What Makes a Stylish Whitewater Kayaker?

Perhaps inspired by Dane Jackson’s recent set of videos from his stint at the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in British Columbia (often thought to be the hardest, most committing regularly-run kayaking river in the world), I’ve found myself obsessively watching all of the Stikine footage I can.  I am drawn back most to the first two legendary descents: The 1985 raft and kayak descent, and – especially – the first descent in August 1981, four months before I was born.

1981: Lars Holbeck, Don Banducci, Roger Brown, John Wasson, Rick Fernald, with Rob Lesser kneeling.

The 1981 footage is absolutely riveting.  It was shot by Roger Brown, an award-winning TV director with the substantial budget of the “American Sportsman” show behind him, and it shows.  The whole production is just flat-out gripping from its start to its way-too-soon finish.  There’s a reason, now that I think about it, why footage like this is 1,000 times better than the typical “kayak porn” that we were always watching back in the 2000s: it’s actually telling a story.  It’s not just an endless series of shots of nameless guys going off nameless waterfalls.  After a few minutes, who cares?  Brown really knew what he was doing.  The footage opens with us flying over the dramatic canyon, as driving early-80s TV film score music kicks in.  It’s one of those songs, sort of like the Rocky theme, or the NFL Films music, that’s half-rock and half-classical music — with trumpets and strings over a throbbing drum and base track.  I’m in!  Suddenly we’re 15 feet off the deck, racing over class V+ big water rapids in the helicopter, as the American Sportsman host, the excitable former US Ski Team coach Bob Beattie, gets things rolling (“The river is Stikine!”) and interviews trip leader Rob Lesser, as he scouts the canyon:

“We’ve got about – who knows? – 40 feet a mile . . .”

“Is this as tough as you thought it was going to be?” Beattie breaks in, excited as can be.

“That last drop was . . .  real formidable, yeah,” responds Lesser, smiling.

Then more Rocky-style trumpets and bass as we’re down on shore next to an absolutely *pounding* Entrance Falls.  I had seen many clips of the Stikine and of Entrance Falls from over the years, but the first time I saw the 1981 footage, I was shocked at how much different – how much bigger – the rapid looked back then.  For starters, the 1981 trip clearly has high water, but it’s also clear that something changed in Entry Falls sometime in the 1980s; these days it’s less of a falls than a sloppy, big-water flush.  But back in 1981 – at high water?  It is a FALLS – with about 15,000 cfs cranking over it.  HUGE.  

Next is Rick Fernald – a kayaker I had never heard of outside of his role in this legendary descent.  But whoever this man was, he was an absolute *badass*.  He runs the main line – it’s not clear whether any of the others do (Banducci and Lesser are not shown in Entry Falls), but my guess is Fernald was the only one.  The shot of him running cresting the huge wave just at the top of our view, before dropping into the maw, getting violently cartwheeled in the hole, rolling up, then taking a huge hit in the ledge hole/wave below – this has to be some of the biggest, most dramatic whitewater I have ever seen anybody run, anywhere.  It’s right up there with that massive rapid that only Steve Fisher ran on the 2002 Tsangpo trip.  There is some wonderful, droll voiceover commentary from Fernald as he does it too.  

Another kayaker who stars in the film, with several speaking parts, is John Wasson, who goes next, charging down the right.  His voiceover really seems to capture the Stikine:

“[The locals] say that trees go in, and that kindling comes out.”

Later, the footage of Wasson’s Hole, shot from hundreds of feet above in a helicopter, is legendary: Rob Lesser oh-so-gently sliding into the huge diagonal and letting it typewriter him around the hole – what a deft maneuver!; Rick Fernald charging into the middle, flipping, but getting washed past safely, and then John Wasson, hitting the same line as Fernald, even staying upright, but getting carouseled back into the recirculating eddy from hell.  You can just see his boat shooting out of the water 35 feet downstream at the end of the frame.  

More great interviews from the riverside, and more absolutely huge water footage from Site Zed – and then all too quickly it’s over.

The 1985 footage is fascinating, too.  The water level is much more reasonable – much closer to what one is used to seeing in later Stikine films.  Lesser and Holbeck are back, and joined by Bob McDougall.  The interesting subplot is a team of rafters who has joined them.  Two of them are women, and one in particular, Peggy Lindsay, becomes the focus of the film, the oft-times narrator, and apparently the center of conflict – she chooses not to run Wasson’s Hole with the others, a decision which does not go over well, and toward the end of the film it’s suggested that she was a major voice in keeping the team from running Entrance Falls – something that several members clearly resent.

