Unfiltered: Reg Lake

Whitewater Pioneer, Sea Kayak Visionary

Few have spanned the spectrum of kayaking, both generationally and stylistically, as Reg Lake has. Today, he is known as a Northwest sea kayak designer and long-boat regular at Skookumchuck, but Lake began his paddling career more than 40 years ago in California, exploring wilderness whitewater. In the early 1980s, he was lead paddler on the Sierra Nevada “Triple Crown” of first descents, teaming with Royal Robbins and Doug Tompkins to explore the Kern, Kings, and San Joaquin. He has led kayak trips in Patagonia, instructed at Otter Bar, safety-boated in the Grand Canyon, owned his own gear shop, and lately, designed cutting-edge sea kayaks. — Tyler Williams

Reg Lake
Photo by Dan Barham.

I got in my first kayak in 1970 with the Sierra Club. Two years later, Pete Winn invited me on a Grand Canyon trip. I was working as a machinist at United Airlines then, and they said I didn’t have enough seniority for summer vacation. I saved money for a year, quit my job, and got on another Canyon trip the next season.

Back then, the Canyon felt like a major expedition. I wore two lifejackets for the big water. After returning from that trip, I didn’t know what I was going to do next. There was a need for commercially available sprayskirts and paddles, so I opened a shop near San Francisco called River Touring Equipment.

When Verlen kruger and Steve Landick came through on their 28,000- mile Ultimate Canoe Challenge, I met them at Rodeo Beach. That was one of the first times I went sea kayaking. It made an impression that I would never forget. Still, rivers were my thing back then.

I met Royal Robbins and Doug Tompkins on the Bio Bio in Chile. We reconnected back in California, and started flying around in Doug’s plane, scouting rivers. On the South Merced, Royal injured his shoulder, I abraded my feet, and we hiked out through poison oak. We hiked back in a few days later to finish the run. That was really the start of our adventures together.

The Triple Crown wasn’t premeditated. We just went to the San Joaquin because you could drive to the put-in. We planned on four days, but it took us six. The only food left at the end were Earl Grey tea bags. Royal’s wife, Liz, made us a memorable midnight meal after the takeout, and that’s when Royal pulled out a stack of maps and asked if I could keep a secret. I said no, but he couldn’t resist showing me his plans for the Kern.

I just enjoy seeing new places, but as climbers, they saw the challenge of completing the major unexplored rivers. For the Kern, that meant a carry of 22.5 miles over a 13,777-foot pass. After that trip, we focused on the Middle Kings. The carry was only 12 miles, but the river dropped over 8,000 feet.

We were competing with Lars Holbek, Chuck Stanley, and Richard Montgomery for first descents, but after meeting up on a section of the lower San Joaquin later known as Tied For First, we made a pact to do the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne together. It wasn’t the best timing for us, but Lars said, ‘The river’s in, we’re going,’ so we went. Royal was in such a rush to get off the river and see his wife before she left the country, he forgot his lifejacket. Not the best place for that, but he’s Royal Robbins. He ran it anyway.

After running those Sierra rivers, my focus shifted a little. I started instructing for Otter Bar. I began taking sea kayaks down big rivers like the Eel. I explored coastlines in Patagonia.

Instructing and sea kayaking led me into boat designing. One thing that frustrated me was the immobile stern in sea kayaks. I finally got a free pivoting stern with the Grand Illusion, a boat we designed at Sterling’s Kayaks.

After driving over my bow-line, the boats on our car came off and we needed a quick fiberglass repair. We were referred to Sterling’s Kayaks, where I met Sterling Donalson. Soon I was working there.

I flinch when people call me a boat designer. I’m not sure I have the credentials for that title. I just try to pay attention to what the boat does. Dick Sunderland and I did experiments with different boats in the pool back in the ‘70s, so I guess it’s always been an interest of mine.

Exploring is my thing, so it has been fun to relocate to the Northwest in recent years. There is so much variety in water. I’ve been paddling in coastal British Columbia with a group called the Hurricane Riders, fun folks who take themselves less seriously than their name would imply. At 69, I’m slowing down on whitewater, but I’ve been taking my sea kayak to the Skagit, and this summer I’m planning a multi-day trip on the Fraser.

The Sterling shop burned down in 2012. It was a tough process to start recovering from that, but the community came together so nicely, we’ve been able to get going again. There’s a synergy in the paddling community that is unique.

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