got out of our boats and they had a bunch of lifejackets and gear piled on top of Burton. It had been over for awhile. Mac is a nurse. He called it. Burton tried to go up and over that spot and just pinned and John kept trying to throw him a rope, kept throwing him a rope. He whistled for Mac and those guys. Burton flushed and they got him out of the river. They worked him for a bit.

SZ: Sorry you had to see that.

DM: I saw the same thing happen to Eric Wiegel. I was eighteen. I was paddling with him. He was wearing an FNA helmet which I strongly discourage anyone from doing. I see my friends wearing shitty gear and they think its cool, old school, retro. It’s not cool. I’ve seen it. They think, “It can’t happen to me.” It can.

That’s what I thought when Eric died. “It can’t happen to me or anyone in my group. There’s no way it can happen.” And then I’m on the banks of the river doing CPR. Dragging a friend out of the river. He was going to ride home with me the next two days back to North Carolina.

SZ: It’s a brutal sport.

DM: It makes you wonder if it’s worth it. I don’t know sometimes. That’s the weird thing about it.

SZ: It’s not worth it when it goes bad.

DM: Crazy tough year and it was two weeks back to back. Maria, Burton and Matt.

SZ: After all that went down it must have been getting on in the day.

DM: We probably had an hour and a half of daylight when we rolled up on that scene. We spent forty minutes or so there. They had sent a runner to call 911. We gave them what little food we had, jackets and lights. We hung out for a little bit. We all took it different ways.

SZ: Tell me about that paddle out.

DM: It was a quiet one. I think I cried a couple times. Everyone had this stone cold look on their faces.

SZ: The thousand yard stare. Did you know Burton?

DM: I knew him. I didn’t know him well.

We paddled out in the dark. We got to the takeout and the rangers were breaking into Burton’s car. I opened up my phone and word had gotten out. Some people knew we were there and I had a handful of text from people trying to see if were okay.

It was a tough process. We went from the highest of high, “We made it, we did it. We overcame all our obstacles. Welch broke a paddle and hiked out. He didn’t paddle the last little bit but hell, he got the three laps. He hiked out Pinch In, that’s a shittier version of what we had done. Having to go tell people that we did three laps in a day and in the last rapid we saw somebody dead who we knew and kayaked with…who would have thought.

SZ: It’s the ultimate juxtaposition.

DM: The highest highs and lowest lows in a single day.

Photos Steve McGrady
Photos Steve McGrady



The Sandbags of Time

I look at the call list on my phone. Galen’s name alternates in red and black down the screen. Phone tag. I touch his name and finally get him on the line. He is asking my opinion on whether or not he can handle running Marsh Creek into the Middle Fork Salmon. It almost feels like he wants permission.

You think I got it? I mean, I’ve been hearing that she’s clear of wood. And it’s really just continuous class III right? And I’ve been in my boat about 10 times since the last time I saw you.

I can not imagine this type of conversation feels foreign to other boaters. The whitewater rating system provides a compass of risk assessment, but it is our friends and mentors that set the declination of that compass. They expand on the I-VI rating system, tailoring it to current conditions and the skills of the first-timer. That is the best-case scenario. All too often, I find myself talking to strangers—on the internet or at the Dirty Shame Saloon—because I have nowhere else to turn for peer-review.


This system routinely goes awry. When you consult with close friends their desire to see you succeed  sometimes overshadows their critical analysis. When you consult with strangers they also tend to veer in a positive direction “Oh yeah, when we ran it back in ’06, it went fine…just fine! And we were using a fleet of Jackson Rockers and Dagger CFSs. These new boats will practically paddle you down that stretch! Yeah, you got it.

These days, I am routinely caught on both sides of those words. I am a class V minus kayaker. I rarely find myself paddling with people on my level because I am at an awkward place. Many stop before they get here, justifiably content with paddling safer whitewater. Others go bigger, and they blast past this V minus crap and become full-fledged, jaded gnar-stars.

The result? I am constantly asking or being asked those five words: “You think I got it?” I have two hats on the rack—mentor and mentee. While the persistent lack of peers often makes being a V minus boater feel like a lesser known circle of Dante’s, I am grateful for the dual perspectives.

Flip-flopping between these two roles makes one intimately familiar with the common flaws of the “you got it” call. For example, wearing the mentor hat day after day diminishes our ability to step outside of our own shoes and into those of the on-the-fence boater. Our positive experiences cloud our minds. We stand confidently on the Big Brother scout rock and think, “‘Hmmm. Popping your boat over the guard hole and staying on the dance floor until that perfect moment where you turn the bow to jangle down the left line. Shit… I’ve never had an issue with that move! It’s a class III-IV move at best.’ Yeah (on-the-fence boater), you got it! Easy peezy.


The other heuristic trap mentors fall into is fear of suppressing the stoke. We see Johnny Newboater eyeing a drop like a kid in a candy store, and we desperately want to be the 1950s do-gooder with the go-ahead: “Take a piece son, on me.” Our mental vision of Johnny styling that line glows in slow-motion 1080p on a 70-inch screen with saturated colors and dubstep. On the other hand, the line-gone-wrong is the dim light of C-SPAN on mute coming through a doorway down the hall. Even when there might be a 50/50 chance of Johnny styling or botching the line, we are drawn to the better outcome. We are dangerously optimistic. So we say, “You got it.”

Similarly, we don’t want to suppress our own stoke. Groups feed off a good rhythm. Part of that rhythm is running a drop, gliding into an eddy, and then hootin’ and hollerin’ others over the ledge. So when Johnny chooses to walk it momentarily breaks this rhythm. Spines tingle and hands chill sitting in eddies; the stoke cools too. Sometimes we even need to get out of our boats and help Johnny return to the water. So instead we say, “You got it.” I see mentors fall into these heuristic traps again and again.


Reversing the roles, Johnny Newboater is not entirely innocent either. He is falling into the exact same traps: thinking how easy it looks, being dangerously optimistic, and wanting to keep up.

So what do we do? Unfortunately, the nebulous I-VI rating system is here to stay. I would not be the first—and I will not be the last—to point out that this system is far from perfect. But even if we revamp the rating system, it will never stand alone. Mentors will remain crucial interpreters of a system designed to be informative and suggestive. They help assess how actual paddler ability stacks up against the challenge. They know where we excel, where we struggle, and how we handle hairy situations. Sure, a nuanced rating system could spit out a more informative number than I-VI. But this will not put the mentor out of work. You can not automate that job.

If we accept that the “you think I got it” question is here to stay, let’s improve it. The change begins with the mentor. If you are a gnar-star hearing, “You think I got it?” more than you ask it I have a couple challenges for you:

First, say more than, “You got it.” Create a discussion, explain the hazards, weigh the commitment and compare it to runs Johnny knows. Sacrificing a few minutes to go over these things will  help Johnny’s decision-making and improve your overall “you got it.” decision, preventing you from using the answer as a cheap cop-out.

Second challenge: do something you suck at. Take a day off, stroll down to Beater Bakery, and eat some humble pie—you might still taste it on your lips next time you are on the scout rock at Big Brother.  There are a whole slew of things (mountain biking, squirtboating, yoga) that I suck at. They are less fun than taking a lap down the Truss. But every time I do them I feel like a beginner. That humility stays with me and helps me empathize with Johnny Newboater when he asks, “You think I got it?”

Maybe someday I will graduate from Class V minus purgatory. When that happens, I will watch my mentee hat collect dust on the rack, as my mentor hat develops sweat stains of everyday use. That role-shifting carries a responsibility to empathize with the mentee’s ability to handle the challenge before him or her. So I keep mountain biking, squirtboating, and trying to touch my toes with a straight back. When I suck less at those things I will find new ones. I owe it to Johnny Newboater.


All photos Matthias Fostvedt




Ultra Classic: the Wayne Gentry Interview

At the 1991 Gauley Festival Wayne Gentry released Green Summer, his first whitewater film. While Bob Benner called Gorilla “the most bodacious rapid ever run by the elite eastern hairheads” in his book Carolina Whitewater, Gentry and his crew were dropping some of the biggest whitewater on the East Coast, Gorilla included, on a regular basis. Gentry followed Green Summer with four more audacious movies that helped push whitewater paddling to the next level. Site Zed recently caught up with Gentry for a phone interview. He spoke in the soft, understated Southern accent that his videos are known for. He is releasing all his films on his YouTube channel.

SZ: How many films did you make?

WG: Five. Green Summer was first then Southern Fried Creekin’, Plunge, Vertical Addiction, and Creekin’ in the USA.

