There are moments in people’s lives where they look up from what they are doing, and recognize the achievements and talents of others due to some incredible feat, result, or action, or all of the above. This is one of those moments for many people, including myself, my family, team JK, and our staff at Jackson Kayak. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have the philosophy of “life without compromise”. In that philosophy one of the important concepts is that when you are in that moment, where you look up and recognize such a feat in somebody else, you are not witnessing that person becoming successful, you are only witnessing the outward trimmings of success; that person was already successful in that arena, which is why they were able to do what they did, you are only witnessing an event that will make that success public for everyone to see. In this example, like we are now; where Dane has just won the Whitewater Grand Prix for the second year in a row, against racing experts, on rivers he has never seen, in a discipline that he isn’t known to excel in, Dane didn’t just become the whitewater racer to beat, he was already that guy, with all of the skill and mental capacity to consistently race down hard whitewater and win. This isn’t Dane Jackson, however. This is just one part of what Dane likes to do, and does like no other. I want to give a better picture of who he really is, from the perspective of somebody, who I estimate has spent 98% of his time in the presence of him since he was born, back in 1993.
Dane was born at 28 weeks of gestation, and at his lowest weight, was 1 pound 10 ounces. The doctors at the Georgetown University Hospital had people come and spend time with Kristine and I to prepare us for the idea that he might not live- even after his first week in the hospital. I had a “special” doctor come visit me specifically, and try to get Kristine to “help” as I was “clearly in denial” as I didn’t accept the chances that Dane might not live, and while other little babies were dying around him, that he would not only live, but be fine. I was not their favorite, as I just told them that they were wasting my time, and unless they has something good to say, that they could just find somebody else to deliver the doom and gloom message to. 7 weeks later Dane was out of the hospital- and was “last in-first out” of the NIC unit. Most babies didn’t make it.
He was born in to pain and challenge, which i think is a big part of who he is. Tolerating pain, discomfort, and not showing it, and pushing on and being happy is a trait that I very much look up to, Dane has that in spades. At the 1993 World Freestyle Championships- where I just won my first title, Dane was there, on his monitor as he still had apnea (stopped breathing and heart stopped periodically and the monitor’s alarm helped startle him into breathing again) He weighed about 4 pounds at the time. On the way home he slept from TN to MD- a 600 mile drive. That was unheard of for him. The next morning he didn’t want to eat. He was happy, it seemed, but wouldn’t eat. Kristine went to change his diaper and he was blue from the waist down and clearly had something wrong. The doctor asked Kristine if I could drive faster than the ambulance to the hospital- (anyone who knows me, knows the answer to that, and how I would answer that) I had Dane back to to the hospital quickly and the doctor met us there and performed an emergency operation as he had a bad hernia and the blood was cut off to his intestines and balls. He lost one ball, (he know calls himself the “one ball brother”) and was lucky to live.
At age 2 he expressed interest in my kayaks- and I got him and Emily “puddle jumpers” which were little composite boats made by Upstream Edge. We lived in Brookmont, a little neighborhood in suburban Washington, DC. I was on the USA slalom team at the time and fresh off of my Olympic debut in Barcelona. I was training full time and much of it was on the “Feeder Canal” a class 1 section of river with slalom gates. Dane was obsessed with my kayaks and his. Dragging them all around the yard, he was weighing in at about 20 pounds. Sometimes Kristine would bring him down with me and I would have him paddle his boat around with Emily. He got pretty quick and enjoyed the slalom gates, but REALLY enjoyed surfing the little wave at the top of the canal. On July 4, 1996 (two weeks before his 3rd birthday) I lead a group of my students (I had a kayak school in DC called Adventure Schools) from the Feeder Canal, down the Potomac River through Little Falls and then on to the Tidal Basin in downtown Washington, DC where Kristine met us with food and beer and we watched the fireworks.
Dane was with me- his first big river run- class 2+ if he takes the right lines- Class 4 if not…. I was right behind him and he was like a little baby duck. Some quick strokes and he could almost go faster than I could in my plastic boat. We ran out the “Z-channel” into the main rock choked river and he negotiated the waters like a champ. My job was to be with him and tip him back up if he flips over and take good care of him, of course. When we got to the first rapids he did great going over the waves, catching eddies, etc.. The main rapid was coming up and I was behind him saying- “Go left” trying to get him to go down the left of the island over the waves, but not into the big hole. He dropped into the first big hole at the top of the rapid and back-endered into it and flushed out. A quick hand up and he was right side up and started charging. I didn’t have my hand on the paddle and had to grab it and sprint to catch him again, yelling “go left!” but no, he drives straight into the right channel and there is a big pourover, he dropped straight in. Luckily I got my arm through his life jacket and held on tight as we both dropped in together. He went over my head and I held on. We bounced around, me using my “ej skills” to hand surf the hole- while holding my almost 3 year old tight and surf out of the hole into the eddy. OK, so, I am an idiot. At that moment I realized that this is one of those, “if it can go wrong it will” moments. Dane was not scared, he just grabbed his paddle and started sprinting out of the eddy down the next part of the rapid while I gathered my paddle and went after him again. He was a little speed demon, with endless energy… until… we hit the flat water. A 1 hour flatwater paddle was ahead of us to get to the center of the city. Dane literally put his paddle down and looked at me and refused to paddle. Due to his hearing loss he was not a talker and it was just silent refusal to paddle. Luckily I found a strap in one of the students boats and I towed him for a few miles to the Tidal Basin. Arriving at the title basin I announced to Kristine that I was not taking Dane on any more rivers until he learned to listen. She looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Do you really think Dane knows his right from left?” Uh… OK, point taken, Daddy still has some learning to do.
