Catching up with Sam Grafton

Whitewater's comeback kid

Grafton enters Site Zed on the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. Photo by Daan Jimmink

Grafton enters Site Zed on the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. Photo by Daan Jimmink

After a collision with a paddling partner fractured his jaw in two places and compromised his 2013 paddling season, Index, Wash.-based boater Sam Grafton knew he wanted to go big this season. The accident happened on one of Grafton's favorite runs—Tumwater Canyon of Washington's Wenatchee River, which was flowing at a whopping 15,000 cfs. Grafton managed to salvage a bit of paddling last year, even making a trip to British Columbia's venerable Stikine River, but the 23-year-old says he wasn't able to paddle with his usual flair.

Fortunately, Grafton's career as an advanced EMT affords him the flexibility to paddle. "I work three nights a week," he says. "If I want to, I can get off work in the morning, go kayaking for the day and go back to work that night."

And so Grafton trained hard over the winter and was back on the water this spring, doing 37 runs on the Tumwater at flow rates from 4,000 to 14,000 cfs. He also nailed Pacific Northwest Class V classics like Icicle Creek (seen at 3,000 cfs in the clip below during the mid-May runoff), the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River's Robe Canyon, and the Little White Salmon River. "My biggest goal was to get back on the water and become comfortable in Class V again," says Grafton, who capped his comeback summer by running Site Zed on the Stikine.

We caught up with Grafton to talk about the joys of getting to know a river, paddling solo and adventure filmmaking.


Video: Icicle Creek at 3,000 cfs

CanoeKayak.com: Seems like you’ve developed a relationship with certain rivers, paddling (and filming) them at various water levels. What has this taught you about the way rivers work?
Sam Grafton: Just because you've paddled a river 100 times you should never be complacent because that's when bad things happen. Rivers are always different. A matter of 1,000 cfs can change a line completely. On the Tumwater, 2,000 cfs is creeky, 4,000 cfs is big water and anything above 6,000 cfs is full on some of the hardest Class V in the Lower 48.

Let’s talk Stikine River. Has running Site Zed been on your radar with the slew of complete descents of its Grand Canyon in the last few years?
Running Site Zed had been a goal for some time. I spent a lot of 2014 training with that rapid in mind. It definitely feels good to have finally accomplished that goal. When I ran Site Zed I was with Daan Jimmink, Ben Kinsella, and William Griffith—it was a perfect crew. Everyone else opted to portage Zed and Chicago. I ran everything on the first lap, and on the second two laps I portaged Zed.

Grafton (second from left) with crew at the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. Photo Jess Matheson

Ben Kinsella, Sam Grafton, William Griffith, and Daan Jimmink at the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. Photo Jess Matheson

What was going through your head at the top of the rapid?
Griff and Ben were in their boats at the bottom and Daan was shooting, so I felt that there wasn’t a lot of room to mess up. I guess if anything was going through my head it was, ‘Stay in your boat no matter what.’

You seem to do a lot of solo stuff. Why do you like paddling alone? What type of safety precautions do you take for these missions?
Paddling solo forces you to focus on at a different level. It's all on you—you don't have any buddies along to help you so there's no room for error. When I'm solo, I try not to experiment with new lines. I only paddle if I'm 99 percent sure I can make the line. I've definitely taken some hole rides and beat-downs, but have had no real close calls.

Why do take the time to film your stuff?
In 20 or 30 years I want to be able to look back and remember all the good times I had. Plus on the Stikine, it was fun to get out, climb a cliff and look at something other than whitewater. It's a good excuse to go and explore.

What’s next?
I plan on staying in Washington for fall and winter. If the snowpack is good in California I plan on spending some time down there picking off as many high Sierra classics as possible.