~For my friends Stephen Forester and Peter Tompson. Two of the most gifted paddlers and people I have ever had the pleasure to be friends with. Thank you for all of the inspiration and sharing your passion for life with me. Your spirits will always be with me. ~
River of Life & the Flow of Time
I breathe in deeply and close my eyes to calm the flow of thoughts in my mind. The thoughts I think become my existence and my existence originates from my mind. Breathe in. Breathe out. This is my last ride of the entire competition. I am sitting in fifth, the lowest position I could be in the finals. This is my last chance, but no matter what I have already succeeded. All expectation, fear, doubt, suffering, ego and sadness fall away. This is my redemption. Nirvana is my experience. The head judge gives me the thumbs up. I begin paddling out of the eddy and just before I drop in I let out an exultant roar. This is just another moment flowing by in the river of my life. I think how incredibly lucky I am to be alive on the river at this moment in time after everything I have experienced in my short life. Then I hit the whitewater and the controlled chaos begins.
Reverse the flow. Let time pour backward, like water running upstream. The moment is on September 6th, 2009 around noon in Thun, Switzerland. The setting is a iridescent blue river wave that forms in the outflow of an old wooden dam covered in flowers, under an ancient castle that is bested only by the natural majesty of the Swiss Alps towering above. Around me are the four best junior paddlers in the world from Spain, France, Australia and the United States. This place and time is the kind of dream that dreams wish to be, and the kind of moment that culminates every hundred lifetimes or so if you have good karma. I had just won the Jr. Freestyle Kayaking World Championship. I was sitting in the eddy under the grandstands when it was announced that my first ride had withstood the three rounds of other competitors trying to top it, and I was the new Jr. World Champion. The crowd in the stands above me erupted into cheers and I could feel the vibrations emanate down through the supports I was holding onto and send small ripples out into the water. Electrified, I pulled hard on the supports pushing me into the main current and I dropped into the wave with the biggest smile of my life. I threw trick, after trick after trick until the buzzer went off to notify me that my ride time had finished. I could hardly care and kept throwing tricks until my best friend Dane, who had won silver, came to surf with me. I stayed on the wave just long enough to exchange a high five before I peeled off and headed downriver. That was the last time I had competed at an international event. The dream fades, as the river gets deeper and darker as time flows downstream.
This is a place that is unaltered, raw and utterly beautiful. I am standing directly at the base of Victoria Falls, Zambia, as the sheer power of the place overwhelms me. Few people have stood where I am now as the only way to get here is by kayak navigating deadly rapids. The gorge walls are black primordial rock that has slowly over the course of time given way to the erosional force of water. The sky is a sliver of misty blue that only just shows between the four hundred foot tall gorge walls. The water pours in from all around giving the impression that the gates of heaven are flooding. In a place like this the truth of our insignificance towers around you, pours in far above your head, deafens your ears, whips your eyes and fills your being with the nature of timeless existence. These are the moments I live for. These are the moments I may die for. I walk down to my kayak and begin paddling rapids so large David would be hesitant to confront this Goliath. Above the rapid 12b I pass a dead body, bloated, swirling in the eddy line. He met his end in the waters of this river, eventually to be food for the crocodiles and fish. I ask myself “will I?” A few days later after running one of the most difficult and purely terrifying rapids on the river, number 9, I was chased out of an eddy by a crocodile. That was the most scared I have ever been in my life, and the hardest I have ever paddled. Had I waited a few moments longer I would have met my end in the jaws of ancient death itself. Here in this place time exists in an unaltered state, unmerciful and utterly brutal. The fact of our weakness and death is painfully honest. If you wish to survive this river it is best to make peace with this truth.
