Idaho paddling legend Rob Lesser was honored this evening with C&K’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his enduring contributions to the sport of paddling. Lesser, 67, was among the world’s most accomplished paddlers in the 1970s into the 1990s. He is best known for pioneering the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in northern British Columbia, which remains a benchmark test of commitment and paddling skill.
Lesser also made the first descent of Idaho’s North Fork of the Payette, and later helped to save that great river through his conservation work. The North Fork has played a storied role in the development of whitewater paddling, serving as a training ground for generations of elite paddlers, and a launch pad for significant expeditions around the world.
“Receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award isn’t something I could really envision, but I am very proud that the Stikine and the North Fork and some of these other rivers have ignited other fires,” said Lesser. He then invited his long-time friend and paddling cohort John Wasson to share the stage, commenting “John is just the kind of guy who covers your rear end. So to John, to Bo Shelby and to Bob McDougal, who were my partners in many of these expeditions, this is for the people.”
Lesser made his name on big, powerful, unforgiving rivers. He put up first descents all over the world, including the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone, and Pakistan’s Braldu River, which flows from the slopes of K2. He pioneered the Triple Crown of North American whitewater, with the first descent of Devil’s Canyon of the Susitna in 1977, Turnback Canyon of the Alsek in 1980, and the culmination of that progression, the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, in 1981.
“I’ve been asked on occasion what inspired me to dedicate a significant chunk of my life to river travel. My answer, simply, is Rob Lesser,” said expedition kayaking great Scott Lindgren, who presented the award. “I’ve been asked, what is the ultimate proving ground for big-water kayaking? I’ll stare you right in the eyes and say it’s the Grand Canyon of the Stikine.”
The first descent of the Stikine and other of Lesser’s river exploits were documented on episodes of ABC’s American Sportsman program, and did much to popularize whitewater paddling in the United States. He practically invented whitewater rodeos, which sparked the freestyle boom that revolutionized whitewater boat designs and paddling skills.
For his many contributions to the sport, Lesser was inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame with the inaugural class. Such accolades are welcome, but the true measure of Lesser’s legacy are the accomplishments of those who blazed farther along the path he pioneered—a lineage of whitewater exploration that carries straight through the 2002 descent of the Tsang Po Gorge, led by Lindgren, to the Congo’s Inga Rapids and Ben Marr’s descent of Site Zed, the last un-run rapid on the Stikine, in 2012.
Lesser congratulated Marr from the podium, noting that “for 31 years, many of the world’s best paddlers stood next to that rapid, and didn’t happen. Last summer it happened for Ben.”
“I just want to say how impressed I am with you, the present generation. It’s such a great thrill to see them raise the bar so high, as they have done.” The roar from the audience, which included Marr and many of the best young paddlers in the world, proved that the respect flows both ways.