The most common question I get asked about my kayaking from those who are in the sport casually or not in it at all is: “When and how did you get started in kayaking?” This is that article and it continues to why I do what I do today.
At 6 years old, in 1970, I was afraid of roller coasters. In fact, I was terrified and cried every time my dad tried to get me on one. However, I wasn’t afraid of much else. One evening my dad returned from work and was all excited about something. He asked me if I wanted to go whitewater canoeing. My vision was, “roller coaster”. I asked how fast we would be going and his reply was, “about 10 miles per hour.” I was in. Roller coasters go 60 miles per hour, whitewater is wimpy, no problem.
In June of 1970 we bought a Grumman 16 foot open canoe, whitewater special. My dad and I met with his friends from work at the put-in of Pine Creek, the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. It had been raining and the river was high, according to Wilford Kling, the only kayaker on the trip. We were embarking on a two day trip with class 2-3+ whitewater. My dad and I loaded the boat with our camping, fishing, and paddling gear, including my goose down jacket in case I got cold in the water.
This trip was easy, I thought, but so much fun. I caught some nice trout; we made it through the biggest rapid called “owasie” or something about like that. Yes, I am remembering this first trip 32 years later with vivid memories. Wilford was afraid to let me try his homemade fiberglass kayak the first day, but on the second day he made the mistake of letting me in it. The entire second day of that trip Wilford paddled with my dad in the canoe and had to beg me to get his boat back.
For three years we paddled Pine Creek or Beech Creek (another class 2-3) in our Grumman until my dad got transferred to Florida. Other than the class 1-2 Juniper Springs, we didn’t find any whitewater in Florida, so bass fishermen we became. On several occasions we took our Grumman to Coco-Beach for some surfing. I don’t recommend anybody try this on a crowded beach. I don’t remember if we actually killed anybody, but I do remember the lifeguard kicking my dad and me off the beach with our canoe after continually filling up with water turning sideways and then taking everything in our way out.
In 1979 my Dad quit his job because he wanted to move to where there was whitewater and skiing. He chose New Hampshire. After a short day of Skiing on “Pimple Mountain” (Temple Mountain the actual name for this little hill) we came across a group of canoers and kayakers dragging their boats across 3 feet of snow from the Souheagan River. We stopped and asked if we could join them on their next trip out. They said yes and it would be the next day.
The next day came and my dad and I pulled into the put-in road ready to go in our 1977 Cutlass S Diesel with our Grumman on top. It was cold so I was prepared with my ski pants, snow boots, and down jacket to paddle in. Make no mistake, safety was important, so I was wearing my Orange horseshoe life jacket and ski cap. We put on with Stan Ekdal and friends and found that this solid class 3 run was much more than we dealt with in Pennsylvania. I was in the bow and my dad and I couldn’t agree on much on the way down the river. Soaked and cold we did make it upright. A few more such trips went successfully. Finally, on a day that I had a swim meet, my dad went with a friend from work to Otter Brook (class 3-4 on this day) and wrapped the canoe around a rock. I was pretty upset with my dad, letting him know that he could expect such mishaps without me in the bow, as any cocky 15 year old would do.
We wasted no time finding the local store, “Wilderness Outfitters” in Brookline, New Hampshire to look for another canoe. Sure enough, I spotted them right away. Kayaks. Beautiful red and white fiberglass kayaks. The salesman, Bob Potter, was ready to help me out. I asked my dad if we could get two kayaks instead of one canoe, he agreed, and I was sooo excited! “Which kayak should we get”, I asked Bob. Well, the Lettman Mark IV or the Lettman Mark V was our choices. Both are slalom boats designed by Lettman himself, the German Olympian from 1972. Bob said that the 13’2” “low volume” Mark V was too small and aggressive for us to learn in and put us in the bigger Mark IV. (I was 110 pounds and 5’ at the time.) I got a 110cm Hark paddle, big fat helmet, Omega life jacket, ¼” wetsuit top and farmer john, and some booties with carpet glued on the bottom. I was in heaven.