SZ: Were they all filmed in the Southeast?

WG: Creekin’ in the USA was filmed all over the country. It was ninety minutes, a bit of an overreach, and filmed from the Southeast all the way to Alaska.

SZ: What kind of video equipment were you using?

WG: We were using Super VHS. It was a Best Buy camera. I just happened to get one for Christmas so I thought I would try it out on the river. We went up and shot on the Green some. I put it together for our friends pretty much. Everybody said, “Man you should put that out.” So we took it up to the Gauley Festival in 1991. We edited with two VCRs with nothing in between them. It was pretty primitive. After that I bought some high end cameras. I would usually burn one or two cameras per film, getting them wet and whatnot. We used the old Man of Rubber drybags. I would just stick them between my legs. As we went along I improved my equipment a little. I had an Avionex  mixer first and then a Panasonic mixer. We never had any computers. They were outrageously priced. The Panasonic mixer was around 1700 bucks I guess. That was the most we spent on equipment.

SZ: Did you have any sponsorship money?

WG: No sponsorship at all, it was all just whatever I made from the last film and whatever was left out of my paycheck. I never made anything off the videos. But that really was not the reason for doing it. It was just fun.

SZ: How many sold?

WG: I’m not sure. It seems like I sold about 1200 Vertical Addiction. That and Southern Fried Creekin’ were probably the two most popular. They sold as far away as Japan. That was pretty amazing.

SZ: What was the scene at the Green? How many people were running it consistently?

WG: Not many. Two or three groups were out there regularly. Tom Visinius and that group from NOC. Woody was always there. He fell in love with the place and he’s still there today. Maybe 25 or 30 people max.

SZ: What was the class V community in general like?

WG: It was a good time jumping in and out of local paddling cliques. Everyone was your best friend. I will never forget going to West Virginia with Roger Zbel and those guys. It was like you had known them for awhile and they were very welcoming. When I did Creekin in the USA people were just as friendly as they could be. Just like, “You are one of us.” Traveling around the country there was no difference in the way people treated us. Everybody was just a part of the family. Especially in the South. There was the Chattanooga crew, the Chatooga crew. It seemed like everybody got along. I don’t know of any conflicts ever. There was some competition of course, people trying to do new runs and whatnot, but there was never any viciousness. Everybody got along real well. It was a lot of fun hanging out with all of them. There were differences in the groups. Woody, Psycho, and the North Carolina crew were different from the Chattanooga crew. The North Carolina group was a little more laid back, cutting up all the time. Psycho was always coming up with something. The Tennessee crew (Tracy Clapp, Clay Wright and those guys) were serious hard chargers. They were pushing hard over there.

SZ: I remember watching Vertical Addiction the first time and thinking, “Holy shit. I can’t believe people do this.” It was way out on the fringe.

WG: Yeah at the time Bear Creek was a really hard run, very difficult. It kept coming at you. A lot of times I was on somebodys tail and they would say “All right. Go down to this rock and take a left then catch the eddy behind the rock on the right.” I had to get good at interpreting what they meant really quick because I was trying to film runs I had never been on before. Thankfully those guys were good at giving instructions as far as how to get set up before they came through. There was some pretty intense stuff over there. And Russ Kulmar and Kent Wiginton were charging pretty hard over on the North Carolina side too.

SZ: You are behind the camera for the most part. Were you paddling all that stuff?

WG: Yeah. With Green Summer I said, “I’m not going to put myself in here at all.” I just felt self-conscious about putting out a video to say, “Look how good I am.” The purpose of the video was to show off the Green and the people that were doing this top end stuff. I put myself in a few just to kind of say I was there. But I have never been one for self promotion. I did not want to be the focal point of everything. I wanted the rivers and the other paddlers to be the ones who got the credit. It was just a personal thing. I didn’t want people thinking I was just out there showing off, trying to show everyone what a great paddler I am.

SZ: Were you on the all the trips? Some of that stuff, like the Toxaway and Whitewater, was on the extreme edge of what was considered runnable.

WG: Several of them I was. Sometimes I wasn’t just because I had a nine to five job and catching the water was difficult. Plus Kent and Russ kind of liked to sneak off and not tell people where they were going and that type of thing. They are great people. Some of that stuff I was not on. A lot of Creekin’ in the USA I was not there for because I couldn’t  get all over the country. I had people from West Virginia shoot some of that. I did as much as I could. They would call me from Chattanooga Wednesday night and say, “It’s raining like crazy up here we think Bear will be running tomorrow.” I would call in the next day and say, “I got to take the day off.”

SZ: What were you doing for work at the time?

WG: Computer programming.

SZ: Where were you living?

WG: I lived in the Atlanta area so I was driving a lot.

SZ: What was it like chasing water back then?

WG: It was pretty difficult. When we were doing Vertical Addiction we had a list of creeks we wanted to get. And the Chattanooga guys would call me to tell me, “We think it is going to be in tomorrow.” Usually they were right on. So it was just that and watching the weather on the TV. That’s all we had to go by.

SZ: How did you know each other?

WG: A lot of us knew each other from the Ocoee. That’s where everybody got to know each other. During the summer everyone would tend to migrate over there. That’s where I met Woody for the first time. It was a central spot and we would just kind of go from there.

SZ: What roll do you think your films played in the progression of creekboating?

WG: I’m a little blown away that people still even care compared to the stuff they are doing today. I never really thought about it much. A lot of people have told me that the videos were a big influence on them which makes me feel really good. Without them saying that I never thought much about it.

SZ: There is a whole generation of paddlers that are around 40 now that grew up watching those and it kind of showed us what was out there. Those videos planted the seed.

WG: One reason we made the movies was just to show everybody what was out there and how awesome and beautiful those creeks and rivers were. We were the only people who could get in there. That was the main purpose, but it does make me feel good that people saw that and it inspired them to push harder and do the things they are doing today.

SZ: Are you still boating?

WG: I am paddling some. I am hoping to retire in a couple years and I am trying to get back into it. We had six kids so we were pretty busy for awhile. The four oldest are grown, so we just have two little ones now.

SZ: Do they paddle?

WG: I have one son who really likes it. He paddles a good bit. We go out together four or five times a year.

SZ: What do you think about GoPro?

WG: I can tell you I used to dream of a remote control helicopter with a camera and now drones are everywhere. Same with GoPro. I used to think, “How can I get a camera on my helmet”. I like the footage. Sometimes I think it’s better from the bank but it does give a good perspective. I wish we would of had them when I was filming. I would have giving anything for something like that. We were using big cameras with four or five batteries and tapes. It was pretty heavy, a good fifteen pounds when all was said and done.

SZ: Do you have plans to release the other videos?

WG: I hope to release Plunge next week. I want all of them out there. They need to be somewhere other than my basement. That old VHS tape does not last forever.


Housatonic Horizon Lines

If you are lucky, the summer you are eighteen something great happens to you.

It is a warm and wet June morning. Everything is dripping new, like a city street the morning after it has rained and no cafes are open and everything is alive with possibility. Finally it has rained, and the Housatonic River has spilled over the dam and over Great Falls of the Housatonic. Eight hundred cubic feet per second of water rumble into the normally lifeless mile-long stretch of bedrock rapids called the Rattlesnake.

Two boys emerge from the woods and drop their kayaks–one red, one blue–into the driftwood-filled eddy and gaze up at Great Falls and then down to the tips of the first waves with wonder. The boy with the red boat gets in first. His arms and feet are bare. What little gear he wears is sleek, black, and new, though barely fastened. His helmet lolls, his lifejacket sags.

The boy in the blue boat is swathed in gear, all tightly cinched but decrepit and mismatched, a center-zip PFD oozing floatation material out a rip in the back Everything clearly gifted from basement piles of charitable elders: an Ace slalom helmet, a Rapidstyle paddling top with purple and teal trimmings that recall the era of Hearn and Lugbill.

The boys are in that sweet spot: their skills are high from paddling all spring, but they have been restricted from rivers like this by their teachers, so everything about it is new to them: gliding across the current on a fresh river that is theirs alone, attaining upstream along the cliffs and paddling out across the sunlit pool, the boiling cauldron in the mist of Great Falls, where sun shines down making rainbows in the spray that blinds them from looking straight up at the falls and where the world seems a novel thing indeed.

“Should we head down?” the boy in blue mouths over the roar.

“Yeah,” nods the boy in red.

Two months earlier they gazed in wonder at the Rattlesnakes’ final passageway, the boulder-filled corridor at the exit of the gorge.  It was dry then but more intriguing as a result; they could only imagine the white turbulence when the rains came.  The way that mass of boulders raced back upstream was mind-altering — the mental syllogism required:

This looks too steep to be a river, but it is a river.

