Paddling with Giants

On a recent business trip to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho I was fortunate enough to meet and paddle with some true giants of paddle sport.

I had arranged to meet Gary (The Edge) Edgeworth at Rendezvous River Sports the following morning. Gary is a Team Jackson paddler but despite his many first descents, gigantic waterfalls and epic trips all over the world, he rather flies under the radar compared to some of his more high profile peers. This is largely because Gary has a real job and boats purely for the joy of it and just isn’t interested in self-promotion. But make no mistake this guy is a giant and I had been warned by my boss Marty Cronin about Gary’s reputation for running the hardest stuff around. I expressed this to Gary and he laughed, reassuring me that he would indeed look after me. He chose the Gros Ventre (GV), a local ‘easy’ Class II-IV creek that was his favorite and told me it was at a really good flow for my introduction to high water boating. It is a short run – about 15 minutes, but with a 213 foot per mile gradient and the gauge showing 5ft (something like 2500cfs) the lateral and mid river waves were some of the biggest I have encountered. There is one significant rapid called Hermit that has a couple of sizable holes that looked to have massive boof potential at a lower flow. I was very happy to follow Gary down the easiest line and took numerous haystack waves over my head as the torrent of water raced downhill. It was continuous, fun, bouncy ride! I was in a loaner small Karma and felt a tad under-boated. Gary was in a RockStar play boat – just to make it more challenging! I was puffing when we reached the latter flatter section. I couldn’t imagine and definitely did not want to swim down that river! Even Gary suggested it would be a serious Class V swim.

After catching a ride back to the top with a couple of local paddlers we ran it again as a group of four. This time I was a little more relaxed and had the other two paddlers to think about as well and my lack of focus caused me to lose my line a couple of times and I quickly found that with this high flow you really couldn’t afford to relax until the iconic Grand Teton came into view indicating the run was nearly over.

It had started to rain and the temperature had dropped fairly significantly so we called it after two runs and headed back to Rendezvous River Sports. Gary had stuff to do that afternoon so I went back up to do the GV again with Aaron Pruzan, owner and founder of Rendezvous River Sports and the Jackson Hole Kayak School. Aaron has been an expedition paddler for over 30 years including exploratory descents in Wyoming, British Columbia, Chile, Argentina and Siberia. As a top whitewater slalomist he paddles with a style, grace and efficiency that only thousands of hours of gate work will give you. But what makes Aaron a true giant in paddlesports is his conservation work to save some of America’s great rivers with American Whitewater and his recent efforts to enable access to rivers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks meeting with Senators in Washington DC.

Read a feature on Aaron’s mission in Canoe & Kayak magazine here.

I should have realized when Aaron said he needed a workout that I was in for a different style of descent of the GV. After a thorough warm up on Slide Lake, I followed Aaron under the bridge and into the first powerful eddy river right just downstream. From there Aaron hit every possible eddy on the river. I hadn’t even seen these eddies on my first two descents but Aaron nailed each one with precision. I floundered along behind, playing catch up the whole way down, very grateful that I had switched the small Karma for a medium Karma and as usual, this boat took great care of me. Especially when Aaron suggested we catch the eddy river right at the top of Hermit’s by boofing the large rock above! Really? I wasn’t sure if it was an eddy or a large hole below that rock! But I trusted Aaron’s judgement and I had been practicing my boofs and was really pleased when I nailed it. When I was unable to make many of the single boat eddies I would paddle hard up stream marking time until Aaron passed me. Paddling with Aaron was like having a master class in technique and river reading and it left me exhausted just trying to follow his moves.

The bridge at the top of the Gros Ventre run.

We had to wait a while for a ride to the top and I cooled off sufficiently to know I didn’t need to do a fourth run. I drove shuttle for Aaron who blasted down as training for the North Fork Championship creek race later this month. It will take another equally fit and skilled paddler and a good bit of luck to beat him!

Rendezvous River Sports & Jackson Hole Kayak School

Rendezvous River Sports is a hardcore paddle sports shop. Managed by Will Taggart the sales crew is made up of some Class V boaters and some newer to the sport but they all really know their stuff and the shop sells everything for flat water and whitewater no matter what style of paddle craft you prefer. And put Jackson Hole Kayak School on your list of destination schools to take a class with. Jonathan Souter manages the school and you couldn’t wish to meet a nicer, more modest yet super talented and professional educator. Imagine learning to kayak on the Snake River – how cool is that!

The timing for my trip was to coincide with the Wyoming Whitewater Championships. Unfortunately the Forrest Service in their wisdom had decided to pull the permit for the event due to unsatisfactory waivers, even though those very same waivers had been used in past years and were provided by USACK and the ACA. I wondered if the high water levels had caused the Forrest Service to have second thoughts about their liability should something go wrong. The event was planned as a fund raiser for the Jackson Hole Kayak Club’s youth program and the fund raising party went ahead anyway with a Jackson Kayak Zen 65 as the top prize. The shindig was well supported by the local boating community and $100’s of dollars were spent by several individuals and their gamble paid off as they more than recouped their investment by winning some great prizes. Jackson Kayak received due recognition for their support of paddle sports and Andy Thunnel, the winner of the Zen 65, actually runs his own kayak school (Rapid Progression) and youth program in Utah. Great result!