My first outing was on the Sougheagan River. My dad and I showed up to the river and found a group of guys ready to go. We asked if we could join them. Their reply was: “Do you have your rating card?” We said, we didn’t know what they were talking about and they told us that we couldn’t paddle with them since they were members of the Appalachian Mountain Club and we weren’t. Well, we were pretty bummed, but within minutes some kayakers and canoers came screeching into the parking lot and were raising some hell. They didn’t look like my dad and I with their long hair, tattoos, and R rated language, but they sure looked like a lot of fun to me. We asked them if they would paddle with us. Their words to us were, “Son, we are the Merrimack Valley Paddlers” and we will paddle with anybody.” My dad and I were back in business. Art Bunting, John Bennett and friends hooked us up good. Within weeks we were doing pool sessions. Back in these days it was a little different than now. Only one person really knew how to roll in the entire club of 40 people, Bob O’Neil. John Bennett kind of knew, although I don’t remember seeing him do it that year. So it was Bob, teaching me to roll on that first pool session of the Merrimack Valley Paddlers. Being a competitive swimmer, I learned in about 10 minutes. I then taught my dad and everybody else in the club that was there over those few weeks. My dad also became president of the club and we began recruiting like crazy. The club grew from 40 members to over 125 members in a couple of months and we taught everybody to roll. Meanwhile, the club bought a Phoenix Savage fiberglass kayak, and my dad made a mold from it. Over the winter anybody who was a member of the club could come to my house and build a kayak for only $100 in materials and my dad and I would help. We built almost 100 kayaks, sorry Phoenix!
That spring we upped the anti a little bit and the club had some interesting meetings. The meeting I remember the best was when Bob O’Neil wanted to take Bob Potter (sold me my first boat) and I to the Kennebec River in Maine. At the time the river was considered class V and at 15 years old the original members of the club were against it, to say the least. We had a full on fight in my house at the club meeting and my dad, the president, had to make the final decision, since I was his son. He let me go, and that set the tone for the club for years to come.
That year, Wayne Hockmeyer, owner of Northern Outdoors on the Kennebec built his own personal dam on top of the Dead River Dam out of plywood and 2×4’s. He scheduled a big rafting trip on Memorial Day Weekend when there was no release scheduled. Our club caught wind of it and we were all up there. We camped at Webb’s camp and got to the put-in early. There was Wayne giving his “you are all going to die” safety speech while we looked and saw no water in the river. Suddenly we heard the “boom” “boom” of a handful of shotguns. Within minutes the river went from 100 cfs to 8000cfs of water and another 1000 cfs of trees. What a concept we thought, make your own release, as the Merrimack Valley Paddlers, all rolling, most on the whitewater for the first time, ran down to the river.
We had two dislocated shoulders on that trip and another 5 that month in our club. Why? We couldn’t read water and went into every hole on the river with our paddles over our heads. I seemed to fair just fine.
Our next trip was the West River in Vermont. There I learned about play boating. I eddied out at the “ender hole” in the “Dumplings” rapid and saw several people do enders. I was mesmerized. I spent hours just going into that hole doing enders and pirouettes, back enders, and more enders. I had my first fan in J.J. of the Worchester chapter of the AMC. He sat there with me and cheered me on as I did ender after ender and rolled up on that boily eddy line (a new challenge for me). We didn’t go downstream until the water dam cut off and the water was disappearing.
Suddenly, I was discovering that I was one of the best boaters around, certainly the best in our club. I was the big fish in a little pond. That summer I got invited to work with Action Photography owned by Tom and Judy Rogers on the Kennebec River. I spent the next two summers up there paddling everyday and getting really good. On one occasion I hurt my shoulder and couldn’t paddle with a paddle. I ran the river everyday with my hands only and took photos. My big move each day was to eddy out at “whitewasher” to get out and get photos of the rafts. If I missed the eddy which was hard to catch, I would be in big trouble with my boss. At this point I was convinced that I was the best paddler out there and there was never any evidence otherwise.
Until one day, I was taking photos at the “Three Sisters” now named “Big Momma” (I named it that) and a guy came down in a slalom boat with a red/white, and blue outfit that had USA written on it. I watched as he surfed the first wave of the Three Sisters. He kept going back and forth. I didn’t understand, didn’t he know he was on the best ender wave of the Kennebec? I kept yelling, “ENDER, ENDER”! but he didn’t listen, and then just paddled away. I caught up to him later. His name was Hank Thorburn. He told me he was on the USA Slalom team. I said, “What?” He confirmed. I didn’t know about any US Slalom Team. I asked him how I got on the team; he gave me that, “are you stupid?” look and ignored me. I went from never being in a kayak race to being fully sponsored in one day.
I asked my friend, Wayne Hockmeyer (Northern Outdoors owner) if he could help me get a kayak and get to a race. He said, “I’ll buy you a kayak and take you to the races”. True to his word he bought me a company color green and yellow “Excalibur II” a green and yellow paddle jacket and life jacket. I had my homemade wooden paddle and my “Eric” yellow protect with the arrow in front. He took me to the Androscoggin Kayak Race in Errol, New Hampshire. I took second behind Chris McCormick (5th in the last world championships he did) and ahead of Chris Smith, also a member of the last US team. Chris McCormick called Bill Endicott and told him about this local kayaker who was only 3 seconds behind him in his first race. I also called Bill Endicott and asked him how to get on the US team. He told me to come to Maryland and train for a week. If he thought I had potential, he would let me train with the crew, who at the time consisted of, Jon Lugbill, Cathy and Davey Hearn, Fritz and Lecky Haller, Mike and Marty McCormick, and others. My dad took me to Maryland that fall of 1983 and it went well enough that I got the invite from Bill Endicott. In his exact words, “Eric, if you move here and train full-time, perhaps in five years, you too could be on the US Team.” I went to Maryland in January of 1984. I transferred from the University of Maine to University of Maryland engineering programs.