Kayakers can run rivers.

Therefore kayakers must be able to run a river this steep.

Now they are a mile upstream and looking down the Rattlesnake, letting the current lull them toward the rolling white-tipped waves, the chocolate brown ruminations, like looking down on an ever-changing range of mountain peaks. The eddies, holes, waves–these words sound trite to us now, we who have paddled in a thousand streams–but back then they fascinated the boys like magical creations. Logically they knew the river was born of science: of water, rocks, and gravity. Yet with no two waves exactly alike, each seemed to have been created by magic. The boys felt like travelers across a surface whose contours were raised by the hand of some magician capable of making the earth dance and change. Even by early summer, it still has not washed away–that feeling that what they are doing is amazing. They are floating. There is magic in it.

And even more than the river itself, the whole experience of being free from high school is intoxicating. No more mandatory study halls, no more blazers and ties, no more rules governing when they eat, no more studying for final exams. Now they both have cars–a battered Toyota Forerunner for the boy in red, who bought it. His mother’s borrowed minivan for the boy in blue, who is roundly mocked for it. Now they can sleep late. They have both been accepted to prestigious colleges next fall and they are not working right away this summer. They can stop off at Dunkin’ Donuts for a coffee and donut. They can drive on any road they want, windows down, volume up, straight to the river that has called them all spring. Driving over the bridge they will see the magical creation of long white rapids where before there were only dry rocks. They will hike down to the put in without anyone checking their credentials. It is thrilling, it is new–and it is, at least for the boy in the blue boat, enough to send his heart into his throat.

The boy in the blue boat is more cautious as they enter the second rapid, steering wide of the biggest holes, and catching his breath in the eddies as his heart races.  More than anything, he wonders:

“What will happen to me if I have to roll out in the middle of the current? Will my roll work out there?  Will it translate from the flatwater where I know I can do it?”

The boy in the red boat stays out in the middle of the river, threading between big holes. He has big, tan shoulders. He seems to know where he is going. But the whole time, both boys are conscious of what is ahead. Minutes later they approach the edge. Here the Housatonic River plunges over the final, triumphant bedrock ledge. They can only see mist rising, and out in the distance, the trees lining the shore far downstream, where they will be safe and sound, if only they can make it there.

Not knowing what is over the edge is terrifying yet fascinating. The boy in the blue boat breathes deep, trying to hide the terror inside. He has studied it and studied it. He needs to just do it. But is it a good idea? Is he ready? He has never run a vertical drop; he does not even know the kinds of things that could happen to him. He saw his friend get stuck at the bottom and swim. And that was on a day when the presence of Jamie McEwan, his hero, implied that it was safe. Today who knows? The river is higher. Is this suicide? What will happen when he goes over the edge? It is a cruel paradox he considers:

I cannot do this without knowing what it is like. But I will not know what it is like until I do it.

“You think we’ll be alright?”

“Yeah!  It’s fine,” says the boy in red.  “You’ll see a little curler just before the edge.  Hit that right on your bow and you’ll be all lined up.”

“I’ll watch you first.”

“See you at the bottom.”

The boy in the red boat looks hard at the place where he knows he should enter the current at a 45 degree angle.

“You just have to let  the water take you.”

“How is he so confident?” thinks the boy in the blue boat “How can he seem so sure?”

The boy in the red boat enters the current. He leans shockingly far over on a brace. If he flips, all will be catastrophe, but he does not. He balances and just before he vanishes, he is suspended forever lifting a haunting final stroke.

The boy in the blue boat waits ten seconds, hoping that his friend has not been forced under the water to battle for his life. He edges out toward the current and paddles blindly into the chaos.  The water bursts against his hull, heaves him over, but the boy clings to his brace, clings to his training, and it holds. In a flash he knows he will not be forced under, and he is being pushed from behind much faster than expected. Thinking is banished and there is the curler. He sends his bow crashing through it and suddenly the ground drops out and he is afforded a split-second look straight down into the pit of the cauldron. There is no thinking, only reacting, and somewhere in his outward vision as he dives down over the edge he can see the boy in the red boat floating free in the great white beyond.

The boy in the blue boat was me.


There is this persistent idea in our culture that you only get so much time when you are young to have adventures, after which you have to settle down and start contributing to society. Somewhere between 18 and your late twenties you are gifted a respite from the yolk of duty: you drink too much; you date the wrong women; and you live in squalor. You guide rafts; make seasonal wages; drive out west and camp by the river for a month; wear the same clothes all week. You spend your days doing things that adult’s normally only get to do on vacation like ski couloirs and drive from one river to the next. You prop yourself up in vacationland for a time. You live in the place that older people pay money to visit on time away, but you have to serve them french fries to do it.  You throw yourself off big waterfalls and down hard rapids.  You experiment. You try out what life has to offer. You go on adventures.

And except for a few proto-bohemians, a few eternal dirt bags, this life does not last. Drive through any banal American suburb and you can feel the youthful exploits of the sober minded PTA members buried behind the walls. Memories hide away in stacks of photos. Hiking boots are shelved in the attic. Kayaks, skis, ice axes, maps from somewhere way up north are all shoved in a corner of the garage behind tricycles and pool toys. The mementos and keepsakes whose meanings are so personal that nobody would know their significance except for we who lived them–a time that was a mixture of freedom, independence, wild youth, and most importantly friendship. Later, when our adventures are long gone, the memories are all we have–except for the friends who were there with us.

So it is not surprising that we tend to cement some of our most intense, if not long-lasting, friendships during these singular periods when we are young, wild, and free.  In the years after decamping from vacationland we typically do not settle en masse with these same friends in the same white collar cul-de-sacs. We move near family, grad school, new jobs. We fall in with friends we make at children’s playgroups, and through the PTA.  When we do run into our old adventure friends, we are struck by their nice clothes and tolerance with toddlers. But inside is the same man who once paddled off waterfalls and drank warm PBR. Their adventurous flame still burns beneath the suburban decency; but now it is productively channeled, put in the proper perspective, passed along to their children in the form of camping trips, ski lessons, or weekend adventures on toned-down local rivers. And channeled into careers which call on an astoundingly large number of the skills we formed in those river canyons–judgment, risk-management, and teamwork.

But sometimes there is one missing link, one former boating pal who is now totally unrecognizable. They are perfectly at home pushing around stocks and bonds, soberly assessing regulations, cloistered and unstirred by adventurous leanings of any kind. Their new identity is incommensurate with the bohemian lifestyle they once championed, their kayaking past wholly unconnected to the person they are today. We scratch our heads: did we really used to look at them and say, “If I don’t make it, tell my mom I love her?” How could they have changed so completely? Sometimes, looking back, it is like their time in the sport made no sense at all.

If you look closely though, you will find that it always does.

The boy in the red boat I will call Tim.


He was a gadfly, an instigator, a tall, rail-thin boy who had shot up to the height of a man so quickly it was as though he were having a second go at learning to walk and run. Even I at 16, no paragon of maturity, could tell that he was immature. He needed a response from people and as a result he came down just this side of being disliked. He was a lacrosse defenseman, a “long stick,” and his favorite move was the poke check, where a defender jabs a ball carrier in hopes of a lucky dislodge. It is less brawn than irritation. Tim was a master at the poke check on and off the field.  But one evening when we were sophomores I sat down next to him on the bus home from our lacrosse game.

It is not always easy  to tell who is rich at boarding school and who is not. It is not as though you are all decamping to a glittering mansion each weekend, or pulling up to the student parking lot in either a BMW or a jalopy. Boarding school dorms are surprisingly monastic, and the boys who live in them notoriously unostentatious, if not downright slovenly. But look closely and you can tell: the week-old clothes pile tossed carelessly on the floor may be comprised of Brooks Brothers or of J.C. Penney. The single blue blazer might be flanked in the closet by sharp secondary camel hair and tweed coats, or it may be a lonesome singleton. The post-Christmas conversations may be stoked by stories of Aruba or Vail, or met with an embarrassed shrug. It may even be an innate entitlement that comes across when grabbing a little too easily for the ready-cleaned lacrosse jerseys from the low-wage gym attendants. I understood that Tim and I were two decidedly middle class teammates on an otherwise moneyed roster. Perhaps that is why I sat with him. In the magic light of the early evening, above the hum of the wheels on the back roads of western Massachusetts, we found ourselves talking about our families. I told Tim my father had been at our game, that he usually took me to dinner afterwards and drove me back to campus, but not tonight. We spoke for a while about our families, and then Tim told me matter-of-factly that he had not seen his father in some time.

