Throwing Down a Killer Hole

There's nothing more all-American than a long summer road trip—except maybe a long summer road trip sponsored by a kayak company. Meet the hard-drivin', trick-huckin', heart-throbbin' river punks that may just turn freestyle kayaking into whitewater's answer to snowboarding.

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THE SUBY, AS THE BOYS CALL IT, looks like a giant Hot Wheels, a big toy with a roof rack bristling with kayaks. The shiny black Subaru Outback Limited is "loved by cops and women both," according to the champion freestyle paddler who's usually in the driver's seat, a sardonic 19-year-old from Bigfork, Montana, named Brad Ludden. Freshly minted from the factory, the wagon's a shade upmarket for the task at hand. It smells of its cush leather seats—"the stupidest thing I've ever seen in a boater vehicle," says Ludden's pal, his buff and reticent copilot Steven Byrd, 18, a former wrestler from Martin City, Montana, who's out on the freestyle circuit for the first time. Although he's only a year older, Ludden is already a four-year veteran of the six-month-long freestyle kayaking circuit and the winner of a silver medal at the 1999 Freestyle World Championships. He won the medal in the junior class and is breaking into the senior pro level this year.

Ludden needs a haircut, and he has a nasty cold he caught in Morocco last week, but he's still excitable about the Suby. He and Byrd are on a two-week stint, crammed in the car along with wet neoprene, PFDs, helmets, sleeping bags, Eminem CDs, a beer-and-babes magazine, boat bags, paddles, alarm clocks, a laptop, Airwalks, and a few Big Gulps (some empty, some full), as well as a third passenger, Chris Emerick, who's making a video featuring Ludden and two other pro freestylers. A 28-year-old from Parkersburg, West Virginia, Emerick, who has done this tour four times, quit competing last year in favor of making kayaking videos. Despite the age difference, the former Alta ski bum jibes well with Ludden and Byrd.

Cramped as it is, the Suby is a young athlete's dream car. It's a freebie loaner from Dagger, one of the world's largest kayak manufacturers, based in Harriman, Tennessee. Dagger hopes that Ludden represents the Next Big Thing. Also known as rodeo kayaking, playboating, surfing, and cartwheeling, freestyle kayaking involves launching your boat into agro tricks on river waves, rocks, and holes—the latter being swirling pockets filled with turbulent whitewater. Maybe, the marketing team at Dagger figures, freestyle will be to whitewater what snowboarding has been to the slopes—the catalyst for a cultural shift in the self-serious world of kayaking, the agent of a classic new school/old school rift that has already transformed rivers all over the United States into a series of holes, also known as hydraulics, with lines 20 kayakers deep. To goose the new school into a high-growth market, Dagger and two other top kayak makers, Wave Sport and Perception, are dangling some amazingly sweet perks in front of the most promising talent.

It's not a bad business bet. Even though it hasn't made it into the X-Games yet, the sport draws hundreds of spectators to competitions in places like Durango, Colorado, and Kernville, California, as well as Switzerland, Norway, and Japan. There's a world championship every two years and a "PreWorlds" on off years, both administered by the UK-based International Freestyle Committee. (The next Worlds will be held in Spain in 2001.) Aside from the competitions, there are also scores of Web sites and e-zines about where to huck ends around the globe.

Ludden's Suby is just one more harbinger of the shock of the new. The first time I set eyes on the vehicle, it's perched at the top of a steep trail leading to the Caney Fork River in Rock Island State Park, about a hundred miles or so east of Nashville, Tennessee. The Caney boasts the plushest hole in the East: the Rock Island wave. Ludden, Byrd, and 108 other paddlers are here for the first of three competitions to be held on three consecutive weekends, a new series sponsored by kayak clothing manufacturer Immersion Research—hence the name, the Immersion Research Triple Crown. The Rock Island wave has been the site of the U.S. Freestyle Team Worlds and PreWorlds selections for two years running. (This year's trials were held at Smiley's, a man-made hydraulic in Tennessee's Ocoee River, about a hundred miles southeast of Rock Island State Park.) But this weekend's event is also notable for the cash prize—the biggest yet in the U.S.

True, the $5,000 purse isn't huge money, especially when you realize that the five grand gets divvied up among the top three finishers in four classes. Still, it suggests that this niche sport is having a season of the sort that snowboarding had in 1988, when, after several years of championships that nobody attended, the fever took hold. Freestyle kayaking probably won't have it that easy; the United States has approximately one tenth as many car-accessible hydraulics as it has ski resorts. But if you stage 40 kayak rodeos, as sponsors are doing in the United States this year, and you stir in the ambitions of several hundred aspiring stars, there's no telling what could happen.

YOU CAN HEAR THE WATER before you see it, a sound not unlike a freight train. A thin, 30-foot waterfall is cascading from the dammed lake above the Caney Fork River, and dead center on the river sits the Rock Island wave, a riot of white foam exploding ten to twelve feet high, a "big stompy feature" in Ludden's words, with steep shoulders on either side and a deep sweet spot that seems like it's made for flipping the ends of a kayak over and over. It's here that the paddlers, in heats of ten, go one by one to throw cartwheels and spin their boats using their torso as an axis. Ludden, jet-lagged but determined, puts in at a crowded eddy adjacent to the explosive wave.