I trained for five years, more or less full-time, when in 1989 I made the US Team. In that period, I quit school in 1985 after my junior year, because I just wanted to kayak. I also met Kristine who became my wife in 1988 at age 18. Life was good.
The funny thing though was that even though I was training full time for slalom, I still considered myself a “play boater” first, and slalom racer second. I ran Great Falls numerous times each week and got out in my Dancer to surf all of the time. The final thing that took me from never winning a slalom race from 1983 to 1989 (I was always competing against the US Team guys) to winning the first two events of the year and making the US Team, placing second behind Rich Weiss was a 6 week training camp with Richard Fox of England. He taught me what it really meant to train hard. I finished as the top American in the World Cup that year for kayak with a 7th, 6th, and 5th place in the last three races. I was stoked. I came home and trained double time.
The next spring I had my first child, Emily. I was super broke as I tried to train full time and make ends meet working at Armand’s Pizza in Washington, DC. I couldn’t keep up with rent, but found an apartment in Atlanta where Brian Homberg and Eric Giddens was training for no deposit and only $200 for the first month. I moved there just for that break. Hocking camping gear to buy diapers and baby food happened more than once to the dismay of my visiting mother-in-law.
In the fall of 1991 I hurt my shoulder badly in a training camp for the Olympics in Spain. I couldn’t move my arm never mind paddle from November to February. In February I moved to Dickerson, Maryland to train in the new artificial course that they made there that was a near replica of the Olympic Course. I began to do flat-water and whitewater in March. I could only do right hand upstreams during practice so I just went in circles down the course until April. Finally, the day I had dreamed about for many years, US Olympic Trials. Scott Shipley and Rich Weiss made the team on the first day. There was only one spot left on the second day and I won it with a close win over Eric Giddens.
The Olympics was a dream come true, like you hear athletes say all of the time. It is the biggest sporting event in the world. 10,000 athletes and twice as many support people. For me it was about the event, but the Opening Ceremonies is burned in my memory like few other memories I have. My dad and step-mother came to this race, her first and my dad’s third in 8 years (my mother died in 1983). I rented an apartment for my wife and daughter (then two years old) on a mountainside in Andorra. The house was one of five built in 900 ad. I got the money from a fund raiser my friend and neighbor had for me.
The race was eventful, to say the least. I over ran my warm-up time about 500 meters away from the start and found myself having to set my new personal record for the 500 meter flat-water time trial in a slalom boat to make my start. 174 seconds from the warm-up gates to the electric eye, a record that still stands, I will bet on that. I actually had to slow down once I crossed the electric eye to catch my breath before I self destructed. I managed to put down a decent time and a clean run on a 106 second course after my 174 seconds of sprinting. I can’t tell you how I beat myself up for that screw up. On my second run I had a faster time but hit a gate and my first run stood. I finished 13th in my only Olympic race. I was the top American finisher with Rich getting 16th and Scott getting 27th, but I wanted to win (imagine that).
The next year I was trying to do something nobody had done before. I was going to try to make the US Team for Slalom, Freestyle, Wildwater, and Flatwater. To make a long story short, I only made the Freestyle team and missed the wildwater team by one place, the slalom team by two places, and skipped out on the flatwater team after some of the flatwater coaches told me (incorrectly) that I could not compete if I did make the team unless I gave up the other disciplines. The good news is that I was finally able to focus on freestyle only. I showed up to my first freestyle world championships as somebody who didn’t have a chance, according to Corran Addison, and won. I was finally able to show off my playboating skills. It was an incredible boost to my confidence since I had been trying to be number one in the world full time for 9 years and failed. At that race I introduced the paddling world to my new son, Dane, who was only 4 pounds at four months old. He was a miracle baby born at 1 pound 10 ounces, 3 months early and expected to die or have serious problems. He hung out at the World’s in his car seat all hooked up to a breathing and heart rate monitor because he had serious apnea (where you just stop breathing but aren’t old enough to know that the bad feeling you are having won’t go away until you start again, then you turn blue and die unless something or somebody jars you and you start again)
In the fall of 1993 I was full throttle in slalom again. I had a new coach in Sylvan Poberj from Slovenia since Bill Endicott retired. I learned new techniques and showed up hungry to trials that year. I shaved my head and had a mean looking goatee. I will never forget Fritz Haller’s words when he saw me. He said, “Boys, you are in trouble, EJ’s back and looking like he means business.” My confidence was back and I made the team second to Rich Weiss on the first day. The next three years were all about slalom. I went to the 1995 Freestyle World Championships in Germany but slammed the bottom after 10 seconds into my first finals ride and injured myself bad enough that I couldn’t move my left side enough to get my paddling gear off. I had to watch the rest of finals which left me in 13th place, and then miss four months of paddling following it.
