By Eugene Buchanan
When West Virginia’s Upper Gauley River cuts through the Allegheny Plateau, it exposes rock strata more than 300 million years old. The river got a look at someone far younger than that at this weekend’s Gauley Fest, when 9-year-old Malcolm Lee Smith charged down the Class III-V section with the help of his fellow Dagger Team members.
“I’ve paddled with him since he was five, and he was totally ready,” says Dagger Team manager Chris Gragtmans, who took turns with fellow team member Brad McMillan leading and padding behind Malcolm during the run. “It’s been a super cool experience watching him develop as a paddler and being a mentor in his life.”
While Gragtmans says Smith “might be the youngest paddler ever” to do the run, that’s not what they’re touting. Instead, he stresses that, like any other high level kayaker up for the challenge, Malcolm was more than ready for the run.
“He was way more ready than many other paddlers who tackle it,” he says. “Malcolm’s been progressing super quickly and he loved it. He said it’s his favorite river.”
Smith nailed everything, including Pillow Rock, which was lined with hundreds of spectators. “I’ll never forget as we dropped into Pillow,” says Gragtmans. “Malcolm looked like a leaf in a hurricane, but he absolutely styled the rapid, as with every other rapid on the entire river.”
Father Steve Smith, who joined Malcolm and the others on the descent, doesn’t think his son was able to paddle through Pillow anonymously. “I think a lot of people lined up at Pillow knew him,” he says. “He’s pretty well-known, with more than 100,000 video views. Plus, he was riding around Gauley Fest on his unicycle.” Young Smith was also featured on canoekayak.com for a butter-smooth waterfall descent in Mexico last February, and all Malcolm knows is that it was a blast. “Pillow was super fun,” he says. “It was probably the biggest water I’ve ever been in.”
The only mishap occurred at Iron Ring, where Smith flipped after hitting a lateral that knocked him into a hole. “We lined him up properly and he was in the correct spot, but he only weighs 65 pounds,” says Gragtmans. “A lot of people get knocked over there.”
With Gragtmans up front showing him where to go, and McMillan behind yelling further instructions, and there for additional safety, it was a safe a set-up as a paddler could have.
“He wasn’t just floating down the river, he was actively paddling it and he has practiced hard to be totally prepared for it,” says his dad, Steve. “Plus, we had the best safety crew you could ever hope for.”
Steve says Malcolm, who’s also one of the country’s top motorcycle racers for his age, has been paddling since he was just 18 months old, often on the Nantahala River near their home in Franklin, N.C. Malcolm, a Team Dagger paddler for the past three years, is also homeschooled, giving the fourth-grader even more time to practice. An avid slalom paddler, he’s also spent a few years training with Junior slalom sensation Evy Leibfarth. “I attribute a lot of his success to practicing slalom,” says Steve, who’s spent hundreds of hours coaching him. “He’s trained at it a lot.”
Steve adds that Malcolm, who’s also paddled Mexico’s Alseseca, paddled the Lower Gauley last year at age 8, and that it had been 28 years since he himself had paddled the Upper. “I was more worried about me than him,” he says.
While to raft the section commercially you have to be the minimum age of 16, none of that mattered to someone like Malcolm, whose feat was quickly recognized by kayaking phenom Dane Jackson, the only other person who’s come close to paddling it that young. “I think I was 10 or 11 when I paddled it,” says Jackson. “It’s cool that Malcolm ran it. It just goes to show that it doesn’t matter how old someone is to go run something big and hard; they just need to be good enough.”
Malcolm didn’t, however, get to stick around for some of the other Gauley Fest activities, many of which might not have been suitable for someone his age. “We only stayed one day and then headed back,” says father Steve. “I told him, ‘You’ve got a cow to milk, son, we have to get home.’”
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