The premier competition in Southeastern whitewater paddling can be summed up with one word: electricity.
The annual Green Race is famed in the world of whitewater kayaking. Many consider it to be the most prestigious race in the sport. The section of river known as The Narrows brings gradient changes and hard tight turns created by rock faces and cracks that characterize the race course. Kayakers are forced to make split-second decisions to find a successful path through the features. The search for this “A-line” can be thought of in a similar way to climbing: there is an ideal route to maximize efficiency and conserve energy. Kayaking is similar – paddlers must avoid holes and crevices in the rocks with the capability to kill while battling their way downstream.
As whitewater kayaking has grown in popularity, so has the desire to explore and paddle more aggressive and remote rivers. The Green Race is a product of pioneers who looked to push the envelope of what was possible in whitewater. Aptly described as the “Super Bowl of Kayaking,” the first successful run of The Narrows on record was in 1988. The segment is home to rapids with names like Go Left and Die, Pencil Sharpener and—perhaps the most famous— Gorilla. The section has claimed the lives of at least 3 people over the years. With that in mind, paddlers understand that they need to be at the top of their game to traverse down the rapids.
Just a week after peak fall colors, it is a cool 55 degrees. Autumn is in full stride. The air is crisp and clear – a hiker’s delight. I start my walk to watch The Green Race for myself. I reach about half a mile from the action and hear the noise before I see a single competitor. The hike is now a descent to the gallery above the river.
Silence for a couple minutes…
Onlookers explode in unison. Cheers, cowbells and applause. With a tethered rope to guide hikers down, we position ourselves in what is now dozens of people in a single-file line to reach The Narrows. I round the corner and glimpse the sea of people hovering, perched on the best vantage points they can find to view the action. A myriad of bright colors made up of dry suits, PFDs, kayaks, paddles and helmets contrast with the natural earth tones of fall in the mountains. The boulders, rocks, tree branches and clearings in between each feature serve as The Colosseum seating. The gladiators? The kayakers. The opponent? The raging river.
As we find our place among hundreds of ardent onlookers, I fixate on the river guards. Tethered with ropes, they stand on rock islands adjacent to the end of one rapid and the beginning of another with throw bags in hand. My gaze drifts out from there and catches the rapids themselves and the scenery above.
Wow, that’s a lot of people. Each face resonates differently. By observation I create stories for each face enthralled with the race. I fixate on a man who I assume to be a first time spectator. Next to him, a friend explains each move the kayakers are making, what challenges they face at the next feature and the strengths of their form. I wonder if he and I are having the same feelings as we see the race for the first time. As a raft guide and amateur kayaker, witnessing such talent from paddlers was a humbling experience. As each paddler skillfully negotiated the rapids, a hunger grew within me to try it for myself. I remember one overwhelming feeling as I traversed back up the steep trail: appreciation. The community and passion shared by the participants and spectators of The Green Race left me with a desire for more.
During the hike out of The Narrows, I reflected on my experience that day. Did I get lost on my way in and make the hike twice as long? Sure. Was it worth it? Absolutely. This was a holiday for whitewater enthusiasts – a day to celebrate the sport that often feels so niche within the broader paddling world. This event was able to use an individual sport to bring together a community who are all in love with the same thing. And, man, was it a party. Seeing hundreds of people compete and celebrate alike was a sight I won’t soon forget.
The river is a sage teacher.
Her lessons are revealed patiently by the current, but almost always resonate to life in the real world as well. One of the most profound things that the river has taught me is the notion of responsibility. Responsibility comes in many forms.
I am responsible for my paddling partners. When we slide into the river together, we are subconsciously looking each other in the eyes and saying, “I’ve got your back, and I know you’ve got mine.” While paddling, we are acutely aware of both our own well-being and that of our partners, because the stakes can be high. Over the years, I have felt the power of this relationship from both sides. My life has been saved by a friend, and I have paid that gift forward to others in their times of crisis. Both experiences are equally as powerful, and they somehow pave the way for deeper and more rewarding relationships off the river.