1996 was a big year for me. I “sacrificed” for the first time in my career. I truly wanted to be playboating and river running and get out of DC, but stayed to train for the 1996 Olympics. This was a bad plan. My entire self-image and life plan was to do what I really wanted to do and then figure out how to make it work financially, etc. Well, I trained hard and had my new boat design I made with David Knight the “Rocket”. It was made especially for the Upper Ocoee course. I can honestly say that I was as ready to win as I ever was, and trained up with no holds barred. CBS “48 Hours” was doing a profile on me competing in the Olympic Trials which many thought was a distraction, but for me it kept my mind from obsessing.
The first day of trails was a joke. Everybody choked hard enough that the number 5 or 6 ranked person could have easily made it if they raced well. Rich Weiss had the best run of the lot and secured his spot, which was only to be two. Eric Giddens got second that day. I was fourth.
The second day had Scott Shipley, who had won the world cup and a silver medal in the 1995 world championships left to qualify, and me too, along with the other 50 athletes who hoped to make it. I was winning after my first run but Shipley’s run took me into second. On my second run I improved my time and was clean but was still second to Shipley. It was bad luck for me that Shipley didn’t make it the first day, but that is how things go sometimes. I bugged out of there so fast I can’t tell you, tears in my eyes and for the first time it occurred to me that I had broken my own rules of never “sacrificing” to achieve goals. Instead, if the goal is important enough, the activities required to achieve the goal should be considered a privilege and never a sacrifice. I was getting on Interstate 75 North to go back to DC when I had a sudden impulse to go to Disney World, so I got on 75 South and took the family to Disney for a 7 day first class vacation that I put on a credit card.
After some soul searching I decided that I wanted to have the Dan Gavere lifestyle, which was to live in an RV full time and just paddle at whatever rivers I wanted. At the time I owned a kayak and rock climbing school, Adventure Schools, and felt it was also stymieing my growth as a paddler. I was struggling. I had a $1400/ month rent payment, a $400/month Landcruiser payment, and was living like a yuppie. This was not me. I spent the fall and winter just paddling for fun, and then got back into my kayak school in the spring and all summer, and the only thing I really looked forward to was going to the World’s on the Ottawa in September. I went and placed second to Ken Whiting that year. I then went home and plopped down on the couch depressed really for the first time in my life. How could I not be in charge of my own destiny when I am a full time kayaker?
Kristine is the smarter of the two of us. She is also not afraid to just let go of what we have today and do something completely different. She suggested that we buy and RV and sell everything we own, ASAP. That was in September of 1997 right after the Freestyle World Championships. In the space of a 10 minute discussion, we decided that we were going mobile. I can’t tell you how excited and relieved I felt. I was becoming a kayaker again. Just a kayaker, nothing else. For money, I would teach clinics when needed, and I was selling my kayak school. I was also getting paid by Wave Sport to design the X and be an athlete.
We put an add in the Washington Post for “house sale” everything in house will go. We didn’t even pack. We just had hordes of people come and literally fight over our stuff. Kids toys, kitchen stuff, beds, furniture, books, TV’s, videos, clothes, all but a few boxes that we had already packed into our new 1997 Coachmen Mirada 31 foot RV.
We hit the road and went to Rock Island for six weeks of playboating with my new X prototype that David Knight and I designed. I was in heaven. My family was with me all day, everyday. Kristine began home schooling the kids then in 2nd grade and pre-school.
After Rock Island we went straight to California for river running. We filmed Dashboard Burrito with Chris Emerick and the rest of team Wave Sport. It was incredible. I would get on the water in the morning and the RV would me us at the take out in the afternoon with 7 layer dip and cold beer being served by Kristine. We had people sleeping in the RV often and made new friends constantly.
Going to California in our first RV
I still went to US Slalom Team trials and made the team in both 1997 and 1998 without training. I learned something about slalom by just kayaking and taking a break from it. Slalom racers get very narrow in their focus and turn training from something that could be 10 times as varied and fun into a daily grind. I proved to myself at least that I could be just as good in 1998 as 1996 with 20 workouts instead of 500 for the year, as long as I was paddling all of the time in good whitewater to maintain conditioning.
