Whitewater Kayaking: Pushing the Limit

Peter Winn

Modern whitewater kayaking began in the 1950s and has changed significantly since then.  There were very few women kayakers at the time and now they’re on the Board of Governors of the International Whitewater Hall of Fame.  Kayak racing grew from local competitions into an Olympic sport in 1972 and now there is an annual Whitewater World Cup.  Rodeo kayaking didn’t exist and now there are hundreds of competitions annually.  Whitewater parks were all natural and now there are hundreds of man-made parks.  Kayak design has changed dramatically and stand-up paddle boards (SUPs) are increasingly popular.  Pretty much all of the world’s major whitewater rivers have been explored and suitable stretches have been commercialized, and kayakers are boating waterfalls as high as 189 feet.

Georgie White in her leopard skin dress on the Grand Canyon, early 1970s. Photo by http://www.blogger-image–1089634108

When commercial river running in the Grand Canyon began in earnest in the 1950s, Georgie White, “Woman of the River,” was the only female guide and outfitter.  She captained huge floating rubber barges—thirty-three feet long and twenty-seven feet wide—made from three army surplus bridge pontoons laced together and powered by a twenty-horsepower outboard motor.  By the mid-1970s, there were a dozen women rowing for commercial outfitters.  Louise Teal, one of them, interviewed them and published “Breaking Into The Current,” a really fun read.  Lorna Carson, who appeared on the cover,, was 5’5” and weighed 125 lb.  It doesn’t take big muscles to be a competent oarsperson; it takes skill reading water and planning ahead.  Patricia McCairen, a Grand Canyon guide, is one of the very few people to have run the river solo.  Her book “Canyon Solitude – a Woman’s Solo Journey Through the Grand Canyon” is worth reading.  Edie Crawford was a passenger on a Wilderness World trip and had such a good time she bought the company, renamed it Canyon Explorations (CanEx) and started training and hiring women.  One of them was Christa Sadler, who later authored a collection of river stories by Grand Canyon river guides: “There’s This River,” at the Bluff library.  Grand Canyon Youth (https://gcyouth.org/) is another rafting organization largely run by women.  Carmen Winn, my daughter, is on the Board of Directors of the Adobe Whitewater Club in Albuquerque.  Bluff resident Linda Richmond was one of the first female San Juan River Rangers.

The First In Boating on the Arkansas (FIBARK) began in the 1950s.  Kayak racing first began in Europe and rapidly became popular in the Appalachians, Rockies and Sierras. Image from uncovercolorado.com

I met Scott Fleming and his fifteen-year-old daughter India on a commercial trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon in the late 1960s, rowing a support raft while they kayaked.  A few years later, she was the only woman selected to represent the US Whitewater Kayak Team at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany.  At the time, she was dating my younger brother Steve, also a river guide and her age, and after the Games she gave him her kayak, with a big “72” over the five Olympic circles and her racing number on it.  Pretty cool (though she didn’t place).

We all know that Europeans invented the meter, and it’s only natural that they would select a nice round number like four meters as the standard length for racing kayaks.  This began to change in the late 1970s as kayakers discovered that shorter boats were better for surfing and playing.  Boat length shrank so fast I was sure I’d eventually have to buy a round one.   Many of the new designs were created by Eric Jackson (EJ, Jackson Kayaks).  EJ and his son and daughter are famous freestyle (wildwater) boaters.  EJ had a shop in Steamboat Springs and offered to teach my son, Travis, how to build a “squirt boat,” which has such a low volume that a boater can do underwater tricks.  A decade later, EJ gave Travis half a dozen kids kayaks so he could teach Chinese kids to kayak and take them and their parents on the Salween River in southwest China—see the award-winning video “Salween Spring” (https://vimeo.com/159848031).

Rodeo boater, photo from http://www.pinterest.com.  I once took a nephew though a hole like this in an inflatable kayak, knowing we would flip.  I managed to grab the IK but when I pulled up to roll into the boat, the current dragged my swimsuit down to my ankles.  I got a standing ovation from the dozens of spectators.

