In February 1999, Hardy, now 36, had a near-fatal accidentand a life-changing epiphany. After years of pushing the limits of kayaking, he broke his back while running a six-story waterfall in the Ecuadorean jungle. He eventually returned to the waterafter two back surgeries and nine months of rehabwith a new mission: He gave up groundbreaking stunts to introduce others to the sport, and to the exotic places it can take them.
Outside: What happened in Ecuador?
Hardy: A few years ago, I was pushing my skills and pushing what could be done in a kayak. I ran a 60-foot waterfall and broke four vertebrae in my back. They had to carry me out of the river on a piece of wood.
How did the accident change you?
Today, my kayaking experience is not so much about how rad I can be, but about appreciating the places that I get to go and instilling that in others.
How do you accomplish that?
After paddling with us on our multi-day clinics and trips at Tarkio [Hardy's Missoula-based kayak school], people inevitably want to go to the next place. So in the off-season, we take some of our summer-clinic alumni to places like New Zealand, China, Bhutan, or Chile.
What's the advantage to kayaking abroad?
Most cultures live close to the water. Paddling trips in places like Bhutan provide a close-up cultural interactionyou float past farmers harvesting crops and people doing laundry. And since the river does a lot of the work for you, you can really look around.
What's the best way for a beginner to get started?
I have students start without a paddle. It forces you to learn balance, edging, and posture. The paddle is really an add-on.