Expedition kayaker Erik Boomer on man-eating walruses, making friends with fear, and the impact of his last name
For the last decade, Erik Boomer, 30, has been one of whitewater kayaking’s alpha males, known for running drops no one else would dare. The American Falls, Idaho, native has notched more than 40 first descents around the world—from British Columbia to Kyrgyzstan. Several of those falls, such as 110-foot Chutes a Magnan, in Quebec, and 100-foot Cascade Falls, on British Columbia’s Iskut River, are “first and only” drops, meaning they are so intimidating that they’ve never been repeated. “Some of the waterfalls I first descended are now being run multiple times in one day,” he says, “I like that I’ve got some first descents that still stand.”
A few years ago, Boomer began adding slower-twitch explorations to his portfolio, including a hairy circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian Arctic, by kayak and skis with Jon Turk, one of the sport’s elder statesmen. Over the course of 104 days, the pair had polar bear and walrus encounters and had to wait out churning ice floes while supplies dwindled. The journey around the world’s tenth largest island was considered by experts to be the last great unattempted Polar expedition.
These days, Boomer splits his time between whitewater epicenter Hood River, Oregon, and Baffin Island, the home of his girlfriend, Polar explorer Sarah McNair-Landry, who in 2004 became the youngest person ever to ski unsupported to the South Pole, at the age of 18. We caught up with Boomer a few weeks after his return from a 120-day dogsled trip across Baffin, as he was preparing to head out on another expedition to Kyrgyzstan.
Outside: Which frighten you more, polar bears or walruses?
Boomer: Walruses. On day 66, one surfaced underneath me, lifting my kayak, and I had to brace to keep from flipping. He was towering over my head with these two-foot-long tusks. I planted my paddle between his eyes, and as he charged me, it pushed me back. He dove and resurfaced three times. I was bracing against him, just trying to keep myself upright. Luckily, after the third charge, he gave up. Apparently polar bears don’t typically mess with full-grown walruses. And now I know why.
How long did it take for your heart rate to come down?
It was about five to ten minutes, during which time Jon recalled some stories about what these things have been known to do to paddlers in Greenland. I guess they can suck the meat out of clams and mollusks without cracking the shell. In the past, they’ve found kayakers with a hole in their stomach and their guts sucked out.
That’s an absolutely terrifying image. I thought for sure you were going to say polar bears.
They can be scary too! One time I woke up in the middle of the night with a general sense that something was awry. When I looked up, there was a bear’s head inside the vestibule. He was pawing and ripping open the inner bug netting to our tent. I looked him dead in the eyes, about a foot from his, and yelled at him as loud as I could to get out of our camp. He backed out, and I stood up—in my underwear—through the same hole he’d made. There were five other bears within 15 feet of the tent. I screamed and yelled and fired off bangers [noisemakers that emit a loud, gunshot-like sound] for 10 minutes until they all finally sauntered away. I sat down in the tent, and my heart was beating like crazy. There was no more sleeping that night for me.
Has kayaking always been in your blood?
I grew up rafting with my dad in Idaho. When I was 11, I saved up my lawn-mowing money and bought a boat. I went every chance I could, even stealing my parents’ car to go to the river before I had a driver’s license. I’d lie awake at night and visualize lines through rapids too big for my skill level. Eventually, my skills started catching up to my dreams.
Do you still visualize the run when you’re preparing for a 100-foot waterfall?
Yeah, but it’s the progression in real life that’s even more important. I start on a smaller scale and master the same moves I’ll need to make on bigger drops. When I feel as confident making the moves as I do getting up and walking across the street, when it becomes that routine, I know I’m ready to step it up to a higher-stakes run.
Even so, does it still require a leap of faith before you actually leap off the waterfall?