Now all time falls away. There is no contrast in the world like sitting at the top at the edge a waterfall. I breathe in, close my eyes and meditate on my line. In my mind I peel out of the eddy, get river right, square up with the lip of the falls, take my final stroke just as my boat goes past vertical and then wait for the hit of impact at the bottom. If only everything in life would be like how we imagine, but it is not so. I open my eyes and put my visualization into reality. I paddle out of the eddy, get river right and float over the lip. From the top of the falls I look down from my vantage thirty feet bellow and time stops, frozen. From the top of the falls I feel the full feeling of life rush through my veins because I am so near to death. The moment ends, then I begin falling. I take that final stroke on my way down. I wait for the hit but it never comes. The impact is so extreme my mind simply cannot comprehend such a force passing through my body. The next thing I know is that I am out of my boat at the base of the waterfall being churned like a rag doll in the violent current. I try to swim, but my legs won’t kick. I wait for what feels like an eternity until I break the surface and to my horror my legs float up next to me. Luckily I grabbed onto a rock to keep me from floating downstream to my death. I had shattered my lower spine, pelvis and spinal chord basically detaching my legs from the rest of my body. Pain beyond words shoots up to my brain and begins tearing at the core of my being. The rescue took five hours to hoist me up a vertical cliff, across a gorge wall and back across the flooded river on a backboard. Time becomes my enemy as it locks me away from my pure existence of paddling and I am only able to endure agonizing moment by moment for what seams like eternity. Hope, that is what keeps me going. The hope that I will fight to paddle again another day even when death was so close.
Over the next year time did not treat me well, but everything in this universe is relative. It felt like my life had been stuffed at the bottom of a horrible sieve. The heavy current pushing me deeper and deeper, unable to move, lungs burning for air as I see the light of the surface fading away and I am trapped waiting to die. My existence was pure suffering. Just like dropping into a chaotic rapid, the only thing I could do was deal with what I was committed to. I endured a six hour surgery where the doctors removed the shards of bone out of my partly severed spinal column, putting each nerve back into place and then bolting me back together again with twenty screws and rods, most longer than six inches. The metal stuck out of my back by an inch or two and I had turned into a living “Jasonstein.” I couldn’t feel anything beyond the tops of my thighs and after six days of rest I just barely managed to take one step from my bed to a chair. I maxed out on painkillers and neuropathic painkillers and still it was not enough to fight back against the heavy torture. Then over time I fought back. One step turned into two, then four, and eventually I didn’t need a wheelchair and graduated to crutches. When the first catheter came out I refused to learn how to use one so that my only option was to re-train my bladder to function again. The months wore on and eventually I was out of the hospital. The real work had only just begun. Every sensation, every muscle I gained back I had to fight for, as it would return with excruciating nerve pain that would feel like burning, stabbing, needles or full electrocution. Eventually the battle started occurring in my mind where I would have to confront the pain to not let it dominate me, and ultimately accept it positively as a healing process. Night after night when the nerve pain was maddeningly extreme, I would meditate for hours and hours. I would wander through the experiences of my life, jumping around from moment to moment like a sort of time travel or imagining the severed nerves of my spine healing. My favorite meditation was thinking about kayaking rides on my favorite waves around world and I would spend months in my mind kayaking. Three times a week for a year I religiously attended physical therapy, acupuncture, deep tissue massage and other treatments to piece my body back together. Then one year after my injury I had the hardware removed from my spine. This surgery surprised me too how bad it really was, but soon I started out walking real slow and eased on up just a little bit, then I was jumping up again. I was kayaking, climbing, skiing and doing everything I had waited so long to do. It all felt so surreal to be living such a way of life again. After being so badly broken for such a long amount of time I would be lost if I was in one of my meditations or experiencing real life, but the feeling of cold water on my face brings me back to reality.
Here I sit a year and a half later. I breathe in deeply and close my eyes to calm the flow of thoughts in my mind. The head judge gives me the thumbs up. I begin paddling out of the eddy and just before I drop in I let out an exultant roar. Then I hit the whitewater and the dreams I had been visualizing of kayaking for the past year to focus my mind off of the pain were realized and actualized. Beautiful trick after trick all flowed together into one of the best rides I have ever had. The time buzzer goes off and I feel nothing but gratitude as I peel out of the hole. My score is announced and I move up into second place with the best freestyle kayakers in the world. Life and death, suffering and thriving, happiness and sadness, first and last it is all an illusion meant to distract us from the nature of gratitude and compassion for the gift life that we all possess, until we don’t. Finally the second and third place contenders push me down to third place but my happiness is independent from standings. This is one of those moments that lasts an eternity and one that I will revisit in my mind. Later when I receive my medal and stand on the podium I let out another thunder of happiness for being so fortunate to be alive and freely floating downstream in my river of life, again.