I even pick up some underlying tension between Lesser, the clear leader of the expedition, and the raft team.  At one point, Lesser seems to be making a fairly commonsensical point about approaching Site Zed – surely one of the largest rapids on the face of the earth (and one which Lesser has already seen up close in 1981) – with a clear plan.  But the raft team leader, Peter Fox, is having none of it.  Lesser’s approach is too “cautionary” and he and his team want to approach Site Zed with more of a “positive perspective.” Cut to Lesser looking at him like, “I don’t think you understand what this rapid looks like.” Great moment.


And it’s Rob Lesser who stands out the most to me in both of these films.  He is clearly the leader of both trips, and has more airtime than the others, probably, but I mean that he stands out to me on the water, because of the way he paddles.  

Rob Lesser

I have thought often about style – about what a kayaker looks like when they’re paddling, and why some kayakers look artful, and others don’t.  For many years it evaded me, but I realize now there’s something about kayakers who – as I think of it – paddle “overhead.” 

For whatever reasons, I’ve always found that style to be more aesthetically pleasing: the paddle is held above the boater’s head, engaged in a dynamic-looking stroke, often with the boater also undertaking some sort of dynamic lean – either tipped over the side of the boat, leaning up on one edge, or leaning way forward, driving downstream.  This dynamic lean – paired with the paddle up above the head and engaged in a big gesture, typically gripped with hands wide apart, all adds up to a much more dynamic- and dramatic-looking approach to kayaking, rather the approach of someone who keeps the paddle low, does few real strokes, leans back, and balances his way down the river.  The former always looks like someone who is dynamically moving down the river, forging his own course, driving the boat, confident enough to balance while leaning, balanced enough to be attacking (hence the forward lean).  

Again, I am talking only about aesthetics – about body posture in the boat, not about where and how one makes it get there.  There are many good boaters who make the boat go just where they want without dynamic-looking strokes.  And these boaters have a smoothness that is aesthetically pleasing in its own way.  Perhaps the best example I’ve ever seen was Czech slalom racer (and Olympic gold and silver medalist) Lukas Pollert.  This man never looked like he was paddling at all: he looked like he was drifting, his arms were not dynamic, he paddled straight upright, not leaning forward or out to the sides.  There was nothing dynamic or dramatic about his style – but he won races of speed against some of the most dramatic-looking paddlers one can imagine (Jon Lugbill and Michal Martikan, for instance).  But Pollert’s look was smooth, not dynamic, and I’ve always enjoyed the latter, perhaps because I am more like the former.

Lukas Pollert

I am no Pollert, of course.  In fact, I am afraid that I am one of the inelegant.  I am long-torsoed, skinny, and gawky-looking – especially because I kneel higher in a C-1, which often makes me look like I am about 6’10.  I am a hands-low paddler, preferring subtle steering strokes to big, dramatic vertical strokes.  My hands stay below my head, even on my biggest power strokes.  I rarely lean heavily sideways or strongly forward.  When I do hit big waves sideways, I usually fall over like a sack of potatoes.

But Rob Lesser is a great example of a “paddle overhead” guy.  Although some of the others – Wasson, and – especially – Holbeck are more crisp about steering the boat, Lesser, when paddling relatively straight on, has a really unique, hands-overhead style.  He really leans forward and *attacks* big waves, with his paddle up over his head, and he even does something I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone do before – he almost seems to be trying to get his paddle up onto the top of a big wave (that he knows he can’t crest with his body) in order to take a stroke up on the top of the water to carry him through.  It’s of a piece with this way of *spearing* big waves with an overhead brace that’s quite striking.  Then, he is typically leaning forward and he has a way of keeping his hands well forward – all of which gives him this wonderfully dynamic, exuberant style.