Fast forward 6 years and you have a bigger, but not by much version of that. Scott Lindgren is filming Burning Time and Dane is going to be a part of it. We run the Fish Ladder on the Potomac and some other cool stuff and it rained like crazy that day. Difficult Run Creek, a tributary to the Potomac, is flowing good. We walk up and run some of the rapids and get down to the “Falls” a class 5 rapid that has lots of dangers- like a big hole at the top that wants to stick people and make them swim the main drop (which has a cave behind it). I tell Dane he has to walk it. He looks at me and starts crying. His first time crying on the river in 6 years, since he started, and it is because I won’t let him run the drop. He was both super angry at me and sad at the same time. When we got to the flatwater at the end of the creek- he stopped paddling again and floated slowly to the takeout. Dane was not a racer, and never put any energy into his paddling unless there was a reason- like some good whitewater. I was an athlete. I loved training, loved exerting myself to the highest level and part of my persona was being able to out paddle anyone in speed or endurance. Dane was the floater that kicked into gear to catch a wave, run a rapid, or whatever, but then stopped the second the river did. At a Red Bull event at Rock Island- I didn’t let him race boater cross- here is the article from that.
Fast forward to 2005- Dane is now 12 and we are in Africa on the Zambezi. We scout Rapid #5 and I announce that I am going to do the “hero move” which is to freewheel into the biggest hole in the rapid, which has been known to destroy boats, break paddles and helmets, and just looks scary. I show Dane the normal line down the middle of the big waves and I get in my boat and do the freewheel and get a short beating and come out fired up. At the bottom of the rapid I see that Dane is in his boat and he peels out of the eddy. I am expecting him to ferry out to the middle, but instead, at 12 years old and about 44 pounds, he turns downstream and drives straight to the big hole. I have the biggest shit eating grin on my face as I know exactly what I have on my hands at that moment, a kid who wants to do it all. He boofs into the hole and disappears coming out a few seconds later and eddies out next to me with a big smile on his face. OK- I see how this is. I had to tell him that I didn’t want him running Rapid #9, as it was high water and the holes that you end up in if you screw up could destroy you quickly. He took it well, but clearly wanted to run it.
Dane was doing school at home, like Emily, and getting him to focus on that wasn’t easy. He had a million reasons why he was “done for the day” and the typical quote from him to Nick (who was helping to make sure he did his work) was “I don’t have to do those problems, just the even numbers…. or “I did a few of the practice ones and they were easy, so I don’t need to do the rest- they are just to practice”.
Growing up through age 18 Dane was small, very small. He was the smallest kid his age, paddling a Shooting Star at age 15. We were worried that, since he was the brunt of of so many jokes by his friends and family, that he would struggle with self esteem. His best friend, Jason Craig, sprouted up and had a girl friend, while he remained small and girls his age towered over him. I told him that I was also small for my age and didn’t really grow until I was 17 or 18. We really didn’t know if or when he would grow. The upside of him being so small is that he really made an impression on people. He would be on a creek or river and people would see this little guy throw his boat around like crazy,or style drop after drop and they were amazed. I think that was also a part of his positive upbringing, being in situations where he got attention for his actions.
Being Dane wasn’t always easy, as mistakes were always amplified by having so many eyes on him. A typical example is on the Lower Gauley during Gauley Fest, Dane only 10 years old was swirling around in an eddy waiting to surf a wave and somebody said, “Hey, Dane, go for it, surf it up…” and he peeled onto the wave and surfed and then headed downstream. He was the subject of a thread on boatertalk that was two pages long ranting about how Dane thinks he is special and can just cut in front of people any time he likes because he is Dane Jackson. It really hurt Dane and this was standard, not the exception. It is not unusual to get somebody in line that wants to see you surf to say “hey, go ahead” not realizing that there are 10 other people thinking (but not willing to say out loud) “Hey- why are you letting him go, I am waiting here to go.” We had to lump everything that could be perceived by others as being selfish into one pot and explain to Dane that he had a choice to make, and it really did effect what others thought of him. He could take the high road in all situations, or take the easy road and deal with the consequences, his choice. He decided at a very young age that he didn’t want enemies for no reason and took the high road. To this day one of the qualities that you’ll find in Dane is a very humble, quiet kid that is there to help and would rather not do something that is right in front of him and fun, than to alienate somebody, or to join in with the cool kids trying to make a name for themselves by putting others down.
