shirtless river guides were packed into the sweltering
dormitory room; the machismo was almost as overpowering
as the stench. Chris Spelius (known as 'Spe' to
almost everyone) was excitedly narrating a ridiculously
poor quality 8 mm film . Shot from a bridge high
above the rapids, the grainy often out of focus
footage gave it the look of an expedition documentary
from the turn of the century. The two kayakers
- Spe and another western boater, Ken Lagergren
- were barely discernible in the maw of whitewater.
Their runs had the appearance of small skiffs
battling through a typhoon. Spe would occasionally
point to a section of fuzzy turbulence and tell
us, "That's the section we've named the Himalayas.
Twenty-five-foot waves. Tricky if one collapses
on you." The year was 1978. The footage was
the duo's descent of the Whirlpool Rapids in Niagara
Gorge, which, of course, is most famous for its
Falls two miles upstream.
crowd of Nantahala Outdoor Centre guides, mainly
creek-runners and racing types, weren't terribly
impressed. That figured. Steep, technical, low-volume
rivers surround the Centre, based in North Carolina,
the perfect training ground for the world-class
racing talent the Centre still produces. But in
the late seventies, before whitewater videos,
countrywide rodeo circuits, and the Internet,
American kayakers generally took a provincial
outlook on the sport. A guide in the corner jeered,
"No holes, no rocks, it's a clean flush through".
But the few of us who had paddled the big water
of the West - the Colorado, the Salmon or Snake
rivers in flood - fully understood the scale and
immense power of what we were watching. For Spe
there was no question. Niagara was the simply
the biggest set of rapids in North America. As
confirmation of this he had bestowed the run with
a "10" on his big water thrombulator
embodied his origins as a western U.S. river guide:
six foot four, pectorals larger than most women's
breasts, a shock of blond hair, and a habit of
calling everyone "little buddy". Like
Spe I was also a recent import from the West,
and we soon became good buddies. (I remained little
buddy, however.) As "big water" boaters,
we had both experienced the ridicule of the racer
types for our looser, more reactive boating style.
(However, at this point Spe had already been at
the centre for a couple of years and was gaining
a reputation as a slalom racer.) Our base was
the Chattooga river, famous as the Deliverance
river, where we connived against each other to
secure the day's slot for safety kayaker: getting
paid to kayak with the trip. But our favorite
paddle was to take off after work to a blown out
dam on the Savannah River, known as Greg Shoals,
to get back to our big water roots. At low water
the former dam site resembled a graveyard of jagged
concrete blocks. But when the evening's release
of 10,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) arrived,
the shoals would be transformed to a Colorado
- sized rapid with massive keeper holes and surfing
waves. Typically, there was a lot of competition
among the carload of guides, particularly between
Spe and myself. I remember his intense disappointment
when I pioneered the "hairy ferry" at
the top of the dam site by jumping the gun while
he was describing the move to a group of us in
the adjoining eddy. The move was gutsy because
if you slipped off the upstream diagonal wave
it was certain carnage in an ugly keeper hole
below. Little buddies weren't supposed to show
up the ultimate stud.
the next two summers of outings to Greg Shoals,
Spe constantly belittled the rapids in comparison
with Niagara. Typically, he'd say, "this
wave me reminds of "Pipeline" (the first
section on Niagara), but imagine it being 10 feet
higher" Or, after I'd just been thrashed
in a sizeable hole, " Hey stud, that was
only a five on the thrombulator scale". And
throughout he would constantly remind me that
this was merely a training exercise for the ultimate
run, where a screw up or a swim could mean biting
the big one (death). I was hooked. It was not
a matter of whether to run Niagara, but when.
fact it was a newspaper clipping describing three
deaths on Niagara that first called Spe's attention
to the gorge. A 37- foot, so-called unflippable
raft, designed by Cornell University engineers,
had been stood on end and capsized, throwing 29
people into the rapids. The article stated that
if it had not been for helicopter rescue from
both shores, the death toll of three and several
serious injuries would have been much higher.
Spe immediately did the sensible thing: quit his
guiding job on the Colorado and flew East with
a buddy to take on Niagara.
last summer I guided with Spe was wedged between
two years of graduate school, and cut short at
that for having to attend a summer session. Marooned
in the flatlands of Southern Michigan I could
already feel my kayaking skills slipping away.
