The Top Adventure Stories of 2012: A First and a Last on the Grand Canyon of the Stikine

Ben Marr runs Site Zed and Jeff West dies

Sturges making the Hairy Ferry out of Site Zed.     Photo: Courtesy of Ben Marr via Darin McQuoid

On August 21, kayaker Ben Marr completed the first full run of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, a 45-mile barrage of Class V and VI rapids considered to be one of the ultimate testing grounds for whitewater kayakers. The 350-mile river drains roughly 20,000 miles of land as it rumbles from British Columbia into the Pacific Ocean north of Wrangell, Alaska. Fewer than 100 kayakers have run its recesses, but all of those comers either swam through or portaged around Site Zed, the last virgin rapid in a gorge flanked by 1,000-foot walls and grizzly bear patrolled forests.

Marr put into the river on August 19 with a group of seven. On the morning of August 20, he entered the roiling waters with his mates watching his back. He paddled over Westphalia-sized waves, boofed over a pourover, flipped in a boiling section, ninja rolled back into the flow, took the river’s punches, jabbed back to send himself through a massive hole, flipped again, rolled, and paddled out, relieved and victorious—and maybe somewhat numb to the sound of shouts and cheers around him.

By September, at least two kayakers had plans to run the Grand Canyon of the Stikine solo. Neither would be the first. Doug Ammons had already run it alone in 1982, but he took three days. Erik Boomer told Outside he would do it in a single day. Jeff West, 42, also had solo plans, but he kept them relatively quiet. In 2010, he had paddled the 45-mile gauntlet in a day with Boomer and Todd Wells. The bus-sized waves and monster holes, the 1,000-foot canyon walls, the shot-after-shot barrage he took from the river’s unexpected start and fits, and the challenge of thinking through technical run after technical run fueled his mind and his insides. When he paddled, he imagined such a fire burning in his heart that when he blew the snot out of his nose, he pictured flames shooting out. He growled before he hit waves. After he finished, he wrote about his experience like a man still burning.

"The Stikine makes other rivers seem two-dimensional. I had always thought of water flowing downstream, side-to-side and sometimes upstream. Additionally, on this river the water is constantly exploding upward and sucking down," he wrote. "It felt like a giant roller coaster and monster trampoline combined. Waves would throw you into the air. Seams would pull you into deep mystery moves. The crashing diagonals were the painful part. These waves are so massive that when you hit them it knocks the breath out of you. Imagine the ghost of Paul Bunyan standing next to the rapid. Instead of swinging an axe he has a giant 30-foot-long wiffle ball bat. As you charge your way through the rapid he squares up and knocks you into tomorrow. I have never been hit so hard by water."

On September 11, West died while paddling alone, possibly drowning after encountering high water conditions on the river. The exact events surrounding his death are still a mystery. Paddlers flooded the Web with remembrances that pooled into one heavy reality. It wasn’t the promise of West’s future in whitewater kayaking that hit them hardest, it was the loss of his inspiring effect on others that sent them reeling. “The time he spent reassuring and energizing aspiring paddlers to make their next step is unmatched by anyone the whitewater community has seen,” said kayaker Kat Levitt on her Jackson Kayak blog. “His passion for his own incredible challenges was only rivaled by his desire to spread and share that same powerful feeling of accomplishment with others.”

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