The Dirtbagâ€™s Guide To Whitewater
One To Remember
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It’s hard to write about death.!! It’s even harder when you’re writing about someone you knew well. Despite only a handful of trips together, Alan Panebaker was a great friend of mine. He was a great paddler and writer, and a little bit of a wanderer. He treated me like I had shown some kind of great potential. It was as if he saw a future-me achieving something far greater than I could imagine. To use his own words, he turned reality into dreams. I miss him. And if my one wish were granted, I would be the only one that had to. I would gladly sever that friendship, act as if I had never known him, if only he could continue to touch other people’s lives the way he did mine. This wish cannot be granted, and a good many others mourn the loss of this great man. In the wake of Alan’s passing, the people that knew him gathered together at the river to remember him. Others told stories and showed one another pictures of trips and memories now flavored bittersweet. In short, they shared a part of his life with all of us, and that made things just a little bit less difficult. I remember hearing about the other deaths this year, too. Bob Norr on the Upper Blackwater in January. Jenna Watson on the Little White Salmon in June. Chris Schwer on the White Salmon in August. Jeff West on the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, and Peter Thompson on the Cheakamus River in September. While I never met any of these people, I have many friends that had. Some were with them when they died. Each loss is met with broken hearts, self-doubt, and a number of questions asked both internally and among friends and family. We begin to wonder if paddling is worth the risk. The answer is different for everyone, but Alan has one answer that I find helpful: “Paddling difficult whitewater is about being alive. It is the most pure and true experience I have ever known, and it has brought me more joy, pain, and satisfaction than anything else.” Yes, it’s hard to write about death. But by sharing a piece of a life lost, we can extend that life; immortalize it in our hearts and minds. We can find comfort in our collective memories.
Thatâ€™s why this one is One To Remember !
Editor in Chief Eric Adsit Cover Photo Scott Martin Words Photos
Eric Adsit Ryan Mooney David Carey Bett Adams Eric Adsit Morgan Boyles Simon Braun Dylan Cobb Scott Martin Bobby Miller Ryan Mooney Nate Pfeifer Mark Zakutansky
Contents The Guides Guide Behind the scenes of The Dirtbag’s Guide to Whitewater
Why? A Question to Consider
Death, Risk, and Fear: A 3 Part Series Part 1 Rising Tide: Why it Seems Rivers are Becoming More Deadly Part 2 Choice: The Problem of Risk Taking Part 3 Deeper: What Fear Might Mean (and Why That’s Important)
Man On Fire Raw Musings on the Stikine !
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WHY? A question to consider by Eric Adsit
My mother often asks me, “Why do you do this stuff?” I often grin and shrug my shoulders, as if to say, “Because this is the stuff I do.” To many, this is a copout, a dismissal of the question worse than silence. But to others, it seems to explain everything. There’s much more to it than a mother’s concern for her son, it’s an honest question that requires some deep thought and honest answers. As a whitewater paddler, I throw myself into a chaotic world studied by few and fully understood by none. I come home with broken paddles, scratched helmets, and dented boats. On worse days, I come home with bloody knuckles, bruises, or a busted nose. But I still come home.
So what happens when someone doesn’t come home? How do we answer the question of “why?” For a long time, I thought my answer was the shift in perspective I get while paddling. Out on the river, the only thing that matters is the present. The daily distractions that seem to get in the way of living slip away in the rolling current, leaving only a bare, natural force to interact with. But the distractions hold truths too, and life is not a single river, but an entire watershed. Each small tributary weaves its way through the canyons and valleys of experience, creating a network greater than the sum of its parts. In short, a perspective shift could not sufficiently answer the question alone.
