Rush Sturges: The Athlete and the Artist

Tyler Williams

Rush Sturges is determined to reinvent his sport, and himself

This story first appeared in the July 2014 issue of Canoe & Kayak.

River Roots Studios occupies an upstairs flat in the quiet town of White Salmon, Washington. The snowy cone of Mount Hood looms across the Columbia River, which crawls past far below. On the far shore lies the bustling town of Hood River, home of Full Sail Brewing and a touristy main street. White Salmon is unsophisticated by comparison, a nice fit for the wilderness-based sport of whitewater kayaking. Lately the area has become an irresistible hangout for full-time kayakers. Part of that draw lies in the spring-fed rivers that tumble into the Columbia River Gorge at the edge of town, particularly the renowned Little White Salmon. Another powerful source of that magnetism is River Roots and its main man, Rush Sturges.

The walls are adorned with mounted color prints: a group of paddlers bombing down the last drops of California’s Fantasy Falls, a red kayak pitching vertically down a ribbon of travertine in Mexico. Five kinds of coffee sit beside a sink and a new silver refrigerator. Sturges sits at a laptop plugged into a 27-inch monitor. Kayak magazines are strewn across a coffee table. Rafa Ortiz, one of the best young paddlers on the planet, sits on the couch, his shoulder in a sling. He’s on the phone, trying to arrange a flight home to Mexico City, and an MRI. Sturges looks at me and deadpans, “Mountain biking, the number one kayaking injury.”

THE NIAGARA FILM HAS EVOLVED INTO A DEEPER STORY OF LOYALTY AND LOSS ON THE BLEEDING EDGE OF WHITEWATER KAYAKING.

He is lightening the mood around his friend’s injury, but the risks of his profession are exceptionally present right now. In the first few minutes of our visit, he mentions three recent near-misses among his peers. He talks about limiting the big drops he runs, and hints at scaling back. The memories are too fresh as he edits his newest movie, Chasing Niagara, which began as a chronicle of Ortiz’s years-long quest to run North America’s most iconic waterfall but has evolved into a far deeper story of loyalty and loss on the bleeding edge of whitewater kayaking.

Rush Sturges running Sprit Falls in Washington at the highest flow it has been paddled.
Rush Sturges running Spirit Falls in Washington at the highest flow it has been paddled. Photo by Erik Boomer

More broken bodies loiter two blocks away at Sturges’s rental house. Evan Garcia, a slender 25-year-old renowned for sending massive waterfalls with great style, sits in a lounger, his left leg encased in an old-school plaster cast that had been applied in a remote part of southern Chile. I ask if he hit a rock, my hair rising uncomfortably at the recollection of just such a violent landing years ago—the long evacuation, the life-changing aftermath. “Nah, I think it was a random boil or something,” Garcia answers. “Then I re-broke it on Class IV a few weeks later.”

Sturges and I leave the walking wounded, and take a short drive to the flooded White Salmon River. As I follow him into the first rapid, a shelfy Class IV, I watch with alarm as his paddling pace goes into hyper-speed. Did I miss something in the scout? My concern eases when he launches a massive kick-flip off the first big wave. He’s training. Though this run is a couple of grades easier than what he typically paddles, Sturges hardly seems bored. At Husum Falls, a broken 8-foot ledge with no obvious line at this high flow, he casually mentions that Ben Marr—another of the word’s best whitewater boaters—swam at this spot a week before. So Rush Sturges, whose many paddling accomplishments include the first and only descent of the world’s biggest whitewater rapids, asks me to set safety. The precaution seems wholly unnecessary as he sails gracefully over the hole.

Sturges grew up at his parent’s Otter Bar Kayak School on the banks of Northern California’s Salmon River. His father, Peter, was fleeing a formal upper class upbringing back East when he discovered the Salmon in 1972. Through commercial fishing in Alaska and other income sources, the elder Sturges cobbled together enough money to buy an abandoned riverside property that had once been a commune for a cult that worshipped ether. Such enclaves tend to find anchorage in the mountains of Siskiyou County, where marijuana cultivation has been the mainstay of the local economy for generations. Today, a back-to-the-land commune known as Black Bear quietly thrives in the mountains above the river.