I knew I had to act on Niagara soon, before sedentary
academia wasted away what kayaking prowess I had
opportunity came suddenly two months later, in
August 1981. Spe was going to be in Upstate New
York for the National Flat-Water Kayak trials,
not too far from Niagara. He wouldn't be taking
a whitewater kayak with him, so to further entice
him I offered to let him use my new Perception
Mirage, one of the first plastic high performance
kayaks on the market. I'd kayak in my ten-year-old
"Easy Rider", a Fiberglas pig with a
lot of volume. Perfect, I thought, for the big
water of the gorge.
planned to arrive at the gorge mid-day so that
I would have time to scout the rapids before Spe
showed up that evening. We'd make the run next
day, and I'd be back in classes the following
day, nobody the wiser.
Falls, New York is an unlikely setting for one
for one of the continent's greatest whitewater
stretches. Famous as a budget honeymoon destination,
Main Street is lined with hotels arrayed with
flashing neon hearts and cupids. Las Vegas of
had told me that the best place to scout the rapids
was along the riverside Daredevil Gallery Museum
on the Canadian side. To get there I drove across
the gorge on the Whirlpool Bridge. I nearly drove
into the side of the bridge attempting to get
a peek of the rapids two hundred feet below. No
place to stop, I'd come back for the aerial view
later. The museum is situated at river level a
quarter mile downstream. You descend by elevator
tube. The small museum at the bottom houses a
sort of Rogues Gallery of daredevil stunters.
The Great Blondin, Daring Dixon, tower leapers,
barrel-shooters, publicity-mad swimmers, bungee
jumpers. For over 150 years, Niagara has been
a magnet to the lunatic fringe. We would be in
good company. The catalogue of survivors and non-survivors
was a fascinating monument to human folly. But
soon the roar of the river pulled me forward.
the museum they've constructed wooden boardwalks
which run alongside the river. My initial reaction
upon approaching the rapids was one of relief.
After years of build-up, the whitewater didn't
appear all that bad. From Spe's descriptions I
figured the exploding diagonal waves slightly
upstream to be the "Pipeline". Big stuff-
well, actually REALLY BIG. But at first look not
beyond the realm of some other big water runs
I'd done in the past few years: high water on
the Bio Bio, monsoon runoff on Nepal's rivers,
Lava on the Grand Canyon. But this initial impression
was wrong. As I walked down river, first to the
succession of six impossibly huge exploding waves
known as the Himalayas, and beyond that to Helter
Skelter, a long, chaotic section of irregular
explosion waves, I began to appreciate the extraordinary
scale of these rapids. Their speed (clocked at
35 miles per hour), turbulence and sheer power
were beyond anything I'd seen before. I was mesmerised;
I was also having trouble placing my kayak in
statistics of whirlpool rapids (as the gorge rapids
are sometimes called) stand up to the comparisons.
Lava Falls, the biggie on the Colorado and rated
a 10 on a scale of ten, drops the equivalent of
35 feet a mile with a river flow of between 10,000
- 30,000 CFS. Niagara Gorge has a gradient of
94 feet in less than 1.5 miles with a CFS of 100,000
- 120,000. Besides, Lava doesn't have THE whirlpool,
the mother of all whirlpools.
daredevil gallery gives access to the upper part
of the rapids, but to get a look at the crux of
the rapids, the infamous whirlpool, for which
the rapids are named, you need to walk downriver
and take the aerial tram ride which spans the
river at that point. I must have done the round
trip four times that afternoon, staring in awe
at the swirling 10-foot-wide black hole that formed
every thirty seconds or so just below the apex
of a giant Vee wave. On my last trip, I clocked
the whirlpool from the time it formed, to when
it finally dissipated 100 meters downstream (with
its replacement already in full rotation above):
sixty seconds. Long enough to implode your sprayskirt,
peel back your eyelids, strip you of your lifejacket
and helmet, and eventually suck you thirty feet
under the surface, probably drowning you. (As
Spe would say, "I was suuuuucked out of my
boat".) Clearly, the whirlpool was to be
avoided at all costs.
to get a sweeping aerial view of the rapids, I
walked upstream to Whirlpool Bridge. Built at
the turn of the century, this single-span black
iron relic is part of the history of the gorge.
