At the dawn of the new millennium, whitewater was having an identity crisis. River running, in the face of ever-evolving freestyle, was becoming incredibly uncool. Pro-Tec full coverage helmets, Salamander geek beak visors, striped polypro long underwear and woolen socks in Teva sandals. We were safe and we were warm, but goddamn we were ugly. I’m okay with ugly, but ugly and outnumbered is a serious problem.
In 2000, I coined the phrase whitewater freeboating. I had hats made and the term appeared on the cover of this magazine.
As I saw it, for whitewater to survive long-term we needed to make river running cool again. Like freeskiing was the new movement of all – mountain skiing, freeboating, as I proposed it, was top to bottom with play along the way. The name didn’t stick around but the concept did.
I was thinking about this last fall as I met up with a group of freeboaters. They were checking straps and pacing to keep warm. The temperature was hovering just above freezing, appropriate conditions for an annual gathering dubbed Chill Fest.
This paddling club has no elected president, no treasurer, no secretary and no fundraising bake sales. It is free to join. Joining—and I use that term loosely—puts your name on a mailing list used only to coordinate four weekends per year. To be removed from the list there is a $100 membership fee. To date, this river running whitewater club has never lost a member.
Chill Fest is nothing more than a river, a few suggested hotels, a Saturday night dinner and, ideally, cheap beer. Whoever shows up, shows up.
We meet at a general store, a parade of floats piled high with boats of every color, shape and size. I know a couple folks, recognize a few more faces. A round of handshakes and complete strangers begin mocking me for living the closest and being the last to show up.
Mike McCaffin is a lab technician here with his teenage son. There are teachers, two husband wife teams and a couple university students who should be studying for exams. There are creek boats, freestyle kayaks and everything in between. At Chill Fest anything goes.
I’m testing the new Silverbirch Covert 9.3 Some guys practice bow stalls in the flats and two kayakers don’t have whitewater rolls. They swim all the sets they don’t carry around. We all put in at the top and make it to the bottom. This is exactly what I was talking about. This is freeboating.
Around the parking lot campfire we joke like old friends. As drysuits change into Carhartts and puffy coats, the fire burns up and talk turns to who has the longest drive home. We pile into each other’s cars for the ride to the top. The sweet smell of wet gear wafts from mesh bags, chipped paddle blades rub against my shoulder. Van Morrison sings, “Into the Mystic.” It occurrs to me that all these years we’ve been asking ourselves the wrong question.We’ve been asking, what does the future of whitewater look like? We should have been asking, what does the future of whitewater sound like?
The answer is not cowbells and roaring crowds. The future is not live streaming coverage from a concrete ditch in Rio. It’s not the roar of twice as many hydrogen as oxygen molecules crashing 198 vertical feet somewhere in the state of Washington. The future of whitewater sounds just as it
always has. It sounds like, “Hey [name of friend], want to run the [section of moving water] this weekend?”
Scott MacGregor is the founder and publisher of Rapid. He’s been wearing the same ugly shorty paddling jacket since forever.
This article was originally published in Rapid, Volume 18 • Issue 2. Read this issue.