EARLY START: STURGES WITH FATHER PETER AT OTTER BAR, 1986. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE STURGES FAMILY
EARLY START: STURGES WITH FATHER PETER AT OTTER BAR, 1986. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE STURGES FAMILY

Peter married Kristy, a free-spirited teacher at the nearby Forks of Salmon School. They started the kayak resort in the early ’80s, turning the rundown farm into a self-sustaining off-the-grid paradise. Their clientele at Otter Bar has spanned from members of the Grateful Dead to former interior secretary Christine Todd-Whitman. Past instructors include whitewater icons Lars Holbek, John Wasson, Reg Lake, Rob Lesser, and Chuck Stanley. This eclectic kayaking outpost was not just Sturges’s introduction to kayaking; it was his childhood home.

Sturges began kayaking whitewater when he was 10 years old. Initially, he shied away from the pressure to be the best—the kid from Otter Bar—but there was no escaping the role. He honed hisnatural gifts with the best instructors in the business, such as Phil and Mary DeReimer and Jason Arbetter, who would become his most trusted mentor. A Grand Canyon trip at 14 made a profound impression, and soon Sturges was practicing for the benchmark Cherry Creek on such backyard Class V runs as Burnt Ranch Gorge. He also excelled at freestyle kayaking, winning a junior world championship in Austria at 18. If ever there was a template to produce a world-class paddler, Sturges’s upbringing was it.

Sturges had been paddling difficult whitewater for a decade before he experienced his first swim, at Cherry Bomb Falls when he was 20 years old. (SEE EMBEDDED VIDEO.) At least 30 elite paddlers had gathered at the iconic series of granite punchbowls. None had ever seen it so high, and Sturges was one of only three paddlers who elected to run it. Flying off the first drop, he broke his paddle.

ON GARCIA’S FACE WE SEE A DEPTH OF FEELING—ANGUISH, LOVE, DISBELIEF—THAT NO HOLLYWOOD FILM COULD EVER PREPARE US FOR.

 

He managed to roll upright with the stub, only to face six more drops, each feeding into a violent hole. He cleaned two slides C-1-style before tossing aside the remnant of his paddle and continuing hands-only. He ran another drop cleanly, flipped and hand-rolled at the bottom of a 20-foot slide, then dropped sideways into the hole at the base of the next. Drifting backwards toward yet another ledge, he missed two hand-rolls before finally righting himself.

Sturges seemed poised to pull off the miracle run when he dropped into the final hydraulic dead sideways. Only then, after struggling for a minute and 20 seconds, much of that time underwater, did he finally swim. He flushed to a handhold on the wall to regain his breath then drifted downriver to a stance, tapping his helmet to signal that he was unhurt. His kayak and a paddle shard tumbled in the hole for some time.

RAFA ORTIZ, CENTER, AND STURGES BOMBING FOR JARED MEEHAN’S CAMERA. PHOTO: MIKE LEEDS
RAFA ORTIZ, CENTER, AND STURGES BOMBING FOR JARED MEEHAN’S CAMERA. PHOTO: MIKE LEEDS

“If I would have swam in any one of those weirs, nobody could have got to me. And it all goes into a sieve, right below where I stood up,” Sturges says.

“I went into a crash course after that of having sketchy incidents. When you’re maybe 20 to 23 or 24, you have a time period where you’re maybe a little bit fearless, or you haven’t had enough experience to know some of the dangers,” Sturges says. “And that was my time period.”

In the years that followed Sturges accrued dozens of first descents, from his backyard Klamath River Mountains to Quebec to Iceland to Madagascar— where he led a charge of river exploration, returning four times. He’s invented a number of freestyle moves, most notably the Hail Mary—a front flip off a waterfall. Three years ago he traveled to the Congo with Steve Fisher, Tyler Bradt and Marr to run the biggest volume rapids in the world at 1.6 million cfs. At 29, Sturges has graduated to veteran status in the youth-trending sport of whitewater kayaking.

There is an essential dichotomy that exists in running hard whitewater, pitting supreme confidence in one’s skills against a deep humility in the face of the river’s great power. Lately Sturges has embraced the challenge of portraying that balance in film. It’s an ambitious undertaking and a stark departure from his early videos, which consisted almost entirely of whitewater action sequences.