Epilogue- This story is just the surface of what happened this past year. I am forever changed with scars and metal souvenirs, but the biggest impact this has had on my life is that life is short and you must make the most of it while you are here. Life life to the fullest. Smile. Find happiness. My story really is not about me. A whole community rallied to support me back to live my dreams and I am so incredibly grateful to everyone who has shown compassion to me. Thank you to everyone who showed even the smallest act of kindness to bring me here today. Thank you to my family and my friends. Thank you to the guys who got me out of the river canyon that day. Thank you to Sutter-Roseville for putting me back together. Thank you to Shriners Children’s Hospital for the rehabilitation and being the best organization in human history. Thank you to Spine Nevada, Dr. James Lynch, Thais Mollet, Jen Mavis and everyone there for the physical therapy and feeling like my other family. Thank you to High Fives Foundation for all of the inspiration, friendship, guidance and therapy that was the key to my recovery. Thank you to Kurt McEntire for all of the MAT sessions and believing in me, you are one of the kindest people I know.
This has been a quite a week for me. I feel like I reached so many milestones in such a small amount of time after waiting so, so long. I spent just shy of a week bouldering in Yosemite and then blasted out to Colorado where I competed in my first freestyle kayaking event in nearly two years. These goals have been the inspiration that I used to push my through the darkest days of my life. Now I feel nothing but gratitude to the countless individuals who helped me to get to this point in my life. Thank you to my family, friends, doctors, healers, Sutter Roseville Hospital, Shriners Hospitals for Children, Spine Nevada, High Fives Foundation, Korg 3.0 Movement, Canoe and Kayak Magazine and so many more.
Instead of writing about this past year I am lucky enough to have Canoe and Kayak Magazine put my story in words I could not have done on my own. If you get the chance pick up the new June edition of the magazine and take a few minutes to watch this video about my journey this past year- http://www.canoekayak.com/videos/fall-and-rise-jasons-story/
I am sitting here in the shade of a banana tree thinking back on the past three weeks of my time in Africa. It’s hard to really quantify my few weeks in Africa because it truly feels as if time moves at a different pace here. The days feel as if they pass by instantaneously, but at the same time, each day is so long and fulfilling it is almost as if the sun will never set.
Photo: Emery Kate Tillman
On October 18th the adventure began when I reunited with my World Class Kayak Academy family and boarded the plane to Johannesburg, South Africa. We arrived at night with boats, paddles, and gear bags. After corralling the entirety of our luggage we walked out of the airport into the evening’s lingering heat. We loaded up into a few cabs and spent the night at a hostel. We had a layover day in Johannesburg and spent the day at the Apartheid Museum learning about Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s history.
Apartheid Museum, photo by Emery Kate Tillman
The next morning we boarded the plane to our first destination; Livingstone, Zambia. As the plane taxied down the runway I felt pretty excited. The Zambezi River was the first that inspired me to want to travel internationally to go kayaking. When I was about ten years old I watched Eric Jackson’s play boating instructional movies at least twice a day, which were filmed on the Zambezi and Nile Rivers. It was the first time I had ever seen kayakers surf river waves and run big water rapids. Ever since then it has been my dream to paddle the Zambezi and Nile Rivers. On that plane it felt really good to be on the final leg to reaching my dream of paddling the Zambezi.
On the flight’s decent I got a good view of Victoria Falls, the gorge, and some of the rapids. We arrived and stepped out of the plane into the scorching Zambian heat. Thankfully everyone’s gear arrived and we departed to our campsite and arrived at Jollyboys Campsite, our home for the next month. Everyone threw their tents under the little shade in the grass and quickly jumped into the pool. Later that day I headed into the town of Livingstone with my buddy Weaver Frolicher. It was really strange to be the minority race for the first time in my life. I walked to the market and immediately had people approaching, haggling, and begging from me. Culture shock.
Photo: Orion Chapman
The next day we loaded up in some awesome safari vehicles and headed to the river. We arrived at the Victoria Falls Park and walked to see the natural wonder and then walked back and met the local porters for the first time. The porters carry rafts, gear, and kayaks in and out of the gorge. They are some of the strongest and kindest people I have ever met. They sold us some Nyami Nyami necklaces. Nyami Nyami is the river god of the Zambezi and it is said that if you wear a Nyami Nyami, the river god will trade your life for the necklace.
