If you’ve ever paddled, you’ve thought about it: ‘How can I get someone to pay me to do this?’ Rush Sturges made it happen.
Growing up on the banks of California’s Salmon River, where his parents own and operate Otter Bar Lodge, Sturges found himself floating in a boat before he could walk. It was a good start. In high school, he began shooting kayak groups with a small Canon Handi-cam, and then sold the videos to the tourists he was filming and spent the cash on better film equipment. Before he was old enough to legally drink, Sturges was getting paid by corporate sponsors to paddle and to document himself “living the dream."
In 2009, Sturges started his own production company, River Roots, which has since produced three full-length paddling films. By 2012, he'd won Outside’s Adventurer of the Year Award, along with his expedition partners, Steve Fisher, Tyler Bradt, and Benny Marr for paddling the Inga Rapids of the Lower Congo—the biggest rapids in the world. The expedition film, Congo—The Grand Inga Project, became a part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, and went on to win numerous film awards.
We caught up with Sturges after a recent stint in Mexico, directing aerial footage for a kayaking, surfing, mountain-biking and BASE jumping film for the Mexican Board of Tourism, and asked him what it takes to be a professional kayaker.
— Dave Costello
1. KAYAK... ALL THE TIME
“It may sound like a pretty obvious step,” Sturges says, “but being a professional at anything means complete dedication.” Rain, snow or shine, a pro kayaker has no off-season. You’ve got to go to where the water is, and not just paddle on sunny days when conditions are good. It means living in a place like his home in the Pacific Northwest, where it rains almost constantly, but you can boat year round. It also means traveling. A lot. Sturges paddles two to three hours every day, 200-plus days a year. Typically running laps on the Little White Salmon and White Salmon rivers. “They say if you do anything for 10,000 hours you'll be among the best in the world at it,” Sturges points out. “Put in your hours!”
2. BE VERSATILE
According to Sturges, “The strongest paddlers are generally the ones with both a freestyle and creek-boating background.” There are, of course, exceptions, “but I believe you will be better off in the long run if you don't limit yourself to just one style of paddling,” he says. On-water skills translate over in-between paddling disciplines (playboating will help your creeking, whitewater slalom, etc.), and as an athlete, you'll be more marketable. Multiple skills will also grow your fan base and garner more respect in the paddling community. “You are much more appealing to potential sponsors if you are good at racing, freestyle, expedition, and extreme paddling,” Sturges says. “Do it all!”
3. EMBRACE YOUR COMPETITION
“Surround yourself with people who are better than you,” Sturges says. “Reach out to other athletes that are raising the bar and learn from their experience.” This, in turn, will help you improve your own paddling skills. Sturges is usually on the water with fellow pros like Ben Marr, Evan Garcia, Isaac Levinson, and many more. “Your friends and teammates are the best ones to help you fulfill your goals and aspirations,” he adds. “This is one of the most crucial components to a successful career.”
4. HUSTLE YOUR SOCIAL
Your friends will make fun of you for constantly plastering selfies all over social media, “but your sponsors will thank you for it,” Sturges says. “These days, getting ‘likes’ and ‘hits’ correlates directly to financial support for any athlete.” Sponsors, understandably, want to know that people care about what you do and what you think, before they throw money at you to represent their brand. And having over 12,000 “Likes” on your Facebook page, as Sturges does, demonstrates that. “Given the current state of social media,” Sturges says, “it's a good idea to post quality photos, write-ups, and videos as much as possible.” On his most recent trip to Mexico, directing a multi-sport advertisement for the Mexican Board of Tourism, he posted photos from the shoot onto his social media at least once, sometimes twice per day. And that was while he was out in the field, producing.
5. PREPARE FOR THE FUTURE
“At some point, whether you like it or not,” Sturges says, “you probably won't want to throw yourself off 100-foot waterfalls or get chased by crocodiles.” On a very high-end level, whitewater kayaking is a young man’s game. Sturges knows this as well as anyone, having broken his back in 2009 after landing flat off an 80-footer in Argentina. “You can’t do that forever,” he points out. “You will have to continue to reinvent yourself and find new ways to make your career feasible,” he says. Sturges himself has branched out into filmmaking, as well as music, performing under the name “Adrenaline Rush.” “Take the time to be the camera man,” he says. “The editor, the producer, the agent, the musician, the business man, the instructor, the coach, the photographer, the writer, etc. If you master a variety of trades, it will help your career in both the short and long term. Stay creative. Stay focused. And Have fun!”
Next Up: First Descent of the Marble Fork Gorge