Most old-school kayak competitions involve flatwater sprints of 500 and 1,000 meters, and slalom, in which the object is to thread gates as you paddle through rapids. In freestyle kayaking, the object is to do as many tricks as you can in 45 seconds. Ten judges score each ride. Three count every 180-degree rotation, assign it a "technical score" (one, two, or four points based on how vertical the kayak's end gets), and call out the results in rapid succession; two more judges assess the "variety score" by identifying and calling each distinct trick. These have preassigned values based on difficulty. The remaining five judges transcribe the points as they're called out. At the end of the heat, all the raw scores are brought to a crash-prone laptop and crunched. Each competitor's total technical score is multiplied by his total variety score. To this is added a "style score" based on a percentage (zero to ten percent) of a paddler's total number of points. At Rock Island, a score of 356 will get you into the finals. (If this leaves you scratching your head, you're not the first).

At Rock Island, three bleach-blond junior paddlers sit on a podium holding flags tied to branches that someone must have just pulled out of the woods. The green flag means start your 45-second run, yellow means 15 seconds left, and red signals time's up. You can understand why they call it a rodeo: The object is to stay in the hole, which, in the preliminary rounds, nearly all of the competitors fail to do.

According to the American Whitewater Affiliation, the first freestyle competition was held on the Salmon River near Stanley, Idaho, in 1976. Before then, most paddlers went into holes only by accident, often backward or sideways while paddling frantically to escape. A technique for getting out of a hole yielded the first freestyle move—the ender, pushing the nose of your boat into the water and waiting for the river to spit you out like a pumpkin seed.

Back in the late seventies, kayaks were 13 feet long, fiberglass, and often homemade. They were fast but hard to turn. To improve maneuverability, boats were shortened. Meanwhile Easley, South Carolina–based Perception popularized kayaks made of durable plastic. Unlike the fiberglass shells, the plastic ones can take serious gymnastic abuse.

As boats have made tricks easier, the maneuvers that a rodeo star must perform have multiplied. Witness the air blunt, a 180-degree twist off the crest of a hydraulic; the pinwheel, which involves flipping end over end off a waterfall; the kick flip, launching off a wave into a jet-fighter spin. Different conditions favor different moves. At Rock Island, variations on the cartwheel theme are the bread and butter of the 45-second ride.

A colorful lexicon of wipeouts has developed along with the sport. To be "windowshaded" is to drop your upstream edge only to be rolled over again and again at the speed of a window shade that's been pulled down, let go, and is flapping at the top. To be "chunkered" is to get flipped and washed out the back end of the hole like you're being flushed down a toilet. "You start agro," says Ludden, "and then about two-thirds of the way through you become more conservative because you're out of breath, swallowing water, and you start to worry about getting worked."

Ludden doesn't do so well at Rock Island. He manages mostly flat spins, failing to get the tips of his kayak vertical—the difference between scores of one and four points. Though he stays in the hole for 35 of the 45 seconds, he fails to make the finals.

These are held the same afternoon. Ludden watches from shore. It comes down to Jimmy Blakeney, 28, the chairman of the U.S. Freestyle Kayak Committee; Dan Gavere, 30, a ten-year rodeo veteran; and Dave Garringer, a 21-year-old from Ramsey, West Virginia. Gavere flushes out almost immediately but scrambles back up into the hole to rack up more points. Garringer flushes out too but can't get back before the red flag; he finishes third. Blakeney survives his first ride, and in the ultimate round he and Gavere put on a mesmerizing show. No one in the crowd can tell who won, but the judges give the victory to Blakeney.

"I used to judge, but now I wouldn't feel comfortable," says Ludden, who feigns nonchalance about that morning's performance but admits it was "below average, a tough one to start the year with."

For now, Ludden can afford to shrug off missing the finals. Freestyle has no official rankings, and weekend to weekend any one of 25 paddlers may win a gold medal, something the obscure scoring system guarantees. Ludden's sponsorship has as much to do with cleaning up nice and being a role model as it does with winning. And yet that may be the very thing that changes if the sport blows up.

THE FIRST FREESTYLE TOUR began with an old white pizza delivery van, a gas card, and 20 bucks per diem. It was 1996 and Chan Zwanzig, aka Daddy Wave, founder and owner of Wave Sport, a small kayak company in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, gave four boaters the keys to the van and a video camera and told them to go to every whitewater rodeo they could. One of the guys in the van was Chris Emerick. "We were so budget," remembers Emerick. "There were no expenses, but it's not like we could afford a room. There were other teams, but no one was really getting set up." By this time, there were 15 rodeos to crash. It had taken awhile—20 years—but playboating didn't burn out or fade away.

"Paddlers have a tight network," explains Rob Lesser, one of the original Stanley organizers. "It doesn't take long for ideas to cross-pollinate." At AWA fund-raiser festivals, rodeo is almost a tradition. At last December's worlds, in New Zealand, 22 countries were represented, including Nepal and Togo.

