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First Descent of the Niagara...

"Many have come to pitt their strength and cunning against the churning waters of the Great Niagara Gorge. Some made it. Some didn't." Niagara Daredevil Museum Placard.

See the video:



by Don Weeden

Thirty 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.

The 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 scale.

Spe 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.

Over 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.

In 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.

The 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 left.

The 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.

I 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.

Niagara 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 the East.

Spe 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.

Outside 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 this maw.

The 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.

The 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.

Finally, 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.

High 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."

Actually, 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

The 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.

Captain 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 boardwalk scout.

Mentally 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.

Spe 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?

The 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."

I 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.)

According 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 seat.

"You're 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 laugh.

"That 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."

Meanwhile, 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 arrest?"

"Yes, son. Just come on in now", one of the rifles informs me.

"Well (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.

Over my shoulder I hear one of the officers yell, " We'll see you in court, if not at the undertaker's."

As 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."

I 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 landing.

I 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 this happens.

Like 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.

You 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.

We 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.

The 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.

This 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.

Miller 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!

WHOOSH! Because 30 feet directly above me is a helicopter. I nearly lose the grip on my paddle to its rotor draft.

A voice bellows through a megaphone, "Proceed to shore, proceed to shore!"

I see Spe not far downstream. I paddle to him.

"Gotta split up. Our only chance!" Spe yells above the rotors.

"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.

The 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 is doing.

Moving 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.

Damn! 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 bail now.

I 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.

If 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.

I 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.

"Over here!" I yell in no particular direction.

The closest two amble up. They're overweight, panting, and not very happy. One of them grabs my arms, and the other handcuffs me.

"Son 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 hours later.)

"Here's the kayaker right now. Why did you kayak the whirlpool rapids?"

I answer lamely, " Because they're there?"

There are other questions. I play the role of sports hero (they're thinking deranged daredevil) and answer the questions as inanely as possible.

The 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.

Our 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.

The 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 the Niagara?"

My 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.

Predictably, 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 Center) tonight."

I 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."

Outside 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."

Indeed 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.

My only regret is that I've never been able to persuade Spe to pay his half of the fine.

 

 
 


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