— The following originally ran in C&K’s 2009 Whitewater edition.
Cody Howard isn’t your typical 26-year-old paddler. The decorated former Marine fought in the Iraq war’s toughest-pitched battle, and says that experiencing the fog of war has made him appreciate the chaos of whitewater all the more. Since his discharge 18 months ago, Howard has chased big water instead of an enemy, running Class V from California’s Middle Kings to British Columbia’s Stikine with the same heroic commitment he gave the Corps. This spring, he released The Risen Sun, a highly anticipated flick documenting his boating forays with a band of whitewater brothers. — Joe Carberry
I grew up in Phoenix and started boating with my dad in 1996. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We rented a sit-on-top canoe at REI. That was as close to a paddling shop as Arizona had. We put on Tunnel Creek during a flash flood. We didn’t have any gear left or our boat by the end. I’ve spent every day since chasing those flash floods.
My brother and I were caught up in the late ‘90s playboating craze. So we’d search the irrigation canals to find standing waves. We found a couple and got kicked off a few. It was pretty sick surfing big waves on the canals. They were slow-moving but perfect for beginners, with eddy service and low consequences.
To get our fix we used the pool in the backyard. Every house in Phoenix has a pool. We started taking our boats off the tops of roofs into pools. Anything we could do to get any kind of creekboating.
The Salt River was another huge resource. We’d pay the Indians to get a permit and spend the day at Cibecue Hole, a playspot that’s no longer. It was washed out with floods in 2000. But it was world-class. We’d spend a weekend out there, camping next to the wave. We’d run the Salt at flash flood too. We never did the through trip because of the permit, but we’d sneak up to Apache Falls.
Ryan Palmer was a close friend of mine from Oregon. I was a freshman at the University of Montana and we were stuck inside all winter. We decided to do Mill Creek near Missoula just to get out. It’s super low-volume, pinny with tons of wood. But it’s roadside and convenient. It’s not a quality run. Ryan flipped over and took a series of beatings. He rattled around in his boat for a good minute until he was vertically pinned in the last significant drop. I was able to lift him in his boat out of river but it was too late. That was a huge shock. A real big loss. Gigantic loss. So I’m sitting in college not knowing what I was doing. I’d lost a friend in a sport I cherish.
Then 9/11 hit. I went down to the recruiter and signed up for assault and amphibious vehicle in the Marines. I joined up not having a clue what that was. I deployed to Iraq and spent 2004 in Fallujah. I was right in the middle of the Battle of Fallujah.
The whole time I was in the military I paddled three times. I kept a Riot Disco underneath my bed in the barracks. I’d get a lot of shit from my higher-ups. They’d flip over the bed and be like, ‘what the fuck?’
I did a lot dreaming in Japan. I’d break away from the whole military life, hiking up creeks with my Marine buddies. I knew I definitely needed to come back. That’s how I got that whole expedition there for my movie (The Risen Sun).
My entire combat tour was 10 months. The initial wave lasted a month in the field. We fought straight for three weeks. After that it was a daily routine where we were mortared in the morning waking up, then mortared in the afternoon with IEDs, just a shit show. In the military, it’s commonplace to see human life being lost. It makes you cherish every minute a little bit more because you know how quick it can go.
You’d think there’d be a big difference between military people and river people. But battling rivers with other boaters is the same connection as in the military: close friends looking out for each other. Some guys, sitting beside you in the eddy with a throwbag, oppose the war. But it all gets washed away by the river. When you’re standing by your brothers over in war, it’s all the same on the river.
I was disabled over there. My hearing got blown up in a car bomb. I’m back in school now, paying through the GI Bill. I’m able to use money from that and combine it with DVD sales and a little kayaking sponsorship to get by.
Of the first descents I’ve done, I really like the local Arizona ones with my brother and our buddy, Mike Fisher. Mike is deploying to Afghanistan next week so they’re all the more special now. We did creeks like Poland Creek and Snafu Gorge, super-epic Arizona stuff.
I wish there was more money for pro boaters. But in a way it’s awesome. It’s just roots and our own core heroes instead of marketed heroes like bigger sports. We’ve got our local legends and that’s what’s important.
Follow Cody’s Adventures at Huckinhuge.com