From Reg Lake’s Perspective
In the December 2010 issue, C&K profiles legendary paddler Reg Lake (Reg Lake: His paddling hasn’t petered—it’s progressed). We’re publishing that piece, by Kate Stepan, below, and leading it off with some fresh footage shot by Lake.
The footy features sea kayaker Warren Williamson out by himself in awesome conditions—20 knot winds, opposing 6.6 knot ebb and massive rolling waves—in Deception Pass, Washington, on Nov. 16. The lighting, water, sound and paddling are all impressive; Williamson’s in an Illusion, from performance long-boat composite crafter Sterling’s Kayaks.
The tie in? The 5th annual Deception Pass Dash returns this Saturday, Dec. 4. (Our preview of the upcoming Dash is HERE.)
San Joaquin. Middle Fork of the Kings. South Fork of the Merced. Canyon runs that, when mentioned in whitewater paddling circles, invoke fear in the hearts of even the steeliest young gnar-chasers. For Reg Lake, expeditions were a way of life in the early ‘80s as he and his paddling buddies raced around California’s High Sierra, blazing first descents of the most difficult and committing steep creeks in North America.
An airplane machinist by trade, Lake enjoyed working with his hands. But the first time he put his paws on a kayak paddle, in 1972, the then 26-year-old decided “this was it.” Two years later, Lake quit his job with United Airlines and opened a paddling shop outside of San Francisco. Plastic kayaks had just hit sales racks when he started paddling with other big names like Doug Tompkins, Royal Robbins, and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. Together, they knocked off these remote and daunting Sierra Nevada gems. Lake refers to the early ‘80s as a golden age of paddling, when “exploration was part of what kayaking was.”
“We had the ability and plastic boats had evolved,” he says. “If we didn’t do it, someone else would.” In 1980, on the Devil’s Postpile gorge section of the San Joaquin, Lake was the first to run the unscoutable, unportageable Class V crucible.
But by 1981, when Lake and his crew carried their loaded 12-foot Perception Mirages over Mount Whitney and into the Kern River headwaters, his son was 3 months old. “Things became black and white instead of gray,” he says. “While looking at a rapid, it wasn’t like, ‘I think I can do this.’ It was, ‘Can I do this?’” They bagged the Middle Fork Kings the next year, followed by the Grand Canyon of the Tuolomne—racing to beat, then joining, rival paddlers and fellow Sierra legends Chuck Stanley and Lars Holbek at the put-in.
As the ‘80s progressed, family responsibilities took center stage and Lake turned from steep, mountainous descents to open-ocean crossings and big-volume Class III rivers for multi-day trips with his sea kayak. By 1990, he was visiting the fjords of Chilean Patagonia each winter. “I’ve seen the nooks and crannies of the planet from the seat of a kayak,” remarks Lake, now 66. “It was fun to play with the front edge of the sport. But things evolve or they get stagnant.”
Though he’s dabbled in other sports, like hang-gliding and mountain biking, it’s the variety in paddling that Lake is passionate about. “Not that those other things aren’t interesting,” he says, “but with kayaking, I still find myself wondering, ‘What’s on the other side?’ Plus I already had the ins to get good gear. Why would I want to lose that?”
These days, Lake lives in Ferndale, Wash., 15 miles from the Canadian border and half a tank of gas from the famed Skookumchuck tidal rapid, where he loves to surf his long boat. He regularly paddles around Vancouver Island and the Skagit and Cascade rivers, all while helping a friend and local custom kayak builder design and test boats. “It’s fun to be around the building part of it, and redefining sea kayaking,” he says, referencing a recent beta model made from squashing pieces from two sterns together. “I still feel like I’m playing with the front edge of the sport.” —Kate Stepan