I walked across the bridge on foot to where a
sign in the middle says, "You are now entering
the United States". Two hundred feet below
the rapid has just begun its acceleration. Consistent
with overall scale, the rapid's tongue stretches
an interminable 100 meters downstream. Waiting
at the bottom, like the fire-spewing dragon at
the end of a castle gangway, is a twenty-foot-high
explosion wave. But that's not all: forming the
left hand side of the rapid's "Vee"
is "Pipeline", a 30-meter-long crashing
diagonal wave named after the treacherous North
Shore Oahu surfing spot.
above the river, the rapids below appear diminished.
But I ignored this illusion, knowing better. I'm
focused on one thing: the route that's required
to thread the needle between the angry Dragon
and the average surfer's nightmare. It's a gap
of about eight to ten feet, and is best described
as a high pass between two white summits, except
that these summits are constantly changing in
height (explode-collapse-explode), while the dark
green pass between them contracts and expands
with the explosions. A moving target further complicated
by the wildly surging approach to the pass. But
hitting this bulls eye allows you to slice through
the rapids' first defences, lined up well for
the lead into the Himalayas. Miss the target and
there's a chance you'll get pounded and have to
roll, and risk straying from the preferred line.
As with most big water rapids, it appeared that
success at Niagara would be partly determined
in the initial moves at the top.
In all, I spent over four hours scouting the rapids,
by far the longest scout I've ever done for a
single rapid. One thing, I'd gained a new appreciation
for the kamakazis - in an assortment of craft
- who'd knocked off first descents here over a
hundred years ago. After all, for how many class
five rapids could it be said: "Yeah, too
bad, the first descent was bagged by a guy in
a steam-powered launch."
the first descent of Niagara Gorge was more a
commercial proposition than a stunt, but that
doesn't take away from its shear ballsiness. In
1861, the steam-powered Maid of the Mist, the
tourist boat that plied below the falls, was sold
by auction on the very sensible condition that
the vessel be delivered ten miles downstream.
For $500.00 (a lot of money in those days) Captain
Joel E. Robinson agreed to take the boat through
the rapids. For much of the run the Maid disappeared
from sight. The pounding whitewater sheared off
funnel and deck fittings as if they were plastic,
but Captain Robinson and his crew of two came
through unscathed. But it can't have looked that
easy - twenty-two years were to pass before anyone
repeated the trip
first genuine "stunter" to challenge
the rapids, Captain Mathew Webb would have easily
qualified for Spe's Ultimate Stud Club. Captain
Webb had already gained fame as the first person
to swim the English Channel. Niagara Gorge, considered
one of the roughest sections of water in the world,
would add another feather in his cap. He should
have stuck to the ocean. Swimming without a lifejacket,
Captain Webb was swallowed by the rapid's first
huge wave and was not seen again until the whirlpool,
at which point spectators were unable to say whether
he was dead or alive.(As Spe would have said,
"He was suuuuucked out of his swimsuit!")
His body was recovered four days later. Spe might
be getting the best kayak but no way was he going
to get the best lifejacket.
Webb's folly ushered in the craze of stunting.
Over the next thirty years a parade of on-the-fringe
adventurers shot the rapids in everything from
wooden barrels to eighteen-foot skiffs, including
an assortment of strange contrivances. In 1901,
an entrepreneur even tried to start a passenger
service in a motor vessel appropriately named,
"The Fool Killer." It sank on its second
trip, after spinning for hours in the whirlpool
minus smokestack, rudder and propeller. As the
placard at the Daredevil Museum succinctly put
it, "Some made it, some didn't." The
list of attempts on the Niagara Gorge reads like
a chronology of Mt. Everest climbs, with the occasional
"(died)" attached chillingly to a name.
