Retrace a lifetime of adventures on the water in 25 boats
THE FIRST TIME I WANTED TO TRY Kayaking was on a guided raft trip with the scouts. We were on the Class III Gorge section of the South Fork American River in California, and I was about 14 years old. As our raft weaved through fun rapids, I saw skilled kayakers dipping their blades, spinning their torsos, and expertly maneuvering sleek boats through crashing hydraulics. I want to do this, I thought. Learn to kayak, be a raft guide. So, I asked the late 20’s guidebook about it.
“A lot harder than it looks,” he said, launching into a daunting lecture about the difficulty of becoming a raft guide and, even harder, a kayaker.
Being an impressionable child, I accepted the guide’s dismissive assertions. Somehow, this mythical figure could smell the potential of living water, and I clearly had none. Discouraged, I let the dream fly away.
Later that summer, my aunt’s boyfriend invited me to go kayaking. I eagerly agreed, hoping it would involve some easy whitewater. But the kayaks were clearly flatwater recreational boats, and our destination was a gentle section of Lower America. Still, I was thrilled to finally be able to paddle any type of kayak.
I jumped into a big yellow boat and we left. Three of us paddled several miles upstream to the turning point, a riffle too fast to climb. While the others turned downstream, I continued to paddle in the current, trying to reach the rapids. Eventually the others were out of sight, so I gave up and chased after them.
The second kayak I have ever paddled has been for whitewater, a massive red Perception Corsica. This 11-foot boat was made from rotomolded plastic in the mid-1990s, but it wasn’t until 2001 that I rowed it in the current. At that time I was a freshman raft guide on the Gorge section of the South Fork American. While whitewater paddling was challenging and risky, it wasn’t nearly as impossible as the arrogant guide had claimed six years before.
Although my new rafting friends and I didn’t know how to kayak, we went down the Gorge rapids anyway. We hit rocks and holes in the hillside, turned around, came out wet. After swimming with our yaks to shore, we drained them, laughed at them, tried again. We had nothing to do with the skillful kayakers I had witnessed as a child. But we were clearly having fun, so why stop?
The third kayak I rowed was an inflatable duck. A group of guides took them on a trip through Northern California to rivers like the McCloud, Trinity and Klamath. With each mile we learned to read the water and navigate the rapids.
The fourth kayak I paddled was a Wave Sport Godzilla. This whitewater boat was state of the art at the time, but my rigid kayak still wasn’t. By then I had learned to paddle the rapids at full speed, which worked 80% of the time. But not having the ability to ride constantly standing up, I still swam a lot of rapids.
Photo: The author and his wife paddling their Pyranha Fusions on Wambaw Creek in the Francis Marion National Forest, South Carolina Photo by Mike Bezemek
The fifth kayak was a Pyranha Inazone. I was too big for this whitewater demo, but I still stubbornly piled in and spent the whole day in pain. I watched jealously as my new girlfriend comfortably demonstrated a Dagger RPM, which later became the sixth kayak I paddled.
At the end of the summer, my girlfriend and I tried our first sea kayaks (#7) on the Sea of Cortez in Baja. We paddled towards a curious flock of birds floating on the water. Then we rowed quickly when we realized it was actually the raised flippers of sea lions. The herd dispersed, several charging towards us. One of them even slammed against my hull, but eventually they all came loose. As we were returning to our cabin, a huge sea turtle surfaced. He must have been bothered by the chaos because he gave us an annoyed look like, do you even know how to kayak? The turtle sighed and dove under the waves.
While descending a falling volcano, I ruptured a disc in my spine. I discovered that I couldn’t sit in a kayak without severe pain. But within a few years, I luckily recovered enough to try again. The eighth kayak I paddled on was a friend’s Wave Sport Big EZ, the revolutionary riverboat of its day. I made it down the gorge, but the pain still persisted, so I waited a few more years before kayaking again.
