THE DEFINITION OF WHAT’S POSSIBLE IS EXPLODING IN EVERY SEGMENT OF PADDLESPORTS,
but none more so than whitewater kayaking, where young boaters
have been chasing the waterfall world record with incredible
audacity. The mark has been eclipsed four times in 21 months,
culminating in Tyler Bradt's 186-foot styling of Washington's
Palouse Falls, April 21.
Please thank the kayaking gods that Bradt made it look
pretty, because the last record plunge–Pedro Oliva's 127-bomb
on Brazil's Salto Belo a month earlier—was anything but. Oliva
landed on his head, and though he walked away uninjured,
the same can't be said for our sport's reputation. The footage
debuted on NBC's Today show, causing millions of viewers to
choke on their Cheerios.
That was too much for Bradt, 22, who held the previous
record for a 107-foot plunge in September 2007. "I wanted to
bring credibility back to the waterfall world record," he says. "I
was kind of disgusted when he landed on his head."
Bradt calls Oliva's drop a "publicity stunt," and though he
claims otherwise, the same criticism could be applied to him.
After his Palouse triumph, Bradt's cohorts collected all video and
photographs of the event and waited for the big-time media to
come calling. The group signed with the photo agency Aurora,
which at press time was managing the bidding war between
Time, Outside and other major publications. C&K and the rest of
the paddling media were priced out. "It's a real bummer," Bradt
Still, it's hard to blame these young, live-in-a-van kayakers
for trying to make a few bucks, especially on a beautiful run like
Bradt's, where he tucked up and fell perfectly with the flow be-
fore being enveloped by the falls. You don't see his landing in the
film but he definitely didn't swim as he paddles away with just
one blade after the impact splintered his paddle and knocked his
He brought style back to the waterfall chase through prepa-
ration. He has stomped a succession of high drops, and studied
Palouse Falls compulsively before attempting it. He developed a
new implosion-proof skirt and consulted extensively with a kay-
aker doing graduate research in physics. He even carried an ac-
celerometer in his boat to gather data for future drops.
The waterfall record has become the public face of our
sport. That's too bad, because no televised (or photographed)
huck can adequately convey the true soul of whitewater kayak-
ing, which is the paddler's connection to the river. At the highest
level, paddling is about having the judgment, skill and athleticism
to run long complicated drops, and to do it with style. Not only for
aesthetics but safety as well.
So when the next kayaker drops a waterfall even higher than
Bradt's, let's hope he does it with as much grace. Because it's
not just about looking good anymore. On drops of 100 feet or
more, running clean is the only way to ensure you don't get killed
doing it. – Joe Carberry
This opinion piece first appeared in the June 2009 issue of Canoe and Kayak magazine.