I developed a new answer. The river was freedom from societal pressures and perceived expectations. Kayaking inherently leaves participants to make choices for themselves, for better or for worse. Success relies on a paddler’s ability to assess the risks, understand and commit to the line, and deal with the outcome on their own. From this perspective, the consequences of a missed move were mine and mine alone. This answer falls short, too. That freedom and isolated sense of liability is blown away in a flooding sense of loss throughout the community the moment someone doesn’t come home. As convenient as it is to think our decisions only impact ourselves, it’s naïve and foolish to believe our lives are ours alone to lose and be lost. This isn’t to say that paddling difficult runs is bad or irresponsible, but that we should at least consider the question. !
Why do I do this stuff? I don’t know how to answer this question, and maybe I never will. But if there is an answer, it is hidden somewhere between the paddle blade and the river’s current. !
Death, Risk, and Fear A Three Part Series
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Death on the river has been reaching ever closer to me these past few years. It seems mortality rates have increased since I began paddling, and after struggling with it for a few months now, I think I might understand why- at least a little. First is the new normal. The new normal is the concept that the rivers that were considered marginal at best a couple decades or more ago are now considered the standard Class V runs. Rivers like the Middlebury Gorge in VT, or the Bottom Moose in NY, or the Little White Salmon in WA have shifted from the test pieces of the elite to portageless classics. To say that the paddlers of the past were just that much less skilled would be a gross misinterpretation. Significant advances in paddling gear, like drysuits and nimble plastic creekboats, have contributed to the shift; making rivers only accessible in the winter or drops with mandatory pitons or rock boofs possible. A greater level of collective consciousness regarding river features and an ever expanding perception of what is “possible” continues to grow because of the public nature of “world record waterfall attempts” and makes learning good technique much more accessible. The collective experience of thousands of near misses has developed a much greater understanding of effective rescue techniques, which in turn establishes a higher tolerance for risks like sieves, undercuts, and terminal holes. In short, the advancements in skill, technology, and tolerance have set the pace for the progression of the sport. This means paddlers today are approaching much more consequential whitewater with the same level of risk as the pioneers of the sport. So while the gear and collective knowledge has made harder whitewater more accessible and easier to approach, the consequences have grown more dire, making the new normal a dangerous place. !
Part One: Rising Tide Another major factor in my perceived increase in paddling fatalities is the ever expanding network of friends and aquaintances in the paddling community. Everyone can agree that the paddling world is a small one, and the community is tightly knit. But even so, when someone that neither you nor any of your close friends have met passes away, it feels too distant to be real. You may take some time to reconsider the whitewater you paddle, but the feeling fades, slowly but surely. That changes when you can match a face to the name, remember a certain eddy shared below a waterfall you just ran for the first time. After Alan died, I suddenly (and morbidly), realized that every person I met and paddled with had become a potential loss. When I started paddling, I knew a handful of people that paddled mostly on Class II and III, where the frequency of hazards is relatively minimal. While this does not mean they are risk free, by comparison it would seem eagerly becoming friends with as many top notch Class V+ as possible is a surefire way to lose a friend before I’m ready. The “risk” of losing friends will never outweigh the joy brought through experiencing the river with new companions or even prevent me from paddling hard whitewater. It won’t stop me from reaching towards and even past “the new normal” and I will always introduce myself to the people I meet at putins and tak-outs. But it will make me appreciate the moments I get to spend with them on the river and cherish the memories I have of those that have passed. !
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Part Two: Choice To an outside observer, whitewater paddlesports are insane. Paddlers seem to have a death-wish, throwing themselves over massive waterfalls or into impossible churning rapids. And if this issue has shown anything it’s that there really is risk involved. How we handle that risk is a choice. Sometimes it’s unconscious and other times the choice is made deliberately. It seems obvious that you don’t scout every rapid on a river you’ve paddled dozens of times before. What isn’t as obvious is why some choose to go solo, or to paddle at night, or run a drop that has proven to be lethal. All of these things seem to escalate the risk involved, but I would argue that the choices consciously made actually mitigate the risk of paddling despite the added perceived risk. When I paddle solo, or decide to do anything that seems to escalate the risk involved in paddling, I spend more time considering what can go wrong. I elevate my awareness to match that risk, and end up absorbing more of the river at the same time. I focus more on what lines I’m going to take, the features that will help me reach them, and the ones that might prevent me from making the move. In that focus, I also see the river more clearly.