Makuma wearing a Nyami Nyami
Photo by Orion Chapman, my mentor and Spanish teacher
As we walked down into the gorge we passed some curious baboons that tried to steal my water bottle. After descending deep into the gorge we arrived at the river. The gorge is truly an impressive place with towering raw lava rock cliffs rising straight out of the massive river. It was clear to see why the locals believed that a river god lives here.
Photo by Ben Kinsella (my physics teacher and coach)
That day we paddled rapids 1-10 and the river was amazing. It has such powerful and dynamic rapids. I soon figured out why people call it the “Slambezi” after I was thrown from the top of a breaking wave all the way back to the bottom and landed on my face. Everyone was “all smiles” after every rapid and we reached the take out in a state of bliss. Soon we were a little less blissful carrying our boats for the 45-minute hike out, but as soon as we reached the top we had an amazing African sunset to cap off the first day of paddling.
Photos Orion Chapman
That night we had dinner at the “Fez Bar” which is the Mexican Restaurant in Livingstone. Then we headed back to the campsite and I passed out.
We had a good first day of classes around the campsite and then headed back to the gorge to paddle the #10-25 section. We surfed the 12-b wave for the first time and paddled more amazing big rapids. We passed a village, baboons, and a beautiful arroyo called “Mugabes Crack.” That day was Zambia’s Independence Day as we drove back through a few villages, there where hundreds of people were out dancing on the road and playing music. It was really cool when they all yelled and cheered as we passed.
Jollyboys Campsite by Orion Chapman
Day after day we did classes, paddled the Zambezi, and then went back to sleep once our homework was done. Orion, Brendan, Ben, and I ran #9, which is the biggest rapid on the Zambezi, other than the minus rapids right under the falls. Then a few days later Weaver and I got chased out of an eddy by a huge crocodile below #9. I don’t think either of us had ever paddled so hard in our lives before then. That same day on the drive back we passed a group of elephants on the road. We drove right next to one within hands reach from the vehicle.
Rapid #9 by Orion Chapman – notice my friends across the river for scale
In the second week we visited Machenje Village and had dinner at Mukuma’s house. Mukuma is the main porter on the Zambezi and master wood carver. He invited us to come eat a traditional Zambian dinner with him and see how he lives. Lots of people came over and it felt like I met the entire village. Makuma showed us how he makes his carvings. The dinner was delicious and we ate with our hands a maize and vegetable dish, along with a chicken that was caught and prepared for the meal. It was pretty humbling how simply the village lived and how truly kind everyone was. We all thanked everyone profusely before leaving.
Makuma and his wife, village photos by Orion Chapman
Cody Wasuda and Makuma preparing the chicken for dinner
The African days went on. The rainy season officially started here in Zambia with big rains and thunderstorms pouring down on the land. The dry, raw gorge turned into a seemingly tropical forest in a few days with beautiful red flowers and trees bursting to life. One of the days a big thunderstorm poured down while we were on the 10-25 section and countless waterfalls poured in off the gorge rim. It was a beautiful sight and felt like we were viewing hundreds of little Victoria Falls. That week about half of the group got sick with some flu they nicknamed “Mandela’s madness.” Also as the water levels dropped and I fell in love with the 12-b wave as it got world class.
Jason on 12B Wave. Photo Orion Chapman
Now we have only one more day left of kayaking the Zambezi before leaving to the White Nile in Uganda. Today in my English 12 class I had one of the most memorable experiences in Zambia. Ivan (teacher) sent the class off in opposite directions alone and told us we were having a writing exam for the 1-hour period. I took off and almost immediately started talking with a man walking on the road next to me. He spoke a little English and we chatted for about a block and a half until we said goodbye. He went his direction and I went mine. I sat down to write about our conversation when a man named Godfrey, who I had met a few days earlier, recognized me and I began walking and chatting with him. He said he would take me to his village outside of Livingstone. On the way we talked about his life in Zambia, and he asked me about some of the States. We talked about education, poverty, religion, art, and music. On the walk we passed a big military march, then walked into the ghetto and passed kids playing on barbwire fences. We reached the market in his village and we said goodbye. Talking with Godfrey on that walk was one of the most interesting conversations I have ever had. I found a tree to sit on and began writing all that I had seen and talked about. While I was writing, old men, children, and high school-aged kids in uniforms would pass by and say hello or stop to talk with me. A bunch of kids sat down next to me and very quietly watched me write. After a while I said hello and they all jumped up and ran around yelling and giggling. When I had about ten minutes left in class I began walking back to camp, I saw Jason Cohen sitting on bridge writing, so I walked over and sat with him. We had a group of school kids walk up to us who were interested in what we were writing. I asked one of them if they wanted to write in my book and he wrote his name – with better handwriting than mine I might add. Then they left and a guy with a Bob Marley shirt stopped to talk with us and asked to see what we were writing. Around that time we had to leave and go back to the campsite. That was my English 12 exam. By far the coolest exam I have ever had.