When Travis was still young and flexible (i.e. a teenager), we travelled to a whitewater rodeo with his supershort boat nearly every weekend in May and June: Salida (FIBARK), Steamboat (Yampa River Days), Durango (Animas River Days), Gunnison (Taylor River Rodeo), Boulder (Boulder Creek Rodeo), Golden (Cherry Creek Rodeo) Pagosa Springs (San Juan River Headwaters Rodeo) and Glenwood Springs (Colorado River Rodeo).  Travis won a kayak at the Deschutes River Rodeo north of Bend, OR.  I sometimes volunteered to be a judge when he wasn’t a contestant and was really impressed by all the combinations of twists, turns and flips that could be performed on one wave.  At the time these were all natural or only slightly altered parks, but by the late 1990s and early 2000s, the number of “manufactured” whitewater parks was increasing dramatically—worldwide.

The US National Whitewater Park near Charlotte, NC was designed by Scott Shipley, a Boulder, CO whitewater park engineer who had learned the trade from Gary Lacy, owner of Recreation Engineering and Planning.  Image from https://whitewater.org

The US Olympic Kayak Team trains at this site, and so did Lonnie Bedwell, the first blind person to kayak every rapid in the Grand Canyon.  Every city that has hosted the summer Olympics has built a whitewater venue similar to this, including Beijing, China in 2008.  Travis boated at one of these with one of their coaches after the Games ended.  Some of the largest whitewater parks in the world are in China.

Proposed Grand Valley River Park near Palisade, CO.  Image by the author.

In 2000, a group of Grand Junction boaters, including Denny Huffman, then superintendent of Colorado National Monument and previously superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument; Bob Cron, the Director of the Grand Valley Riverfront Commission; Harry Coff, a local attorney; Pete and Monica Atkinson, owners of Whitewater West, our local kayak shop; Amy Nurenberg, a local marketing expert; and me, just a kayaker with a lot of permitting experience, set out to build a river park.  We hired Gary Lacy to engineer and build the site, raised $1.2 million, got all of the permits (federal, state, county and a right-of-way from the railroad), and were set to go when the Endangered Fish Committee that originally agreed to an EIS that included our whitewater park with their fish passage changed their mind.  A year earlier, I met Risa Shimoda when I made a presentation on our project at a nationwide whitewater park symposium in Glenwood Springs that was organized by her organization, the Shimoda Group.  A few years later, Risa was inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame (www.iwhof.org) , and is now the chairperson of their Board of Governors.  Risa’s father was a Japanese American who was forced to leave his West Coast home and move to Blanding during WWII.1  What a small world.

Maps of first descents of the Yangtze (left) and Mekong (right) in Western China. Images by the author.2

“Riding the Dragon’s Back” (Rich Bangs and Christian Kallen) tells the full story of the race to raft the Yangtze and “Mystery of the Nile” (Rich Bangs and Pasquale Scaturro) describes their exploration of this river.  “Canoeing the Congo” (Phil Harwood) and “Amazon Woman” (Darcie Gaechter) are also notable river exploration stories.  You can find a book or video about the exploration of almost every river, and dozens about the Colorado and its tributaries.  For a great summary, check out “Whitewater: The World’s Wildest Rivers” (at the Bluff Library), by Graeme Addison, who explored the Zambezi River in South Africa below Victoria Falls.

Photo of a poster at a Niagara Falls tourist shop.  Note the lack of a life jacket. This was clearly not photoshopped by a kayaker.

According to www.history.com, the first successful recorded barrel ride over the 175-foot falls was in 1901 by Annie Edson Taylor, a depressed school teacher.  The only recorded attempt in a kayak trip occurred in 1990 and was unsuccessful.  It’s now illegal.  In 2009, Tyler Bradt ran the 189-foot Palouse Falls in Alaska3, a trickle compared to Niagara.  My biggest fear wouldn’t be dying—it would be surviving as a quadraplegic.

P.S.  I don’t consider floating rapids on an inflated Yellow Submarine to be “Pushing the Limit.”


1.  https://blandingbitspieces.blogspot.com/2020/02/a-timeless-story-of-generosity-midori.html

2.  First Descents of the Major Rivers of Western China: https://www.youtube.com/user/peterswinn

3.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNXh9gXDd2Y

One thought on “Whitewater Kayaking: Pushing the Limit

  1. Hi Eli,

    Thanks. Considering other essays you’ve recently published, you might find the attached one interesting.



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