At the party I was invited to join a legendary crew who were planning to paddle Bitch Creek the following day including Dave Pennington, Mick Hopkinson, Olaf (Ollie) Koehler, John Hindman and Bill Mcleod, each of them a giant of whitewater kayaking in my eyes.

Left to right, Dave Pennington, Mick Hopkinson, Olaf Koehler, John Hindman, Bill Mcleod.

‘Legendary’ is perhaps an overused description but in the case of Mick Hopkinson it is entirely accurate. Mick is a humble Brit who now splits his time between New Zealand where he founded the New Zealand Kayak School back in the 1980’s and Jackson Hole, WY. Mick is perhaps most famous as being a member of the British Team to make the first descent of the Dudh Kosi. The BBC documentary ‘Everest by Canoe’ is still the most watched kayaking movie of all time. It was an expedition in the true sense of the word. They drove a Ford Transit van from Britain, over 7,000 miles to the put in and then drove back home again!

I asked Mick if this was the most memorable expedition he had been part of and he told me that the Blue Nile was far more dangerous – crocodiles, hippos and men with guns… Mick is modest about his achievements but enjoys being controversially outspoken on many topics and particularly about the river dam epidemic sweeping through the world’s developing countries. Here is a great interview with Mick:

http://adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com/2011/04/21/canoeing-down-everest-kayaking-legend-mick-hopkinson-talks-about-his-life-on-the-water/

It is a very long time (many decades) since I have been the youngest guy on the river. But here I was about to get on the water with two guys in their fifties and three well into their sixties. This is less a reflection on an aging demographic of whitewater kayakers, and more to do with the fact that Jackson Hole has become a magnet for those looking for big reliable flows and great creeking. I felt truly honored to be paddling with such an auspicious group who didn’t know me from Adam but seemed to have faith that I could take care of myself. What was immediately apparent was the lack of ego or machismo within this group of friends who between them could write the book on the development of whitewater kayaking in the West.

Bitch Creek, Idaho

Bitch Creek is a Class IV wilderness in Idaho accessed via Highway 32. The rolling potato fields dip suddenly to the put in at the road bridge. The level was perfect and we had good beta from a group who had run the river the previous day on the amount of wood in the river. Of course, that might have changed overnight and so Mick led, working the eddies with the appropriate level of caution to ensure we didn’t run into something unforeseen. It wasn’t long before we came to the crux rapid on this 14 mile section of river and we scouted river right for wood and to give me a chance to see the line. It looked good to go and Mick quickly went back up to the boats and ran the rapid as far as the eddy above the final big drop with the caution of someone who doesn’t need to show off and the skill of a consummate waterman. If I was in any doubt as to whether Mick still had it in him, watching him paddle provided the answer. He paddled with seemingly effortless grace, his shoulders always within a safe range which probably has much to do with why he has managed to continue boating at such a high level all these years.

Mick scouting Driscoll’s Drop on Bitch Creek

I ran the rapid second, determined to show Mick and the boys that I wasn’t a complete idiot on the river. Again, the medium Karma knew the way and I was happy with my line and joined Mick in the eddy until I needed to make room for others. The group ran the rapid without incident although McLeod did bounce hard off a rock with his ribs as he ‘tried a different line’. A little bit winded he was thankful for the protection afforded by his Kokatat Maximus Prime PFD.

McLeod at the confluence with the Teton

The run continued with Class ‘Fun’ all the way to the confluence with the Teton hopping some log jams and portaging one that was out of the water but too low to duck under at this flow. The scenery was impeccable; heavily fissured basalt lava canyon walls towered above us, giant anthropomorphic rocks gazed wisely down on us as we navigated the river below, some threatening to topple down upon us if they felt so inclined or a gust of wind blew at the wrong moment. A moose startled by our arrival clumsily clambered up through the dense vegetation on the north-facing river slope. An otter ducked below the surface before I could catch a glimpse. Kingfishers, ospreys and bald eagles skilfully plucked nature’s bounty from the brown waters.

We paused for a 45 minute natter on the river bank. I kept pumping them with questions. The guys told me stories about many of their river trips around the world; South America, Africa, Nepal, New Zealand. It was like being immersed in back issues of Canoe & Kayak magazine.  They casually listed all the California Classics they had ticked off. I was a little surprised and felt rather smug to learn that they were unanimous in naming California as having the best whitewater kayaking in the world – at least when there was water to fill the creeks. It reinforced my desire to paddle many more rivers in my home State.

At the confluence with Teton I could clearly see the scars high up on the canyon walls from when this section of the river was flooded by the construction of the Teton Dam. The lads gave me the background to this very tragic and foolhardy project. See the story here.

The lads floating the Teton River that would have been flooded by the dam.

Running Bitch Creek with these gentlemen giants of paddlesports was a great thrill for me. I would very much like to do so again and perhaps share a river or two or some coastline with them here in California too.

 

Comments on “Paddling with Giants”

  1. October 26, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    Truely a great story and a great adventure. Thanks for sharing.

  2. April 13, 2019 at 6:07 pm

    Thank you for sharing with us your journey, it’s really motivate me , great pictures by the way

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