In 1998 I dominated the freestyle scene and won 27 events in freestyle, slalom, and extreme racing. It was a great year. I also average about double the scores of the other freestyle boaters, even in the Pre-Worlds in New Zealand. However, I had a bad ride in the head to head finals and finished fourth. The following year, 1999, I was focused primarily on winning the worlds in New Zealand. I won team trials in both C-1 and Kayak and came out with my design specifically for New Zealand the “ForPlay”. My career as a boat designer was blossoming with sales growing dramatically for Wave Sport starting with my X boat and continuing with the Y, Z, and XXX.
With a little help from my new friend Jessie Stone, I raised enough money to buy around the world tickets for my entire family. London, Victoria Falls (Zambezi), Sydney, New Zealand, and then back to the RV all in three months. It was my next step in total freedom as a kayaker and for my family. We were going to do what most people “can’t” do. We were going to go on a dream trip. Africa was the first highlight. The first day we didn’t think we would survive the hostel which was 100 degrees all night long and the mosquitoes were munching us. Paranoia about the kids getting Malaria was high. I got off the Zambezi River and organized an air conditioner and got the room sealed tight. Life was then incredible for everybody. After a stint on the Zambezi paddling with my newest bestest friend Steve Fisher every day we set off for a camping safari into Botswana. I can’t tell you how much it affected our lives. I am sure that those three days are among the top two memories of the entire family to date. We woke the first morning to 200 or more elephants crossing the river in front of us and marching straight through our camp. We also watched lions eating a water buffalo, giraffes appearing from behind clumps of trees everywhere. We asked our “guide” Richard, who provided us with our tents, if people get attacked by lions here. It was a logical question since we could hear the lions over our camp fire not more than 50 yards away. His response was, “recently, only two people have been killed by lions, one slapped a lion as it brushed up against his tent and the lion tore through and ate him. The other idiot, didn’t zip up his tent, so a lion just walked in and had a midnight snack.” Fair enough, I thought, until Kristine called me as she was putting the kids to bed. The zipper was broken on our tent. You have never seen cuddling, until you see two kids who are wrapped around mom’s leg and Kristine holding on for dear life to me as we try to sleep with the flap of the tent blowing in the wind and the lions prowling around outside. As you can probably guess, nobody got eaten, but at the time, the excitement was high.
What a way to wake up and spend a day
From Africa the next stop was Sydney, but just a short stay. We were headed for New Zealand. Upon arriving in New Zealand we managed to get ourselves to a hotel in Taupo. I had my dream car waiting for me, an Austin Mini. I bought it there the year before and kept it for the return trip. We went to a realtor and found a “holiday home” on the beautiful blue Lake Taupo for $125/week. We started at the realtor by asking for something cheap. When she started showing us houses for $60/week that were quite nice, we said, “what’s the best thing you have”, and this became our house. The exchange rate was quite in favor of the US dollar, so we could live like royalty. Within a week I found another Austin Mini Cooper, this one was a racing machine. I bought it for $1500, where the equivalent in the US would be $15000. I still hold the world’s record time from McDonalds to Full James (the World Championships wave)
I trained hard and was paddling well. While Kristine was entertaining. We had Thanksgiving at our house for 30 athletes from North America right before the world’s started. I was seriously questioning my US citizenship. I know that isn’t a popular thing to say at this time of heightened patriotism, but the people are so friendly, the cost of living is so low, and the country is so beautiful. We lived about 30 minutes from the East Coast with great beaches and surfing. That is were we bought boogie boards for the kids. We lived 2 hours from the west coast which boasts the “world’s longest left hand break”. That is were I bought my surf board (after the worlds).
Back to the event- I was dominating again and had just won the Quarter finals, having the first and only “trophy move” of the competition, a big air blunt, at that time it was quite uncommon. I was flying high. In the next round I had the worst luck I have had in a kayak event in my life. I flushed off the wave on my first move on both rides taking 9th out of 10 people. This is after doubling everybody’s score in the previous round. I cried for the first time in my life at a freestyle event. But, it was quite temporary because my life was so full of incredible things that had nothing to do with this competition that it was easy to let it go.
Upon coming home, I took over as “Director” of Wave Sport while still living in an RV. Now we have upgraded to a 33 foot Georgie Boy Landau. Oh, yea, life gets better! This RV was compliments of Wave Sport. Now, I must say, the new owner of Wave Sport had one idea of what I was supposed to be doing, and I had another. It was a struggle to keep myself from getting locked into the four walls of the factory. However, I finally learned to stand up for my lifestyle at all costs and would trade that job for the freedom to be with my family on the road any day. It all worked out though and I was able to help boost Wave Sport up while setting my sites on Spain for the Pre-Worlds and Worlds.
