July of 2010 I left a dream job as a quality engineer with Black Diamond in order to fulfill my longest seated aspiration of global travel and mountain adventure. It was extremely difficult to leave. Working for BD had enabled me to earn a good living while also evolving my mountain athletic skills. The work was stimulating and the opportunities were expansive, I was working in foreign lands across multiple cultures, and I was growing strong bonds of friendship with a huge team of profound colleagues. But still I had to go. I had made a promise to myself before starting the job that I would not cut my hair until I had initiated this journey. 3.5 years of ragged hair was working it’s way down to the middle of my back, I had finally tanked up the travel fund, and it was time to go.
Paragliding and speedflying in Idaho
Together with my girlfriend Caroline, we moved to river country in Idaho to train for a month before we departed. Between kayaking, speed flying and paragliding, I was able to stay engaged almost every day.
As a point-rat from Salt Lake City, with only 1.5 years of experience at the time, paragliding in the big-air of Ketchum was extremely humbling. Rather than logging XC flights in the mountains, my sole focus was on absorbing knowledge and staying safe. I got knocked around, took a few big collapses, and had several dirty landings. But my luck held and I learned a bunch of lessons and added some crucial notches to my paragliding belt.
Ketchum has a small speed flying crew, which is imperative for building motivation with this very intense form of canopy flight. Foot launching and landing a small speed-wing requires total commitment and no hesitation. Together with Will Burks, Dan Hoffman, Adam Majors and Carel Karoulka we flew the grassy mountains surrounding Ketchum. I was grateful to fly with the crew, and together we had some awesome sessions.
Overall the main reason for hanging in Idaho was to get some time on the river. Before moving to SLC in 2007, kayaking was my primary focus and the driving force in my life. When I left Montana, I had finally climbed out from a 2-year shoulder injury and was progressing into the most difficult whitewater of my life. Moving to the desert of Utah felt like suicide to me at that time. While I was able to road-trip to enough paddling from SLC to maintain my skills through the years, slowly I was losing my edge.
Also during this period I spent much of my limited river time teaching my girlfriend Caroline how to paddle, which is every bit as rewarding but in a very different way.
Now we were living in Idaho with whitewater all around, and still I was spending much of the time with my girlfriend on easier rivers. I finally confessed to myself that this was a convenient excuse to avoid the North Fork of the Payette just down the road.
North Fork of the Payette
The North Fork is a testing and training ground for the best kayakers of North America and the world. With something like 17 miles of steep powerful class V+ whitewater, and a dam-release that extends the season well into the fall, it is the hangout for many of the strongest paddlers in the west. As such it also a rite of passage, and still one that evades me. 7 years ago I swam on the North Fork and have since only run sections, but never cleaned it up.
After a short summer avoiding it, our last event in the United States before departing for Asia was one that would bring me face to face with my looming adversary: a wedding party for some good friends that would draw nearly 20 North-Fork boaters together on the banks of the Payettes. The groom, Henry Munter, was at one point the youngest to run the NF at age 14, and has paddled enough laps since (well over 100) to be quite at home amongst the maelstrom of it’s rapids. The bachelor party for Henry was kicked off with an evening North Fork lap, en masse.
For such things as making the call to ‘put on’, no one can tell you what you should or should not do. The proper decision is yours alone to make. I generally belong to the can/will/do school of thought, which has enabled me to thrive in my multi-faceted non-conventional existence, but has also brought me to the brink of destruction often enough.
So I could/would/did put on with the crew, battling my nerves and struggling to maintain my composure. My run was anything but pretty – I rolled in a handful of rapids and exerted far too much energy in my nervousness – but was overall ok. I walked ‘Jacobs Ladder’ the crux rapid in the middle of the run, but bounced clean through the middle of ‘Bouncer’, the rapid that had taken me down all those years before.
A quarter mile above our take-out, in the last big rapid for the day, I was off line and dropped right in to the violent bus-eater hole at ‘Jaws’. Thrashing around like a rag doll, I had little energy left in me to fight. I surfed out of the way so that the rest of our crew could run through without knocking someone in with me, tried a quick ‘starfish’ release move, then popped my skirt and swam out of the hole with what energy I had left. My Badass Friends plucked me out and had me back on shore so quickly that the only thing damaged was my ego and my warrior energy. You’re not supposed to swim on the North Fork – ever. I have now done it twice. It looms over me and mocks me.
That night around the fire I drank my ‘swim bootie’, a whitewater tradition wherein the ‘swimmer’ consumes a beverage, typically beer, from the soggy bootie or river shoe of the ‘rescuer’. I took great care to lick up every last drop of booty slime. We surfed the cool evening vibrations in the way of the river people, and celebrated our man Henry’s transition to a new life.
The next morning, my girl Caroline got some redemption for me by styling the Staircase section of the South Fork Payette, which was at the time the most technical set of rapids that she had paddled. We partied for the wedding that night with old friends.
With deep sadness we handed our dear little mongrel Odie over to live in Montana while we were gone..
Caught a ride to the airport. (thanks Bob, I think you’re parked somewhere in lot C, I left the lights on so your truck will be easy to find..)
And boarded a plane with one-way tickets to Hong Kong.