Before every great river run comes a moment when paddlers make a subtle and sometimes unconscious decision that could change their lives forever.
“You can run a hard rapid every day, but maybe one day you’re thinking about Brennan and you think, ‘Today I’m going to walk around it,’” says Montana paddler Jason Shreder.
Shreder, like many other paddlers in Missoula, Montana, takes that quiet moment with an air of somber reflection. He says he stills thinks about the death of hometown paddler Brennan Guth, who died on the Rio Palguin in Chile in 2001.
Guth became the namesake for Brennan’s Wave, a popular whitewater feature on the Clark Fork River that runs through the heart of downtown Missoula. A functional irrigation structure divides the river into three channels—two of which have formed powerful waves attracting kayakers, surfers and standup paddleboarders since it was completed in 2006.
A decade before, this section of the Clark Fork looked very different. Crooked rebar and concrete acted as a sticky web for debris floating down the river. When talk began around town to repurpose the irrigation diversion for a multi-use whitewater structure, Guth got involved.
After his death, his father asked for donations to go toward the river project. Those donations became the seed money that got the $300,000 construction project off the ground and solidified Missoula’s reputation as a river town.
Brennan’s Wave quickly became a favorite among local paddlers and contributed to the growth of the sport in the city. In June 2010, 5,000 spectators lined the banks at Brennan’s Wave to watch 200 competitors vie for top place at the U.S. Freestyle Kayaking Championships.
Located adjacent to festival hub Caras Park, paddlers surf to live music on Thursday nights and next to the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings. There are now plans to build another wave farther downstream.
“Brennan would be happy with this legacy,” says local paddler and whitewater legend, Doug Ammons. “Whether you’re in a kayak or on a surfboard, people are free with beta and encouragement; there’s a sense of camaraderie that’s more like what I experienced when I started paddling back in the mid-70s.”
Land Heflin, an instructor at Tarkio Kayak Adventures in Missoula, says it can be hard to explain the adrenaline rush that draws so many to the river.
“We built a society around safety, but there’s a primal side that needs this, to throw yourself out there into the world,” says Heflin.
In 2004, with Guth’s death still a recent memory, another local paddler, Jonathan Sullivan, died on the Rio Manso in Chile, followed by 17-year-old Max Lentz in 2007 on a creeky line on West Virginia’s Gauley River.
Heflin says the series of three deaths affected Missoula paddlers. He saw a shift away from creeking and towards playboating. Most noticeable has been an overall attitude of awareness and more safety-conscious paddling. The Clark Fork became a place for the local paddling community to come together and heal.
Shreder, now the owner of Montana adventure tourism company Zoo Town Surfers, never knew Guth, but says he’s often felt like he’s been paddling in Guth’s ghostly shadow.
In 2008, on a trip to Chile, Shreder came upon the spot on the Rio Palguin where Guth died. On the side of the riverbank he stood and stared in silence. After a few moments, he picked up his boat and walked around the rapid. Even years after Guth’s passing, his presence is still felt.
Ghosts of Missoula. | Photo by: Robin Carleton