In fact, the odds at Niagara haven't been much
better than for Everest. Of the forty or so trips
on the Gorge prior to 1981, at least six had ended
in death. Spe had told of the group of Idaho boaters
that had flown all the way to Niagara to join
him on his second descent, only to back out after
taking in the museum's morbid displays and the
exhausted from scouting, I called our local conspirator,
Walter Funk, a college professor at whose house
we'd be spending the night. Walt lived on the
American side, so I crossed back over the Whirlpool
bridge, checking out of Canada on the near side
and back into the US on the other. Two officers
manned the US immigration booth. Most vehicles
were being waved through the single lane checkpoint.
Not surprisingly, I was stopped. Glancing at the
two kayaks, the attending officer jokingly asked,
"You're not thinking of running the rapids
are you? You know you'd be breaking about 25 local,
state, federal, and international laws if you
did. Not to mention you'd be dead. Ha! Ha! Ha!"
I told him I was a model boy scout who wanted
to live a long life and drove through.
having arrived, we discussed tomorrow's commando
operation over the dinner table. Walt would stash
our fisherman outfits-complete with poles and
fish baskets- in a small cave up the trail from
the planned take-out on the Canadian side. Spe
and I would exchange our boats and kayaking gear
for the outfits and when the police came we'd
point downstream and tell them, "the lunatics
went that way...I hope you catch them." I
thought about calling my parents, as Spe had done
on the eve of his first run , then decided against.
Why give my mother a sleepless night?
mood was sombre around the Funk's breakfast table.
The weather was crappy - thick fog and drizzle.
As we poked at our five-egg omelettes, Walter
said, "You know, you guys can just come here
and hang out. You don't have to run the gorge."
made it clear (between mouthfuls) that I didn't
drive all the way from Michigan for a world-class
breakfast, nodding in appreciation to Mrs. Funk.
After breakfast we began preparing our boats in
the garage. To my amazement Spe asked Walter for
some contact cement and began gluing his sprayskirt
on to the cockpit cowling. "There's no way
I'm getting sucked out of my boat", he explained.
During Spe's most recent attempt, Ken had taken
the swim of his life after his sprayskirt blew
somewhere in the Himalayas. I thought about it
for all of ten seconds and asked him to pass the
can over. (Hell, the guy may be a lunatic, but
he'd run Niagara twice before.)
to plan we drove to a small parking lot under
the Whirlpool Bridge. Walter slipped the kayak-laden
car between two semi-trailers. Already dressed
in full gear, we quickly shouldered the boats
and proceeded down the break-neck steep trail
to the big eddy above Butterfly rock, upstream
of the bridge. I slipped once or twice on the
slick trail, once grabbing a root, fully stretched,
to save myself from careening to the gorge bottom.
I told myself, "this has to be the most dangerous
part of the run" .... not convincing myself.
At the bottom, next to the eddy, we wedged our
boats among shoreline rocks in order to wiggle
through the top opening of our spray skirts. Spe
completed this awkward manoeuvre first and disappeared
behind the rock. I was halfway through the sprayskirt
tube when I heard voices above me on the trial.
Without turning around I shoved off into the eddy,
suspended precariously between cockpit rim and
under arrest. Come back on shore son." It
was two uniformed men in fluorescent rain jackets
and official state park smoky-the-bear-like hats.
Each has a rifle. I have to bite my lip not to
trail's a bitch, isn't it", I manage to say.
One of them repeats that I am under arrest, the
other adding, "Don't be crazy. You'll kill
yourself down there."
I continue to wiggle down into the tight sprayskirt,
rocking uncomfortably side to side. I ask them,
"What if I turn myself in? Am I still under
son. Just come on in now", one of the rifles
(and I loved saying this) I might as well get
my money's worth. See you at the take-out! If
you're lucky!". I finally manage to work
through the sprayskirt tube. I put in a reverse
sweep and head into the current.
my shoulder I hear one of the officers yell, "
We'll see you in court, if not at the undertaker's."
I pass by Spe, I motion him forward. Looking downstream,
I feel as if I've entered a dream: the fog, the
black silhouette of the bridge, the bridge's emergency
siren, the surreal acceleration towards explosions
of white foam below. Spe joins me and says, "Let's
get out of here."
let Spe get about twenty meters ahead. I want
a guide through the Pipeline. It isn't easy following
him. Surges in the current propel him right then
left. I see he's on line to hit the "pass".
