Tyler Bradt on Abiqua Falls, March 20th, 2011. He knew instantly that he’d broken his back.
by joe jackson & jeff moag
On the afternoon of March 20, 2011, two of the world’s most promising young kayakers broke
their backs running large waterfalls. Tyler Bradt, then 24, fractured his L1 vertebra on Oregon’s Abiqua Falls, a particularly unforgiving 100-foot drop. Five hundred miles south, 17-year-old Jason Craig struck a rock at the base of an unnamed 30-footer on California’s Dry Creek, shattering his pelvis, smashing his spine and rupturing his dural sac. In lay terms, he separated the lower half of his skeleton from the upper half. In the year that followed, both paddlers used kayaking as motivation and tool in their recovery. Tyler’s progress was astounding. Just seven months after Abiqua, with a collection of surgical steel screws and pins still in his back, Bradt and three others completed the first descent of the Congo River’s
He learned to walk again.
Inga Rapids, the highest-volume whitewater ever run. Craig’s recovery was even more impressive.
Stepping Up: Jason in therapy at the CR Johnson Healing Center.
j a s o n ’ s b y
j o e
s t o r y
j a c k s o n
n the morning of March 21, 2011, Dr. Barry Chehrazi, a neurosurgeon at the Sutter Medical Center in Roseville, Calif., assessed the devastating injuries sustained by the handsome 17-year-old lying in front of him. The X-rays already showed that the kid, Jason Craig, had shattered his pelvis, broken his back, ruptured his dural sac and dislocated both femurs. A few minutes into the assessment, Jason politely asked, “Excuse me, doctor, am I going to experience
any paralysis?” “Son, you already have,” Chehrazi responded. Jason didn’t realize that the doctor had been poking his legs with needles for several minutes. Jason Craig is whitewater kayaking’s golden boy. If that statement sounds like hyperbole, you don’t know Jason. He’s full of pleases, thank yous, eye contact, and joy. His smile engages every muscle in his face. He graduated high school with a 3.95 GPA and holds the door for strangers. And he is one of the best freestyle kayakers in the world. In 2009, at 16, he won the junior men’s title at the ICF World Freestyle Kayak Championships in Switzerland. At 17, while still eligible as a junior, he stepped up to the adult men’s division and had an impressive run of second-place finishes in three of the sport’s biggest competitions—the U.S. Freestyle Team trials, the Reno River Festival and Teva Mountain Games. Jason would never tell you any of this unless you asked. I once watched a 50-something Tahoe local ask Jason if he was a whitewater kayaker. “Yeah!” Jason replied. “Where have you boated?” The grizzled outdoorsman asked, sizing him up. “Oh, you know, all around,” Jason said, leaving out details like his trip to Prague for the freestyle world cup when he was 15, or the two months he spent kayaking Africa’s White Nile during his junior year of high school. “But I really love the Truckee!” Jason said of the mellow town run in his native Reno. Jason was nearing the pinnacle of freestyle kayaking when he decided to run a nameless and, as far as 30-foot waterfalls go, innocuous-looking drop near Auburn, Calif., on March 20, 2011. A series of powerful storms had caused river levels to spike throughout the West, and Jason heard that a huge, playful and extremely rare surf wave was coming in on the American River 100 miles from Reno. He traveled eight hours through a heavy snowfall to get there, imagining new trick combinations as he made the slow drive west. He had no intention of running a waterfall. Jason, in fact, is not a waterfall hucker. “He’s not a particularly hanging-on-the-edge-kind of kid,” says Jason’s mother, Karen. She didn’t worry about Jason’s paddling trips because, she says, “My kid is really good at what he does, and stays really grounded.” But when he
Day of the Drop: Jason Craig’s perilous line on Dry Creek.
