Irresponsible or reckless at worst. An extreme deviation from sound boating practices.
Those were the words of the editor of Canoe magazine describing Wick Walker’s article on how to run waterfalls from the 1979 edition. Six years earlier, American Whitewater had featured Martin Begun running Lamance Falls on their cover. It had sparked a debate over the efficacy of running waterfalls.
“Maybe this kind of an article shouldn’t be printed; it only entices the beginners into trying the same thing! And it will surely bring about more restrictive legislation.”
But waterfalls werent the only issue of the time. In the Fall issue of American Whitewater, the editor made a commitment to not publish photos of boaters not wearing lifejackets or proper safety gear. In a world where basic safety wasnt being observed, and in the wake of the movie Deliverance, its understandable that running waterfalls seemed crazy to most.
The issue remained a hot topic for years. What the Canoe editor didn’t know was that Wick had already run Great Falls years prior to 1979, choosing to keep the feat quiet rather than risk the scrutiny. The same pattern would continue for decades, with expert boaters pushing the limits of verticality, and with onlookers worried about its impact on the sport.
In the 1990’s, the progression of boat design allowed kayakers like Shaun Baker, Shannon Caroll, and Tao Berman to push the limits of verticality. Between 1996 and 1999, the record would move from 64 foot Aldeyjarfoss, to 78 foot Sahalie Falls, to 98 foot Upper Johnston Falls.
Just as impressive as the vertical descent was the age of the boaters. Shannon Carroll was 20 when she crested the lip of Sahalie Falls; Tao was 19 when he fell nearly 100 feet to the pool at the base of Johnston Falls.
And just as fast as the vertical limit was pushed in the late 90’s, it seemed to stop after Tao’s descents. The biggest progressions in design during that time came in the form of play boats, which shrunk multiple feet and re imagined the distribution of volume, finding a new verticality themselves.
Ultimately, Tao’s mark would stand for nearly a decade.
The Century Mark
Technically, the record was broken in 2002, by Tim Gross, when he ran 101ft Abiqua Falls. But with the waterfall at a low level, and an ill-decided boof stroke, Tim spent more time in the air upside down than right side up. He was ejected at the base of the drop.
The next year, the record was technically broken again, as Ed Lucero descended 106ft Alexandria Falls. However, he had not come there to break the record. During a week long exploration of the Slave River, he happened upon the drop. Equipped with only his play boat, he still tempted the drop after seeing what he described as “the perfect line”. He too found himself separated from his boat at the base of the drop.
In 2007, Rush Sturges and Tyler Bradt sought to move Tao’s mark higher. Tyler’s descent of Alexandria Falls moved the bar above the century mark for the first time.
Finally, in 2009, came the descent of Palouse Falls. Tyler used information gathered during his descent of Alexandria Falls to prepare for the descent. Weeks of scouting and a spring of waterfall running were his preparation. As 50 meter free falls go, it was perfect, resurfacing with a broken paddle and sprained wrist.
Rafa Ortiz became the second person to attempt Palouse in the spring of 2012. Though he was unhurt, he did come out of his boat at the base of the falls. That leaves Tyler as the loan record holder.
It’s a record that will likely remain for quite some time. Rafa considered a run of Niagara Falls in 2013, but ultimately walked away. Though Niagara represents a unique challenge because of the volume of the water, it also represents the unique danger of waterfall running. Each decision to cross the horizon line brings about the risk of injury or death. Today’s equipment and skill sets dont inherently make it irresponsible or reckless, but it is an extreme deviation from Martin Begun’s picture that sparked controversy over 40 years ago.