Photo: Rebecca Bolte
Story by Eugene Buchanan
First published in the March 2011 edition of Canoe & Kayak
THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA can herald the aging Brett Favre all it wants. The world of whitewater kayaking has Rob McKibbin.
The 45-year-old from Index, Wash. is one of the most hard-charging whitewater boaters in the country, minus the drama.
Consider his first kayak descent of 275-foot Sunset Falls on the Skykomish in October 2008, the first time the drop had been run since daredevil Al Faussett cascaded down it in a dugout log in 1926. “I was building a house a mile upstream and every time I looked at it, it seemed more and more runnable,” he says. So he took off his tool belt at lunch one day and hucked it. His skirt imploded on impact, and the last hole spit him out of his boat. No matter. He put on his tool belt and went back to work.
He calls Sunset “the biggest, most dangerous drop I’ve ever run.” But it’s in strong company. While many his age look for any advantage they can get, McKibbin handicaps himself by playboating big-water runs like Washington’s Robe Canyon and Idaho’s North Fork Payette. “I like the extra challenge it entails,” he says of his choice to use the slower, edgier craft. The only whitewater genre escaping his constant attention is expedition paddling, though he did complete a multi-day self-support trip on California’s Middle Fork Feather.
McKibbin gets after it with a die-hard crew of locals, some half his age, including the likes of Darren Albright, Ben Hawthorne, Dave Morales, John Fuqua, Brian Fletcher and Aaron Johnson. But it’s McKibbin who’s often the last one to the takeout, playing in every hole, splatting every rock and hucking loops over drops. “I call him ‘The Legendary Rob McKibbin,'” says Hawthorne, 24, who teamed with McKibbin to take first in 2008’s inaugural Robe Canyon race. “He’s super energetic and one of the few really go-to guys in the area. In paddling, gender and age don’t matter as much as rolling with a crew, and he’s awesome at that.”
Growing up in Chicago, McKibbin moved to Washington in 1993 and started paddling in 1998 as a safety kayaker and guide for Wave Trek on the Skykomish. “I did a bunch of grunt work, whatever it took,” he says. “At first it was just about getting on the river. I would have used an inner tube if I had to.”
Since then, he’s structured his life to fit his passion. Exhibit A: his job as a carpenter, which allowed him to scout and run Sunset. “My schedule’s pretty lax,” says McKibbin, who even lived in a tent one summer to better foster his habit. “It’s written into my contract that I get to take off time to go paddling.”
While the younger crowd is the only one that can keep up with him, it provides him with a unique perspective on where the sport’s headed. He admits to being jaded against today’s in-your-face whitewater videos and the bravado that accompanies them, but he also feels the sport is in good hands. “Guys like Rush [Sturges] and Trip [Jennings] love what they’re doing and their boating is amazing and inspiring,” he says. “It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.”
Meanwhile, he knows exactly where he’s going: back to the river as often as possible, notching as many as 250 paddling days a season, many on Robe and Ernie’s canyons throughout the winter, or his new favorite, Jefferson Creek, on the Olympic Peninsula. “I don’t think there are too many people my age running the stuff I’m running,” he says. “There’s just something I love about being out on the water.”