I am responsible for my own decisions and actions. When I decide to run a rapid, that is my decision, and mine alone. Once I paddle out of the eddy and commit, I am on my own, and must deal with what comes…the river (like life) is a one-way street. This actually makes us stronger people, because we learn to keep a level head in chaotic situations. In my experience, the most successful people are those who take responsibility for their mistakes and shortcomings, and don’t pass blame to other people. When I make a mistake on the river, I must acknowledge that I have made that mistake and scramble for plan B. I cannot blame that mistake on anyone else, because I alone am responsible for the decision to be in the rapid, and for my own paddling. The river does not accept excuses.
Winston Churchill said “the price of greatness is responsibility.” On the river and in life, we show what we’re truly made of in how we look out for one another, and how we deal with the chaotic times.
It is human nature to take a chance. To step away from the comfortable, from the familiar, and seek an unknown. To ask a question. Often, we don’t know why we are asking these questions, or what we are looking for by asking them. But we ask. Once the question is asked, once the familiar is left behind, an exploration begins.
The word explore is defined by the action of traveling through the unfamiliar in order to learn. We typically associate exploration with the great adventurers, thinkers and philosophers of human history. With an unparalleled, modern access to knowledge and information, it is easy to assume there is little left in the world to explore. Little left that is unknown to humanity, (without a genius’ mind, a large amount of wealth to fund such an exploration, or an extraordinary amount of courage). To think like this, however, would be to forget that by our very nature we need to explore.
As humans, we are constantly exploring our world, communities, history, natural environment, or even ourselves as individuals. Our personal explorations of what it means to be alive makes us the individuals we are taught to embrace as truly unique people. Because no two people are alike, we each explore something different in every moment or experience. Some seek more, some seek less. Some far and wide, some close and in-depth.
The world is full of beauty, wonder and inspiration. No matter what you’re interested in, where you live, how old you are or what you do for a living, allow a passion within to initiate your own chapter to explore.
Living on the road full time brings up grand visions in most people’s minds—open desert roads, unlimited free time, illuminated tent photos plastered with trending hashtags, and adventures on demand. I’d be amiss to say there haven’t been periods of all of that through my nomadic lifestyle, but the road life more commonly presents crunched timeframes with adventure buddies all over the world; a quick stop between photo shoots is the typical stage that my adventures are set upon.
Contrary to the perception built by sponsored expeditions to countries nobody has heard of, its unexpected flexibility is where the outdoor lifestyle truly shines. At first glance, the outdoor life seems committing, time consuming, and unapproachable. Outdoor adventures don’t need to be multi-week long summit attempts, first descents of unnamed creeks, or a statewide mountain bike traverse. Instead, they can be 30-minute cruises on a mountain bike around urban trails, a quick trail run in the park, or a quick playboat session. There are zero rules stating adventures have to be time consuming.
Cruising into town, calling an old friend and saying, “hey let’s grab coffee” is the standard, easy route of brief and rushed social interaction. Of course, it has its place with those who don’t recreate outside. But making meaningful connections in the outdoors always wins. I’ve had my share of memorable coffees with friends as I swing through a town, but they are far more forgotten than mini-adventures. It’s no mistake that some of our best companions in life are folks we meet through our outdoor pursuits. The threads that create the mesh of relationships, outdoors or not, is built off the trials and tribulations, the successes and failures.
So next time you only have an evening to catch up with a friend or a few hours, go hit up your local trails, rivers, or anything else you can get your hands on.
Tommy Penick is a commercial photographer and filmmaker who lives out of his van. For more of Tommy’s work, check out www.tommypenickphoto.com
The feeling has left my hands. It’s farther away than the car, farther than the tea and whiskey in my thermos. It’s long gone, and since I can no longer feel them, I have to trust that my fingers are still wrapped around my paddle.
Despite my best efforts to stay upright, my kayak tips over and the space behind my eyes lights up when my face hits the water. I’m suddenly aware of the matter inside my skull, the pieces of my head I don’t feel when the temperature is reasonable. It’s fall-turning-to-winter up here, and in a few weeks I’ll go to the equator, to warmer waters that don’t steal the sensation from my fingers, to warmer air that doesn’t burn my lungs when I breathe too deep. And once the heat thaws me, I will pour myself into work, which, for now, is an attempt to prove the inherent value of a free-flowing Amazonian tributary.
