Janet Reno, Kayaker

Former U.S. Attorney General did not let Parkinsons keep her from paddling

Janet Reno paddling in Biscayne Bay, Florida. Photo by Scherley Busch
Janet Reno paddling in Biscayne Bay, Florida. Photo by Scherley Busch
Here’s something you probably didn’t know about Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. Attorney General. She was an avid kayaker.

“One day I took a kayak and I went over a three-foot rapid and I got hooked on it,” she told the Orange County Register in 2013.

Reno died today at 78. Her sister Margaret Hurchalla, also an avid paddler, told the New York Times that the cause of death was complications of Parkinson's disease, which she contracted in 1995 while still in office. Hurchalla, known as Maggy to instructors at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, often organized paddling outings with her sister through NOC.

Hurchalla’s fondest memories of her sister include paddling out the St. Lucie Inlet to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. “My sister was a great adventurer,” Hurchalla says. “We’ve paddled on half the rivers in Florida.”

President Barack Obama even mentioned her love of paddling in a statement about her passing. “Throughout her tenure, marked by high-profile, complicated cases, Janet was unflappable, never losing her candor, sense of humor, or love of kayaking on the Potomac.”

Michael Sawyer recalls a chance meeting with Reno on the Shenandoah Staircase, a popular Class II-III run not far from Washington, D.C. “We saw the NOC van and black suburbans at the bridges,” he recalls in a Facebook post. “We caught up with them at Bull Falls and [the NOC instructor] asked for assistance. Before long we had two or three wet Secret Service officers with wet Uzis.” Sawyer says the Attorney General and her sister did not swim.

“We started talking with her and she found out I was an attorney. She asked me ‘where do you practice?’ I replied, “Usually on the ‘Doah or the Potomac, but I don’t get to paddle much because I work a lot,” Sawyer writes.

“She laughed and laughed.”