Heroes

Canoe and Kayak heroes





The Lunch Video Magazine-T-Dub Connection

Canoe and Kayak heroes Martin Litton

The greatest cultural nuggets are often created in basements, garages or bedrooms. Credit downstairs with the Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan, and the garage space between the lawn mower and tool bench for Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.com.

And so it’s the dingy bedroom of one Daniel DeLaVergne we have to thank for Lunch Video Magazine, the single greatest cultural bookmark in whitewater kayaking annals. Without it, would carnage be as popular? DeLaVergne–who passed away after a 2006 train accident–and Spencer Cooke created the iconic monthly video publication together but credit T-Dub – the tight-knit crew surrounding LVM’s Asheville, N.C.-based production–for some of the sport’s greatest envelope-pushing in the last decade.

Some would argue, rightly, that Scott Lindgren and the group he led through Tibet’s fabled Tsang-Po Gorge in 2002 still own the mantle of last great expedition, period. But in 2004, when Tommy Hilleke, John Grace, DeLaVergne and Nikki Kelly completed the Seven Rivers Project-running seven of California’s most difficult High Sierra creeks in one summer-something about whitewater kayaking had changed. And after T-Dub crew members ran both the Stikine and California’s seven-day Middle Kings in single-day missions, the paradigm would never be the same. Other than names like Hilleke and Grace (who now operates LVM), the paddlers have been interchangeable, but the idea of cooperation over competition hasn’t; their moniker a funked-up version of the letters “T” and “W,” standing for “teamwork.
–Frederick Reimers



Canoe and Kayak heroes Martin Litton

>>>MARTIN LITTON
In the annuals of wilderness conservation, Martin Litton is a singular force of nature—a Category 5 hurricane of eloquence, passion, and pig-headed obduracy quite unlike anything that has ever blown across the American landscape. Born in 1917, he spent World War II crash-landing gliders across Western Europe, then returned to California and started raining his fire down on U.S. industries and government agencies bent on ravaging the country’s wild places during the boom years of the 1950s.

In his roles as a freelance writer for the Los Angeles Times, an editor at Sunset magazine, and the only commercial outfitter to ever guide the Grand Canyon exclusively in wooden dories, Litton elbowed into the front lines of some of the most important environmental battles of his day. He wracked up a number of impressive victories and an even longer list of painful defeats, but the greatest of his crusades took place inside the grandest canyon of all, where he helped to spearhead a battle against a trio of hydroelectric dams that were designed to drown the unearthly paradise at the bottom of the abyss and to still the river running through it.

The key to that campaign involved Litton’s decision to join forces with another ex-soldier—a veteran of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division by the name of David Brower—who working as the executive director of an obscure group of alpine picnickers in San Francisco known as the Sierra Club. The story of how Litton, Brower, and their friends whipped the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is one of the best river legends we’ve got—and the consequences of their victory are still reverberating today.

And while the Sierra Club transformed into America’s most iconic conservation lobby and Brower was heralded by Life magazine as “his country’s number-one working conservationist,” it’s the old dory captain that Brower once called “my environmental conscience” who, at age 91, remains one of the nation’s greatest unsung conservation heroes. –Kevin Fedarko



Canoe and Kayak heroes Scott Shipley

>>>SCOTT SHIPLEY
Scott Shipley has every reason in the world to be jaded about competitive paddling. Starting at a time when no American had ever medaled in an international kayak slalom race, Shipley retreated into the woods of British Columbia. He lived through the winters in a tree house he rented for $30 a month and made himself into the greatest American slalom paddler of his generation. He became a quiet champion whose laurels spoke volumes: three overall World Cup titles and medals from an astounding 80 percent of the international races he entered in a 13-year career.

His success made him something America had never had in slalom kayaking—an Olympic favorite. In three trips to the Games, however, he never finished better than fifth. (“Damn things are hard to win,” he says).

That makes him the best slalom paddler in history without an Olympic medal, a simplistic career epitaph that doesn’t begin to describe his contribution to the sport. “It bugs me a whole lot less than people would think,” Shipley says of his Olympic drought. “Three months after losing in 2000, I never even thought about it again.”

Instead he finished his engineering degree (a project that, thanks to his many sabbaticals to train and compete, took him 13 years) and began designing artificial whitewater courses. Shipley was lead designer of the world’s largest pump-driven whitewater course, the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C. “It’s turned into the biggest instruction center in the world,” he says, adding that 1,300 people took lessons there in its first year alone. “I see that as the sport’s future.”