“Actually, I don’t even know where he is.” He looked out at the rolling woods of Great Barrington and beyond as if searching.

“He left the house a few months ago. I haven’t seen him since.”

When you get older a remark like that rings an alarm bell, and you try to make a sensitive response. But when you are 16 years old, streaked with the dirt of the lacrosse field, knowing so little about fathers, even your own, you stare into the middle distance awkwardly.

“Bummer. You got a lot of homework tonight?”


One morning, a year before that bus ride, I looked out my dorm window as I was getting ready for school. My view was of a small parking lot where some of the dorm cleaning ladies parked. Idling crosswise to the parking spaces was an old Buick sedan. It did not look like the sort of clean-lined luxury car that most of the day students’ wealthy parents drove. It looked like one of the cars that people in my small town back home favored.

In the front seat was a boy. I imagined he was being dropped off for the morning, but why back here? Most day students were dropped off right in front of the main building.

The boy was gesticulating toward driver, a middle aged man whose face I could not quite see. They continued sitting and motioning with their hands for some time before I looked away and went to class.

The boy in the front seat had been Tim.


During junior year, word got around that Tim had scored higher than of any of us on the SATs: almost perfect. More surprising was how he had done it: he had studied.  Using flashcards!  Boarding school teaches success, but an effortless success. Boys especially are supposed to pride themselves on their haughty disarray, their disdain for apparent effort, their easy As. But Tim had scored higher than any of us. And he had studied?

The next year, senior fall, Tim had risen from irritating and immature gadfly. He literally and figuratively filled out into, as F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in The Great Gatsby, “the substantiality of a man.” Suddenly he was being offered leadership positions–dorm proctor for younger students; teacher advisor of the sophomore Human Development class. This happens to senior boys sometimes. They are delivered into themselves, into their promise.  Tim seemed taller, broader, more confident. He shook your hand and looked you in the eye as he toured wide-eyed eighth graders and their fathers around the grounds for the Admissions Office.  He looked, in his blue blazer under the brilliant light of the fall mornings on campus, like he belonged.


During the spring of senior year two things happened.

First, Tim got accepted almost immediately to a prestigious Ivy League college.

Second, Tim and I arrived at the banks of the Housatonic River, twenty minutes and a world away from campus. From the seat of a kayak, we took one last look at shore.

If you are lucky, the summer you are 18 something great happens to you.

We fell in love with the magic of flowing water.


James McEwan was James Bond. He was my friend’s father, and he was a daring adventurer. He was at home whether he was on a wild Himalayan river, reading a George Eliot novel, wearing a tuxedo or standing on an Olympic podium. He had done all of that by the time I met him when I joined  his new paddling program run through my boarding school that spring.

I wanted to be initiated. Within me was a hunger and a longing that I see now in my own high school senior students who feel called into the army–a passionate need to belong to a group of like-minded companions embarking on a dangerous, elite mission in service of some vaguely noble objective. It is an elemental longing that has been stirring in the breast of young men since before the Bible. In times past guys like Tim and I disappeared into the woods to kill our first prehistoric beasts, or raided enemy camps, or signed up for a three year voyage to the south seas, killed whales and braved typhoons. Young men of a certain bent need to test themselves in the face of danger. That is what I needed in the spring of 2000: a rite of passage to prove myself.  And I saw Jamie McEwan as just the man to bring me into the fold, the wise sage and battle-hardened veteran to my apprentice. That spring, I trailed the stern of his C-1.

Tim bought a red boat. By early spring we had exchanged several breathless, hushed conversations about the mystery of our newfound infatuation. It was as if two men in love with the same woman were comparing notes. Tim did not join the kayak program. Instead he took a lesson at a local kayak shop and spent the winter dreaming of looking down into the transparent water beneath his boat, 1,000 cubic feet per second of snowmelt undulating beneath him. Though Jamie, irrepressibly affable–a golden retriever of a man–was nothing of the tyrant or bully he looked like, he was still a coach and father-figure. And where I shamelessly jockeyed for position beside Jamie in the eddy and in the van, I got the strong sense by the way Tim avoided Jamie that he was in no rush to take the front seat again when any grown man was driving.

Six days a week of kayaking was not enough. On the seventh day I drove away from the main gates of our school for the first time in a car driven by someone who was not my mother. Tim picked me up in a fittingly beat-up and barely running Toyota Forerunner, weather-gray, that would lose its brakes one day alongside a wild river in the Adirondacks. The inconvenience would not restrict its driver from his class V dessert that afternoon. That Sunday morning as the rest of campus slept, I was met on the beautifully manicured lawn of the quad by the rusted and dismal Toyota Forerunner weighted down by Tim’s garish red kayak.

“Do you want to meet down behind my dorm?” I asked him the evening before.

“Naw, let’s just meet out front of the main building.”

Strapped to the top was Tim’s red Pyranha kayak, ten years newer than Doug Gordon’s old navy blue Upstream Edge slalom kayak I had taken a liking to.  We drove with the windows down and the sun on our shoulders across the fields of the east feeling like kings of New England.  The open road was before us, the river ours alone, all of the hardest rivers, even the Rattlesnake, surely in our future.  We were into college and finally into life.  Now this was freedom!

In the freezing snowmelt of the Housatonic, I tossed Tim upside down in his kayak and taught him to keep his head in the water until the last possible second just as Jamie had taught me. He threw himself again and again under the water with the same soulless devotion and dead-set expression he must have employed while drilling himself on SAT analogies. Soon Tim was righting himself. He learned to roll in half the time it had taken me.

Anyone watching would have thought we were torturing each other, dunking our heads under the water when it was barely 40 degrees out. We wore torn paddle jackets that were like old raincoats, sleeves swollen with water, wool sweaters soaked against our skin, smiles irrepressible, eyes wide open with the magic of existence beneath the sky. We paddled down into a forest of wave-holes and slalomed among them, linking and joining moves and strokes. It was like discovering music. I beckoned Tim upstream and under the groaning iron bridge I pointed to the final boulder-strewn staircase rapid of the Rattlesnake. It was dry, but what would it look like with water?

“We should run that someday,” I said to Tim as we floated next to each other.

“Yeah,” he said, looking at the dry, soundless riverbed that had seen great paddlers descend it, and would in time see us take our place among them. “Yeah, we definitely should.” Somewhere high above us we could spot a huge piece of bedrock that appeared to be a vertical drop. What was up there? I had no doubt we would explore it together.

Right then I knew that I had found the door into the world. I had struggled–and would continue to struggle–with finding friends, with the small talk of parties. I knew as Tim and I cemented our bond to run the Rattlesnake that for as long as I gazed up at hard rapids and wondered if they were possible, I would find other guys who had wondered the same and we would be drawn together. As long as we had the river in common I would have no trouble making friends or conversation. I had been initiated.


Two steps forward, one step back.

That spring we rolled and swam, swam and rolled. Sometimes I flipped far out in the middle of the river only to have my roll work on the first try.  Then I would flip purposely in the take out pool, fail to roll three times, ingest water, thrash around, and finally wind up standing beside my boat up to my armpits in the river.

Two steps forward, one step back.

My mother, who had managed to extract Tim’s existence as a friend of mine from post-lacrosse game chatter, mailed me a clipping from a Connecticut newspaper. In it a middle-aged man stood behind a hot dog stand not far from my school. The man, his face hidden by the brim of a hat, shared Tim’s distinctive last name.

“A hot dog stand?” Tim said, a strange disbelieving smile curling onto his face.  “My dad’s running a hot dog stand?”

Instantly I felt horrible, exploitive.  Why had I told him?

One step back–always one step back.


One evening that spring Tim told me about his plans: first Harvard, then Wall Street.  No one I knew talked that way. At 18 the future seemed so far off, remote.  Nobody at boarding school talked about getting rich.

“I want to make money.” Tim said. “I want to make a lot of money. I want to go to Wall Street, get into banking, whatever it is. I want to help out my mom, make money for her, for the family.”

“I’ve got it all planned out.”


The water got warmer, we got better.

That spring Tim showed up more when our group was paddling. He even became friendly with Jamie McEwan. Tim quickly made friends with some of the better paddlers around the Housatonic. He got a job working at a local kayaking store. Even so, he was still aloof. Just as his popularity and his standing on campus was cresting, an Ivy League admission in his pocket and a new confidence in his handshake, he began to withdraw from school. At a time when many of us were basking in the relative ease of senior spring, Tim had withdrawn into himself. His ruminations were conducted from the seat of his kayak, alone, or sometimes with me on the Housatonic River.