Meanwhile- I got to take my racing skills to other venues by competing in extreme races. I won four Gorge Games extreme races and numerous others like the Great Falls race. So I became an extreme racer and freestyle boater primarily. I also competed in the 1999 slalom team trials, but didn’t make the team for the first time since 1993. ( I was on the team for the world cup in 1996, just not for the Olympics) It was not a shock but I realized that I should expect to train a little or not compete well since I was getting rusty.
In the spring of 2000 I again competed in the US Olympic Slalom team trials. I came in 7th, 6th, and then 2nd in the last race. I was even winning after the first runs, wow. I was happy with that. Scott Shipley made the only spot on the team by winning day one and two, he was the man!
That summer I showed up to the pre-Worlds in Sort Spain the day the competition started. I didn’t have time to adjust to the time difference so I stayed up to 4 am each night at the local disco. I wasn’t really partying, just dancing and goofing around because I needed to keep on my schedule as if I was at home (4am is 10pm at home) It helped that my rides never started before 2pm. Everybody was shocked that the night before finals I was out to 4am at the “loser party” which is what people call the big parties every night from prelims on. As people get knocked out of the competition they begin their “release” by partying quite hard. I was going to the loser party every night. Except for getting body slammed from over Brian Miller’s head one night and getting punched in the face by another guy I never quite saw, it seemed like an OK idea. I was still getting 8 hours of sleep and not experiencing jet lag.
The finals were text book for me as I nailed my routine time and time again to knock everybody out for the win. I felt like I was ready for the worlds.
Every year from 1997-2001 I got at least 30 new rivers under my belt each year. Some big, some creeks, some class 2 that I ran with my kids who are now kayakers too. It was our fourth year in an RV. Everybody started talking about where we would live if we did have a house. We had narrowed it down to Hood River, Oregon, or Rock Island, Tennessee. ( you must have figured out which I picked by now) Hood River is my favorite town in the USA period. Everybody is active and friendly, and the character is incredible, not to mention beach, mountain, rivers, wind. However, the playboating is not good, big strike.
So going into 2001 we were already thinking about our next step, moving into a house, but this time, we would pick the best place we could think of, with no consideration to jobs, etc. since I was dedicated to the concept of being a lifetime kayaker. I would go back on that decision in a heartbeat if it was no longer what turned me on, but I still describe it the same way I first described it in 1984, and I quote myself, “My dad always told me I could be anything I wanted to be when I grow up. He also said I should do what I love to do for a living, which is the only way to be happy. Well, my favorite thing to do in the world is kayak. So, that is what I should do for a living.” My dad is an engineer. He began working in the 50’s. I don’t think it ever occurred to him that I would conjure up such a whacked idea as becoming a career kayaker. I must say that the words I live by were spoken by a man who, in the first 10 years of my kayaking career, wished I would just finish my degree and get a job. After the Olympics, he had a change of heart that I would imagine sounded in his brain like, “Maybe all this time he has actually been on to something.”
On this subject, but going back 14 years to 1987, the year I met my wife Kristine, things were on the verge of being quite different for me. I had just met Kristine in May of 1987, she was 17 years old, I was 23 (she told me she was 19, so it is OK). I had my own insurance agency and my other goal, I forgot to tell you, was to be a millionaire by the time I was 30. Well, there wasn’t a person I knew, that didn’t think that was an admirable goal. My kayaking, well, most people wanted to know when I was going to grow up and show some sense of responsibility. I was so close to quitting my kayaking plans and going full on into business exactly at the time I met Kristine. In fact after I failed to make the U.S. Team for the fourth time in a row (the weekend I met Kristine) I committed to my business objectives. In the following few months of dating Kristine from 500 miles away, she came up with this one liner that changed my life forever; “Eric”, she said, “you are only happy when you are kayaking.” She went on to say, “Why don’t you just quit this silly insurance thing and get a job as a waiter so you can kayak all day.” Oh my God, the first person, the only person in my life that actually put in words exactly what I wanted to hear. I had nobody in my life that felt that way, in fact, everybody in my life was wondering when I would do just the opposite, get a real job and quit kayaking. But my 17 year old girlfriend was the only genius among my peers. She was the only one who actually KNEW what makes me happy. I latched on to her words like Moses did to his stone tablet.
This was my one commandment- You are only happy when you are kayaking. I showed up to my office the next day and gave my 17 insurance agents notice that the office was being closed. In two weeks I took my first job as a waiter at the Inn of Glenn Echo, and I became a “kayaker first” all else is secondary. That was in September of 1987. I was engaged in February of 1988 and married in August of 1988 to the woman I could never let get away. I was a guy who wasn’t going to get married until I was 30 or more, wasn’t looking for a long term girl. Kristine was only 17 but hit me harder than any super model could ever (not that she isn’t, in my opinion, supermodel sexy) hit me. She was the first girl to put my happiness in perspective. The only thing I think I had over the majority of people I knew at the time was the simple idea that you only live once and every day can be measured as a success or failure by how happy you were and ultimately whether you, in general, increased the overall happiness of others, or decreased it. That is the simple measuring stick I use, and Kristine expected me to stand by it.
