Tom McEwan. Photograph by Irene Owsley.

Tom McEwan. Photograph by Irene Owsley.

Tom McEwan grew up at his family’s outdoor camp in Maryland, honing his paddling and mountaineering skills with his childhood friend, Wick Walker. They were among the first to regularly run waterfalls, and in 1975, McEwan, Walker and Dan Schnurrenberger made the first descent of Great Falls, the Potomac River’s crucible Class V. The exploit was unthinkable at the time, and remained so for years afterward because McEwan and his cohorts kept quiet about it.

That silence reveals plenty about McEwan’s modesty and the depth of his internal motivation. He has been called quirky, complicated, generous, and hard to know. He admits that he isn’t a confrontational person, but as a river-runner his past is naturally studded with decisive moments. None looms larger than the loss of Doug Gordon on the 1998 National Geographic expedition McEwan lead into Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge.

Now 64, McEwan left Yale one class shy of graduation, prefering to work with his hands, and to explore difficult whitewater in such places as Mexico, Bhutan and India. And for the last 40 years, he has taught kayaking. -Kurt Mullen

Wick and I wanted to explore rivers like the mountaineers explored mountains. We wanted to carry everything in our boats, and have climbing gear sufficient to deal with cliffs. If you can’t go over a waterfall, then you’re going to rappel down the cliff next to it.

Leading up the ’72 Olympics I took a year off to train, as my brother Jamie did. Early on, I smashed my knee. That cut into my ability to practice, and I didn’t make the team.

Jamie made the team and went to a training camp in California, and I stayed in the Okefenokee Swamp. I spent some time paddling up the coast, back home, on an extended trip. I paddled for 800 miles in a homemade slalom boat.

I ate a lot of seafood. I fished from my boat.

I love to teach at the beginner level. Folks who are at the very beginning are undergoing all the fears that, later on, you have when you run Great Falls the first time. They’re trying to figure out, ‘Where do I fit in? How should I really be thinking about this?’

Robert Penn Warren [the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and novelist] was my advisor for my senior paper at Yale. When I went in to talk to him about it, what he said to me was pretty discouraging.

I wasn’t the kind of person to be forceful about my points of view. I listened to what he said and went away and thought about it and said, ‘Okay, forget it.’

Where my life was headed, I was not going to build a career off of that degree.

Every day we were on the Tsangpo River in Tibet our lives were, literally, in our own hands. We were very clear that it could have killed any one of us, or all of us. So you’re aware of your vulnerability, but you’re also aware of your skills and your abilities.

We were very confident about what we could do, to make good decisions and guard ourselves from those circumstances. We weren’t entirely successful, obviously.

I think that we really had only the one chance to do the trip. We had to make substantial payments to the Chinese authorities far in advance of the trip. So [despite the high water on the Tsangpo that year] I felt that whatever we could do would have to be then.

The stories that went around really weren’t very accurate. I adopted a certain amount of defensiveness because of the critical noise that was out there. But that hasn’t inhibited me from reviewing it in mind.

Nobody ever put me on the spot, and made me have to defend, or made me feel guilty about what happened out there. I had to carry around enough of my own guilt.

It’s not really guilt. I feel responsibility. I do feel a certain responsibility.

It hasn’t made me gun-shy. I haven’t stepped back from the willingness to confront situations. But I have a much clearer idea about what my limits are, and what are the limits of good reason.

I read somewhere about ‘feeding the rat,’ which I thought was an accurate description. It’s like you have something gnawing within you that you have to feed with on-the-edge experiences. When I start to feel that I am getting too lazy, I invite a few moments of chaos into my life.

This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Canoe and Kayak magazine.