The problem arises when the choice is made unconsciously, or because of peer pressure. Even as risk itself is perceived negatively, a certain allure surrounds risky behavior. In many groups, running rivers solo or without scouting is “cool,” alcohol consumption and marijuana use on the river is pervasive, and portaging might get you called any number of degrading and offensive names. It’s always “just a joke,” when you confront people about it, but this behavior breeds a culture of disrespect and irresponsibility that makes the choice of taking risk difficult to consider honestly.! The point is, you’re making choices about your life and your friend’s lives every time you go paddling. Mitigating the very real risk associated with enjoying whitewater is a unique and personal experience that can only be truly understood by the one making those decisions. When something goes wrong, every decision is analyzed and easily torn apart from the armchair when all the cards have been laid down. Whitewater can be intimidating and it’s easy to get bogged down in the question of risk. But if it were truly and entirely safe, what could we gain? Because a mistake can mean a gut-wrenching swim, or broken bones, or sometimes even a life, the challenges we face on the river transcend those of just a hobby or pastime. We can grow and learn from this. We can make ourselves better. So even though an outside observer might think it’s crazy, I have to ask:!
Without risk, what’s the point?
Fear. It’s common enough that everyone can relate to it or talk about it, but it can be nearly impossible to nail down exactly what triggers it or how it feels at the time. There are different shades of fear too, the “grey area” of the emotional field, that can range from a slight sense that something isn’t that should be to outright panic.
Most psychologists agree fear is both instinctual and conditional. This means that somewhere in our brains, we have evolved an understanding that something is dangerous and should be avoided. This explains a child’s fear of the dark, or the sense of panic you feel when your chair is about to tip over, sending you toppling to the floor. It also explains why someone that has been bitten by a specific breed of dog is likely to develop a fear of that breed, or in my case, why big retentive holes have an extra edge of malice to them. Generally, if you are feeling fear on the river, you are either consciously or unconsciouly unsure of something. It may be in your ability to make the line you’ve committed to or how to handle a specific feature or even what’s coming up around the next bend. While some nervousness is to be expected at the top end of your skill level, experiencing outright fear will detract from the paddling experience and suggests a lack of control- in your physical or mental ability- that is dangerous to yourself and your paddling companions. It means you’re not ready, and you need to confront the source of that fear before moving on. It’s important to acknowledge this fear. It can keep you from progressing, expose you to greater injury if you progress anyways, and even heighten fears in other aspects of your life. But there is a flipside to fear as well. It can be a tool to warn you when something is beyond your ability. When faced appropriately, fears can be overcome and actually help as you pursue other challenges in life. Most importantly, facing the things you fear inspires growth and often exposes you to perspectives previously unafforded.
At some! point, I think nearly everyone experiences some level of fear in whitewater. In fact, I think someone who paddles is more likely to express fear than a nonpaddler when facing the raging torrent of a flooded river or a massive waterfall pouring into a boiling pool, because they can read the water and understand what’s going on in there. Which leads to an important distinction.