High school graduation is lost on most kids. Life comes at you fast when you are 18. One day you graduate, the next day you are onto the next thing. Graduation means more to the parents because they made the sacrifices. They remember diapers, tantrums, shuttling to soccer practices, haggling about grades, and the struggle that it took to get you across the finish line. When I crossed the stage that morning in 2000 I saw my parents, my brother, and my grandmother beaming. My father asked me to take pictures with all of my friends, but there was only one I could not find: the one I rarely saw on campus anymore, the one with the highest SAT score, the most prestigious college acceptance, who lived closer to school than any of us, and he was not there. But it had rained the night before, hadn’t it?


Two weeks later, Tim told me he skipped graduation to run the Rattlesnake.

“I just didn’t want to go,” he said.

“Your mom was okay with that?” I asked. “Wait, did you run the Drop too?”




We know so little at 18. Back then I was more stunned that he paddled over the edge alone than secluded himself in a river gorge on the day of the most important communal rite of passage in a teenager’s life.

We stood in the roadside pull off and looked at each other. I shrugged and took my kayak off the car and we put on the Rattlesnake. That is when we paddled up below Great Falls through the mist and the water like snow. Twenty minutes later I watched as his stern rose up ever so gently as he plunged out of sight.

But seconds later I too took that mysterious plunge over the Drop, and despite my worrying, it turned out fine. I slapped high fives with Tim in the white pool below and looked up at what we had done. I shook my head to think he had done this solo. Then we paddled into that final rock garden that once looked so steep, and we hurtled down it toward the pool at the end where we had once gazed up with wonder and knew we were changed.

I am older now, and I can tell.  Show me a horizon line, give me a quick look at the amount of water, the shape of the ledge, and the rock, and I have a pretty fair idea of what the base of the drop will look like.  And I have the confidence to either portage or to react to whatever the river does. I have seen it all. But back then I had not been over the edge of thousands of drops, or even one. So I had no idea what to expect–whether I would be allowed to pass through rightside up or flung upside down, kept and beaten in the hydraulic, or subjected to some torturous fate beyond my nightmares.


I returned to run the Rattlesnake many times, and today it looks small, and I wonder why I agonized over such a trivial ledge. But that is like a grown man asking why a child feels so enchanted by his first trip underwater with his eyes open. If we only had eyes to see as we once did. And isn’t that evidence of the magic: what a hold it had over us?

In that hidden space below the Drop lurked all the unknown joy and terror that existed but was unknown to me. I hungered to know what was beyond the edge, and the Drop on the Rattlesnake represented all of these questions that I had. What would it feel like to make love to a woman? What would college be like?What would my life’s work be? What sort of man would I become?

But the answers to these questions all lay before us at 18. I learned to approach horizon lines just as I did when Tim and I first paddled toward the edge of the Drop. There was only so much scouting or planning that we could do. At a certain point you simply had to pick the best spot to enter the current, lean downstream as you had been taught, and paddle toward the edge. I did the same thing a year later when I paddled off Otter Creek Falls in Vermont, my first big waterfall. I did the same thing four years later when I set off from the start gate at the Olympic Trials. And I did the same thing years later when I strode into the glass lobby of my first job in Washington, D.C., from which I resigned in protest two months later.  Or when I stepped into the restaurant at which I met my wife.  Sometimes you knew the horizon lines were coming, and other times you did not. Only by having the courage to paddle over the edge could I know what was on the other side. The Drop on the Rattlesnake symbolized all of the attendant fears and possibilities of my life back when most of it was before me.

Though we never spoke of such things I like to think that first horizon line held some of the same meaning to my old friend Tim.


I once heard that when you are young you need a “door into life.” You need a passion, a pursuit, a cause that requires not only arching your back over the abstractions in a textbook, but pressing shoulder to shoulder with other flesh and blood. You must meet, commune, scheme together, plan together, dream together. You must work alongside others for a common cause. You must share an intellectual hunger, for this is the only real connection. For some people, this comes in an internship, for others in a job. Still others, like Tim and me, find our door into the world through a sport.

That summer we scoured guidebooks, and in that novel freedom we enjoyed, we drove straight to the rivers and ran them: Bulls Bridge of the Housatonic, the Shepaug, the Deerfield Dryway, Tariffville Gorge.

Soon I began to feel that I was losing Tim. He paddled harder water than me. He spent more time with older, more experienced kayakers: cool guys in their twenties who smoked weed, drank beer, owned creek boats. They could cartwheel and run class V creeks like the Hubbard and the West Branch of the Deerfield.  Tim even became friendly with Jamie McEwan. I began to hear kayakers that I didn’t know call Tim “personable.” I could see his confidence.  Within a year of our Rattlesnake run, Tim had run the Moose, the Gauley, and the Green, and  raced in the U.S. Nationals. As I languished back on class II again after switching from kayak to C-1 Tim surged far past me, and I was not sure I would ever again catch up.

Within three years Tim had all but quit kayaking. He lived out his life plan with remarkable fealty: the Ivy League then Wall Street. I have seen him since college, but not often. He is doing well and has had considerable professional success. When you look at his life you might think that his few years kayaking heavily were an anomaly, completely disconnected to what came before or after. And at the time it puzzled me deeply how he could quit so completely a sport that had largely defined him.

Look closer and you begin to see that for Tim kayaking arrived at the perfect time to allow him an entry into the world, a way for him to test himself and to find out what he was really made of–just as it did for me. Would you be brave in the face of danger?

Kayaking taught us judgment too–to decide for ourselves whether to run or not, and forced us to live with the consequences. It taught us how to train ourselves for a specific objective. It taught us decisiveness: you can scout all you want, but at a certain point, you have to climb into your boat and paddle toward the edge. It taught us to be there for each other, for our teammates–who might literally drown if we did not act quickly–in a way that lacrosse never could. It gave us a way to try ourselves against the achievements of real-life Olympians and accomplished adults, like Jamie McEwan. And it put us on a footing of equality with all the doctors, lawyers and teachers that we met and formed fast friendships with at put-ins and playholes across the region. It allowed us to cut across normal social and economic boundaries in the people we hung out with. It was like a friendship-making cheat code, the heightened comradery of hard river trips. It was a degree in decision making, thanks to challenges like the Drop on the Rattlesnake.

The whole sport was our rite of passage. And even though we have long since lost touch, and he is probably wearing a suit and sitting in a glass-lined boardroom somewhere high above Wall Street right now, I know that Tim–like me–is not a whole lot different from that kid who first pushed away from shore and realized that he was floating.

As I think of Tim, I think of the two of us as we were back then: above the Drop on the Rattlesnake, right above the horizon line–poised above our first great rite of passage, wondering what was on the other side, waiting for the moment when the rest of our lives would begin. Back when there was more of our lives to come, more that was undiscovered than discovered, more that we didn’t know about life than we knew, and more possibility lying in wait over the edge–if we only have the courage to take the plunge.

If you are lucky, the summer you are 18 something great happens to you.

There is magic in flowing water.

(Author’s note: I changed a few details to camouflage identity.)


A Fine Line

A fine line separates the good from the bad, the clean from the chaos. It is a finer line still that separates good judgment from bad judgment.

And the line between life and death? That is only a thread. This would be the second time I have clung to that thread with all my strength.

When we begin pushing high water levels it is easy to give the line between good and bad a wide berth. We have learned from experience that rocks hurt, swimming sucks, and holes are terrifying. As we get better we start to forget. We know there can be bruises, gasps for breath, maybe even blood. But we forget what that feels like. Progression shaves away at that line.

The line between good and bad grows thinner. Occasionally, we are reminded of the hurt and the fear, and the line spreads out once again. But most of the time we fill our minds with the semblance of fear. We consider the hazards but do not truly believe we could suffer the consequences. If we did how could we dare take the risk?

As we continue to succeed we are encouraged to shave that line even thinner. Our perception of risk shrinks. Our perception of skill grows. The line becomes magnified. The frayed edges giving way to chaos seem far away. We make playgrounds out of water falling off cliffs. We play a game of inches. Despite our best efforts we feel invincible.

Imagine for a moment the river you are most familiar with. Each rapid should come to mind clearly, perhaps on a perfect day with optimal water levels, warm weather, and sunshine. Hold that in your mind and run through the entire stretch. Take your time. Enjoy it.

Nothing bad happened right? All you saw were perfect lines, high fives, and takeout beers. This is when the line is at it’s thinnest.

