Eric and Kristine Jackson portrait by Jock Bradley.

Eric and Kristine Jackson portrait by Jock Bradley.

By Joe Spring

You've probably heard of Eric "E.J." Jackson: International Whitewater Hall of Famer, Olympian, four-time reigning World Freestyle champ, at 45 still arguably the best competitor in the world. And, for that matter, his daughter Emily, 19, the 2008 women's World Cup champ. And his son Dane, 15, a freestyle prodigy who charged the Class V Green River Narrows at 12. But you probably don't know that the real hero of paddling's first family is the matriarch.

Kristine Jackson doesn't throw helixes on river waves the size of duplexes; she stays on shore, managing logistics and home schooling the kids. But E.J. wouldn't be whitewater's answer to M.J. had his gaze not wandered from the gates at the 1987 U.S. Slalom Team Trials to a young Long Island girl in candy-striped shorts. Before Kristine, he had never broken up with a girl; they always broke up with him. He had committed his life to whitewater, dropped out of college and lived in his 1980 Honda Accord. When it was repossessed he moved into a '79 Corolla that was a gift from Kristine's dad. Everyone told him to give up kayaking; Kristine told him to stay with it because it's what he loved.

In 1988, they married. He paddled. They were poor. They had Emily. He went to the Olympics, switched to freestyle, became a world champion. They had Dane. He paddled, traveling non-stop. Finally, fed up at raising the children alone, Kristine moved all of them—E.J., the kids, two Dalmatians—into a 32-foot RV. The day after Halloween, 1997, they took off.

The RV became an icon of the sport, a traveling testament to one man's love of paddling. And then Dane and Emily became champions in their own right, and the storyline changed from E.J. to the Jacksons. In 2003 the family started Jackson Kayak and bought a house—for the winter. In 2008, the company had carved out a sizeable share of the whitewater kayak market, Emily got engaged to Canadian kay- aker Nick Troutman (one of E.J.'s top rivals on the freestyle circuit), and Kristine got pregnant again. In August when E.J., Emily, Nick and Dane were competing in Europe, Kristine, 39, celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary, buried her favorite dog, and gave birth to son K.C. two months early. She doesn't use words like sacrifice. She's just happy K.C. loves his car seat, because the Jacksons are on the road, again.

This story first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine. Read more about EJ, Dane, Emily and the Jackson clan at


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