More surprising was how calm Jason remained with bone fragments in the nerve center at the base of his spine, triggering pain few people ever experience. Scott Sady
discovered that the wave he’d driven all that way to surf was blown out, Jason volunteered to help run safety for a crew of six paddlers, including photographer Darin McQuoid and filmmaker Cody Howard, who were eyeing the first descent of a rain-swollen 60-foot drop on a tributary of Bear Creek. Jason had zero intention of running the big drop, but after scouting the 30-footer farther downstream for well over an hour, and watching McQuoid and Taylor Calvin paddle safely over the falls, Jason decided to run it. Jason’s last clear memory is the boof-stroke he placed at the lip, just as he wanted, and then looking down to the landing pool. The next thing he knew, he was out of his boat getting churned in the boils at the base of the waterfall, unable to swim. “I don’t remember taking the hit,” Jason says. “I’ve thought a lot about what actually happened. I just don’t know.” Even the video of the accident, which he’s replayed numerous times, doesn’t show his boat striking a rock at the base of the falls. In the film, he disappears from sight for a few seconds and then comes to the surface, separated from his kayak. McQuoid knew something had gone terribly wrong when he saw Jason clinging weakly to a rock on river-left, across the creek from the rest of the group. Gareth Tate, a 31-year-old traveling Wilderness Medicine Instructor from Greensboro, N.C., was filming from riverright. He knew the first course of action was key: immobilization for a potential spine injury. Tate shouted at Calvin, the team’s safety boater in the water, instructing him to hold Jason’s head absolutely still. Then he jumped into McQuoid’s kayak and ferried across the river. The extraction took five hours. The crew first set up a Z-drag to carefully pull Jason up a 60foot vertical wall, then carried him downstream where they could stage a shuttle across the swollen creek. The local search and rescue had arrived by Jeep on the other side with a river-
rescue board and backboard. The kayakers strapped Jason to the backboard, placed it on the rescue board, and ferried him across. It was a delicate and dangerous maneuver requiring the entire team—and most of all Jason—to remain calm under extreme stress. “If Jason had fallen off, he would’ve sunk directly to the bottom of the river,” Tate says. Somehow the crew managed to keep Jason immobilized; his surgeons were amazed that Jason’s spine didn’t suffer more damage
during the ordeal. More surprising was how calm Jason remained with numerous bone fragments lodged in the nerve center at the base of his spine, triggering pain few people ever experience. “I’ve seen people have panic attacks just being strapped into boards,” Tate recalls. “He was rock-solid through the entire thing.” One year later, I’m sitting on a stability ball across from Jason in the High Fives Foundation
CR Johnson Healing Center in Truckee, Calif., talking about his recovery. A smiling cast of characters, and a seemingly endless parade of dogs, bound in and out of the center. Everyone stops to say hello, give a round of hugs, and brag about Jason and how hard he works in his physical therapy sessions. You wouldn’t guess that Jason was just one year removed from such a traumatic injury. With his shaggy, curly hair, he looks like any other 18-year-old boater. You don’t see the 21 screws and bolts—some as long as 5 inches— that will soon be removed from his back and pelvis. His hoody obscures obscures a raw 10inch scar and two screws that protrude about an inch from the base of his spine. His jeans and skate shoes hide the atrophy of his feet and legs. Jason’s smile, infectious laugh, and perpetual positive spin hide the nerve pain wracking his body. Much of Jason’s struggle takes place beneath the surface. The day after his accident, four doctors spent
six hours reconnecting the damaged pieces of his spine, fiber by fiber. Six days later, he took his first steps with the help of a physical therapist, a nurse, and a walker. “I could hardly take two steps,” Jason says. “It really put into perspective how far I had to go.” He was able to return home from the hospital five weeks after his surgery. Then things got dark. One morning he took off a sock and his foot felt like someone had covered it in kerosene and set it afire. Nerve pain would randomly overtake him, causing him to scream and shake uncontrollably. “It was like watching your kid give birth or get electrocuted,” his mother says. The impact had severed innumerable nerves and compressed his spinal column. The result has been hundreds and hundreds of hours of unannounced pain Jason rates at nine or more on a 10-point scale. “My dad always used to say that pain is a modifier of behavior,” he says. “Instead of making the pain a negative modifier of
my behavior, I decided to make it a positive thing.” The first time Jason realized he could use his mind to handle his pain was in the ICU a few days after his accident. The painkillers that doctors had pumped into his body were powerless to stop the hurt. The pain created by the innumerable raw, angry, damaged nerves was unbearable. Then, Jason’s mom placed her middle finger in between his eyes and for the first time in days he relaxed. “I was on morphine and all these crazy drugs and focusing on my mom’s finger is what made the pain go away,” Jason says. Jason has since harnessed the visualization techniques he used to win freestyle kayaking events to manage the hours of unrelenting pain. But with the pain came more sensation in parts of his body left paralyzed. “I would have a night of super-intense nerve pain and find myself wondering, ‘How can I live like this?’” Jason says. “Then I would wake up and feel more of my leg and know it was totally worth it.” The
“I was wondering if my boat tried to save me or kill me. I know now that it tried to save me.” Jason Craig teenager spent his tortured nights focusing on these new feelings while visualizing his body regenerating. “Accepting that pain allowed the real healing to start,” he says. Another loss that Jason had to confront was his spot at the peak of freestyle kayaking. His first, and most notable absence was in May at the inaugural Whitewater Grand Prix, an elite, invitational-only, multi-disciplined competition in Quebec featuring massive water. “That event
was my main goal all year,” says Jason, who had gone to Africa specifically to train in big water for the freestyle stages. A few weeks after the Grand Prix wrapped up, Jason got a video from organizer Patrick Camblin—a clip of every single competitor sending encouragement to Jason. When he finished the video, Jason asked his mom to help him down the 11 stairs into the garage where he stored the creekboat he used to run the waterfall that changed his life. He asked his mom to put
—Visit CanoeKayak.com to view an exclusive video detailing Jason’s trying, and inspiring recovery.