Will Crimmins exits Brokeback Gorge Lowville, NY. Photo Eric Adsit
The thin line, the perfect day. Photo Eric Adsit

Brokeback Gorge in New York is among my greatest accomplishments. An instant classic with big drops, mind blowing scenery, and just enough commitment to make it feel real. I can say with confidence I have run it more than anyone. I was also the first to run it, somehow convincing Taylor Krammen to plunge off an unscoutable, unportageable forty-five foot waterfall with me.

What we found on that first descent was impossible to forget. Jagged vertical walls rising straight from the riverbed, sinuous slides wrapping around blind corners, and drop after drop falling away into the gorge. Each time we arrived at a horizonline, we would peer over the edge, hesitant to believe we could make further progress. It seemed impossible that so many quality rapids could unfold before us without any caveats. The region had already been scoured by whitewater addicts with more tenacity than I for over a decade, and the general attitude within the community was that if something had not been run already there was probably a reason.

As we descended into the heart of the gorge, a hallway of rock and water less than eight feet wide ending in the forty-five foot waterfall, it became clear the reason this section hadn’t been run was simply that no one had looked.

After the first descent, we reflected on the possibility for carnage in the gorge. The reality was chilling. Once beyond the first drop there are virtually no opportunities to scout, and fewer to escape. A piece of wood lodged anywhere in the gorge could be fatal. A swim…I didn’t want to consider it. I pleaded with people to respect the consequence of carnage in this place. “Treat every descent as a first descent” I said. How easily we forget.

The water was high, maybe even higher than I thought. But I imagined nothing but perfect lines through the entire run. Extra flow would only pad out the landings on big drops. I imagined myself pioneering the river a second time, this time finding the upper limit of what could be considered runnable. Especially tantalizing was the thought of a particular photo finally capturing the essence of the river.

The most puzzling thing is the absolute confidence I felt as I pulled that last stroke over the edge. I remember thinking “This is going to be sick.”

Then my world went black.

I tried to roll. I tried to roll again. And again. I felt my boat bouncing off the narrow canyon walls and knew my options were running out. Terror consumed me just as it had the first time I learned the feeling of lungs burning for air. And my declaration from the past flashed in my mind: don’t fucking swim.

Too late. In the instant my breath ran out the line between good and bad became the thread between life and death. Decades of hydrodynamic theory fell short when matched against the entropy of a perfect hole. My best dive only landed me at the peak of the recirculation. My tightest cannonball only brought me closer to the seam.

Call it willpower. Call it stubbornness. Call it entitlement. I tucked and tucked again, believing I might bounce myself along the river bottom to relative safety. Give me rocks. Give me thorny tree branches. Anything would be better than this tumbling dingy yellow and blackness. This is not the way I deserve to die. This is not the way I deserve to be remembered.

My hands flailed while my lungs burned. I pulled my knees to my chest but I continued to recirculate.

Finally I was able to catch a faltering breath of air. Water hitched in my throat. My flailing hands smacked against my boat, it too finding stasis in chaos. I latched on believing the combined mass might project us from the violence. It only allowed me a more realistic vantage of my situation. My paddling partner Dustin Caza had already passed me. I wasn’t going anywhere without help.

I gulped another breath of air. My arms were heavy with exhaustion. My feet slipped and scrabbled against the bobbing kayak as the hole snatched at them. And the cold was seeping in. In my mind’s eye I could see that thin thread of life leading downstream. Time was running out.

As soon as my feet made solid contact with plastic I lunged outward, diving with all my might towards my friend staring helplessly from downstream. The hole’s current ripped at my feet. I hovered on the boil line for a half second willing years of competitive swimming experience to emerge from distant memories. At last the water surrounding me was moving downstream. I could surrender.

Once I was stable Dustin took off in search of my paddle. I expected my boat to surge free and for us to continue through the only logical exit of the gorge-over the falls. I remained clinging to the vertical cliff walls, waist deep in surging water, with only a narrow projection of rock for my feet to balance upon. I was only feet from the place I had nearly abandoned all hope. As I watched my kayak gently bob in the seam I remembered that the stable holes are the worst. This one was a near perfect drowning machine.

After twenty minutes I gave up. The kayak wasn’t going anywhere on its own, and Dustin had been out of sight for far too long already. I jumped into the current pinballing between rock walls for a few feet before catching a shallow spot and regaining my feet. Dustin had stopped just around the corner, realizing the folly of chasing gear alone in a flooded slot canyon.

He had already secured his boat to one of the few slopes rising gradually enough out of the gorge to support trees when I arrived. Looking up the thread of life flashed before me once again. The wall was steep, and drifts of snow clung to it in pockets, but there was a way. I burrowed my fingers through the crumbling shale into pockets of moss, dirt, and tree roots. I ground my feet into the actively eroding walls. The clatter of falling rocks mingled with the rush of water and our heavy breathing. In the last 20 feet, the walls approached vertical once again. Dustin was able to climb up and throw me a rope for the last pitch.

I remember staring hollow-eyed into the canyon still not fully registering what had happened over the last hour. The line between good and bad had grown so thin I did not realize when I had crossed it. In this case, the thread between life and death had been surrounded by razors: vertical walls, a flooded river, and an ultra retentive hole. I just got lucky.

It is easy to forget how thin we spread our lines, especially when it feels like you are on fire. Just remember the river has no trouble putting out flames.

The author back for redemption two days after his harrowing near miss. Photo by Sarah
The author back for redemption two days after his harrowing near miss. Photo by Sarah Fick



The modern world with all its traps is hard to escape. The smartphone by my bed beeps and I am awake. It is far too early. An email has arrived. Long time white water pioneer Doug Ammons is talking of the Stikine again-of the river that roars, and the feelings that echo, and the whispers that surround the yellow sign. Doug wants to know about my fall on the portage around the humbling Site Zed. He is putting a book together and wants my take on events. Over five years have passed since I dropped into that chasm, and those encased walls still repeat in my dreams.

I still think of the place daily, glad that the magnet pulled then and so pleased to have fallen in with a crew at the right time. As the years move on the magnet pulls even harder. It simply was not a one hit run. I appreciate that team more now. How we all fell together without words. Silent soldiers on a self-dedicated mission. Bonded brothers–a family without the ties of blood.

How do I talk about the fall I took at Zed? I can’t.

Is it strange to have blocked the negative from my mind?

Perhaps the team can, but I cannot. Although I will try. It seems important sometimes. It is not about the runs others made; it is much more personal. It is not an ego trip or a social media whirl. It is an inner journey.

Parts of the trip in that significant canyon, the negatives, the missed lines and hard knocks still wake me from sleep as they form into nightmares. Those missed moves and tiredness are the monster under the bed. The monster changes its face when I think of the two failed attempts I had taken years before. Now they seem like the stories of a different man that I wove into my own fabric.

The first failed attempt was the last of the Triple Crown. The Alsek and Susitna were complete and the Stikine siren was loud and clear. As a mistress she punishes you. This first time we sat around the beach and waited for the level to drop. We looked at the marker while group dynamics drifted away–it was time to call a no. At least for me it just was not right. I did not feel positive.

The second time, a year to the day later, on the scout at Entry Falls two of our three man team pulled the plug. They walked away and my choice was made for me. The Stikine forces your hand, makes you question, and cuts you down to size. She makes the world shrink to a single moment. It is not about pride, it is about where the soul goes (if you believe in such a thing). It brings all those angels and demons from your past right to your mind. It kicks you down like you never imagined and keeps kicking.

Doug asked me to think about my fall, which I have not done before. Now the words just come and come. It is six a.m. UK time as I think hard, in bed, wind blowing outside writing this on my phone. Making clear choices. Clear debate on the action on that river. Lots of things have passed since then. The moments in the canyon do not fall easy in my memory, it is not a linear story board, but just fragments. Mostly it is first person views, but sometimes it is like watching a cheap VHS movie.

Previous choices to walk away from the call of the river, one of my doubts, one forced by another’s hand, left a chip on my shoulder.

Perhaps that made me stronger?

I will never know.

Parts of the river descent replay in my mind with ease: the paddle in, Entry Falls, it felt like a choir was singing all the way. V Drive, from the scout to paddling the line, so vivid-I can even tell you the number of strokes I used, or so it seems.

Then I have memories that are harder to recall. The missed eddy to scout at Wasson’s then running blind always melts into the portage at Zed. I was tired, beaten and at the back of the pack. What happened on the portage, a tale so close to the terror of a boy’s own adventure novel, of my slide and fall. That is blocked, although pieces of the jigsaw appear now and then.