Ok, sorry, we were in 2001, World Championships, Sort Spain. I designed the EZ as my boat to compete in this event. It was designed to be super user friendly, meaning, no matter what kind of feature they made, I could focus on the moves, not on keeping my boat under control. Sure enough they made a hole that intimidated many and kept everybody on edge. Going for a different overall plan than pre-worlds, I decided to fly to Spain with my family early enough to adjust to the time change and to learn the hole like it was my own, and make a routine that can’t be beat.
We flew to Barcelona and rented a car, drove to Sort. I had a hotel room picked out that had a perfect view of the hole from the window, but it had been taken. Luckily we found an apartment in the city center, two blocks from the hole. We were on the third floor overlooking the town market. The kids could run down for fresh bread in the morning and we could stand on our balcony and let them know if we thought the avocados were ripe or not.
It was the dream European vacation. Our apartment was two floors with the parents on the second floor and the kids on the first. Dane was 7 and would be out the door at 8am before Kristine and I would wake. We would just hear a slamming door. He managed to get free breakfast at the cafe’ on the street just using his natural charms on the girls working there. He would head straight to his “foam boating” buddies apartment. Dan Campbell, Dale Jardin, and Steve Fisher. These are the “bad boys” of freestyle, but in Dane’s case, I would trust them with his life over anybody else. Dane would sometimes wait for hours outside their door until they woke from their stupor and came out. Dane somehow had them playing with him for 3 or more hours in the river catching his foam boats when they flushed out of the hole (foam boats are 3-4” long kayaks made from foam that you play with in little waves and holes). They were invented, or at least popularized by Clay Wright, and Dan Gavere fits in there somewhere in the early days of foam boating. If you think these things are toys for kids, you haven’t played with them. Dane even organized the first ever, and only, Foam Boat World Championships on the town creek in Salida, Colorado. Cash prizes, and lots of gear. Paddler ran an article on it. My son Dane is the Foam Boat World Champion for Head to Head Extreme Racing. You might think some fatherly help went into that one for the sake of his son’s self esteem, right? Well, actually, it goes the other way. Dane is used to racing me down the creeks, where we send our foam boats along their way down some steep creek (1-25 cfs on average) and when it gets stuck in an eddy, you are allowed to splash it but not make contact. Competitive, oh yea, we take this sport seriously. Well, the rule in the World’s was no contact. Over 30 kayakers, average age 25, had their boats in the starting lineup. The rules were simple; throw your kayak into the creek behind the plywood board holding up the water. When everybody is in the mix, the starter lifts the board up and the rush of water starts the foam boaters of all types racing down the creek. Dane was quite involved and his boat had a bad start and eddied out. He jumped in the creek and splashed it out of the eddy where it got stuck and was in last place. As referee, I did what I thought was appropriate for this 7 year old who was not following his own rules, and I threw his kayak way in the back of the pack. Dane, was horrified, and burst into tears, running away as all hopes of winning, and the embarrassment of having your dad publicly humiliate you like that. I couldn’t leave the scene. You couldn’t see what was happening.
Foam boat jockeys lined the bank like tourists watching a Disney Character parade in Main Street USA. I did hear the hollering as the crowd seemed to stop in a particularly steep section of creek with big eddies and a hole. It seemed that there were 20 foam boats all getting recirculated in the eddy and hole. From a distant last place, Dane’s boat came through the drop, melted the hole, and continued on down to the final drop, which was the sticky rodeo hole. This was a 3 foot drop into a hole that would scare the swim suit off of a Barbie doll (and did off of Dan Gavere’s). Somebody got so excited about Dane’s comeback that they fetched him from his hiding spot and jerked him out of his self pity and tears. There were two boats surfing the hole, each one poised for the win. Dane’s boat again did the perfect melt down and came up well below the boil line crossing the finish line first, with a glut of foam boats coming in only seconds behind him. Dane threw his arms up in the victory celebration, he won, and he beat the odds.
I am not sure how we got onto that subject, but hey, life is full of moments that make up who you are. I am not sure how that moment affected Dane, but he will be different, hopefully better for that experience.