Man On Fire
The message came on Facebook, a simple question about the place all the kayakers of North America were thinking of for the past two weeks, with back to back news stories of triumph and frustration: “Hey, have you thought about the Stikine?” Oh, so you don't know then? I guess I never talked about it to you…Well, I have thought a little about the Stikine. When I was a kid we could only tune in 5 channels on our TV. One day, there was a show about kayaking. In the evening, on prime-time broadcast television, ABC’s “American Sportsman” had a special. There it was, the sport my dad and his friends did, 15 minutes of it for the whole country to watch! I had just spent a few weeks of the summer that year riding back from Colorado after my dad was out there with some buddies, and seeing the rivers there really made me think about how much I wanted to kayak, too, just like my pops and his bad ass friends who practically lived out of their cars and had these big bushy beards. Wild men. #
One of them had run Pine Creek Rapid on the Arkansas River and it looked so chaotic to me and out of control, but when you're 5, that doesn't hardly matter. I knew I was gonna run that rapid someday. I knew I had to be a shitrunner. Twentyfive years or so later, I lived that dream. I pushed out of that eddy above that rapid, with twice the flow I had witnessed as a child, feeling all the joy of a dream realized. But I digress.... My parents had called me into the room, and there I was- getting it all validated for me: this stuff was on TV! It wasn't some fringe sport only crazy people did- this was right up there with mountaineering and swimming across the English Channel: This was the ultimate test of a man. These kayakers were going to run the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. We recorded that broadcast; I still have the VHS tape somewhere, in a box of other possessions in storage as I chase these dreams. You can watch it online, though, today. I watched over and over that video, and tapes of other TV specials about the 2nd descent of the Niagara Gorge and the Alaskan explorations of Walt Blackadar, too. That stuff was cutting edge back then; it's still cutting edge now. #
I have talked about the Stikine before with a friend of mine who likes big water; his favorite river might ! be the North Fork Payette, and he goes to Alaska every summer. We talked about what it will take to get ready for something like that. I got off the phone with him the other morning and I got online and counted peaks on the flow graphs for the rivers of my past and near future: The Gauley has been above 10,000cfs a total of 24 times in the past 5 years, at least 2-3 times per year, for a few days each time. The Cheat River at Parsons crested over10,000cfs 31 times in the same span, meaning closer to 2530,000cfs in the canyon. Perfect training grounds. We talked about making a trip to Idaho next year. We were supposed to go last year, but we decided on Quebec instead. We discussed committing dates to Moise and Magpie trips, even Petite Mecatina, those big rivers of the Cote-Nord. I don't know, I don't knowâ€Ś When the question of the Stikine was addressed in Alden Bird's "Let it Rain" guidebook, he mused on the idea of never feeling you are good enough, on how time passes by and the opportunity slips away. He quotes Neitzsche and the journey we must each make across the sea of life, in search of our India as did Vasco Da Gamma, Columbus, Jacques Cartier. I have gotten so much older in the past two years; injuries are more frequent, and my recovery takes longer. I have lost a lot of the fire that drove me when I returned to kayaking; I am not fearless, rather, fearful- nervous. I require more warm-up time, more effort to get into the mental space I need. I don't know if this is a product of the neardeath beatdown I took on Mud Run in Pennsylvania last year, or if it is something else-!
if it is just what happens when someone has traveled 32 years and feels adrift in life, longing to drop their anchor in a safe harbor and make it their home port. Too long on the endless ocean, too long searching for the India of Neitzsche's prose. Can I find that spot? The safe harbor? But what of the India I search for? Can I find the burning desire inside I would need to make it to the North, to the Stikine, to Devil's Canyon of the Alsek, to the Turnback Canyon? Can I stoke that fire to a raging inferno, burning brighter and hotter than ever? I feel I will need it. I know that I am still boating better than I ever have, running not just more difficult whitewater from a technical perspective, but that which is mentally more difficult and requires more brutal endurance. I have risen to the occasion each time, not with difficulty, but with surprising ease. But still... some things are beyond understanding; you can never know what anything will be like until it comes to pass. Peut-ĂŞtre je peux. I have a schedule now, a plan. Three years to get ready- two more Septembers will pass. Before I am 35 years old. The same deadline I bargained with myself when I decided I would like to run a waterfall of 100', a mission that has now become a waiting game, a matter of patience to find that time and place rather than to find the courage and skills. Between now and then there are many rivers to run- a multitude of missions. But only time can tell. We never know what the future really holds for us. But you ask if I have thought of the Stikine...the answer is "Yes, I think I have thought about it too much." The ABC feature on The Grand Canyon of The Stikine online and free to watch at http://www.exchile.com/kayakchilehistoricalvideos.html !
To The Jou
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rney Ahead… !