Then he disappears, and it's my turn to thread
the needle. I'm right on it, a slick glassy wave,
foam on either side, then air time, and a clean
know from the scout that the Himalayas are 80
meters below, which, at the river's speed means
I have less than ten seconds before reaching the
initial explosion wave. I want to hit that first
wave head on, but I have no vision downstream;
I'm lost in an ocean storm of cross-cutting swells;
my paddling is wholly reactive; I struggle simply
to keep my boat pointed with the current. I see
Spe - a blur of yellow - shoot behind me to my
right and suddenly the first towering wave is
before me. I fly up the wave, bracing hard into
it, and just as suddenly I'm speeding down the
back of the wave.
"Like North Atlantic storm waves" is
the best description I've heard of the Himalayas.
The waves are steep, as high as twenty-five feet
from trough to peak, and although widely spaced,
the speed of the current occasionally cuts the
bottom out of a wave, causing it to suddenly,
explosively collapse. You do not want to be on,
or even near the peak of a Himalayan wave when
any small boat weathering a gale, my only object
is to avoid a capsize.. I climb the next wave
head on, and fly over its crest. But while climbing
the third (or is the fourth, I've lost track)
I'm met by a wall of foam, start surfing backwards,
then grey sky, green water, grey sky, I'm cartwheeling,
and finally green water. Oh shit, I've got to
roll. Brain screams: WARNING! WARNING! GOT TO
ROLL! I feel the surge of the next wave. TIME
TO POP IT! I'm up! Brace into the next one. I'm
through the Himalayas.
know you've entered Helter Skelter not so much
because the waves are slightly smaller than because
they're no longer regular. They're wildly irregular.
It's like when a jazz number slips from a deep
pounding beat into improvisational weirdness,
as if the players finally succumb to musical entropy.
Helter Skelter is the chop you often find at the
bottom of floodwater rapids, only at Niagara scale.
Got to keep your balance. Brace right. Brace left.
had originally planned to eddy out on the right
above the whirlpool. Still in the current, I look
over my shoulder for Spe. He's just behind. I
learn later that he has rolled somewhere in Helter
Skelter, but all he says while passing me is "Let's
keep going; cops will be on us". I want to
take a breather, share with Spe the excitement
of the run, and regroup for what's below. But
I know he's right, and besides, I want to follow
his line through the final drop.
river perceptively slackens after Helter Skelter,
piling up and forming two football-field -sized
eddies on either side. However, the current's
tongue remains wide and soon guns the accelerator
again for the final abrupt drop. The rapid is
a classic Vee with a crashing twenty foot wave
at the bottom, which every several seconds dumps
a swimming pool of water off its face. The diagonal
fences on either side of the Vee are six feet
high and moving fast towards the centre, essentially
acting as a funnel into the crashing wave. All
this is classic big water stuff and the wave is
the kind you'd pump yourself up to try and surf
head-on, the river equivalent of the North Shore
break on Oahu ....... if it weren't for the mother
of all whirlpools directly downstream.
is what makes Niagara so potentially dangerous:
enter the Vee out of your boat, having failed
to claw your way into one of the two football
field-sized eddies, and forget it, you're history.
But in our kayaks and mostly in control it's not
difficult to avoid. I follow Spe's line to the
far right, working hard left to right, and then
explode over the six-foot- high "eddy fence"
and oh thankyou god! - miss getting flushed into
the eye of the whirlpool.
Time? Not yet! Although the far right route avoids
the mother of all whirlpools, there are smaller
whirlpools forming along the eddy line, and since
this is Niagara they aren't so small. Soon after
I jump the eddy fence I find myself spinning in
one, a meter or so below the surface, wondering
if I haven't screwed up after all, that it was
fate that I get sucked into the unspeakable one,
when suddenly I've rolled back up...... and WHOOSH!
Because 30 feet directly above me is a helicopter.
I nearly lose the grip on my paddle to its rotor
voice bellows through a megaphone, "Proceed
to shore, proceed to shore!"
see Spe not far downstream. I paddle to him.
split up. Our only chance!" Spe yells above
"Which shore you want?" I yell. Spe
hesitates, or perhaps I don't hear him. "All
right..... I'll go American.," immediately
regretting my generosity. It's like this: the
helicopter likely came from the American shore
- called by the State park guys - and our getaway
plan was set up for the Canadian side. As consolation,
at least I won't be cited for an illegal border
crossing. As Spe paddles away, I yell across to
him ," Don't get caught", knowing well
that he'll do everything in his power, short of
throwing rocks at the helicopter, to avoid capture.
river makes a sharp right turn below the whirlpool.