I try to eliminate as much of the leap of faith as I can with careful planning. Sometimes I still feel fear and uncertainty, but I just try to understand that the emotional side can be distracting, and focus on the logical side instead. Once I have a logical plan, the fear is much smaller. It’s a great process to go through, whether it’s a waterfall or anything else that scares you. It’s valuable to go through the process of becoming more comfortable with uncertainty.
How is your approach to running 100-foot waterfalls different from your approach to 100-day expeditions?
They both require you to be calm and steady. It’s easy to get worked up about the problems you’ll encounter on a long expedition—ice conditions, weather, managing a dogsled team, or just the sheer endurance. But you can make friends with the fear in the same way in each case. You just have to be careful and deliberate. Ultimately the challenge turns into a hugely rewarding experience. It’s amazing to look back and realize what you can accomplish if you just stay focused from one day to the next.
Managing dogsled teams sounds like a cool challenge. What does that entail?
Because the terrain is so rough in places like Greenland, we run them in “fan-hitch” style, which means every dog is on their own line, so they can dodge chunks of ice. Running them this way can be a nightmare other places, but there are no trees up there for the lines to get tangled in. However you do it, it’s organized chaos. Fights can happen. Managing the 14 dogs’ personalities is what makes the dogsled go. We watch each dog and how he’s behaving and we’ll change the line length accordingly.
There isn’t an alpha male who’s always leading the pack?
There is, but we’re constantly trying to find leaders who are willing to run on a long line, have a lot of confidence, and who the rest of the dogs will follow. Hopefully, that leader will also listen to our commands. Then we’ve probably got a big workhorse who is really strong but doesn’t know what he’s doing, so we’ll put him in the back. There are the females, who are kind of cheerleaders.
Sounds like high school.
It is, exactly. They’re all vying for these positions, and it ends up being this really fascinating drama. But when they get on a line, they just want to run. They’ve been doing this for 4,000 years, so they’ve got unimaginable stamina and strength and perseverance. They’re incredible.
You can do all your Arctic expeditions with your girlfriend. That sounds like a dream for an adventurer.
For sure. Especially in the Arctic, on a long trip, there’s nobody I’d rather be with. I’m not thinking about being back home and what I’m missing—which would be her. She’s right there. So it’s easier to be in the moment. We weathered some really crazy blizzards this last trip. Some of the coldest, nastiest, scariest weather I’ve ever been in in my life. And I just love it. Something about being out in those conditions really makes me feel alive, and she loves it too, so we have that shared experience now.
Is she tougher than you?
In some ways, she is. She’s extraordinarily skillful in the things she does with dogsleds and snow kites. She’s really strong in organization and attention to details. On this last trip, I was really able to rely on her for that, while I supplied a lot of motivation and hard-driving force. It has become a good partnership and made me stronger in ways that I wouldn’t have been. I get a little bit jealous if she’s got a trip going that I think is badass, and it makes me realize that I’ve got to get a cool expedition going too.
How did you two meet?
We met in Hood River on a beach over a bottle of tequila, and the next day she invited me to go kitesurfing in Hawaii for a week. I had something like $400 in my bank account at the time, just enough for a ticket, so I went for it.
You have one of the best last names in the business. Ever have trouble living up to it?
I’m the youngest of three boys, and we’re the Boomer brothers. They were football players and wrestlers, but when they saw where I was going with kayaking they said, “You’ve gotta use the name. You’re Boomer.” I try to do what I can to live up to the name of Boomer. It’s an awesome last name.
Erik Boomer isn’t afraid to try new things. For the last decade, the professional kayaker and adventurer has traveled the globe pioneering first descents of some of the planet’s most rugged and remote rivers. Lately, he’s set his sights on the North, and his recent dogsled, ski, and sea-kayak expeditions to Baffin and Ellesmere Islands have helped usher in a new era of Polar exploration. TUDOR Watches creates its submersible products, like the TUDOR Pelagos, with the same spirit of adventure and takes pride in manufacturing serious tools that have been enabling adventurers’ amazing passion for defying hostile environments and exploring new frontiers.
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