It has been a long time since I became a “full time kayaker” and my income came from kayaking. When I was 16 I got my first job as a whitewater photographer on the Kennebec River in Maine. I haven’t looked back since. Back then I was already a “Playboater” and was the king of the Ender, pirouette, and hole surfing in my world.
I got a lot of attention for my hole surfing antics and it stuck with me for life, I guess, as it was always fun for me. At the same time, however, I was attracted to running harder stuff, whether it be flooded big water, or steep stuff not done before. I paddled down Moxie Creek in 1981 and almost ran the 90 footer, but decided not too as it needed a little more water to clear the bottom rocks. that was in my homemade “phoenix Savage”. Eventually in 1984 I moved to Maryland where I was immediately lovestruck by Great Falls of the Potomac. Perhaps one of the greatest rapids known to man that is readily available, this section of river became my training grounds for the next 12 years. While I was training slalom in DC, I was running Great Falls an average of 5 times/week and doing laps on the different lines. Due to the size of the river and the number of Parallel lines, the 250 yard rapid is more like 8 miles of rapids once you put them in a line and include different water levels. My kids were too young to paddle, really, so I was always with friends who wanted to go with me. Corran Addison can tell you stories of the creativity that was being applied to the runs, like underwater eddy turns in my Dancer at the bottom of “Charlie’s Hole” where I would plug in deep and attempt to catch the eddy while deep underwater and pop up in it. Backwards, forwards, boofing, plugging, playing in the holes at the lips of the drops, etc.. were normal at that time. I had my cousin, Kirk, Paul Shelp, Jim and Gilbert Rocha, initially, and then David Macintosh, Jason Beakes, Brian Homberg, as paddling buddies in the next 5 years. High water, low water, winter or summer I was so fired up on Great Falls and it was the ultimate training grounds for any kind of big water or steep creeking. The highest water I ran it was at 8 feet on the gauge at about 80,000 cfs and the lowest was a 2.5 at about 500 cfs. We had Great Falls races, over the years and I organized the first head to head races on it in 1996 and 1997 (the Pre-world and world extreme championships) under the World Kayak Federation banner. Many people remember the last time we did head to head at Great Falls, when I was winning the finals and at the last drop Jason Beakes landed his bow in my side and took me out of the race and paddling for 4 months.
All the while, Dane was just a little kid and Emily wasn’t kayaking. We moved away in the RV in 1997 and I did a bunch of creeking as I was traveling around full time to the best waters around at the time of year when they were running.
In 2003 both kids became paddlers and wanted to kayak with me everyday. We did a ton of rivers, again, for the first time for them. Class 2 and 3 was the norm, and I only got on harder stuff occasionally. Dane was more into harder runs than Emily but both kids loved playboating. I designed playboats for the kids and started Jackson Kayak the next year and the playboating craze was easy to follow for the Jackson family. We were winning events (I won the next 4 years biggest events including 2 world championships, a world cup and the Pre-worlds) and the kids both made the USA team as juniors. Creeking wasn’t happening as often, although I did get on some stuff, and did my only Green Race (1st in creekboat class) back in 2005 when the kids were still not running the Green from top to bottom. (Dane was running it, but not the notch so didn’t race).
In 2007 Nick and I joined Ben Stookesberry on the Alsecesca Expedition where we opened up the Big Banana Section as well as other previously unrun sections of what is now classic creeking in Mexico.
Then in 2008 Dane did his first expedition with us in Newfoundland and was becoming a very good creekboater, but still super small and not very strong for hiking and portaging. Nick and Dane were fired up to do more.
We slowly worked our way into California, Oregon, Colorado, the Southeast picking off one good creek after another and developing skills at a pace that was safe. I was getting back into creekboating again with Dane and Nick being drawn to it and me keeping the brakes on the process enough that by the time we were running the Bear, Raven Fork, South Branch, etc.. they were on par in skills (if not better) than anyone on the water. I really don’t like seeing people running stuff that is at the top of their ability (definitely not my family). Emily is quite proficient on just about any creek as well, but her desire to run stuff at or near her ability is zero. She likes a big buffer between her skill and what she runs. She still runs some awesome stuff- starting on Tellico when she was little. You might remember this photo that was the cover of our 2005 catalog:
Fast forward to 2011 and 2012 and the Jackson family can be described as accurately as creek boaters as playboaters, or river runners. It isn’t something we are trying to be, it is just that what we are drawn to and do, and are good keeps broadening.