Spe begins working across the current heading
to our originally planned takeout on the Canadian
side. I paddle hard with the current. I'll choose
a place to pull out once I know what the helicopter
fast downstream, I look over my shoulder to see
the helicopter following Spe. Ha! Ha! Well, it's
his turn to get caught. I'm now in racing tempo,
going for speed, using the adrenaline pumping
through my body to keep the RPMs high. I'm aiming
to put as much distance between the helicopter
and myself. The river remains powerful, the current
fast; the riverbanks fly by. And then I spot the
helicopter. While still on the other side, it
appears to be heading downstream towards me.
It couldn't have already picked up Spe. I figure
my only chance is to get to shore - the American
is far closer - before the helicopter reaches
me. That way I can get into the trees at the gorge
bottom and perhaps work my way unnoticed downriver.
No way can I outrun the helicopter if I continue
on the river. Besides, Walter had told me that
there's the coast guard station at Lewiston, around
the next bend. They've got big, fast boats. Better
sweep my bow upstream and surf a wave or two diagonally
before reaching the slower water along the shore.
The helicopter is not far upstream, bearing down
fast. Damn! Hitting the rocky shore, I scramble,
dragging my boat into the sparse forest. I find
a hollow underneath a large tree and stash my
kayak and paddle, and continue running. Helicopter's
above me now, Thwock-Thwock-Thwock, presumably
calling in my position. It continues to hover;
I'm sure I've been spotted.
you've ever been chased by a helicopter in a sparse
North American forest you know that my situation
is pretty hopeless. For one mad moment I consider
running back into the river and swimming for it,
but then remember again the coast guard at Lewiston.
continue running downstream changing direction
frequently to try and confuse the pilot. Then
I spot a fluorescent jacket-rifle-smoky-the-bear-hat
through the trees, and then another. Their walkie
talkies are squawking; helicopter's calling in
my co-ordinates. (Squaaawk....lunatic proceeding
downstream off right flank, now turning to shore....squaaawk.)
Two more smokey the bear hats coming from my right.
They see me. I run towards the river. One of them
trips in pursuit. I double back upstream, spotting
a couple more patches of orange closing in. I
double back again. The helicopter returns overhead.
I'm thinking: this could go on for awhile. Then
someone yells behind me, I've got his boat",
and suddenly I realise it's time to give up. I
like that boat, I like my Iliad paddle, and besides
if we keep going like this someone is likely to
get hurt, and it will probably be one of them.
here!" I yell in no particular direction.
closest two amble up. They're overweight, panting,
and not very happy. One of them grabs my arms,
and the other handcuffs me.
of bitch --huh -- coulda killed ourselves--huh--
after you.", exclaims one of them, still
panting heavily. It's clear that the Niagara Park
Police aren't in the habit of chasing deviants
like myself on foot. The other four officers arrive,
all in standard Park police outfits. I have to
bite my lip. A couple of them pick up my boat,
and we begin the march back to civilisation, and
I presume the local gaol.
Like the put-in the trail out of the gorge is
steep with switchbacks. The two park police carrying
my kayak are having trouble negotiating the turns.
I persuade them to take off my handcuffs and have
me shoulder the kayak the rest of the way. I tell
them, "if I try to escape, shoot me."
I'm not prepared for what greets me at the top
of the gorge. The trailhead is abuzz with people
(I guess seventy-five to hundred), blazing squad
cars, and three television crews. I'm immediately
approached by a newscaster in a brown polyester
suit. (You always think of the best answers two
the kayaker right now. Why did you kayak the whirlpool
answer lamely, " Because they're there?"
are other questions. I play the role of sports
hero (they're thinking deranged daredevil) and
answer the questions as inanely as possible.
police put my handcuffs back on and usher me to
a waiting squad car. Having seen my share of cop
shows on TV, I remember to duck when they push
me through the door. I'm thinking, what I really
need is a big plate of Mexican food washed down
by a six-pack of Carta Blancas, but somehow I
feel this won't be on the menu where I'm headed.