“The movie is not going to be a super-fun shred flick,” he says. “There’s some pretty heavy shit that happened to us in the last couple years, and I think it’s time for that to be seen in the community.”

Sturges’s house in White Salmon hides behind a pile of kayaks littering the yard. Only three people pay rent here, but any number of transient paddlers occupy spare floor space. I flop in the basement amidst neoprene booties, closed cell foam, sprayskirts. A cardboard box of new paddles sits in the living room. Laptops crowd the coffee table. Skis lean in the corner. A custom print of the Agua Azul hangs on one wall, and a leftover event poster—featuring Sturges—hangs on another. Neatly labeled recycling bins line up beside the front door. A sketch of a traveling van accompanies a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “It’s not the years in your life that matter. It’s the life in your years.”

We sit and sip beer, talking of far away rivers and dream trips. Ben Marr wants to run the Indus River in Pakistan. Ortiz has been there, and the two launch into a discussion of rapids, logistics and the Taliban. “There are places on the shuttle where you just don’t stop,” Ortiz concludes. Lane Jacobs picks up the conversational thread, telling of a mystery-shrouded river in Bhutan.

Sturges and his official roommates, Jacobs and Aaron Rettig, have known each other since high school at Adventure Quest kayak academy. The three of them laugh and reminisce past midnight. At one point Rettig suggests a 10-year reunion trip in Grand Canyon.

“Wait,” says Sturges, “wasn’t our 10-year anniversary last year?”

The men laugh, but there’s no denying the passage of time. Sturges is grasping a little tighter these days to maintain his place among the world’s elite kayakers. Following a shoulder injury two years ago, he began a training regimen. Mid-afternoon on a Monday, we meet personal trainer Heather Herbeck in a gym at the edge of town. Herbeck, a top-flight kayaker in her own right, launches Sturges into a CrossFit-type routine that leaves him gasping: lifting, squatting, swinging, jumping. Herbeck shouts encouragement as Sturges grows visibly exhausted, his springy movements slowing until it seems that the only thing keeping him moving is the same gritty determination that kept him in his boat at Cherry Bomb Falls all those years ago. He finishes the workout with a 48-second handstand, and Herbeck talks to him about tapering for next month’s Whitewater Grand Prix, and his upcoming trip to Uganda.

STURGES, CENTER, DISCUSS- ING A SHOOT AT SPIRIT FALLS ON THE LITTLE WHITE SALM- ON. PHOTO MIKE LEEDS
STURGES, CENTER, DISCUSSING A SHOOT AT SPIRIT FALLS ON THE LITTLE WHITE SALMON. PHOTO MIKE LEEDS

Sturges tells me he is traveling to the White Nile because it is the best place to train on big waves in preparation for the Grand Prix, which will pit the world’s best paddlers in a six-stage competition on the swollen rivers of Ontario and Quebec. That is undoubtedly true, but when I press him he admits that he loves life on the Nile. This is his break from the editing room, the parade of visitors, the self-induced pressures of his art. He’s got 500 hours of Chasing Niagara footage to condense into a 70-minute film. At the Nile, though, it’s just kayaking.

Despite the distractions, Sturges would finish second in the Grand Prix. Still, he says he lacks the win-at-all-cost drive to dominate the other elite paddlers who, after all, are his friends. “I’m competitive, there’s no question,” he says. “But I dislike this idea of competition in the sense that it’s ego-driven. I see people throwing their paddles at the bottom of a rapid. That’s not me.” Competition for Sturges is an outlet. Creative expression is what fuels his fire.

English was his best subject in school, and he wrote poetry even as a child. When older kids told him about freestyle rap—rhyming improvisations on the spot—he started verbalizing his inner wordplay, and recorded his first track at 16. Two years ago, he released a hip-hop CD called The Road is Gold under the stage name Adrenaline Rush. You’d hardly peg Sturges as the tough- talking homeboy he sounds like on the recording, but he charges into rap with the same confidence that is required to negotiate complex whitewater. Naturally, his lyrics are an expression of his experience, and Sturges’s rhymes offer an open window into his life. On a track simply titled Love, he sums up a painful split from his only serious relationship: “I love you, but I’m not sure if I should say it ‘cause this dream that I’m chasin’ ain’t got space for an angel.” Mostly though, the album is river rap, celebrating the whitewater life and addressing risks that come with it: “So much pressure on myself to take the next step, progress this much higher for more success. Last time I lost breath everything was serene, like the feeling you get when you wake from a dream.”

