Finding the Source

Spencer Mauk styling the complex entrance to Cool World. 


Cool World: “Ok, here’s the entrance,” I point out to Max. “There’s the exit. Cool, right?”

As he scouts the burly entrance move, I’m guessing that for Max, this is pretty much the coolest rapid he has ever seen. For me, it’s the arc of a long love affair with getting to this place. I watch the cold mountain water plunge into the first pool, spraying a rainbow mist on the polished wall.

Karlsson contemplating his line. Photo Don Karle Photography

He’s focused on the intricate moves zigzagging through a cascade of holes and seams, which lead directly to the juicy curling lip of one of Colorado’s best boofs. Loose hips and poised forward strokes land you at the critical right sweep — the sweep stroke that, if all goes right, lines you up for a strong drive left, off the lip and into the heart of a truly cool world.

Max watches a few lines anxiously. He is still young. In fact, he’s an entire decade younger than most of this crew of some of the state’s, and the sport’s, most respected paddlers. Pat Keller greases a seldom-run line. Forrest Noble cleans it as well.

Pat Keller launching into Cool World.

I can tell Max is feeling it; the positive vibes in this group are infectious. He watches another line or two and his light flips on. He knows he has the skills. Aptly, he also knows that the skills aren’t everything. Can he put it all together? Can he keep his mind quiet, enter the flow and let his reflexes take over? He’s weighing these things behind his searching eyes. Then I can see it: He’s going to give her.

Nick Wigston floating one out in Cool World.

Max Karlsson was the scrawniest but most determined kid I’d ever seen in a kayak. At the time I was helping Nick Wigston with the Junior Kayak League, a Colorado program teaching kids to kayak and training them to compete. At age 10, Max had started to nail his roll and I got to spend a full session teaching him the sweep. By the end of the lesson he was already making it look effortlessly smooth. Who knew then just how much that he would someday need that reliable sweep stroke?

Max competing in the Lyons Outdoor Games 2015. 

View of the Upper Poudre Valley from Trailridge. 

Fast-forward eight years: Max is on the Swedish National Freestyle team, competing as a men’s pro at age 18. He can do every trick on the score sheet – with better style and amplitude than most of the seasoned pros. We’re switch-backing our way to the summit of Trailridge Road, the highest paved road in the U.S. This will be Max’s first self-support. He’s a better freestyle paddler than everyone in the van, but his creeking skills are still pretty raw.

The team at the put-in. Photo: Don Karle Photography /

Poudre Lake is our destination, from which we’ll drop into the wilderness of the Big South Fork of the Cache la Poudre River.

Nick and Pat ready to bobsled down the meandering valley. 

The Big South is an iconic Colorado wilderness stretch, often referred to as, “the best run in the state.” It’s guarded by a Forest Service gate, which rarely opens before the 4th of July, well after prime flows for a descent have passed in an average year. Pat Keller was in town so we decided we couldn’t wait for the gate to open. We set the epic ‘alternate shuttle’ to access the river from Rocky Mountain National Park, which would mean a night out and an extra nine miles through the sub-alpine upper valley of the drainage.

Pat airing out the only real whitewater on the upper section in the Source Gorge.

Pat and Forrest lunching at the first confluence, Chapin Creek. 

We paddle leisurely through the afternoon and make camp at the top of the run proper. While Max unloads his drybags, his grin is ear to ear. I look at Nick, and ours are too. With freestyle there’s the competition and the hoopla and the party. And it’s all good, but I feel like we’re not just telling Max; we’re showing him that this is what it’s really all about. Pat’s face glows in the firelight as he says, “I’m right where I wanna be right now.”

Max aces rapids with great names like Bouncing Betty into Taco Bob, Bar Room Brawl and Fantasy Flight. Then we’re at our scout, above Cool World. Max has probably been nervous since we woke up, but here I can feel my own veteran nerves start to tingle. When you approach this run before the gate opens, the flow will be substantial and the remote feel of the wilderness all to yourself, even more palpable.

Forrest Noble in Fantasy Flight

Max in Fantasy Flight.
Video: Spencer Mauk

With bigger flows, Cool World is one of those drops that sees more walks. Not on this day. With the crew who introduced Max to whitewater running safety, he negotiates the entrance, nails the critical right sweep and bombs off into the rabbit-hole that swirls down into the abyss of addiction to falling down water in wild places.

A good day in Cool World for Max. 

Video: Spencer Mauk

We run it out, all the way through Spencer Heights, extending the trip with an extra mile and a half of juicy roadside paddling.

Making our way to the Mushroom boof, a Spencer Heights classic.  

Seeing Max come from his sprayskirt needing to be cinched down around his waist with a cam strap, to this smooth and efficient paddling down one of our backyard’s most challenging runs, is a journey that I’m simply grateful to have been a small part of. Like the water droplets gathering from high-elevation snow banks that eventually form a roaring torrent thundering down Poudre Falls, Max’s passion has collected into a relentless energy that will serve him well as he travels from the Big South to his next mission, a quest for a Freestyle World Championship title.

— Evan Stafford co-wrote Whitewater of the Southern Rockies. He lives and paddles in Fort Collins, Colo.