Now reflecting back on when I first arrived in Africa I was pretty uncomfortable at first being the minority, but now I have started to really enjoy the culture and I think I even enjoy being a munzugu (white man). While it does get very annoying being viewed as a “human ATM,” people are interested in who I am and I meet so many interesting and kind people all the time who want to talk and have interesting conversations. I love it and I have definitely fallen in love with Zambia. I am going to miss this place!
Fordyce Creek shut off about two weeks ago and flows started to look very low and slightly depressing in California. After another day of paddling the irrigation ditch behind my house, I got a call that “Hells Kitchen” run on the North Fork Stanislaus was in.
After an amazingly scenic drive over Ebbits pass I met up Darin Mcquoid, and German David Ernst for the run. We set shuttle and soon were hiking the mile or so to the confluence of the N.F Stan and Highland Creek. We arrived at the confluence and started paddling, dodging rocks. We knew the creek was on the low side from the levels and within the first few miles we had several portages and a fair share of crappy rapids. The river started to clean up as we entered a beautiful granite gorge with slides and boofs. Then we reached the “stout portage” which we hiked our boats about half a mile or so on the side of the canyon. At the end of the portage we tossed our boats down about thirty feet and swam to collect them. After the portage the river started to drop. We reached an impressive rapid witch was a quadruple drop with four 4-8’ tall drops all stacked up one on top of another. I was very tempted to run it but eventually decided to save it for another day. We continued down with a good slide that ended in a large pillow. Then we arrived at “Portage 24,” which Darin had been talking a lot about. I took one look at it and decided I was not going to run it. It is maybe a 50’ drop in total that has a tricky lead in and several reconnects and shelves on the way down. Darin looked like he was considering it, but he too decided to save it for another day. We portaged the drop and then spotted a beautiful campsite directly below to spend the night. The campsite is one of my favorites ever.
The next morning we woke up and were pretty much instantly in the goods. The day started off with a few smooth granite slides then the perfect 20’ waterfall known as “Mini Curtain.” I was the first one to drop and it was amazing paddling off the horizon.
Then we continued down through a great gorge until Darin eddied out at a large horizon line. I was pulling into the eddy as David just missed the eddy and fell backwards off the drop. Not knowing what was below and after all the terrible sieve portages we had seen we had no idea what he just fell into. I jumped out of my boat and saw that he was ok in his boat at the bottom. The drop was a clean boof onto a large boil then off another 10’ or so. I gave Darin the line then followed him down. We both had rowdy lines down.
The river started to mellow out with the occasional portage until we arrived at “Astrobiologist Creep.” I set safety at the bottom and watched Darin style it. I then swapped safety duty with Darin and hiked up to my boat. Dropping in I had some butterflies, but it was such an incretible feeling running that rapid and hitting the line.
The run had a few miles left of some great slides, a nice 10’ boof, and a lot of mank. We reached the take out in the middle of the day and blasted the shuttle out. Darin and David headed off down the pass back to Sacremento and I headed back up and over the pass to Reno. I took a little napto break up the drive at the famous “Fantasy Falls” put in. Hopefully next year I wont be dreaming of putting in here.
Thanks to Darin Mcquoid for the photos and David Ernts for the video!
This summer I have been fortunate enough to be able to hit Fordyce Creek four times before they shut the water off at Fordyce dam. Fordyce is a Reno classic, only an hour and a half out of the city on Donor Pass with quality whitewater and beautiful scenery in another high sierra batholith setting. I first hit this creek as an Upper Cherry warm up a few weeks ago. The first run was amazing and I fired up every drop except Atomic Piton rapid which I walked and had the pleasure of watching Seth Stoenner style. This week I hit the creek three times logging one overnight trip with my Dad and two more with good Reno friends. I made this video to show the Fordyce experience.
