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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Extreme Kayaking

Air Date: Week of

Producer Jyl Hoyt takes a trip through the rapids with enthusiasts of a relatively new sport - extreme kayaking.


TOOMEY: Thanks to stronger, lighter, more nimble boats and better training, the sport of kayaking is on the rise. The American Whitewater Association estimates the number of enthusiasts at around 700,000. Nearly 10,000 of them are so-called extreme kayakers who seek the most thrills and spills. Jyl Hoyt from member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho, got curious about what drives this breed of kayaker, and went downriver to find out.


HOYT: This stretch of the Snake River along the Idaho-Oregon border is deeper than the Grand Canyon and almost as spectacular. It's called Hell's Canyon, and boasts slick granite cliffs over green, frothy waves. Hell's Canyon has huge hydraulics and complicated currents. Twenty-five thousand cubic feet of water pours through here each second.

MAN: David, you've got some good surfing in here.

DAVID: I know. That's why I've got to get out, look and find out where it is.

HOYT: Our group is made up mostly of young kayakers. I'm on one of the big rafts that carry provisions and the other less-adventurous solos. As we approach the first rapid, all boats pull of the river so paddlers can look for routes through the waves and holes. Holes are pits of swirling water that spin you round and round if you drop in, and hopefully you back out, alive. Extreme kayaker Travis Bailor relishes the challenge. His goal is not just to get through the rapid but to stay in it, to play, twirl, and cartwheel.

BAILOR: It's easy for aerial maneuvers and big hole rides, looks to me. Bunch of holes and rocks. Looks like multiple lines for lots of fun.

HOYT: Trav, as his friends call him, grabs his paddle, slides his six-foot-five frame into a tiny plastic boat, fastens the skirt that keeps water out, adjusts his helmet, and takes off. I walk to a hill overlooking the rapid with Rob Studebaker to watch the show.

ROB: Whoo! Yeah! Look at that, yeah! Working out, Trav! Whoo-hoo! Yeah, that was sweet....

HOYT: Travis Bailor has set the pace. His pals line up their kayaks behind him and try to match his feats. Not everyone does. Some get, as Rob Studebaker calls it, schooled by the river.

STUDEBAKER: Getting beat up, trashed, taken to school, getting taught a little lesson by the river. Every once in a while you start feeling too confident, the river will reach up and smack you and give you a little education. (Laughs)

HOYT: This sport seems to attract a certain kind of person who doesn't feel fear like the rest of us.

STUDEBAKER: Most people think you're absolutely out of your mind, but you can't imagine doing anything else. Because the feeling you get right at that moment, you feel like you're flying. Like you're part of the river. You're absolutely just in perfect control, and if I could fly I bet that's what it feels like. Because it's just absolutely, absolutely amazing.


HOYT: We set up camp in a grove of hackberry trees laced with blood-red poison ivy vines. The sun turns the canyon gold, as 25-year-old Brett Wilcox, a Navy vet student and father of two, tells me about a challenging trip he did earlier this year.

WILCOX: I actually stopped and threw up because I was nervous. (Laughs) I threw up in an eddy, but I said I'm here to do this and I want to and I think I can. I know I can. I felt comfortable and I went and did it, and I did a great job. And I just let out the biggest yell I could and gave my friend a high-five. And we just sat there, and it was a great feeling of accomplishment. I was very happy.

HOYT: Many extreme kayakers go on to compete in white water rodeos, where they're judged on a sequence of tricks. Exploratory kayakers are different. Bill and Rob Studebaker spend most weekends searching for places others have never been. Waterfalls, remote rivers, and rocky streams. In the past 25 years, 135 experienced kayakers have died in the rapids. Two months ago, Bill got tangled in some fallen trees and almost drowned. And his son Rob almost died rescuing him.

R. STUDEBAKER: I don't know. There is definitely a point in that river where I thought I'm not going to be here, I'm losing my dad. It happens in a moment that -- that's just what it is, you just kind of accept it and just hope that your judgment is so that things work out. And fortunately, it did.

HOYT: After the accident, neither father nor son considered giving up the sport, in large part because of the friendships formed while risking their lives together.

R. STUDEBAKER: The relationships and the trust and the bond you develop with people that you paddle with in that situation are pretty, pretty wonderful relationships.

(Voices and running stream)

MAN: Okay, everybody! Let's go! Paddle out!

HOYT: In addition to bringing father, son, and friends closer together, extreme and exploratory kayaking bring people closer to nature, says Bill Studebaker.

B. STUDEBAKER: We're trying to be fish, and that's what fish do. We're competing, kind of, with the element. How close can we come to being water?

HOYT: For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Idaho's Hell's Canyon.


MAN: Who wants to move that rock with me? Just that stone...



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