Along with competitions and sponsored paddlers, it's hoped that man-made holes will bring freestyle to the masses. Already, manufactured whitewater parks exist in Ducktown, Tennessee; Salida, Colorado; Denver's Confluence Park; and South Bend, Indiana, and Wausau, Wisconsin, the sites of two new August rodeos also offering prize money. Each uses various combinations of concrete, wood, rubber, and fiberglass fastened to the river bottom. Not all playboaters are impressed. "They haven't yet developed sites that are quality," says Emerick. "But it's going to happen."

Emerick took up the job of video documentarian right from the start, in the pizza van. Now, with two instructional videos to his name (Play Daze and SOAR), he's been hired by Dagger and, a kayak retailer, to chronicle this year's tour, featuring Ludden and rival paddlers Jay Kincaid and Javid Grubbs. Byrd, who is lucky to be tagging along, will star as well. The working title: Full Circle.

Ludden grew up next to the Swan River, in Bigfork, which is less than two hours from the glassy waves of the Kootenai River. At age nine his parents taught him to kayak on Idaho's Lochsa River, his favorite still. He began racing slalom by the time he was 12, attending junior nationals when he was 14. A year later he took up freestyle, made the U.S. Junior Freestyle Team, picked up his first sponsorship (from Riot, then a new kayak company in Montreal), and won a bronze medal at the 1997 Worlds, in Canada. After the Worlds in Taupo, New Zealand, last year, he used the rest of a round-the-world ticket to paddle in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Ludden, Kincaid, Grubbs, and Byrd all personify the new school. They spend hours at a single hole practicing stunts. Old-schoolers run rivers from the put-in to the take-out; they quickly find their way into wilderness that would take days to reach on foot. Critics see freestyle in much the way that backcountry skiers see resort skiing: It's too limited; it has nothing to do with self-reliance or appreciating nature. "My pet peeve: The fact that everyone I meet on the rivers these days (under age 30) is sponsored," Bob Woodward, editor of Snews, an opinionated outdoor industry newsletter, wrote last March in a letter to the American Whitewater Journal. "They can barely read water and they're 'like, sponsored by Boof Daddy, Boof Mommy and, like, Anarchist Paddle Gear.'"

"I think [our critics] are kind of jealous," counters Ludden. "The new school people make money and do what they want to do. I've just found a way to kayak more than 100 days a year."

ONCE DURING THE WEEKEND at Rock Island I find the hole deserted except for Ludden and Byrd, who are trading a green boat between them, taking turns while Emerick videos. They're trying to invent a new trick, a kayak version of a 180-degree rail grab, using the wave like a skateboard ramp. After some trial and error they hammer out "the limerick": catching air in a half-twist and landing nose-first back in the hole, before resuming cartwheels.

When the boys aren't competing, they're often as not still on the water creeking (kayaking down steep, boulder-chocked creeks) or looking up water levels to figure out where to go next. Water can rise and fall in a single day, and it's easy to miss.

Word of a storm spreads all weekend. So on Monday they drive two hours east to Harriman, Tennessee, to pick up new boats at the Dagger factory and meet up with Kincaid and Grubbs. These two are also set up with a Suby, and the wagons convoy for two hours to Bear Creek, an infamous run in Georgia. There they connect with 37-year-old freestyle pioneer Marc Lyle.

In the Bear Creek parking lot, Byrd pulls his drysuit top over his head and hasn't even given the run a second thought when Emerick asks, "Dude, how's your creeking?"

Byrd doesn't know.

"This really isn't the place to find out," Emerick says.

When you drive four hours through rain to get to a creek, it's not so easy to pass it up. Wisely, Byrd does, but Ludden won't be denied. Lyle, who lost a best friend creeking in February, is concerned.

"I've paddled with both of you and I know that your skills are there," Lyle says to Emerick and Ludden. "Question is, where's your head?"

"Uh, on top of my shoulders," Ludden replies. Smartass.

In their four-mile run, the group loses two paddles, and Grubbs takes a nasty four-minute surf in a section called the Gnarr. Ludden rescues him with a rope. Lyle runs a blind drop and collides with a log, which holds him for a few terrifying seconds before releasing him. At the end of Grubbs's rescue, the group notices that the rock they parked a boat on earlier is nearly submerged. Bear Creek looks like it might "flash"—as in flash flood. They paddle like hell to get out of there.

"It was death," Ludden says later. "But not entirely a bad experience." The contrast of the weekend at Rock Island and the thrills and scare at Bear Creek helps Ludden keep the circuit in perspective. "We're not kayaking for sponsorship," he says. "We're sponsored so we can kayak."

There's a saying among the members of kayaking's new school: "Rodeo for dough, creek for fun." The weekend competitions are the office days; the weeks between are the weekends. For Ludden, it's certainly a sweet spot in time. Either the sport will stall out and freestylers will be back to selling nose plugs and hitching rides, or they'll face the greater demands of commercial success. Until then, they've got the Suby, gas money, free boats, and time, bountiful time enough to drive hundreds of miles out of their way in search of the next plush ride.  

Cristina Opdahl is an associate editor of Outside.

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