They will see us through

Last summer, Outside magazine proclaimed whitewater kayaking dead, citing meager boat sales, the disappearance of the professional freestyle circuit and a five-year-old participation study. The analysis by Associate Editor Grayson Schaffer seems strengthened by the fact that many of the sport's marquee boat brands have fallen victim to bankruptcy or corporate mergers since the boom years of 1999-2004, including Savage, Necky and Perception.

A Case For The Core Whitewater Kayaking

Okay, so the industry may not be booming like it once was, but let's not ever confuse the business of paddling with the lifeblood of our sport. Whitewater boaters are paddling as hard as they ever have. Accounts of new descents and outlandish trips still clog online forums, and formerly pro-heavy events like Colorado's Gore Canyon Festival and California's Cherry Creek Race are thriving as grassroots get-togethers. In November, nearly 130 boaters entered the Green Race on North Carolina's Class V Green River Narrows.

Whitewater's core contingent is powerful enough to carry us through economic hard times. And anecdotal evidence shows that core is growing. "Our junior program is stronger than it was in the late '90s during the sport's supposed peak," says Aaron Pruzan of Rendezvous River Sports in Jackson, Wyoming. The same is true in the Southeast. "Our group whitewater clinics are way up," says Wayne Dickert of North Carolina's Nantahala Outdoor Center, one of the oldest and largest paddling schools in the country.

The Outside piece argues that the whitewater industry signed its own death warrant by producing too many new models during the boom years, flooding the market with used boats. The glut surely hurt corporate bottom lines, but it was a great boon to young paddlers like me.

From the day in 1994 when I hit my first roll in a beat-up, borrowed Overflow until I took my first real job a decade later, I went through five kayaks bought at garage sales, going-out-of-business sales and boat swaps. I didn't quit paddling because I didn't get sponsored, or because ever-shrinking playboats raised knuckle-sized corns on my toes. I kept at it, inspired by the everyday heroes I saw on the river, most of whom weren't sponsored either. They still managed to run gargantuan water and notch first descents in Asia and South America on a raft guide's salary.

Whitewater kayaking ain't about some pro on tour, traveling from playspot to playspot to throw the latest and greatest freestyle move for a few bucks (because if you think more than a handful of pro kayakers ever made a living wage on tour … you get the picture). Kayaking is, and always will be, about running rivers with grace and style. Personal exploration, whether it's on your backyard run or a 10,000-cfs giant in Tibet, drives the sport. That's why I got into whitewater kayaking. It's the reason I'm still passionate about the sport, and it's why I can't accept Outside's premature obituary for the game I love.

That and the so-called statistics. Pardon my skepticism, but Schaffer admits to basing part of his argument on participation numbers from a 2004 Outdoor Industry Association report. Newer OIA reports use a different methodology, making it impossible to draw meaningful conclusions from them, he says. But how the hell can you get a good reading from a five-year-old survey? As Dickert likes to say in his thick Southern drawl, whitewater could have "reinvented" itself five times since then.

The OIA valiantly tries to track participation in sports across the outdoor spectrum, from skiing to mountain biking to surfing. I'm sure they're wizards with a spreadsheet, but I've never seen an OIA rep counting heads at the Hell Hole or Skook.

Schaffer is a supremely talented journalist with deep roots in the whitewater family. He grew up kayaking in northern Idaho, has paddled around the world and logged time as a river guide. As an Outside editor, he has written knowledgably and passionately about the sport. Perhaps this background explains why he chose to write an epitaph for kayaking rather than another outdoor sport lagging in profitability, such as skiing. Rossignol's Jason Newell notes that pro ski teams have been cut by at least 20 percent industry-wide. Others have been cut completely. And that doesn't begin to describe the economic carnage at ski resorts, which are traditionally loss-leaders for real estate. We all know what happened to that bubble.

The recent closing of Idaho's multi-gazillion-dollar Tamarack Ski Resort, the demise of backcountry 'glisse' mag Couloir and shrinking page counts in all of the industry's endemic publications sure makes it seem like the snow industry is in as much trouble as whitewater.

The Outside piece also restates the well-trodden argument that extreme marketing–photos of huge waterfalls and rapids–has played a hand in hurting the sport, and that the only pro boaters left are risking death in a series of increasingly audacious huck-for-hire schemes. "[The photos] made for some gnarly catalog covers but likely drove away a large crop of weekend warriors put off by the idea of drowning upside down in a tiny boat," Schaffer writes. I don't buy into this gnar-gnar scare theory, but I will note that Outside sponsored the 2002 Tsangpo Expedition, arguably the gnarliest whitewater project of our time. The magazine was also the title backer of Young Guns Productions' series of hellaciously high-end whitewater vids. I guess it's about perspective.

So pardon my preference for ranting, anecdotal evidence over empirical data, but this passion is what kayaking is all about. Besides, who can rightly measure a sport's breadth when its practitioners prefer to disappear into dark canyons?
– Joe Carberry

This piece is featured in Canoe and Kayak’s 2010 Gear Guide, on sale now.