The two officers in the car aren't very helpful
about what happens next. To them I could be a
shoplifter or sex offender.
first stop is the Niagara Frontier State Parks
Office. I'm booked for "creating a disturbance
while operating a water craft and disobeying the
request of a police officer." A photographer
from the Niagara Gazette shows up to document
the event. Two maintenance workers hold up my
kayak and paddle in the background, like some
drug runner's confiscated escape vehicle.
next stop is the holding pen at the County Jail.
Still handcuffed, I'm led into a cell block containing
about twenty, mostly scruffy criminals, awaiting
bail, trial, execution, whatever. I should mention
at this point what I'm wearing: a full "Captain
America" wetsuit, resplendent in red, yellow,
and blue, with white stars on the shoulders. Completing
the outfit are one pink and one blue plastic sandal.
The wetsuit is still damp. I ask for a blanket,
but don't get an answer. To keep warm I begin
doing chin ups on the bars. After all the twists
and turns of the day, perhaps this is the strangest
moment of all: not one of my companions in crime
even so much as glances at me. No appropriate
and expected questions as, "Bank job through
a sewer?", "Spiderman beat you this
time?," or even, "Hey aren't you the
lunatic I just heard about on the radio who boated
one phone call went to Walter and Edith. Edith
answered. She'd heard about my capture on the
radio. But Walter didn't show up with the bail
money for three hours because he was busy getting
Spe out of the state.
Spe was overjoyed when the pursuing helicopter
hovered momentarily once he'd reached the Canadian
shore and then doubled back for me. The Canadians
were caught napping, or couldn't have cared less
about our escapades, and Spe boldly walked up
the trail with his kayak to where Walter had the
car parked. The contingency plan (an extremely
stupid one I might add) was to rendezvous at Burger
King on the American side in the event that one
or both of us ended up on this shore. The two
of them were sitting down having a meal - Spe
ordered four whoppers and six fries - when two
squad cars pulled into the parking lot, sirens
wailing, having obviously spotted the kayak on
the car. A glance around the restaurant told them
who the likely owner was. They headed straight
for Spe and Walter's table. A dicey moment, but
Spe, in true form, managed in a matter of minutes
to convince the slack jawed cops that he'd just
come from the National Flatwater Championships
in Schenectady, New York, that the kayak on top
of the car was a flat water kayak which would
sink in all of five seconds if it were to attempt
the rapids, and that the kayaker who was caught
got what he deserved, because Spe had seen the
rapids and believed that running them was sheer
lunacy. As soon as the cops left, Spe and Walter
jumped in the car and headed for the airport.
Spe knew when it was time to get out of Dodge.
He told the counter attendant, " I don't
care if I have to fly through Los Angeles, get
me to Atlanta (closest major airport to the Nantahala
was arraigned the next morning. The judge was
Italian and about four foot eleven. He clearly
didn't know what a kayak was and I decided it
was better if he were none the wiser. I began
to protest the charges, saying something like,
"The only disorder to be found were the rapids
themselves," but Walter, who was standing
at my side, gave me a sharp nudge, prompting me
to mumble, " I plead guilty."
the courthouse a TV crew asked whether the $50
fine was worth it. The obvious answer was, "Hell,
yes. You can blow $50 on a night in the Big Apple,
but I got world-class whitewater, a James Bond
style chase, and a spot on the evening news. This
is America. Crime does pay."
it does. Two days later I got a call from a producer
at ABC sports. A stringer in Upstate New York
had seen my interview on the TV, knew the rapids,
and thought it would make a great show for "American
Sportsmen". ABC was able to get one-time
permission for a contingent of four to run the
gorge. Spe, Ken Lagergren, myself, and the Olympic
paddler, Carrie Ashton. (We felt that three beards
were enough.) We enjoyed every minute of the escort
through town by the Niagara Frontier State Park
police. To top it off, I sold my "Easy Rider"
pig kayak to the Daredevil museum for $500 Canadian.
It would be in good company.
only regret is that I've never been able to persuade
Spe to pay his half of the fine.