Sturges was 16 when he ran his first waterfall, a 20-footer on his backyard Bridge Creek. At 26, he broke his back on 80-foot Bonito Falls in Argentina, compressing his second lumbar vertebra after landing too flat. Now fully recovered, he says with a grin, “My mom said ‘I told you that would happen.’” His closest call came years earlier, on Alberta’s Alexandra Falls. After getting ejected from his boat at the base of the 107-foot monster, he tumbled underwater for a 47-second eternity. In Chasing Niagara, which Sturges directs, produces, and stars in, he appears with two black eyes following repeated waterfall-induced collisions with his front deck. He has broken his nose four times in the last 16 months. Some might be aghast at such masochism, but compare it to any extreme or even mainstream sport and it’s hardly much different. Paddling big drops is a young person’s game, and just as NFL running backs rarely compete far into their 30s, so too are young huckers forced to transition with the inevitable hands of time.

For Sturges, that future is in filmmaking. He started shooting videos at Otter Bar when he was 15, selling his videos to departing clients. At 16, he started Young Gun Productions with friends Brooks Baldwin and Marlow Long. Their second title, New Reign, sold enough copies to make money, and Sturges’s career in kayak videos was launched. He went to film school in Vancouver, B.C., at 19, and dropped out six months later after learning what he wanted. “I didn’t really care about knowing business stuff, like how to run Excel,” he explains.

“SOME PRETTY HEAVY SHIT HAPPENED IN THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS AND I THINK IT’S TIME FOR THAT TO BE SEEN BY THE COMMUNITY.”

Minutes after telling me this, he describes a recent scare when he thought he’d blown through all of his savings. It turned out to be a simple accounting error. One way or another, Sturges has always managed to make ends meet. For the past several years he’s garnered enough cash sponsorships—Red Bull, Dagger, GoPro, among others—to fuel his worldwide paddling and filming agenda. Only recently has he earned true windfall, for starring in a Toyota commercial. Nobody makes it as a professional kayaker without some business acumen. Still, money comes second.

STURGES COMPETES ON THE BLACK MASS WAVE ON QUE- BEC’S MISTISSIBI RIVER DURING THE 2014 WHITE- WATER GRAND PRIX. PHOTO JOHN RATHWELL
STURGES COMPETES ON THE BLACK MASS WAVE ON QUEBEC’S MISTISSIBI RIVER DURING THE 2014 WHITE-WATER GRAND PRIX. PHOTO JOHN RATHWELL

Communicating the essence of the kayaking lifestyle, and the bonds that are formed in life-threatening situations, is central to his music and his movies. Beautiful nature images and creative time-lapse scenes soften the edges of River Roots’ hard-core action scenes. Still, the big drops are the attention grabbers. When I rolled into town, the crew was rallying for a four-hour drive to picture- perfect Toketee Falls, a rarely flowing 70-footer. It was astounding to see how eager Sturges and his posse were to climb into a truck and make a long drive for a single drop that promised 2.8 seconds of free fall. But it’s about more than just those few seconds of flight. Hardly anyone mentioned Toketee without also talking about the nearby hot springs to enjoy afterward. Paddling is paddling, whether you’re cruising Class II or sending massive falls. Track Number One on The Road is Gold explains the extreme kayaking creed to the outside world: “But honestly we do it ‘cause the feelin’s free. We don’t jeopardize our lives to be on your TVs.”

Sturges the businessman plainly sees how that freedom is directly linked to his production of marketable material. As we discuss the complicated logistics surrounding the Congo mission, he admits that “it seems kind of silly flying to all these impoverished places and hiring helicopters to film kayaking.” The relative importance of his films was never called into question more than during Chasing Niagara. The project follows an epic three-year journey centered on Ortiz as he trains for Niagara. The film was meant to culminate with his triumphant illegal descent of the famous 170-foot cascade, displaying youthful talent and perseverance and guts in the face of automaton authorities—a statement of freedom and independence amidst the disgraceful montage of tourist-trap commercialism that leeches onto the shores of this natural wonder.