–Eugene Buchanan



Canoe and Kayak heroes Sean Morley

>>>SEAN MORLEY
Sean Morley has paddled a sea kayak around Vancouver Island in record time (just over 17 days), was the first to traverse the entirety of the British Isles, including the inhabited islands – a 4,500-mile trip that took 183 days – and is a world champion surf kayaker. But he’d rather go paddling with you than tell you about it.

The English-born Morley’s paddling has a well-trained precision, thanks to his time as a marathon and sprint paddler on the UK national team, but his utter love of kayaking seems at odds with his serious approach to on-water pursuits. While traversing the Straight of San Juan De Fuca, also known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, during his Vancouver Island mission last fall, Morley’s boat rose and fell 12 feet with every swell. He hadn’t seen another human for six days, and every wave pounding into the vertical cliffs served as an audible reminder that there was no way out but forward. Still, says Morley, “those whitewater boaters that drop waterfalls are way more gnarly.” We beg to differ. Morley’s expeditions blending speed and difficult, exposed conditions—such as crossing the Irish Sea in record time–have set a new standard for ocean kayakers. “I just do what I do,” he says. “[Being called a hero] is embarrassing really. But if doing what I do gets people to go on their own trips, that’s immensely gratifying.” –Joe Carberry



Canoe and Kayak heroes Bob Foote

>>>BOB FOOTE
Bob Foote wanted to be a whitewater canoeist, but nobody showed him how.

This was the late 1960s, well before anyone designed canoes to run formidable rapids. It was a time when a few intrepid souls made thigh straps from old Buick seatbelts, donned orange horseshoe life-vests, and pointed their department-store canoes downstream.

Bob Foote was one of them. At 21, he piloted a fiberglass canoe down Maryland’s Class III Gunpowder River and promptly smashed it to pieces. Soon thereafter, he tried the Lower Youghiogheny at flood, losing a second canoe in the first rapid. Reluctantly, he admitted to himself that it was time for a lesson.

So Foote traveled to the Mondamin Canoe School in South Carolina, where he learned the finer points of whitewater canoeing. He drilled himself in the techniques of the day, tested them on progressively harder rivers, refined them, and began to share what he’d learned. “No one should have to get worked like I did,” explains Foote, who earns hero props for his nearly 40 years as a traveling whitewater instructor, not to mention being one of the first open-boaters to run the Grand Canyon, in 1981. He taught thousands of people how to paddle, without ever relaxing his strict technical standards.

It’s been a long ride. In one year alone, he paddled in 38 states and five countries, logging more than 70,000 miles, most of them in the one-ton Ford van that served double duty as home and canoe-hauler. This year Foote has decided to park the van and give retirement a trial run. But our money is on the road. “I’ll keep leading trips on the Grand Canyon and in Honduras at least through 2010,” he says. “Then I’ll just have to see how I feel.”
—Eugene Buchanan



Canoe and Kayak heroes Bob Foote

>>>PAYSON KENNEDY
Co-Founder, Nantahala Outdoor Center

Back in 1992 when I first started guiding rafts in the Southeast, I often saw this lanky old graybeard leading folks down the Nantahala and Ocoee Rivers. I remember thinking he looked more like a professor or librarian than a river guide, and was surprised to learn he was in fact Payson Kennedy, head of the venerable Nantahala Outdoor Center, headquartered in North Carolina’s Nantahala Gorge. At the time, most of my fellow guides considered NOC the Evil Empire—not because they did anything evil but because they were just so damn good. They had all the best equipment, the best meal plan, and the most professional guides, many of whom actually worked year-round — guiding was their “real job.”

The very next season I became a NOC guide myself. That’s when I first met Payson and began learning about his legacy. Before co-founding NOC he was indeed a librarian at Georgia Tech with a master’s degree in anthropology. But when his friend Horace Holden asked him to manage NOC in 1972, he dropped everything. The river was Payson’s first love. He excelled at paddling and eventually became a six-time national champion in tandem open canoe, though he gets more cool points for being Ned Beatty’s stunt double in Deliverance. Still, Payson’s crowning achievement is growing NOC while unwittingly bolstering and legitimizing the entire whitewater industry along the way.
Now, at an exceptionally spry 72, Payson is retired but acts as the Center’s “chief philosopher” and still guides rafts the occasional raft. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the fact that there’s a legitimate career track for river folks who want to be guides and kayak instructors is due in no small part to the work Payson has done over the past 37 years. Next time I see him on the river, I’m gonna have to thank him for that. –Mark Anders


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