This past week has been one of the most rewarding and incredible experiences I have had so far. I had the chance to paddle Upper Cherry Creek; which was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, and some of the best kayaking I have ever experienced.
The epic started on Monday morning the 19th of July at five in the morning. I awoke and wasted no time by sorting out the supplies I would need for the next three days. I packed my camping gear, and food into dry bags that I stuffed into the back of my boa. I wore most of my kayaking gear for the hike in. I then went about rigging up my boat with a backpack system (I used a pyranha back pack system which worked great), which wraps around the boat and provides shoulder straps and a hiking belt for stability and comfort. This was my first time hiking long distances for kayaking and I was anxious about the long hike in. The hike was truly exhausting, but all and all I feel that it added to the experience of Upper Cherry. I was hiking in with a group of eight paddlers. Darin Mcquoid, Daniel Brasuell, Seth Stoner, Dustin Stoner, Orion Meredith, Chris Shehab, and Seth Dow. We reached the put-in late in the afternoon and took a rest. Finally I took a few stroked and got a chance to look up and take in the magnitude of rock and beauty surrounding me. There were sheer granite walls rising above the river, which fell down in one smooth unbroken surface all the way to the creek. We paddled our first drop as the sun fell low and stopped for camp shortly below.
I fell asleep on a worn-smooth granite slab with the close murmur of the river, the occasional mosquito, and a full sky of bright stars above.
The next day was truly amazing. So many rapids and drops it is all a blur. The first section of the river was a mile or so of really fun low angle slides. We all did paddle twirls and spins all the way down the slides. Then the river picked up with larger drops and slides through the first gorge.
The final rapid on the first gorge was a good taste of what was below
After countless more drops we arrived at the gates of Cherry Bomb gorge. Cherry Bomb gorge is very committing section with huge granite walls rising vertically out of the river making every drop mandatory to run. The drops stacked up one after another in the gorge and soon we reached Cherry Bomb falls. Cherry Bomb falls has been one of the most iconic drops in my mind ever since I have started kayaking. After seeing it in so many magazines, photos, and movies over the years it was one of the drops I have always dreamed of running. To finally paddle over the lip and experience it for my self was an incredible feeling.
The rest of Cherry bomb gorge came really fast with some pretty big drops and holes you have to rally down with no scouting due to no eddies.
Exiting out of Cherry Bomb gorge we arrived at the Teacups. The Teacups section is the single best section of river I think I have ever paddled. It has a long slide at the beginning, which leads into eight perfect waterfalls. It was so fun I had to walk up and run it again. I took headcam footage of the whole teacups so you can see it for yourself.
The perfect Teacup waterfalls
After the Teacups we arrived at California Groove Tube and the Perfect Twenty.
Then we arrived at Double Pothole.
After Double Pothole we called it a day and found another beautiful campsite right below the drop. After dinner I wanted to paddle some more and ran Double Pothole two more times.
After another night under the stars we woke up to Waterfall Alley and some large stouts. Seth, Darin, and I ran the two large falls Kiwi in a Pocket and Dead Bear. After watching Darin run Kiwi in a Pocket I had a near perfect line and was pretty fired up at the bottom. Seth (seventeen) nailed his line too and it was cool to see him boof off the following falls with a huge smile stoked as well. The next drop was Dead Bear, which is a pretty intimidating seal-launch directly into a forty-foot falls. I went and took a big hit at the bottom after catching a flake on the way down and going over the handlebars. I was OK but had the wind knocked out of me and a pretty sore shoulder the next few days.
With Waterfall Alley complete we had most of the significant drops behind us and only two more gorges to go. After paddling more amazing whitewater and countless drops in Redrock gorge and the final gorge we reached the lake and the paddle out.
We reached the takeout midday and I was exhausted and content. It was an amazing three days in the most beautiful place I have ever been. I cannot wait until I can go back next year. Until then I am going to do a lot more creeking because I am now hooked.
I will put up a full Cherry Creek/Fordyce Creek video in the next week or so once I collect all of the footage. Until then enjoy the pictures and the little bit of headcam. Also huge thanks to Darin Mcquoid for all of the pictures.