Kayaker Willie Kern on Pushing the Limit

The Outside in Aspen participant spoke to us about measuring risk, environmental advocacy, and getting older

Caty Enders

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A guide for most of his adult life, Utah-based kayaker Willie Kern has been all over the map. From the heights of the Himalayas to the heart of American whitewater, he has paddled first descents of some of the world’s most challenging rivers. His legendary expedition to run the Upper Gorges of Tibet’s Tsangpo River was covered by Peter Heller in the June 2004 issue of Outside magazine. Kern is also increasingly known as a voice for environmental conservation, advocacy, and philanthropy. He is currently working with First Descents to offer outdoor adventure therapy for young cancer survivors. We spoke to him in the run-up to Outside in Aspen.

So you’re temporarily based in Utah—and you’re a professional kayaker?
I’m from northern New England, but most of my twenties and thirties I lived nowhere in particular. I’ve lived in China and Bhutan seasonally, but I never really took up residence. If you plan to pair your work with your play you kind of have to. I was a ski bum for a while, and it’s the same deal. 

How did you get into kayaking?
My mother was a canoe guide in Canada, so we were raised in canoes. I got used to multi-day trips with my family, where everything you needed to address was right in front of you, which is pretty cool. My dad died when we were young, but my mom was one of the most courageous people ever. On her 65th birthday, we took her kayaking down the Salmon River in Idaho. For me, kayaking was the natural progression from canoeing.

I just talked to a kayaker who’s taken to SUPing because you can get more first descents. Do you feel the sport still has room to evolve?
It will always be connected to why people started traveling on rivers. It’s the most logical way to transect a place and experience different cultures and ecosystems. Having been an expedition kayaker in far-flung places, I know that there aren’t many undiscovered spots left. I do feel that what people are pointing their guns at is bigger drops. For better or worse, what pushes people forward is the desire to find out what we’re capable of.

Any favorite far-flung places?
In North America, it’s British Columbia, which has an abundance of wild places. It puts you in your place on the food chain. Off of the North American continent, it’s a Pandora’s Box of choices. I have a love affair with Eastern Tibet and Bhutan. Beyond that, everywhere becomes a fantasy.

I remember reading about your 2004 trip down the Tsang-Po in Tibet. That sounded like you were really pushing the limits of human ability.
The Tsang-Po was definitely one of the biggest trips of my lifetime, but it was also something I felt very comfortable doing. For most of my life, I’ve woken up and run rivers. It’s where I feel a sense of calm. I actually have a really bad benign tremor. But when I’m on a river, I don’t shake. It acts as a sedative for me.

You lost your older brother, Chuck, to kayaking. How do you face the risk?
Is it trite to say that 10 out of 10 people die? You might as well make it worthwhile. It also depends on your lens. I look at people doing tricky stuff on rollerblades, and that’s unfathomable to me.

My twin brother, Johnnie, has talked about how kayaking taps into all your innate fears: fear of not being able to breathe; fear of confined spaces; fear of speed and an uncontrollable, moving environment. It’s a complex set of anxieties that it elicits in people, but if you grew up with it, it’s less frightening. It gives you sensations that are available in no other sport.

Are you looking forward to leading kayakers at Outside in Aspen?
I actually have a brace on my knee right now and got badly injured mountain biking and skiing this winter—my Tibetan friend would call this an “obstacle year”—so it’s hard for me to get excited about the physical aspect. But my perspective on the outdoors has evolved, and I’m excited about the adventure philanthropy discussion. I think it’s great people are pushing the edge in terms of what can be done in advocacy, pairing purpose with a passion more and more in this realm.

There’s been a growing debate about using “awareness” to justify expeditions. Isn’t the “awareness” banner pretty self-serving?
There might be a few people in the world who aren’t self-serving—I don’t know them. (Just kidding.)

A kayaker friend of mine has always said that, as guides, it is our obligation to leverage our experience in support of those environments in which we work and play. Most of us who pursue adventure and outdoor pursuits full-time aren’t doing it because of the paycheck. We are the stewards of those places. If you get into the rigor of “awareness” conservation and science, sure you can poke holes in the outcome, but not the intention. It’s the right thing to do: Rivers are getting dammed at an alarming rate; hydrofracking is a huge problem; there are so many ill-conceived uses of our waterways. The people that really know what’s happening in those wild places are those that are going there, so it really is an obligation.

Are there people you’re excited to meet up with in Aspen?
I’m excited to meet up with all these people who are strong voices in support of the outdoors. I’m about to turn 40, and it’s a reminder that you can’t do what you did when you were 25 forever. You have to find something else to do.

How do you face getting older as a professional athlete?
You grow up and become more responsible. I want to help build conservation advocates, doing things like working with First Descent. It gives being on the river more meaning again.

In terms of my own physical ability, there’s a lifetime of Class IV out there. As I get older and become less inspired to run really hard whitewater, that opens up new worlds of opportunities.

Outside in Aspen, June 8-10, is a weekend filled with outfitter-led adventure, including mountain and road biking, kayaking, rafting, trail running, fly-fishing, hiking, stand-up river paddling, and rock climbing for all skill levels. The weekend also includes parties, a base camp featuring Outside’s Gear of the Year, a symposium with professional adventure athletes and Outside personalities.

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