Back to Spain- I struggled in the beginning with the problem of not being able to tame this hole. The water was high and the hole was just plain mean. After one week of training I still didn’t have a routine I liked. I kept a training log of the entire time in Spain, it is 28 pages of plans, thoughts, reworking my plans, and changing my thoughts. Finally, I had a plan. It was an 800 point ride. Nobody had ever done that before. Neither had I. To make a long story short, I failed over and over again. Getting between 380-650 point rides. That was OK, though, since the rest of the field got an average of 150-250 point rides with an occasional ride in the 400’s and one ride that topped 600 in an earlier round. So although I never hit my ride, I lived by the old saying, “It is better to aim for a star and catch the moon, than aim for the moon and catch a rock.” I waited 8 years to recapture my World Champion title. I always felt I was the best one in the competition, but I have come to realize that unless you can average more than two times the scores of everybody else, you have less than a 50% chance of winning, just the odds. But, of course, if anybody played based on their odds, they wouldn’t ever try anything that the bottom 50% of the lot couldn’t do.
So 2002 was another one of those years. I had a great year all in all. Good results, lots of fun with the family, and I came out with my first video, all good things. I got my 800 point ride in the Pre-Worlds in Austria too. 869 points to be exact. I also got a 739 point ride. This was a new world record high score. How did I finish? Fifth. Oops, I got my lowest score, my only low score, in the head to head finals where everybody else had their best rides. The person who won never broke 300, but he also never went below 220, my low ride where I flushed was 215 or so. The good news is that leaves me hungry for the big event in Austria, the World Championships, from May 29-June 2nd, 2003.
I have since had the best training of my freestyle career at my new home at Rock Island, Tennessee. I do two workouts many days and one long one on others. In January of 2003 I went to Africa to film two new videos, “Playboating Basics” and “Advanced Playboating”. This trip was both great physical and technical training since we had to go through every move in the book, plus three of my new moves that aren’t in any book yet: The “McNasty”, the “Stone Cold Studder”, and the “Lunar Orbit”.
To summarize this all would be futile. However, to tell you what I learned and believe from it all might be acceptable. This may seem off subject, but these are the lessons I believe I have learned and are worth telling.
1. This one comes from my dad: It has nothing to do with kayaking, but also has everything to do with it. That is entering into and maintaining a long term relationship. With it you have the peace of mind that comes with that part of your life that allows you to feel like you can “go out on a limb” in other parts of your life. Without it you will always question whether it may be time to “settle down” and create a normal living environment that would be more attractive to a significant other. As my dad once told me, In his exact words: “Eric, you have to take 100% responsibility for every relationship in your life, there is no such thing as 50/50.” I didn’t really know what he meant at the time, I was 16. I do know now. There have been millions of moments in my life where I felt like the person I was interacting with wasn’t putting in their 50% to make the relationship work. This is most apparent in my marriage. If I only was willing to put in my 50% and no more, than we would not meet in the middle on many occasions, in fact we would not meet at all sometimes. To not meet means that somebody gets let down and ultimately the relationship is failing. The only way to, for certain, assure your relationship will work, is to go all of the way to provide whatever the other person wants or needs. This takes all of the guess work out of relationships. You never wonder just how much you should do to make it work. You simply do whatever it takes, always. The funny thing is nobody wants to be the weak link in a relationship, nobody of any quality will ride you unless they think you are doing the same.
2. Living a secure life is living a lie- There is no such thing as security. Not in your work, your lifespan, your finances, or your happiness. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just means that giving up what you really love in exchange for a “more secure” job, recreation, or relationship is to purposely reduce the quality of your life. Hedging your bets in a world where the odds are not in your favor regardless is a sad way to face loss. If you are likely to lose your job to one factor or another beyond your control in the next 5-10 years, then why not work in a job that you can say, “I am so lucky I was able to do that for 5 years” instead of “after 5 years of sacrificing for this company, this is what I get”. In a world where your money can inflate or crash especially if you try to grow it in the market, you will regret trying to be the “millionaire next door” if it means that you sacrifice the prime active years of your life for that singular long term goal. Have you seen the world? Have you seen your country? Believe me, saving for future goals is something I believe in, but not to the extreme of losing on all of the potential best memories of your life now.
3. Trading an idealistic significant other for one who is realistic and is more secure. Same concept, if you choose one person over another because of what they have now, that person will feel that and you will always live trading favors to keep the ledger balanced. If you fall in love with someone but they have nothing you obviously need other than their companionship you will have the opportunity to have a full on relationship where the motivations are always based on strengthening the thing that brought you together in the first place, the feeling for each other. That doesn’t mean that you can’t marry someone rich, as long as you don’t enter that into your equation, even once, because you can’t hide anything from your partner that they want to know.
Well that is enough of what I think. Who am I to talk about these things anyway? Just someone who considers himself the luckiest person alive, and wants to share what I know works for me. Take it or leave it, I just kept on pecking at the keys and my thoughts kept pouring out. I think I am done now. So many holes in the order of things though. Swimming, airplanes, fishing. My other three obsessions. Some other time.