In preparation for the climax, Ortiz ran big waterfalls all over the world, including making the second descent of 189-foot Palouse Falls, by far the highest drop ever run. Also on the list was one of whitewater’s original waterfall destinations, Agua Azul in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Sturges, Ortiz, Garcia, and the Spanish paddler Gerd Serrasolses strapped themselves with GoPros and paddled toward the series of waterfalls. Sturges’s production partner, Matt Baker, and a cameraman operating a high-dollar Cineflex camera were in a helicopter hovering above. The first big falls, a scenic 60-footer that the team had paddled a week earlier, featured a simple entrance and a deep pool. For paddlers of this caliber, the drop should have been routine. Sturges and Garcia ran the falls cleanly, and were out of their boats standing on soft travertine when Serrasolses came over the lip.

STURGES ON THE 60-FOOTER AT AGUA AZUL. PHOTO ADAM ELLIOTT
STURGES ON THE 60-FOOTER AT AGUA AZUL. PHOTO ADAM ELLIOTT

He rotated slightly, “corking” during his free fall, and discarded his paddle just before landing to avoid hitting himself with it. It wasn’t a perfect run, but neither was it anything out of the ordinary. But Serrasolses missed a hand-roll, and then another in the aerated water at the base of the waterfall. He came up for a beat, his fingertips seeming to find purchase on the wet travertine, before losing his grip and capsizing again. In the video from Serrasolses’s helmet cam, Garcia can be seen tossing a paddle in hopes that Serrasolses might grab it and roll. The paddle drifts out of reach and Serrasolses, his air waning, swims.

This is where the story should end, just another swim in a game that requires occasional penance. Instead of surfacing, however, Serrasolses vanished. Sturges and Garcia’s concern grew into confusion. Sturges clipped into Garcia’s rope and jumped into the recirculating eddy where they had last seen Serrasolses. Probing for his friend’s body with his legs and paddle, Sturges felt something sucking from below and shouted at Garcia to pull him out. Surreal seconds ticked past as the two would-be rescuers scanned the water for answers, the unthinkable slowly taking shape around them. Sturges recalls simply, “We were pretty hysterical.”

Three minutes and 25 seconds after Serrasolses first plunged beneath the turquoise waters, his lifeless form porpoised to the surface 50 yards downstream. Sturges and Garcia jumped into their kayaks and sprinted for him. Pulling his unconscious body from the water, Garcia started chest compressions as Sturges gave rescue breaths.

The scene, captured inadvertently by Serrasolses’s helmet-mounted camera, is almost unbearably raw. On Garcia’s face we see a depth of feeling—anguish, love, disbelief—that no Hollywood film could ever prepare us for. It is completely, irrevocably real.

YEAR-ROUND CHARGER: STURGES MAKES AN ICY CARRY (LEFT) TO RUN SPIRIT FALLS ON THE LITTLE WHITE. PHOTOS: CHARLIE MUNSEY
YEAR-ROUND CHARGER: STURGES MAKES AN ICY CARRY TO RUN SPIRIT FALLS ON THE LITTLE WHITE. PHOTO: CHARLIE MUNSEY

Ortiz, having dropped the falls just as the others gave chase downriver, arrived and entered the CPR rotation. When Sturges’s turn came a second time, a cocktail of emotions driven by anger provided just a little extra push, and he saw “a flicker of life” in Serrasolses’s face. After four minutes of CPR, Serrasolses began convulsing. He was still only half-alive, “zombie-like” as Sturges puts it, when they heaped him into the chopper.

When it had gone, Sturges and Garcia portaged to the Shumulja River, where they made a somber Class III passage to the takeout. For the next four hours, they would not know whether Serrasolses was alive, had suffered brain damage, or was gone altogether.