Greg Von Doersten
the boat on the ground. He wanted to sit in it. When he laboriously placed himself in the cockpit, Karen began to say something. Jason politely raised his hand and asked her to be quiet. After a long silence, he said, “Oh, that’s good.” “What?” his mom asked. “I was wondering if my boat tried to save me or kill me. I know now that it tried to save me,” Jason responded. A few days later he was back in his kayak, paddling the extremely mellow stretch of the Truckee behind his house. “The paddle strokes felt so effortless compared to the few steps I had to make down to the river,” Jason says. “It is such a good feeling for a guy who has a hard time getting around.” Jason does not plan to run any more big drops. He loves overnight kayaking trips and intends to have many more of those in his future. “If I could be on a multi-day trip for the rest of my life, I probably would,” he jokes. The former world champion plans to return to freestyle competition, but the injury has made him step back. “When you paddle every day, that competition is in you,” Jason says. When asked about what his future in kayaking looks like, he responds, “I have no idea, in all honesty.” In September, Jason started his freshman year at the University of Nevada, Reno, carefully planning his route between classes. By November, he’d lost the lurching drop-hip motion in his gait. By March, he was regularly skiing, rock climbing and paddling. At the end of that month, surgeons removed the majority of the hardware from his back. After the operation, they told him the sky was the limit for what he will be able to do physically. Mentally, however, what Jason has accomplished with his recovery sets him apart from most other people. “This experience is going to make him iron,” Tate says. “This is molding him into the type of person that doesn’t come around very often—a hero.”
t y l e r ’ s b y
j e f f
n March 19, 2011, Tyler Bradt arrived in British Columbia to test winter camping gear with Jon Turk, a family friend 40 years his senior with whom he was preparing to ski and sea kayak around Ellesmere Island. The 1,500-mile expedition in the Canadian high Arctic was to be a new chapter for Tyler, an ebullient 26-year-old best known for his 2009 descent of Palouse Falls, at 187 feet the highest waterfall ever run in a kayak. The plan had been to spend a few days in the high country, testing the gear that would be essential to the success of their arctic expedition. But Tyler had spent most of the afternoon scouting some big lines that, due to unstable snow conditions, they decided not to ski. As soon as they returned to Turk’s apartment, Tyler’s phone began ringing with news that water was on the rise throughout the Northwest. “When he got the call he just went totally crazed,” says Turk, 66. “Five minutes later, I was helping him carry his bags down to his pickup, and he was driving down the road.” Anyone who knows Tyler will recognize the pattern. He appears on
s t o r y m o a g
your doorstep with a broad smile, booming laugh, and plans for a wild adventure. And if that adventure doesn’t go off right away, he’ll find another one. So the next morning, Tyler was in Oregon eyeing a particularly unforgiving 100-foot plunge called Abiqua Falls. Jesse Coombs had run the drop nine days earlier at higher water, and despite what Coombs calls a “perfect line,” the impact had blown his skirt, punctured his lung and injured his shoulder. Now Tyler was sizing up the same drop at a lower water level that left absolutely no margin for error. He’d hardly paddled all winter, and hadn’t dropped a waterfall over 40 feet in nearly a year. Still, he says, “I saw no reason not to run that beautiful stout waterfall.” It’s not that Tyler wasn’t aware of the consequences of a missed line. It’s just that he didn’t expect to miss it. Tyler Bradt is not a doubter. That simple fact explains why he chose to hand-paddle the waterfall that broke his back, and how he recovered so quickly. It explains how, seven months after fracturing his L1 vertebra on Abiqua, Tyler played a pivotal role in the first descent of the world’s biggest whitewater rapids. Rather than put the brakes on the Funhog Express after the close call, Tyler stepped on the accelerator. “How do I put this?” he says. “When you
Bradt, in blue, and his Inga teammates training on the White Nile, Uganda.
Greg Von Doersten
philosophy that you can’t label any event good or bad, because you never know what may come of it. Case in point: Missing Ellesmere gave Tyler the chance to join another historic paddling expedition.
think how valuable your life is and everything you can do with it, it just gives you the will to take that to the extreme and do the most amazing shit you can possibly dream of.” Right now, the dream is to circumnavigate the globe on a sailboat loaded with kayaks, surfboards, diving gear and a revolving cast of like-minded adventurers. He started in April, with no sailing experience to speak of, and not a doubt in his mind.