What’s interesting is that Bob McDougall, one of the other boaters in the 1985 film, is the exact opposite.  Although McDougall is a legend in his own rite (the first to complete a vertical mile of kayaking on Idaho’s North Fork of the Payette in 1987, among other accomplishments) – and just as good a boater on the Stikine by any reasonable metric as Lesser – I find his style to be the exact opposite of – and far less aesthetically appealing than – Lesser’s.  Where Lesser’s paddle is typically up high and spearing forward in a dramatic, athletic movement, McDougall’s paddle is always down low, in the water, almost in a low brace, as a C-1 paddler might.  His strokes are big and powerful – he is a tall-looking man on shore – but he is sitting straight upright, and his hands are below his head, his paddle more horizontal than vertical.  

Again, since McDougall is clearly just as good a boater as Lesser, this only shows that I’m talking purely about aesthetics rather than real skill or ability.

Much of what determines this style I like, I have realized, depends on a boater’s physical body type, just as much as it does on any inherent coordination.  To achieve this kind of wide-grip, hands above-the-head style, it helps to have wide, boxy shoulders, and, as best I can tell, a shorter neck – in other words, a physique that maximizes the length, reach, and extension of the arms.  Watching Lesser on camera outside of his boat, he looks this way – sort of stoop-shouldered, kind of naturally hunched down a little bit, with wide shoulders.  Physically, this must make it easy for him to get his paddle way up in the air in a dramatic physical statement.

I have often regretted the fact, when I consider my own aesthetic profile! – that I am the direct opposite physique: long-torsoed, long-necked, with narrower shoulders – all of which conspires to most comfortably keep my hands below my head.

What’s interesting is that in skiing, I am the opposite – my physique conspires in my favor, pushing me toward – if not gracefulness – at least an obvious dynamic quality that is as much based on my body type than on any psychological aggressiveness.  Where in kayaking I am more comfortable as a leaned-back technician, subtly correcting through steering strokes with hands low – rather than head-forward charging into drops and using dramatic overhead strokes, on skis I am the complete opposite.  For some reason, the second I start moving on skis my body drops down into a coiled, linebacker stance: my feet widen, my hands clench around my ski poles, even my ankles flex me forward into my ski boots.  For whatever reason, even when I’m coasting down the first groomer of the morning with some new group of casual friends, surely low-intermediates whom I don’t want to scare off by skiing like Bodie Miller after a few beers, I simply can’t help myself.  My physical stance, the way my body wants me to stand over my skis, just becomes dynamic.  I get this feeling in my body that is electric, and which says, “Game on.” When I turn, it looks and feels dynamic.  My hands, situated on shoulders too low beneath my head and too close together to create dramatic movements with a canoe paddle in hand, are perfectly placed in the same position while on skis to guide and counterweight my movements as I roll my body side to side across the snow.  My upper body, so bolt upright and trying not to get itself wet, it would seem, in a canoe, is suddenly leaning forward dynamically while I’m moving down a mountain on skis. 

I find it fascinating, again, that none of this is based on psychology.  Even on easy whitewater, I look serene and placid, and even on the most dangerous ski mountains, I lean forward dramatically.  Whatever it is, it is physical.  What you are, wrote Walt Whitman, picks its way.

Lesser’s style makes me think of another “paddle overhead” guy – one who I actually know personally – a former slalom and freestyle competitor from Connecticut named Ted Devoe.  Here is a link to some great footage of Devoe paddling in Ecuador – he is the one in the lime green creek boat with the wood paddle.  Ted was one of the first expert kayakers who I ever actually saw paddle; he lived on the Housatonic River, where I began paddling in 2000.  I always loved his style – it’s incredibly distinctive, and you can see it in all its glory in that video. 

Ted Devoe

He’s an even more stylish paddler than Lesser, in my view – he’s got that same forward lean, the same arms up high, out in front, the same sense of his paddle being extended like a spear at all times in some dramatic stroke.  But even though he’s a little less explosive than Lesser, he’s a lot smoother.  He has a slalom boater’s timing – he’s rhythmic, but you can always see him waiting until just the right second to stroke, hanging on a duffek stroke until just the right moment, then transitioning into a forward stroke.  Everything about the way he paddles is stylish.  If I was a kayaker, and I could choose anyone’s style of people I’ve ever paddled with, I’d take Ted Devoe’s.  

But in the end, we can’t change who we are or the way our bodies are put together, I suppose.  Still I find it fascinating that our physical makeup itself is sometimes responsible for the attitude that we seem to project.  I guess I’ll always be a smooth glider across the water, and a racer on the snow.