Keeping Dane, in particular, from trying to use his skills to the max, and losing the buffer between skills and actions is still part of my goal. Recently, for example he ran the Green from top to bottom backwards. He was with Green local, Pat Keller, and it was one of those “Hey, let’s run it “switch” and Dane didn’t hesitate, sliding in the water backwards and staying that way the whole way, claiming that his run through “Go Left” was faster than his forward runs in the Green Race. He also told me just recently that he intends to race the new Karma in Kayak, C1, hand paddle, as well as race long boat, and the Dynamic Duo. That is 5 races… nobody is more fired up and energetic than Dane in his creekboat right now. I am writing this from Austria at the Sickline race, where Dane probably does 4 times as many runs down the course each day than anyone else. He just grabs his boat, walks up, puts in and goes again, and again, and again. I am hoping that Dane learns the easy way, by the errors of others, that at the level we are creek boating, there are mistakes that equal death or serious injury, that once you make those mistakes, there is not taking them back. Nick learned through his own experiences (1 cave in Mexico, and one head concussion injury in Newfoundland) that the hardest creeks have real consequences. I learned this in 1997 when I boofed into an eddy on the first big drop of the Upper Little North Fork of the Skykomish in WA. As I type this, my back is in pain as I never fully recovered from that injury. Big waterfalls equal big fun, unless… That is another subject, really, worth taking some time and writing about, as there are a ton of young guys right now that haven’t the skills and definitely not the decision making ability to be doing what they are doing. An incident where 7 guys blue angled off of a 90 foot portage (by accident) on a run that the portage was well known (Jalacingo in Veracruz where they were told about the portage before putting in) is an example of testosterone driven stupidity that has nothing to do with a great day of paddling.
So my next phase in Jackson family paddling includes a young Red Bull sponsored paddler that is more capable than anyone on the water, but also at risk, often, in the scenarios he/we go into. I lead by example, often walking what I have run before, and am more apt to walk a rapid with Dane or Nick there than run it as it is important to me to show that walking is never a bad thing or something to be embarrassed with. Even a rapid like Stairway to Heaven on the Bear. I ran it in 1990 in my Crossfire my first time seeing it, but have walked it every time I have run that creek with Dane and Nick since then. Dane has ran it all but two times I have been there with him.
Creeking is a broad term and there is so much fun to be had running down gradient in your kayak that isn’t super dangerous. We have been developing better and better creek boats each generation. Rocker 1, then 2007 Rockers, then the Hero and 2011 Hero, then the Villain and this year the Zen (river runner that is super fun for creeking) and now the Karma, our latest master piece that launches in a few weeks!) I expect that Nick, Dane, and I, and on occaision, Emily, will have many awesome memories together in the new Karma this winter and then next year and years following. We’ll be playboating often, creekboating a lot, river running a ton, and talking about kayaking when not paddling. Sounds like a good life continuing! Look for us on the North Chic, Bear, Suck, Raven Fork, and other Smokey Mountain and Cumberland Plateau runs staged out of Rock Island. As the spring rolls around there will be California and other west coast states depending on the route we take. Summer? Looks like we’ll be on the North Fork of the Payette again and around Montana (Big Timber again? that was fun!) and some other MT creeks after Missoula competition. Clay Wright had a good schedule going with Mondays and Tuesdays after the big weekend events being creeking days.
Our creekboating has been pretty good over the past 10 years, but getting better every year… Having new boats that make it easier and more fun as well keeps the excitement going, too. We are so looking forward to the Karma! The Zen has spoiled us already and it isn’t a creekboat!
See you on the creeks…
Here are some photos of some good memories with the Kids… and Nick, of course who is pratically our kid too… and one of Courtney our newest kid from kiwi land…
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