Born in Ontario, professional kayaker Benny Marr currently doesn’t have a home. And that’s fine by him. Traveling the world, couch surfing, or crashing in the back of his truck, Marr would rather be at the right spot at the right time than being tied down by any traditional financial shackles, like that nasty mortgage.
Marr is one of, if not, the top kayakers in the world. From insane big wave freestyle, to big water first descents (including the legendary, previously untested Site Zed and the mighty Congo) Benny is the best at what he does, but you would never know it meeting him off the river. He’s kayaked the famed 3-week expedition through Canada’s Nachvak River, and has recently tackled an incredibly technical expedition through Papua New Guinea.
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About his presentation
Benny plans to introduce kayaking and highlight a few far away destinations, from Africa, to China and Papua New Guinea. As well as a glimpse into Quebec and Ontario, before moving into the bulk of the presentation, the incredible whitewater options in the South Coast, honing in on Squamish and Whistler.
Interview by Brian Peech
So what will you be talking about at this year’s MULTIPLICITY?
What I’ll have the most fun talking about, and showing, is introducing kayaking from Ontario, where I’m from, and from Quebec. And I’ll probably have some stuff from international trips, from Africa and China and maybe Papua New Guinea. Over the years—I’ve been kayaking and travelling for a wile now—I have the most fun going on kayaking trips in Canada and North America. And British Columbia, I’ve been going there for year after year now, and it’s more known as a ski and snowboard spot. But just within an hour from the event there’re tons of really great rivers, waterfalls and sick whitewater. So the presentation will start far and wide, then into Canada, then really hone in on the Whistler/Squamish area.
What’s the paddling like in the Sea to Sky?
With this area, there’s a lot of easy whitewater that’s accessible, but there’s also incredible Class 5. But that’s the thing, you really have to fall in love with it and spend a lot of time with it before you can start stepping up to harder rivers. I think that’s also why it gets over looked. My first canoe trips were in Algonquin in Ontario when I was really young, and then I got into kayaking and started doing whitewater when I was 9. It’s really forgiving out there, you’re paddling in warm water; it’s really easy and safe to progress and step up slowly. In BC, if you start swimming, you’re in cold water. That kind of kills it for a lot of people, you know, one bad experience is kind of enough.
You’ve traveled the world paddling, what is it about BC’s coast region that calls to you?
I think the common answer asking someone from Ontario, they’re kind of drawn toward the terrain of the mountains and the ocean, because they’re pretty foreign. I think I did my first trip to BC when I was probably 18 or 19. I’m 29 now. Like most sports you can do in BC, you really have the access to incredible terrain and difficult whitewater. It’s like all sports in BC, if you want to step up your skills, you can find a place to do it, especially for easier accessed harder terrain.
So why do you do it? Why do you kayak?
There’re many answers, but the most simple one is I really enjoy it. I love going kayaking, I love paddling rivers I’ve paddled a ton, I love paddling rivers I’ve never paddled before. I wouldn’t say it’s a habit at this point, but it’s what I base my days and weeks and months around. And part of what keeps that interesting is going around the world to paddle new places.
What are some of the places you’ve been that have been mind-blowing?
This past summer 2015, I was on a trip to Papua New Guinea. It was a really interesting trip for me, because it’s a long way to travel to go down one river. The whitewater that we were on wasn’t necessarily super difficult, but the canyon that we were in, once we dropped into it, the only way out was to complete the river and solve all the problems that came with that, which meant multi-day portaging the gorges that were unrunnable. And for us, as kayakers, it was pretty complicated rope work. We were doing just really difficult climbs to get out of the river. And the goal was always just to have a good time. It really always works out that way.
Is that part of the appeal, the challenging climbs and rope work?
Absolutely. That trip added in a whole new aspect to me, which was really difficult. And that did make for an exciting trip. Before we dropped in, I was really nervous about the climbing thing. My friends who are climbers were, like, “Yeah, no problem, we can do this.” But I was, like, “I don’t know, dude.” We’re looking at all these photos we got from the helicopter, and I couldn’t see a way out of there, but they did. So it’s that expedition style and that exists in every sport.
