The paddling world has lost one of its finest. Ray McLain, former national marathon and whitewater canoe champion, American Canoe Association Instructor Trainer, and team manager and coach to many top-class young boaters, died January 23, 2003, after being diagnosed with advanced colon cancer about 17 months ago. He was 65.

Ray was a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). After working for 31 years at Proctor and Gamble as a chemical engineer, Ray left the United States lock, stock and paddle in 1995 to establish a small, but growing, adventure travel business in Costa Rica, called Costa Rica Rios Aventuras. To Ray’s relief and satisfaction, the company he pioneered was sold a few months before his death to Brett Shelton, who wants it to “remain the same as when Ray ran it, offering guests a wonderful, quality, safe trip at a reasonable price.”

Paddling with Ray

Larry Rice traveled to Costa Rica and paddled with Ray McLain last year. Read his profile of McLain in Canoe Journal 2002, or his story about Costa Rica, which appeared in the December 2002 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine, reprinted here.

Contrary to how many people would react faced with their own mortality, Ray never seemed bitter, or angry, or acutely depressed. He was actually optimistic to the end, says Vicki Greeley, who heads Costa Rica Rios Aventuras’ office in the United States. “Just a month ago,” she said in January, “Ray was still conducting an ACA instructor training class in the Appleton, Wisconsin, YMCA swimming pool, even though he was in pain and feeling weak. That’s just the kind of man he was – always happy and willing to help.”

In his final few months Ray lived with his son, Jeff, in Appleton. “It’s terrible that this had to happen to such a strong man that took such good care of himself,” Jeff McLain said, “but cancer is not fair. What we can learn from this is that we need to do more than just eat and live right – we need to get checked out once in a while. Early detection is key. One of dad’s loudest messages after being diagnosed was for people 50 or older to get a colonoscopy. It could save your life; it might have saved his.”

In November, at the annual meeting of the American Canoe Association, Ray was awarded the organization’s most prestigious honor – the “Legends of Paddling Award,” joining the ranks of Verlen Kruger, Ralph Frese, and other notables in the world of paddesports. And a legend he was. As noted in Ray’s obituary that appeared in his local Wisconsin newspaper, “Ray shot for the stars, and now he becomes one. You will be missed by many.”

Note: A memorial fund has been established to benefit the Wausau Kayak Canoe Corporation (c/o McLain Fund). Send contributions to 1202 Elm St., Wausau, WI 54401.