Looking back on 25 years of Rapid, I can’t help but feel nostalgic. A lot nostalgic. Now published as Paddling Magazine, I somehow have contributed to every single issue but one. I honestly don’t know how many articles this amounts to. As I attempt to look back over that span of time and memory, it becomes most of a lifetime; one spent around moving water and with the good people who find solace, joy and connection there.
The more things change…
I’ve made some modest predictions in this column over the years. Some have played out and some have not. I predicted freestyle kayaking would become its own thing, only loosely related to what the rest of us call kayaking. True. I asked why proven, popular boat designs are retired for better ones, and predicted boats like the RPM would be back. Hello half slice. I also predicted river rescue training would become a mandatory entry requirement to our sport. Wrong. I called for a recreation competition model of some sort, other than the Olympic slalom/class V/freestyle paradigms. Wrong on that too, at least so far.
I did not see the kid revolution coming, even though I was immersed in it the whole time. Somewhere along the way in my kayak school days we went from teaching the odd kid to paddle among the adults, to it being the other way around. The typical weekend now, on my rivers, is a parade of kids; some with parents, some with clubs or paddling programs. All having fun. Kids, combined with freestyle paddling, slowly unloaded the seriousness that pervaded whitewater in the preceding generations.
…the more they stay the same
Some things are a whole lot different, and some things are a whole lot the same.
The rivers are more or less unchanged; the same waves are still there and still give me the giggles when I spin to wathunk. This would be a good place to insert the often cited—in this magazine and elsewhere—Heraclitus quote: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” The fact these words are still recited today is the perfect case study for their meaning—namely the impermanence and duality of opposites—because although none of Heraclitus’ writing survived, his words still live on, having been carried on by others for the last 2,500 years.
For us paddlers, any one place on a river appears to look the same, even over all these years, yet moments pass and can never be relived. A favorite wave breaks consistently and continuously, yet is made up of new water every single moment. Where I paddle and call home, amid ancient granite river ledges and rocks, that wave has been there since the last ice age, and hopefully will continue to break for many generations after I am gone. Time goes by, yet some things stay the same.
So many rivers and so many beautiful places. I used to keep a logbook of all the rivers I had paddled. I foolishly let it lapse, but even so it left off at something like over 200 different sections paddled. That seems fascinating to me, being permanently planted with a home and a family now, but every one of those rivers are a part of my life and who I am today. Heraclitus again.
Where I paddle and call home, amid ancient granite river ledges and rocks, that wave has been there since the last ice age, and hopefully will continue to break for many generations after I am long gone. Time goes by, yet some things stay the same.
This retrospect is not without sadness. Rapid publisher and now longtime good friend, Scott MacGregor, had asked me to contribute to issue one with an obituary for my best friend and whitewater video pioneer, Lynn Clark. This is a club to which you don’t want to belong—those with friends who lost their lives paddling. It was a life altering event for me, rivers of beauty and the joy of whitewater showing for the first time their black void that is always present, but rarely realized. In those intervening years I have lost more friends, not only to whitewater, but also to mental illness or addiction, proof that life and its problems find their way even to our graced little subculture of river people.
Bring on the next 25 years
I’m at a loss for any crystal ball predictions for the next quarter-century. That Rapid is still thriving after 25 years is unlikely and against the odds. That Scott still asks me to say something in it is even more implausible. Rapid is one of the few voices proving whitewater media is more than YouTube clips. Note: YouTube didn’t exist until six years after Rapid started.
I still guide and spend my summers on rivers—the one thread tying together the 25 years of stories that has stayed the same. But my paddling partners are now my teenage kids, who happen to be rapidly outstripping my ability and risk tolerance. I also have some real moral concerns about climate change and our paddling carbon footprint; I’ve no conclusions on that yet, though I am heartened when paddlers rally to defend our rivers when they come under threat.
In trying to capture this long view of 25 years, I feel immense gratitude. Along with the rivers and places, I am thankful for the things paddling has brought to my life. I met my wife while paddling. My best friends, I guide and teach with. As we float downstream on this current of life, I await seeing what is around the next bend.
Jeff Jackson is a risk management consultant and professor of outdoor adventure at Algonquin College. Alchemy first appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Rapid.
Start middle, head river-right and then keep paddling forever. | Feature photo: Rob Faubert