The ninth kayak I rowed was a Riot Booster. My roll was still fifty-fifty, but I still managed the best. The river was flowing high at 5,000 cfs, about four times the typical summer flow. I toppled under Satan’s cesspool in a red constriction. I swept my paddle blade and rode into a fast current. The feeling was exhilarating. For the first time, I felt like a real kayaker.
The following season I bought my own blue Big EZ, the tenth kayak I have ever paddled. My back was better now and I worked on my roller until it was almost automatic. I also tried other types of boats, like the Wave Sport Diesel (#11), a large river boat, and the Dagger Kingpin (#12), a small playboat which didn’t really suit me.
Months later, I moved to St. Louis for my graduate studies. Soon I was paddling the Ozarks, whitewater rivers like the St. Francis and surrounding creeks. My roll felt solid now, and it was the rare swim I remembered. One day we were carrying a felled tree. After lugging around, I put my kayak down on the slope. The moment I sat down inside it started to slide down. Before I knew it, I had hit the water. The cockpit filled up and the boat began to sink. I decided to go with him and submarine to the bottom before swimming out and dragging him.
I started making forays into the southeast, discovering rivers like the Nantahala, Ocoee, New, and Gauley. But when I took the Big EZ up steeper streams like the Little, I kept catching edges. Wanting something bulkier, I bought a big Pyranha Burn from a guy at a gas station in Kentucky. It was the thirteenth kayak I have ever paddled, and I took it for spins through Baby Falls at the Tellico.
Owning a bigger boat made me realize how tight my Big EZ was. Since I had developed GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), it was a no-brainer to update. The fourteenth kayak I paddled was a bright green 2nd generation Jackson Fun, a former demo boat. It was more everything – comfortable, stable, playful. But a funny thing happened. Another boater in the area had also wanted to buy this green boat but ended up with an orange one. He kept pestering me to trade, but I refused. One day on the river he offered me $100 and I finally gave in. Of course, while I was commuting, he swapped the boats without money and left. So the fifteenth kayak I’ve ever paddled was an otherwise identical Fun in orange. (About five years later, the guy found me apologizing, describing a tough time with drug addiction. All was forgiven, and the $100 went straight into the boat fund.)
Photo: Photo by Curtis Ahlers
By now I had gone from all previous boats looking for the perfect fit. First, I downsized to a next-gen Burn mount (#16) which I found sportier for river running and creeking. The buddy I bought it from switched to a Karnali, which he let me try (#17). Along the way, I picked up a used duck, mostly for my wife and friends. Of course, I had to paddle, and convince my hardshell friends that it didn’t mean anything (#18).
In my search for a first playboat, I tried a Rev (#19) but learned a hard lesson. On the way down the upper Ocoee, I flipped backwards through a hole at the Roach Motel. I missed my first roll and while resetting hit a rock with my head. I was still wearing my old raft guide helmet, which was sliding up, and I got sliced above my eyebrow. I rolled over my offside needing eight stitches and a better helmet. Once my confidence was regained and my helmet improved, the search continued with a Liquid Logic Freeride (#20) before arriving at a large Pyranha Jed (#21), the first playboat that comfortably fit my legs longer. I’ve paddled these boats for years on rivers across the country, from the Southeast to the Ozarks, from the Rockies to California.
During that time, I even crammed inside the most uncomfortable fiberglass Prijon (#22) from the 1980s on a float in Germany. By now I was spoiled with modern amenities, and the hard plastic seat and wooden back reminded me how good I had it in my house.
You’d think I’d be done, right? But kayaks for kayakers are like beautiful works of art for art collectors. In recent years I’ve added a pair of 11ft Pyranha Fusions, whitewater/touring hybrids that my wife and I share (#23 & #24) for long miles and overnights. Also, I picked up a higher volume Machno, just for some variety.
Twenty five. Honestly, there are probably others I forgot. For two decades I have seen kayaking come full circle. From rowboats at the turn of the century, to the chunky boats of the early 2000s, to the return of rowboats in the 2010s. Always, it was more about adventures than boats. I can’t wait to see what the next 25 kayaks will bring.
Cover photo: The author paddling his Jackson Fun on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. Photo by Curtis Ahlers