Tyler laughs at such long-distance psychoanalysis. What happened on Abiqua was simpler than that, he says: “My bow came up. I tried to stomp it back down and it didn’t work.” The error was a matter of a few inches, but Tyler knew instantly that he’d broken his back. The typical doomsday scenarios—wondering if he’d kayak again, or walk again—barely registered. “That thought flashed through my mind when I was still upside down in my boat knowing that
my back was broken,” he says. “But rolling up and wiggling my toes, that’s when I knew that whatever it was, I was going to get through it.” Just by wiggling his toes, Tyler already had beaten the odds. “My neurosurgeon says that he never sees people walk away from my kind of injury,” he says. “I dodged a huge bullet with this.” That’s not to say his recovery was easy. He faced a delicate six-hour surgery, a week in the hospital, and three months of enforced inactivity. He watched as Turk and Erik Boomer, 27, kindled a May-to-December bromance without him and completed an Ellesmere circumnavigation hailed as one of the greatest expeditions in recent history. None of that, he’s quick to ad, compares to the struggle that Jason Craig has endured. The two broke their backs on the same day, and have been in close contact since. “We’ve just shared a lot of positive energy, positive thinking and optimism,” Tyler says. There was no deep talk about the pain they endured, or the despair Jason felt at the prospect of being unable to paddle. “Just words of encouragement,” says Tyler, who lives by the
“how do i put this? When you think about how valuable your life is, it just gives you the will to take it to the extreme and do the most amazing shit you can possibly dream of.” Tyler Bradt 48
In early 2011, kayaking filmmaker Steve Fisher was gathering a select team of paddlers to attempt the Inga Rapids of the Congo River, a 50-mile stretch of unfathomably powerful whitewater located in one of the world’s most dangerous countries. Fisher had spent the better part of a decade cajoling and bribing his way through layers of red tape. Finally, he secured permission to run the rapids in Fall, 2011. The only question was whether Tyler would be fit enough to join Fisher, Ben Marr and Rush Sturges on the planet’s biggest whitewater. Confident in his big-water instincts, Tyler focused on regaining the strength lost in the injury and extended layoff from paddling. In June, three months after the accident, he began daily 20-mile training runs on the Clark Fork River near his home in Missoula. In midAugust, he ran Wyoming’s Box Canyon of the Clark’s Fork, a committing Class V multi-day. When the team left for Africa in September, Tyler went with them. They spent nearly a month training on the massive White Nile in Uganda, but nothing could prepare them for Inga, where the Congo River has more than twice the gradient and about 50 times the average flow of the Grand Canyon’s steepest section. Here the world’s second-largest river pummels downstream at up to 30 miles an hour, exploding into waves that pulse 40 feet high. The team would spend four days descending the rapids and gathering on-water footage for The Grand Inga Project, Fisher’s hour-long film about the mission. A helicopter provided full-time air support for scouting, but the paddlers were determined to portage nothing, and run a continuous line through all seven big drops. “I would say that the Congo without a doubt is the scariest, most dangerous thing I have ever done in a kayak,” says Tyler, who ran the section with four surgical steel screws and
a rod still in his spine, and despite suffering a malaria-like illness on the first day. “It was intense. It was terrifying. Very rarely was it ever fun. It felt like the river was literally trying to kill us at every single twist and turn.” Back home, Tyler jumped at the chance for a less strenuous expedition with his old cohort Erik Boomer and Sarah McNair Landry. The trio crossed the Sea of Cortez in Triak sailing kayaks, making a series of long island-to-island crossings, and continuing south along the Baja coast. The trip featured what Tyler describes as “a mini-epic pretty much every day,” including a tense few hours pinned down on a narrow island beach, with a powerful north swell and rising tide threatening to inundate their tiny haven. Still, there were plenty of calm days and campfires, and Tyler refers to the trip as a “relaxpedition.” While in Mexico, Tyler came across the 44-foot steel-hulled cutter Wizard’s Eye in a San Carlos marina. The 20-ton vessel was lovingly built and equipped for blue water by a man who waited too long to live his own dream. Tyler snapped it up for a song. (He has small sponsorships from NRS and Kavu for the round-the-world trip.) His first order of business was to sail it some 400 miles to Cabo San Lucas, where he and expedition manager Andy Feuling will spend the remainder of 2012 refitting the boat and preparing for their aroundthe-world adventure. Naysayers are plentiful, particularly in the sailing community. But Jon Turk, whose extraordinary adventure resume includes a number of sailing exploits, has no doubt Tyler can make it. “Sailing is easy,” Turk says. “The challenge for Tyler is that crossing an ocean on a sailboat is basically just sitting there for three weeks. It will be interesting to see how he handles that transition.”
—Visit CanoeKayak.com to see photos, videos and blog updates documenting Tyler’s recovery and continuing adventure. Online extras include the full photo sequence from Abiqua, plus maps and galleries from the Congo first descent and the Triak expedition, plus the first dispatch from Tyler’s around-the-world trip.