A complete contrast to that: I was just in Zambia this past fall, I was on the Zambezi river. Where the whitewater section starts after the whole river dumps over Victoria Falls, and that’s a high volume river, super comfortable, no stress all fun, big water and super cool, you know?
What can new kayakers in the Sea to Sky expect when they get into it?
It’s different for everyone, but people who are athletic or outdoorsy, they might see the river as just another outlet for adventure. But with kayaking, there are almost always easy sections to learn from. Just in BC, you’re dealing with cold water, which makes things a little harder. It’s less forgiving, but once you start kayaking, people really love it and want to grow their skills with it.
So you just travel the world with a kayak?
At this point, that’s completely what I do, as much as I can. And from time to time these big opportunities come up. I think I was on an airplane two weeks after the Papua New Guinea idea came up. The way I have my lifestyle set up, I don’t own a home or anything, I just kind of float around to be in a position where I can kayak the water I want to be on. Also I don’t have too many major commitments, so when opportunities come up, I can capitalize on that. It’s pretty incredible. There’re small sacrifices that come out of that, but it’s pretty minor. There’s a lot of living out of the car and taking everything with you everywhere.
Is that tradeoff of stability, maybe not having a wife or owning a house, worth it for that freedom?
I think a lot of that comes with finances. Finances are different for everybody. I don’t make a huge amount of money from sponsorships, but I try to do photography. You get freedom from money. I don’t have any mortgage payments, and this year is the first year I’ve paid rent in forever. I have been finding myself craving something simple like sleeping in a bed at night. But that might mean being in one spot for a while. As far as owning a house goes, sure that’d be sweet, but just the expenses that come with it take away from all my other freedom. I’m not too concerned with the future. Obviously, things could change, who knows? But kayaking has brought me all the opportunities that I’ve had, and I feel those opportunities will continue to present themselves. I feel it is a good path.
“Whatever sacrifices I make, I don’t even notice them. I only call them sacrifices, because I guess it’s the right word. It would be way harder for me to commit to a job with the end goal of some sort of financial security than just committing to this lifestyle.”
I used to work at a concrete plant and then in the oilrigs. I didn’t have to commit to a full time job, so I could go up north to paddle. I would work for 2-3 months, and tell them I was going on a kayak trip for two weeks. But I couldn’t do that now, you spend all this energy working, that when it’s your time off, you spend it almost decompressing. I wasn’t always going on adventures on my time off, it was often sleeping and partying.
You’ve been in some pretty wild places around the world. Do you see some troubling environmental impacts?
That’s actually a good question after I said I worked on the oilrigs. It’s funny, I never had a problem working in the oil and gas industry, but also seen as someone as a nature lover. It’s a bit difficult to have that conversation. Even if I’d never set foot on an oilrig, I have a higher carbon footprint than the average person. I fly a lot, I drive a shit ton. I use a lot of gas, and kayaks are plastic, so I could never find a line to stand on in that.
“Sometimes I feel guilty for not caring enough, and sometimes you only get involved if it includes somewhere or something you love. Like if someone was going to try to dam a river we paddle, I would be outraged.”
But as far as seeing damage: In Papau New Guinea, we were flying over what used to be just totally thick jungle, just all clear cut to make room for palm oil plantations. After paddling in Northern BC, near where the Stikine River and the Skeena flow, I remember coming home from a trip, and I was actually thinking of getting back into working on a rig. I read somewhere that Shell had been trying to get rigs into the area of the Sacred Headwaters; something like 1,100 wells they wanted to drill, which would create thousands of kilometers of logging roads. That really hit home for me. It’s one thing about working in Northern Alberta’s frozen wasteland, it’s out of sight, out of mind and you don’t really feel like you’re damaging much. Sometimes I feel guilty for not caring enough, and sometimes you only get involved if it includes somewhere or something you love. Like if someone was going to try to dam a river we paddle, I would be outraged. I don’t feel right about talking too much about it, because I’m in no position to preach.