It was late in the day and I was beat. I still have no words for how tired I was. We shouldered our boats that night and left our supplies at camp. My ankles are badly damaged from previous kayaking incidents and the uneven rocks did me no favours. I struggled behind the group. Slowly I watched with care and controlled the placement of each foot. First left then right with all the weight of my shouldered boat. It seemed long and painful. My friends were out of sight when I lifted my eyes to find a route. I went right, the high road, through the splintered maze of rock.

It was easy at first, then not so much. My foot slid. And I was falling. A few feet I could cope with, but this, this was more. I’ve kayaked smaller waterfalls. Twenty, thirty feet, I can only guess. I forced my kayak in front and waited for it to jam thinking I could use the cockpit as a ladder.

Too late. Steady at first, trickles of dust and gravel ran down to my back. I fell faster, but as always in those times, it is replayed in cinematic slow motion in my mind. I crumbled onto my feet and stopped, still. Then it happened. The trickle of rocks became a stream, the stream a river, a growing rock infested river-alive. I hunkered down close to my boat and tucked my head. I could hear them rolling.

Twack, thud, twack, thud.

Time and again rocks bounced off my boat, the odd one deflected from my shoulder and helmet. My arms covered my face and they too took a beating. Perhaps this was why I had put my elbow pads on when we left the bridge and the yellow sign. I was the only one to do so.

The dust took some time to settle as I lay on the cold boulders a beaten heap. I tried to stand, to walk. Even with all the adrenaline my ankles cried with pain. They were not broken, just twisted badly. I sat and reflected. Ten feet to my left the giant roared, Zed all hungry.

The dust had settled by the time Max retraced his steps. I know he thought I was just resting. I tried to explain, but Zed turned me into a child again. I fumbled for words, stuttered, stammered. Like I did at school. It took some minutes for all the team to congregate. Then the truth appeared. As falls go, it was big. As a consequence go, it was big. A broken leg or worse and things would have got interesting.

Like the loser in a bar room fight, tail between my legs, I felt that walk of shame. The others helped with my boat and we walked in silence to the camp spot.

Photo by Cooper Lambla
Photo by Cooper Lambla


A clear night, silence and thoughts. That is all that I left behind. It was not enough. In the morning the rocks again needed to be navigated before that crux ferry and the quest downstream.


Musings of the Mystery

The author Fishing with Gandhi. Photo Kirk Eddlemon
The author Fishing with Gandhi. Photo Kirk Eddlemon

“If rightly made, a boat would be a sort of amphibious animal, a creature of two elements, related by one-half its structure to some swift and shapely fish, and by the other to some strong-winged and graceful bird.”

-Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

The West Prong of the Little Pigeon River is my local class V creek and my favorite river in the world. Dinosaur is a large, stacked, five-step rapid on the Upper West Prong that commands respect. Just below the second drop is a swirly eddy known as the Panty Eddy. Named for the pair of panties that hung in the overhead rhododendrons for years, shreds of fabric can still be seen there today. I always catch the Panty Eddy for two reasons. First, it is my way of paying homage to all the West Prong chargers of old who came before me. Second, and more importantly, I like the way it sets me up for the remainder of the rapid. I charge from the Panty Eddy to the right side of the current. This slows my downstream momentum while setting my arc and creating my desired charging arc for the next two drops before the final plunge. The West Prong crams everything I love about kayaking into six miles. Well, almost everything…

Charc (charging arc) is squirt boater vernacular that describes the angle of attack of a boat’s long axis as it encounters currents and features. But charc is not exclusive to squirt boating.  Charc is ever-present on steep creeks, easy rivers and eddy lines alike. The power and frailty of your charc lends itself to any move you’ve ever made on any river, and it permeates every aspect of your life. Charc is all about where you have been, where you are going, and how it all goes down. It encompasses your style and your attitude, which are continually being refined by every current and feature you encounter. The following is a collection of musings that highlight emotional responses I’ve experienced through my charc. While these thoughts represent a wide range of individual emotions, they all weave into the fabric of the larger whole. I encourage you to read the following words much like a mystery move within the context of a session. Mystery riders charc in (enter the mystery move), hold their breath, charc out (exit the mystery move), and then breathe again. I ask that you to do the same while you read.

The Winter Cup. Photo John Trembley
The Winter Cup. Photo John Trembley

Intrigue. Charc in. I knew the first time I saw someone squirt boating that I wanted to get into it. I introduce other paddlers to the sport regularly. Their reservations about “if they’ll like it” are foreign to me. I knew right away. After a few sessions with a borrowed boat I quickly pulled the trigger and had a custom boat built.  For a couple of years early in my squirt boating career I am certain I squirted more than anyone in the world. Not that such a feat deserves accolades. It was never about going more or getting better. It was about complete immersion in fun. I was totally enamored with the underwater world that I had previously only floated over. My appetite and tenacity had me spending lonely, cold days hunkered down on an island warming myself beside a fire between mystery sets. Looking back I laugh about those days now and grab the creek boat in winter. The days of the annual Winter Cup are long gone, but for several years a group of hardened souls would descend upon Cowbell in the dead of winter for a few rides. Charc out.

Wonder. Charc in. In the past I always wore a scuba mask while dropping mystery moves. One reason was that my prominent beak tends to drink a lot of water if left unchecked. The nosepiece of the mask helped protect my sinuses from the aqua-douche that occurs when I drop eight feet under water in three seconds. But more importantly, it was always for the visuals. A single long blade of grass is captivating when it spirals horizontally past your face five feet underwater on its own little mystery move. Columns of whirlpools with beams of light breaking through the shadows of overhanging trees make me so happy just to be alive. It can all be quite distracting. The intoxication of thousands of bubbles can almost make you forget that you have to…breathe. Charc out.

Goggles sweeten the visuals and the last breath. Photo Harry Marinakas
Goggles sweeten the visuals and the last breath. Photo Harry Marinakas

Elation. Charc in. Years ago I lost my mask and never got around to replacing it. One of my early mentors in the sport always claimed to be able to feel the water better with his eyes. While I cannot verify his claim, life without a mask does have its benefits. Now I can actually see above the surface.  Recently I was dropping some rides at dusk. From the moment I slid into the water my only company was a thick blanket of fog. Chirping sounds echoed around me, but I could not find the source. After my longest ride of the set I resurfaced far downstream and finally saw them: two river otters, the first floating vertically like a buoy, and the second on its back. They floated toward the squeeze at the top of the strong re-circulating eddy. I saw them twice during the set, but I heard their constant chirpings the entire time. I thought of us as kindred spirits playing in the whirlpools together, and I hoped they were as fascinated by me as I was of them. Almost falling up the hill toward my truck, I smiled as I realized the similarities between mystery riders and river otters – smooth and graceful in the flow, but stumbling and clumsy on the bank. Charc out.

Humility. Charc in. “What’s it like down there?” is a question I’m asked frequently about the mystery move. My brush off answer is usually something along the lines of “It’s quiet.” but that’s not entirely true. When you drop into Smoothie on the Ottawa River, you hear the tink, tink, tinking of small rocks bouncing off each other as they move around the eddy.

Many years ago a crew was dropping rides at the Wye in the Smoky Mountains. The Wye is never short of spectators, and on this particular day there were two women and a boy watching us. Typically mystery moves do not keep spectators’ attention. Known as the mystery effect, the rider charcs in, submerges, and the spectator looks away never to consider what happens next. The interest of our viewers on this day was an anomaly. After the session they approached and asked “What is it like down there?” I quickly replied “It’s quiet.”  But their subsequent questions showed they had been thinking and processing what all the fuss was about. We spoke for some time, and I described how the boat interacts with the water more like a wing with air than a boat with water.

"Some swift and shapely fish." Photo by Shay Trembley
“Some swift and shapely fish.” Photo by Shay Trembley

They followed with more questions that showed genuine fascination. Relax. Stay calm. Slowly exhaling releases the build-up of carbon dioxide in your body. I obliged their curiosity with pride as I had dropped some great rides.  In my mind I had just put on something of a clinic. The entire time I was speaking with the women, the young boy was quiet but never took his eyes off of me. They held a mischievous look. He couldn’t take it any longer and blurted out “The guy in the white helmet was the best!” I politely informed the kid that the guy in the white helmet’s name was Buddha and that you don’t share a nickname with a deity by being a beater. Charc out.