In the helicopter, Serrasolses’s skin tone remained purple. Ortiz and Baker gave periodic chest compressions as his pulse flickered. There was a brief shouting match as Ortiz insisted the pilot fly directly to the hospital instead of setting down in a soccer field in town. Fifteen minutes after lifting off, they landed at the Palenque airport, where an ambulance was stationed. Oxygen was administered. Serrasolses began to come back.

The next day, everyone crowded into a van and drove straight to Mexico City. The trip was over. The project, however, was nearing its ultimate climax. Arrangements were already laid for Niagara. Lawyers had been consulted, reservations booked, escape routes scouted. Sturges the filmmaker was poised to complete his opus, to capture those few seconds of footage that his entire life had seemed to build toward. Four months after Serrasolses’s clinical death and improbable resurrection—he made a complete recovery and was running difficult whitewater within weeks—Sturges, Ortiz and a team of cameramen were back at Niagara ready to do this thing, to pull off the biggest huck that kayaking has ever seen.

Sturges got a message from Ortiz on his phone: “Come meet me to talk.”

“I saw him sitting there on a bench by the river,” remembers Sturges, “and I knew what was coming.” Ortiz had decided not to run Niagara. In the parlance of whitewater, he simply didn’t feel it.

“A lot of these things we do come from a positive vibe, and that vibe was gone,” Ortiz says. His hesitation wasn’t all about the drop, though 170 feet on 100,000 cfs offers plenty of room for pause. There were legal ramifications too. Once the jig was up, there was a good chance the authorities would ban Ortiz from Canada, where he works as an instructor on the Ottawa River. If something went horribly wrong, Sturges could be charged with manslaughter.

It’s hard to overstate how deeply Sturges was invested in the Niagara project. It had consumed nearly every waking hour for two years. Serrasolses had almost died making it, and Sturges’s sponsors had invested a great deal of money in the project.

Sturges thought of all those things as he and Ortiz huddled on the banks of the Niagara River, but he didn’t breathe a word of them to his friend. Ortiz didn’t feel it, so there was nothing more to discuss, just as there’d been nothing to discuss when Sturges clipped a rope to his vest and followed Serrasolses into the siphon at Agua Azul. That’s what kayakers do, and before he is anything else, Sturges is a kayaker.

We sit in White Salmon’s only pub as Sturges unwinds from an afternoon run on the Little White. It has been a difficult day. Serrasolses’s brother, Aniol, had missed the move above a log. He was stuck there, his foot entrapped with his head above water, for more than 10 minutes. He finally went under. It was clean. He popped out and hiked up to the road.

YEAR-ROUND CHARGER: STURGES MAKES AN ICY CARRY (LEFT) TO RUN SPIRIT FALLS ON THE LITTLE WHITE. PHOTOS: CHARLIE MUNSEY
RUNNING SPIRIT FALLS ON THE LITTLE WHITE. PHOTO: CHARLIE MUNSEY

Sturges asks me about drownings I’ve known. I tell him about my paddling partner Dugald Bremner, the inexplicable disappearance of John Foss, the bad luck that got Conrad Fourney, the Class IV that finished Jim McComb. The macabre recollections trail off, and we fail to draw any conclusions. Many of us continue to paddle, and survive, and have richer lives for it. Among elite whitewater paddlers death is always lurking in the background, and today Sturges seems to be feeling its chill. He’s only 29. He’s got plans.

His life has never been more hectic. Between his coming trip to Uganda, the Whitewater Grand Prix, visits from friends and Red Bull handlers, the Toyota campaign and a new Adrenaline Rush album in the fall, looms Chasing Niagara.

He expected to finish months ago, then in August. Now he seems resigned to editing through the summer and fall. “Right after Niagara I thought we were fucked, that we had no story,” he says, returning to the question that has consumed him for months. “But at the end of the day there’s still an honest story there.”

Sturges turns toward the studio and another long night of editing. He looks tired, but he has to try. “It’s just a hard story to tell, and this one has to be good,” he says. “I want it to give justice to what happened.”

Check out more digital features from C&K:

Fuel’s Gold: Paddling through America’s hydro-fracking boom at the high-plains confluence of Big Oil and Big Muddy.

The Altai Experience: An international team’s kayak expedition through Russia’s remote Altai region