Well, I think we all do our part. One good thing is that through your imagery and films, you’re highlighting these wild places to a younger audience who might take up a cause.
Even the Zambezi River, and Victoria Falls, it’s this amazing wild place, one of the Wonders of the World, and they’re in the process of building a dam there. And that will flood out 90 percent of the whitewater. And it sounds like there’s nothing anyone can do about that. There’s a huge demand for power, and many countries that could benefit from it. When I go and paddle the White Nile, every year there’s been changes to it. They’ve just OK’d the final dam there that’s probably going to flood out all the whitewater.
“The Squamish/Whistler scene will just be a cool area to show the audience the waters where they’re hiking around and skiing above.”
Have you ever spoken at an event like MULTIPLICITY?
I’ve done a few things that are similar, but the differences are huge. I’m super excited for MULTIPLICTY. At first I thought there was no way because I was going to be heading home to run the spring whitewater in Ontario, but this is too cool of an event. The Squamish / Whistler scene will just be a cool area to show the audience the waters where they’re hiking around and skiing above.
What is it about paddling that connects you to these wild places?
I do other sports, like bike, ski, run around and hike, but when you’re on a river, you kind of pay attention more. Like in Squamish, the Ashlu River, that’s the start of an amazing section of whitewater, through what’s called The Box Canyon (because the river gets completely walled in and goes through a few box canyons and it’s just beautiful.) You need a certain skill set to kayak in that whitewater, and when you are you can just paddle through this amazing place where kayaking is really only the way you can experience it. And it’s really like that worldwide. Some rivers are a bit more accessible to other crafts, but some of the steep stuff, there’s not much traffic unless you’re on a kayak.
Is there a scene mentality in kayaking?
There’re just different scenes. Golden and Revelstoke both have their own little pockets of kayaking communities. Usually the communities are centered around rafting bases, so kayakers or raft guides or safety guides or video boaters. A lot of the kayakers in Whistler work or Wedge or Sun Valley in Squamish. Wherever there’s rafting, you’re going to find kayakers. It is a much different scene in the West than in Ontario. In the West you’re going to run a river form point A to point B; in Ontario you can go float around all day, the water’s not cold, the rivers are a little longer— It’s just more chill.
What’s the sketchiest situation you’ve found yourself in?
Probably the Papua New Guinea trip. There were just moments there that felt pretty sketchy. I did a trip in the Congo, and the goal of that trip was to complete the rapids of the Congo that had never been done. And the Congo has the highest volume of water going down rapids in the world. We all made it through, of course, but there were times where sometimes it felt we were a little lucky. The currents couldn’t be read the same way we read normal, lower volume whitewater. There were a lot of things we couldn’t predict or plan for.
“The logistical problems of kayaking in the Congo are huge, but long before we showed up there with kayaks, we had to work with the people of the Congo to get all the permits that were needed; this was daunting.”
What about the logistics of traveling to these places?
The logistical problems of kayaking in the Congo are huge, but long before we showed up there with kayaks, we had to work with the people of the Congo to get all the permits that were needed; this was daunting. Sometimes it’s a bit daunting to just show up with a kayak and do it, but more often than not, you’re not the first kayaker there. There’s information, and everyone kind of knows each other. So if anyone else wanted to run the Congo, I would be one of the four kayakers they’d call. There are harder spots to kayak in, like going to China. But I think just being resourceful and calm, and just happy to be faced with some small challenges and willing to sort them out.
What do you hope people take away from you presentation?
I kind of look at this as a night of sharing and stoke and looking at cool things. Obviously, I’ve spent a huge chunk of my life focusing on kayaking, so to just give people a glimpse into why. I know it’s going to be a really local crowd, and I want to show them the whitewater in the area. I mean, you drive over the Callahan from Squamish to Whistler and just 20 minutes up stream you get to some beautiful waterfalls and incredible rapids. And from Whistler to Pemberton, you cross the Rutherford and there’s really good whitewater in there. And from Vancouver to Squamish you cross Alberta creek in Lion’s Bay. It’s going to be a fun show.
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