Up north, the water is heavy with sediment and it scours my ever-numb hands. Swimming black bears have pawed at the bow of my boat. Chinook salmon shimmer as they leap, attaining the impossible, always moving upstream. Down there, on the equator, there are butterflies and ancient languages and feral forest voices I’ll never be able to identify.
Why does a far-away river matter so much?
Perhaps it’s because we’re taught as kids that the Amazon is our planet’s lungs, and when we see that forest burn, we raise our palms to our own chests; maybe we breathe a little deeper. Maybe it’s because the rainforest is so vastly different from the boreal forest and tundra I grew up on and I can’t bear to see either of them go.
The rivers that flow into and through the Amazon Basin quench the burning; they keep the smoke from stagnating so the respirations may persist.
Maybe it’s a matter of privilege: I’ve enjoyed the time and resources necessary to experience things opposite my reality, to know rivers far from my home. I can compare and analyze and breathe as deeply as I want. We don’t all claim those luxuries. Or maybe it’s because it is there, as it is here, just water moving downhill, day by day, down to the ultimate sea. And if it matters here, then it matters there, and I desperately want it to affect the parts of my head and my heart that I can’t otherwise feel, and I’m in love with it all, everywhere.
Chandra Brown is an Alaska-born river guide and writer currently based in Missoula, Montana. She is co-organizer of Jondachi Fest, a grass-roots kayak race and community river festival in celebration of the Jondachi River in Ecuador. A. Andis is a conservationist, paddler, and photographer. See more of his work at NunatakDesign.com.
I started shooting whitewater sports in 2010, documenting newly acquainted friends paddling the Payette River. I saw them swim, laugh, and learn all from the shore where I stood. Three years later, I myself started to paddle and engage in learning the art of kayaking. Then it became clear; the people I was paddling with influenced me. I starting learning to get over fears, observe nature, and to embrace moments. Moments, like waves, ebb and flow- high and low. Moments which teach us about each other, our own self, and the world of which we are all a part.
I have seen moments of triumph, styling rapids and overcoming mental battles. I have seen moments of defeat, which does not halt the mind or body for long, it’s in a sense motivation. In contrast, I’ve seen bliss, simply being able to enjoy a run for what it is. I have seen perseverance; hiking through bush to paddle a waterfall with no telling if it was good to run. I have seen reverence and reflection: elders passing on patience and knowledge to benefit the foundation of the next river experience. I have observed new friendships being born, a web that continues to grow. I have witnessed the drive within; the want to explore and experience places new and old with the people you trust.
I have documented the prideful energy this small paddling community has for being some of the world’s best travelers and athletes. There’s a magic withheld in the cracks and canyons of the world. Bonds form and nature prevails as the be-all end-all drive to live and learn. It’s hard to beat the moments of experiencing a river and the people who come along with it.
John Webster is an Idaho-based adventure photographer and videographer. You can follow his travels and work @johnjwebster and the Webster Media House.
Over the years, I’ve learned that the best experiences come from entering situations with as little expectation as possible. If you open yourself up to an option, idea or opportunity, often you will emerge transformed, changed by the experience which has swept you away. But when sliding into a tributary of a stream titled the Unknown River, it’s hard to control the excitement of entering the unknown.
As our small tributary dumped our team out into the current of the Unknown River proper, an exploding plume of mist burst upwards, breaking the soft mist of the clouds which almost constantly fall onto the land and waters of Labrador. Horizonlines, as they are called within the river-running community, are a sure sign of excitement when looking downstream on any body of water. The fall of water off a ledge of any height is exactly the sort of river feature we had traveled to Labrador to experience, however the size of this plume exploding into the air, suggested it might be too high to experience from within our small plastic kayaks.
