Eli Helbert, two-time world champion freestyle canoeist, is a legend among iconoclasts who paddle big rapids and towering waterfalls in open boats. The 33-year-old travels the world teaching whitewater canoeing, wilderness medicine and swiftwater rescue. He recently returned to his home base in Asheville, N.C., from 10 days paddling in Veracruz, Mexico, where he and other top single-bladers were filmed for The Canoe Movie, Will Lyons’ upcoming LVM video. It will be 2010’s second major canoe release, after Justine Curgenven’s This Is Canoeing. James Weir, a former British national champion, also has a new canoeing book coming out. With all this and a snowy, wet winter, Eli sees a great year ahead for whitewater open boating. — Harrison Metzger
I think a lot of us are perhaps more independent, less likely to go with the flow. We are like telemark skiers. Anybody can ski. Some people choose to make it a little more difficult and a little more rewarding. I didn’t start out canoeing because it was difficult. I started out because that was what my family did. I think if everyone did it I wouldn’t be as interested.
Everything is cyclical. I think for a long time a lot of us were out of the public view. People would say canoeing is dead, but there are a lot of us who are happy just to be out canoeing rather than to be seen.
Ain’t LouieFest has become like a real event for canoeists. I think it is bringing people who are willing to come to an event like that who wouldn’t come to a competition. Two years ago I went to Tremont [a Class III-IV creek run in Great Smoky Mountains National Park] with the ALF crowd. There were like two kayakers and 60 canoers. It is interesting to see the different armadas—the Potomac Armada, C-Squirt Armada and now there is one in Europe. They started out as small gatherings and now they are turning into annual events.
With a rapid I start out with a dry boat and that is a fun part because I have utter control and can boof it really far. As the boat starts to fill with water it changes into a separate craft. It changes the game. When the kayakers say they don’t understand why I don’t put on a skirt, I say it’s because I would lose half the fun of my game.
I landed dry in Mexico off a 16-foot drop. That felt really, really cool. Sometimes you land at the bottom of a drop and look in the bottom of your boat and you are the only one who sees what happened. That is where the independence of canoers comes in, why we don’t have to have a big show.
Long term, I am hoping thecanoeguru.com will work for me. My goal is to make about three big trips a year where I go somewhere in the world and help paddlers progress.
This article first appeared in Canoe and Kayak’s Whitewater magazine, on newsstands now.