In 2007 we did an expedition in Newfoundland with Ben Stookesberry and Dane was invited. It was his first time and it was hard for him. We couldn’t run shuttle due to the creeks being remote and perpendicular to the only roads in the area. Dane at about 75 pounds was having to hike with his Punk Rocker up massive hills, in hard, brushy terrain, etc… He never complained, but couldn’t keep up to the fast pace of Jesse Coombs, Ben, Nick, Darin, and Chris Korbulic and I. We had to help him with his boat in order to make the hiking time reasonable and the paddling time work. He never asked and did awesome, but just couldn’t keep up. He also had his first accident and scary experience that followed his comments that he wanted to run a rapid first. We were on a steep section of creek that tumbled straight off of the mountain and had some big stuff in it. A harder rapid with a waterfall at the end of it had Dane take one look and say “Can I go first?” . Clearly somebody had to go first, but experience and safety go hand and hand and nobody being at the bottom of a hard/big drop means no safety. I didn’t let him go first. Ben went first and got his camera to film. (another reason we didn’t want him to go first). I went second and then Dane, who botched the boof and penciled the 25 footer at the end and petoned, and was ejected and dissapeared. For 40 seconds he was missing and his boat wasn’t moving while sidesurfing the hole. Finally he popped out while I frantically tried to attain into the hole to find him. He was scared and stunned, but not hurt. He was almost blacked out from the lack of oxygen and was recuperating on a small island in the middle of the creek as I got his gear to him. Just as he got his boat, Nick went next and clipped a rock at the lip of the falls sideways and did a kickflip in the air falling backwards down the drop, body towards the rocks and knocked himself out, also ejected and came up face down and no moving. He floated right into the island Dane was on and the came to. The two of them spent the next 15 minutes getting themselves together as we had to nurture Nick down the rest of the creek, walking the hard rapids with his concussion. Dane was better, but it was a wake up call for both Dane and Nick, who talked about it frequently. Dane didn’t get scared, ultimately, and quickly started gravitating towards harder rapids and creeks/rivers as his experience and skills improved and I opened up the runs for him that he wanted to do. We went to California, Oregon and around the South East and was fired up to run the creeks he had seen before on video, or heard about. He is like an encyclopedia for rivers and creeks, knowing the rapids even though he has never run them. We can show up to a creek and have him say “Run this on the left- boofing right” as he has seen it on youtube and memorized it.
When not paddling, Dane can be found with headphones on and listening to music while on his computer editing videos. It can be frustrating trying to get his attention and he often doesn’t know what is going on around him. However, if I do catch his attention he is usually up for a game of disc golf, ping pong, pinball, or something like that. Harder to get his attention for cleaning house or other work. Dane is not lazy, however, he just likes to spend his energy on things important to him, something he learned from his dad.
The best way to summarize Dane is that he is incredibly caring and wants to do the right thing, but also incredibly driven to be the person he wants to be and likes to do the things he wants to do. That happens to be kayaking most of the time, and doing what others just can’t do. He likes to be the best, but not for the sake of being the best, but to try things that nobody else can do because he enjoys the challenge and thinks he can. He is only 19 years old and his learning curve right now is straight up. What you think he is capable of and what you have seen him do, is already past tense and he has already moved past that. He can paddle any type of boat well- C1, open canoe, kayak, tandem kayak, and SUP as well. He is fast, smooth, and explosive when he wants to be. Mostly he is smooth- however, using his skills to be the best more than his physical prowness. He has never been an “athlete” in the physical sense first, always technique first but his physical capabilities are growing rapidly as he is now 130 pounds and 5’6″ tall. He has endurance and power, but from paddling, without any cross training.
Recently, Dane was picked up for Team Red Bull. His approach to them was very much organic. “I want to be myself and not be pressured to do things I don’t want to do.” and they were 100% behind that. They are encouraging him to be himself and paddle with his family and do the things he enjoys doing. They are smart enough to see that he will also be making a big impact in our sport and those watching in the years to come, that what you see today is only the tip of the iceberg. Dane is filling my shoes nicely and I am OK with that. I am not going to let him beat me in competitions, he’ll have to earn each win, just like anyone else. However, he makes winning, for me, more difficult every day!
That is OK by me, I would not want my kids to feel like they were under a cloud or in my shadow and couldn’t rise above it. Dane no longer wonders if he can be in the big game like his dad and compete and be a stand alone entity himself. He is already there. I have already been called “Dane’s Dad” more than once… cool.
Here are a few of Dane’s own edits for his promo videos… some good stuff:
Here is another cool family video that shows Dane at a younger age…