Harmony. Charc in. During a mystery set, you are in search of that rhythm. Finding the flow of the other riders, your breathing, your charc, and the river – it is all about the rhythm. You focus on a simple singular thing, i.e., your entry speed, your charc, or your breathing. Then you feel the “do less” mantra through your boat, which is no longer separate from you. The line that separates you from your charc or from the river can blur or altogether disappear. Slipping into darkness the light from the surface world exits and ushers in the compression from the deep. The boat squeezes your legs and any air that remains in your dry top escapes via your wrists and neck, vacuum bagging you. Once submerged and in flight all that matters is the ride. Charc out.

The author with a righteous splat at Pillow. Leisure Sports Photos
The author with a righteous splat at Pillow. Leisure Sports Photos

Fear. ­Charc in. Squirt boaters can only get out of their boats in particular spots. Only a gentle grade will allow you to back the boat onto the rock to slither out of the boat. If the rock is too steep, then you’re out of luck. The third of four pit stops on the Upper Gauley takes place around Lost Paddle. Historically this was taken on the large rock in the middle of the river at the Lower Meadow confluence. This rock is dubbed The Rock Where No One Speaks. And it’s generally pretty quiet on this rock. It’s quiet because Second Drop of Lost Paddle is fucking scary in a low-cut, neutral buoyancy boat. It’s steep, fast, shallow, and rocky, and there are tales of bottom pins in the flow near the bottom of the drop. For virgins and veterans alike Second Drop of Lost Paddle is legitimate. When I stop on this rock I pee a minimum of two or three times. Even if my mind is calm my body knows I’m nervous. Once I even tried to pick a conversation topic prior to arriving at The Rock Where No One Speaks to no avail. Now the third pit stop occurs after Lost Paddle so The Rock Where No One Speaks does not see as many visitors. Good riddance. Not an Upper Gauley descent goes by that I miss it. Charc out.

Trepidation. Charc in. Like the height of waterfall descents, mystery moves have been getting big – real big. The minute long mystery is no longer theoretical. That benchmark has been moved to the 90 to 100 second mark, with two minute rides in the near future. Whether you are pushing the limits of what is possible or your own personal horizons, big mystery moves require two things: intent and a sense of belonging. There is no faking intent. The river sees right through that. Your sense of belonging can be honed by a few thousand rides, but I have found my appetite for big rides waxes and wanes out of my control. The lure of the deep is strong, but it is not a place to let your guard down. You can never forget that you are merely a visitor in the sublime underworld. Charc out.

I suspect squirt boating will always be the redheaded stepchild of kayaking and that is okay. Maybe it is the dichotomy of a “swift and shapely fish” and a “strong-winged and graceful bird” that keeps the masses at bay; while at the same time, it is the blending of those ideals that keeps mystery riders searching. Whether you never sit in a squirt boat or you are intimate with the rivers hug found only in deep eddies, I believe it is through your charc that the river offers itself to you. As I muse on the mysteries of my charc I know one thing. The range of emotions elicited through my experiences (intrigue, wonder, elation, humility, harmony, fear and trepidation) has brought me full circle back to the beginning. Like the ouroborus, there is a constant re-creation. With every answer and experience follows another question and ride. The closer to mastery you move the more humble a student you become. It is a paradox, but one that offers one hell of a good time.

One hell of a good time. Photo by John Trembley
One hell of a good time. Photo by John Trembley


The Daniel Effect

Editor’s Note: Daniel DeLaVergne (3/5/1977-3/8/2006) was a whitewater legend and one of the founders of Lunch Video Magazine. He was instrumental in planning and executing the Seven Rivers Expedition and the first one day descent of the Stikine River in British Columbia.

Daniel on a side trip to Bald Rock Canyon on the Middle Feather during the2004 Seven Rivers Expedition. Photo by Alex Ransom
Daniel on a side trip to Bald Rock Canyon on the Middle Feather during the 2004 Seven Rivers Expedition. Photo by Alex Ransom

“Okay, here’s how we’re gonna do this.”

That was a good signal to pay attention to Daniel DeLaVergne because the king of logistics was about to lay out a fool proof plan.

I had just returned from a kayaking trip on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and we were headed to California for the Seven Rivers Expedition one week later. We had to ship our boats, roof racks, and as much gear as we could cram in the boats ahead to Sacramento. We only had one day to go to Liquidlogic, pick up boats, pack them with gear, and drop them off at Forward Air in Greenville. I was coming from Knoxville, and Forward Air was closing at 3:30. We were tight on time. But the Green was running 200% until noon. Obviously, we had to make that happen too. As always, Daniel could instantly see the correct order of events to make everything happen on time with maximum efficiency.

We got the gear sorted and boats loaded in the dirt parking lot of the old Liquidlogic farm house, and someone from the office dropped us at the put in. We had borrowed gear (all our stuff was packed away in the trip boats). On the water we made quick time to the bottom of Go Left. We stopped long enough to give each other the “all good” head nod before catching the big eddy on the right below Pencil Sharpener (the entry ledge above Gorilla). Daniel taught me that by catching that eddy you can commit to “riding the lightning” and still have a calm place to collect your thoughts. He also liked the way peeling out of the eddy on the right set you up to boof the left side of the notch.

Daniel deep in the moment on the 2004 Seven Rivers Expedition. Photo credit Tommy Hilleke
Royal Gorge.  Photo by Tommy Hilleke

He called it “the old right to left to left to right.” The rest of us would later call it the Flying DeLaVergne. We stopped again for a moment at a big eddy known as the Happy Place below Gorilla. We yelled out our thanks to the spirit world and made a beeline for the take out. Woody was waiting for us and drove us back to Liquidlogic. We hopped into Daniel’s Subaru and got to Forward Air with plenty of time to spare. I even made it to Knoxville in time for dinner with a very patient woman.

One week later we flew from Atlanta to Sacramento and picked up our boats and van. We installed roof racks, loaded boats, and met up with our friend Eric for a quick lunch at the Placerville In-N-Out Burger. We paddled the Silver Fork. I swam below Car Wash, and my boat (with my wallet in it) pinned on the bottom of the river. We retrieved my boat, drove to Tahoe, and ate a pizza, all before the sun set. That was day one of the Seven Rivers Expedition, one of the biggest assaults on the High Sierras to date.

The Seven Rivers Expedition was one for the ages. Eight of us and a rotating cast of extra characters packed into a 15 passenger van. The goal was to paddle the Middle Fork of the Kings, Dinkey Creek, Devil’s Postpile of the San Joaquin, Fantasy Falls of the North Fork of the Mokelumne, Royal Gorge of the North Fork of the American and Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne all in one season. We laid out a plan that changed every other day. Every time we thought we had the next move dialed, the river would spike with a heat wave or drop out from a cold front. Through it all Daniel quietly assessed the variables and came up with a list of options. Everything was richter high but he spotted a three day window of cool, cloudy days. We rallied to Fantasy Falls and put on at higher than recommended flows. It magically dropped to the perfect level just as he predicted.

Cherry Bomb Gorge. Photo credit Tommy HIlleke
Cherry Bomb Gorge. Photo by Tommy Hilleke

Two weeks later Daniel and John hatched a plan to hike into and run Upper Cherry Creek in one day. It is normally done in two to three days. We left the parking lot before dawn with limited gear and food, and thousand yard stares. Daniel and Tommy hammered the hike. They did not stop until they reached the put in. The rest of us stopped at an overlook and got Al on the radio. He had hiked to the river at Flintstone Camp. He told us it was way too high and we should hold off.

“That’s fine, but Tommy and Daniel are on their way to put on with no food,” we replied.

We turned around and went to town for groceries and pancakes. Daniel and Tommy put on and paddled to Flintstone Camp where Al was waiting. He shared his food and supplies with them for the day. The rest of us returned with reinforcements and hiked back to camp where the party was in full effect. We spent the next four days sleeping in the dirt and running laps on the Teacups in one of the most amazing place in the country. Even though he left the car with one day of food and was out for five days, Daniel did not bat an eye at the change of plans.

 Daniel set the bar high for what could be accomplished in a day. His logistical genius made big trips possible and getting in a 200% lap while running errands commonplace.

It’s been ten years without him, but Daniel’s influence is still seen throughout the world of whitewater. His videos and marketing plan helped shape what is currently popular in whitewater media. We named moves, eddies, lines, and gear after him. After his death I spent a year paddling hard every chance I got because I felt like I needed to honor him. Then I spent a year not paddling at all. My emotions were overwhelming and paddling made me sad. Now I go when I can and I go without sorrow. It is rare that a day goes by that I don’t think about my friend, but never more than when someone is complicating the shuttle and wasting valuable time. That’s when I can hear that voice in my head:

“Okay, here’s how we’re gonna do this…..”

Photo credit Alex Ransom
T-Dub forever.  Photo by Alex Ransom