The team has a moment of indecision, the vegetation on the bank of the river was uninviting, with densely packed and thorn-covered vines guarding what appeared to otherwise be an enchanting forest. Half the team went towards the thorns, half went to opposite bank, and I continued downstream, hypnotized by the mammoth horizonline and thundering roar of what could only be assumed to be a large feature at this point.
. What lay downstream creating that roar and explosion of water over the horizonline? Which side of the river would be best to have a look at whatever it was? If we couldn’t go over it in our kayaks, how would we get around it, and how long would it take? We only had enough food packed within our kayaks for a few days. If we spent an entire day trying to get around this one particular spot on the river, would the rest of the river grant us safe passage, or would it too be filled with similarly dangerous obstacles, forcing us to make slower progress with our heavy boats on our shoulders?
It was these very questions that led us to Labrador. Nothing was known. Nothing could be predicted. As I continued walking through this forest dreamscape on my own, I slowly began to hear the roar of the river again. A little further and the moss began to get deeper. So deep in fact that it felt like I was trudging through the fresh snow of a blizzard without snowshoes. Each step sinking up to my knees. Just as my body began sweating inside my well-insulated drysuit to the point that it felt like a sauna, through a small window in the trees to my left appeared the sight of all that noise. A waterfall. Pouring over a cliff with the intensity of a landslide, and the height of a small skyscraper.
I stood, panting, exhausted, incredulous, and in awe.
The fisherman, dressed in rubber waters with a collared shirt rolled up to the elbows, stood bent over in the arctic waters of the North West River. This is the literal end of the road on the eastern seaboard of North America, and the scene was about exactly what you’d expect. A soft rain fell in about 45 degree (Fahrenheit) temperatures, signifying a great day for outdoor activity in Labrador. The fisherman had a halo of bloody water floating around his ankles as he skillfully dissected one of the larger fish I’d ever seen in my life.
We had spent the better part of the previous day asking every boat owner in town if we could get picked up at the mouth of the Cape Caribou River in about 3-4 days, so as I approached the man, I tried to play it cool. I didn’t want to seem too desperate. We wanted to paddle this unknown stretch of river, without battling coastal headwinds for the 20-30+ miles back to town.
“Wow, heck of a catch” I said as calmly and conversational as possible.
“Yeah, not too bad.” he said in the unassuming and understated manner you come to expect from some of the toughest cultures left in our growingly “squishy” global culture.
“What kind of fish is that?” I asked, still perplexed by its behemoth size.
“Oh mate, this is a baby seal. Where you from?”
I’d blown my cover, and my jaw dropped. Before I knew it, I got a history lesson in the history of hunting seals, the placement of an embargo, and a lecture on a rather predictable opinion of the organization Greenpeace.
We’d found our man.
Sometimes, when I’m procrastinating at work or have some free time and am tired of watching kayaking videos online, I like to scheme up ways to actually go kayaking.
A few years ago, my girlfriend Maeve and I took a road trip around eastern Canada. While there, I saw a picture of a huge glacial valley in one of Canada’s newest national parks up in Nunavuk and thought there must be unexplored whitewater up there. When I got home, I started looking around Nunavuk and Baffin Island for good looking rivers on Google Earth. Most of the rivers were either flat or vertical and not much in-between, and I quickly realized we could go anywhere on earth for less than it would cost to get up there. I started looking a bit farther south.
I had seen a picture of Churchill Falls in an old American Whitewater Journal and figured where there are giant waterfalls, there must be whitewater, so I started looking into the area. I was in search for new fly-in multi-day river trips like those which have gained popularity in Quebec; rivers such as the Romaine or the Petite Mecitna. Instead, I ended up finding a corridor along the Churchill River where a number of rivers and creeks fall off a lake-y plateau into the Churchill River about 1,500 feet below.
Conveniently, the only road in the entire province passed either over or nearby most of these tributaries, and there conveniently happened to be an online stream gauge for the Pinus River nearby. This gauge allowed me to guesstimate early summer as the time with flows that seemed about right for that sized river. I was guessing around 30 cms on that river would be good.
This past spring, the stars aligned and I found four suckers willing to drive 48 hours off into the unknown, in some part of Canada no one has ever heard of.