Now Entering the Drop Zone

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Outside magazine, August 1999

Now Entering the Drop Zone
Kayaking’s radical underground is about to hit it big

The Latest Buzz
“You can easily train bees,” explains chemist Susan Bender. “I mean, they’re basically a lot like dogs.” In what could be the biggest advance in apiary science in recent memory, Bender and a team of scientists at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New
Mexico, are attempting to train honeybees to help ferret out hidden land mines, a task canines have been performing for years. According to Bender, who’s heading up the project at Sandia, most land mines leak trace amounts of explosive residue into the soil. The root systems of nearby flowers absorb the TNT, and when the plant blooms, the flowers
pour forth a chemical-laden nectar that pollen-crazy bees collect and bring back to their hives. This summer, Bender and her team are exposing some 250,000 honeybees to tiny helpings of TNT-contaminated blossoms in the hopes that when the bees are released, they’ll zoom in the direction of flowers that bear a similar chemical signature—and in
the process, point to mines lurking beneath the soil. If the technique works, war-ravaged regions such as Angola, Cambodia, and the Balkans may eventually be able to reduce the risk these nefarious devices pose to people and livestock. Of course, the tough part will be tracking the hardworking little minesweepers—a task that Bender hopes to
accomplish by gluing miniature diodes to the bees’ backs and tracing their routes with handheld monitoring devices. “Bees do have their drawbacks,” admits Phil Rodacy, an explosives expert at Sandia. “After all, you can’t exactly put them on a leash and follow them around.”

For most of the year, the north fork of the American River is a narrow alpine freshet rolling gently down from California’s Sierra Nevada on its way to the Sacramento Valley. But come summer, the stream turns into a nightmarish carnival of mayhem, as billions of gallons of water powerdrive through slot canyons, thunder down
granite-lined chutes, and cascade over waterfall after waterfall before coming to a stop in a blue reservoir. The sights and sounds are impressive, unless you happen to be surfing the current like helpless flotsam—or unless you happen to be a kayaker for whom roaring, pounding waters can never be violent enough and surfing the current like helpless
flotsam is exactly the point.

In the same way that extreme skiing grew out of a few Frenchmen’s daring predilection for the steeps and big-wave surfing was born from a small tribe of bored surfers on Oahu, the world’s best kayakers have in recent years been redefining their sport, taking it into uncharted territory previously considered verboten. Dubbed steepcreeking or hairboating,
this relatively new stepchild of kayaking involves hurtling one’s kayak down precipitous, super- technical, and relatively low-volume tributaries—in other words, flinging oneself off waterfalls upward of 50, 60, 70 feet high. For better or worse, the sport seems to have reached critical mass this summer, and entered the mainstream: Boaters are
attempting—and surviving—increasingly steep falls and reaping fame, if not riches. Kayaking’s national governing body, American Whitewater, has begun organizing the Cascade Series creeking races around the country. And the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina, the mecca of East Coast paddling instruction, is actually offering creekboating
classes. Exciting though these developments must be for paddlers who just a few years ago were toiling in obscurity, there is also some melancholy among the ranks. When money and media take over a young sport, it’s a sure sign that the sport has entered the waning days of its golden age.

Is creekboating fair game for the weekend warrior? Probably not. Is it skin-bracing for the pros? Listen to Tennessee-based Clay Wright, a pioneer in the sport, who led four neoprene-clad friends on the first successful descent of California’s Royal Gorge last July, a coup they pulled off at the cost of only a broken paddle. “One word: epic,” says
Wright, who still waxes rhapsodic about a memorable 37-foot drop. “There’s this point at the lip when it feels like you’re moving in slo-mo. You know you’ve nailed it—you know what’s going to happen even before you lift off.”

The sport itself achieved liftoff in the mid-1980s, when a small group of paddlers became frustrated with overcrowded rivers and the hokey flamboyance of rodeo kayaking. They began reconnoitering precipitous, log-jammed eastern rivers and found what they were looking for: out-of-the-way deathtraps deemed unrunnable by other kayakers, including such
gushers as Triple Falls on North Carolina’s Little River, which plummets 125 feet in three drops. They scratched out their plans of attack and flung themselves—literally—into their new pursuit. Over time, steepcreekers found other suitable streams—according to the unwritten rules, steepcreeks must descend at least 250 feet per mile, with
some boaters boasting drops of up to 800 feet per mile—from the upper reaches of California’s San Joaquin to the South Fork of the Skykomish in Washington.

Kayak designers have responded to the wild stories from the brink with new styles of boats: steepcreeking boats are smaller, built from tougher thermo-plastic, and enhanced with radically rockered hulls. The changes allowed steepcreekers to negotiate tight slots with less fear of broaching (getting skewered against a rock at an angle perpendicular to the
current). Even more important, steepcreekers could powerfully and safely “boof,” meaning they could catch big air at the lip of a drop and travel far enough away from the falls to avoid—they hoped—the rocks and hydraulics below. With rare exceptions, broken backs are now a relic of the past.

Despite all the attention lavished on it, the steepcreeking community is still basically a loose collection of friends who informally converge a couple times a year at one of the hot spots. Wright, 32, a fixture of the scene for nearly a decade, is the closest thing the sport has to an elder statesman. In the last 18 months, however, he has lost several
friends to whitewater-related accidents, and last July he barely survived a near miss on the San Joaquin when he broached in a slot that folded his boat in half. Since then, it’s begun to look as if Wright may soon step back from the cutting edge and cede his position to two younger hairs-apparent: 20-year-old Tao Berman from Index, Washington, a paddling
video star who has made several extreme first descents in the Northwest, and West Virginia native Shannon Carroll, 21, who’s been steepcreeking’s It Girl ever since she stuck a drop off 78-foot Sahalie Falls near Eugene, Oregon, in 1998.Of course, steepcreekers and rodeo kayakers still behave a little like oil and water when they cross paths. “We pulled
into the world championships last year cranking Prodigy,” Wright says, starting to laugh, “trying to get pumped for the event. But these guys were parked next to us blaring James Taylor. Rodeo’s just not where the fun is anymore.”

Not surprisingly, concerns are surfacing about the safety—or lack thereof—of steepcreeking. In particular, the sport is attracting a growing number of young, less experienced boaters, who are drawn by the risk and revved up by heart-pumping, fast-paced videos with titles like Thirst and Twitch. “There are plenty of coach-potato documentaries out there,” says whitewater auteur Scott Lindgren, owner of Driftwood Productions, the California paddling video company that produced Thirst. “But I want the guy watching ours to sit up and say, ‘Now that is sick.'”

Sick or not, all sports must evolve, and in doing so they lose some of the charm of their infancy. Steepcreeking’s present phase may someday be remembered as that wildly inventive season before the rules became codified and athletes began tracking sponsorship gigs in their appointment books.”It’ll be tough when we hit boundaries that we can’t overcome,”
says Wright. “But we’re not there yet, and who knows how far it can go? Someday people could be hucking off Niagara Falls.”

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