Words:: Bradford McArthur.
Kayaking is an interesting sport. Like skiing and climbing it can lure its seduced into a lifetime of pursuit. Chasing rivers, waterfalls and steep committing unknown canyons all require fitness, talent and like its cousin sports, a heavy dose of mental fortitude. To become well-known within skiing or climbing the mental aspect is not quite as necessary as paddling, however. There are certain ways to ski and climb quite safely at a high level—no one is worried about Adam Ondra taking a whip and suddenly his harness snapping in half or rope exploding into a million shreds as he falls to the ground.
Skiing might be a bit riskier at a high level, however when a ski racer crashes the snow does not suddenly engulf them and refuse to let them back up for a breath. There are also highly trained medical personnel nearby ready to take action. With kayaking, your safety is only as good as your partners, and they have to deal with the same whitewater you’re dealing with.
To rise among the ranks of kayaking a person must not just do well with fear, they must simply revel in those moments that are terrifying for most. There is also another big difference between skiing and climbing. Both sports take place at the top among the inspiring, beautiful highest peaks of the world. Skiers scaling up a peak and ski back down, climbers make their way to the glorious summit. Both sports are easy to understand and wrapped in centuries of legend and lure.
Skiing and climbing also conspire well with our appetite for stunning visuals in our media-saturated world. Cineflex heli shots fill all our ski films, Alex Honnold soloing El Cap among iconic walls is instantly understandable as “grandiose”. As humans, we crave heroes who are simultaneously relatable and yet able to pull off death-defying feats. As viewers, it makes us feel capable, strong and inspired to reach for our furthest dreams.
This is where skiing and climbing really begin to depart from kayaking. Paddling takes places low, below, down, underneath the grand mountains. It is inherently not glorious to the average person. Being talented at kayaking is also less understandable and harder to relate to than skiing or climbing. Mountains that look steeper or bigger look harder, easy enough to grasp. Rapids that are more challenging do not necessarily look harder unless the person can read whitewater.
Almost anyone can name at least one old famous climber from the past. If you’re not a paddler I ask you to name a famous kayaker from the past. There is just not the same prestige in kayaking like there is in skiing or climbing, and this is not because of a lack of colorful characters or legend inspiring feats of progression.
This is why I suggest that Aniol Serrasolses‘ solo record high flow descent of the Stikine River will be the most under-celebrated athletic achievement of this decade. Alex Honnold soloed El Cap with National Geographic and the entire US media holding their breath. Aniol texted a few friends and just dropped in. Honnold rehearsed Freerider for years, Aniol (or anyone else) had never seen the river that high before and just trusted that he’s got it, alone.
Aniol’s descent will go down in the already storied history of the Stikine, it will not go down in the annals of history. His run that day will be retold countless times around a fire next to a river, some of those listening will be fearful of the rapids they face tomorrow. Like all good stories of our heroes, perhaps those listening will find courage in Aniol’s legendary descent, or just simply be in awe. Like the best of things, this is a story coming from and only for a small and tight group of people. We will gladly share it with others, but few will understand the immensity of this moment in human athletics.