Friends on the water

Group on rock
Such relationships, defined by a common passion, are sealed through shared experiences. photo by Shelton Steele

As quick as some folks are to label kayaking an “extreme sport,” any longtime kayaker will tell you that there’s much more to it than an adrenaline rush. The sex appeal of the word “extreme” masks what truly drives paddlers who’ve made the sport their life’s pursuit: a community of friends.

Be honest with yourself. If you’re reading this column, then you’ve probably entertained a notion of floating down one of Western North Carolina’s rivers in a kayak. Do you find yourself staring longingly at boats on the tops of trucks, wondering if that will ever be you? Or have you watched an LVM video premiere at the Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company and thought, “That’s exactly what I want to do”? The idea of being a kayaker may be what pushes you into a boat in the first place, but it’s the friendships you make that will sustain your love of the sport.

Today’s network of boaters is connected by two modern technologies: cell phones and the Internet. Chances are the entire Asheville boating community could be rounded up through the contact lists on a few boaters’ phones. Everyone has their own boating buddies programmed in, and each day begins with a look at the online gauges and a scroll through the phone list.

Chances are each boater has a list of those reliable buddies who’ll drop everything at a call, jump in the truck, and speed off to the river to join you. On down the list are the occasional boaters who are either weekend warriors or washed-up reliables. Last but not least are the “randoms” — the folks you call when you can’t get anyone else.

With water and a buddy secured, it’s time to head out. The Talking Heads had no idea how dead-on they were when they sang, “Take me to the river … drop me in the water.” In the midst of fielding a series of additional phone calls (one of the cell phone’s admitted drawbacks), you’ve reconfirmed the time and location, loaded your boat and double-checked your gear. Now you can slip into the driver’s seat and make haste down the highway. At the first stop sign on your way out of the neighborhood, you run down your checklist one more time: paddle, skirt, life jacket, helmet and throw bag. A moment’s hesitation and then, with music blaring, it’s nonstop to the takeout.

There, the scene is so familiar that it feels like home. The parking lot looks like a cross between a gear show and a yard sale. All the usual suspects are huddled around trucks, hatching the day’s adventures. A warm feeling of friendship washes over you as you greet the group with handshakes and bear hugs. Such relationships, defined by a common passion, are sealed through shared experiences. The distant roar of the river is enough to get everyone in motion, and another day on the water begins.

The word “boater” may be a label in and of itself, but believe it or not, one would be hard-pressed to pigeonhole the boating community. I would call kayakers “an eccentric family of whitewater fanatics.” Ages and professions vary; boaters may be doctors or business owners or college students. Others do whatever allows them to keep kayaking. Ages range from teens to old dudes. Boating is the common thread, and it’s friendship that gives the community its shape.

In the past year, the area’s whitewater community has been dealt entirely too much heartache. While I would love to tell you stories about the great parties we’ve had or the amazing river trips I’ve been on, it’s been in these hard times that the community has shone the brightest.

In March, the tragic death of Daniel DeLaVergne, co-founder of Lunch Video Magazine, brought out such a crowd of boating friends to a memorial event at Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company that the spirit of community flowed potently. Everyone just wanted to be together to remember Daniel as a friend and a boater.

A week later, the community reassembled to support Green River legend Jerry Beckwith in a kayak and road-bike race to benefit ALS research and the group American Whitewater. The event was appropriately named “Jerry’s Baddle,” and I believe he summed it up for all of us in his letter to the race crowd on that cool, spring afternoon:

“I feel like the luckiest man on Earth. Certainly not because my body is slowly being imprisoned by ALS, but because I am blessed to have a huge number of the truest, most loyal and compassionate friends anyone could hope for. … I would have loved nothing more than to participate in the race today. I’d love to be healthy and ride or paddle on behalf of another stricken person. But I know that many people who are doing this event have me — and my spirit — in their heart.”

[Shelton Steele lives in Asheville.]

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