Of all the paddlers in this series, none has a more singular or spectacular story than that of Dr Walt Blackadar, the gun-toting, vodka-drinking country doctor who started kayaking in his mid-40s and, through sheer bravery bordering on lunacy, tackled first descents the likes of which the world had never seen.
By Steffan Meyric Hughes
The 1960s was a transitional era for kayaking and kayaks. Manufacturing was changing from canvas to GRP, and the age of the 13ft (4m) slalom kayak was beginning. “Klepper, with Tony Prijon, was at the forefront of technology in Europe. In Britain Streamlyte was making some beautiful slalom kayaks with the KW 3 and 7 (all time classic)” recalls Graham Mackereth of Pyranha. In this era, slalom, particularly in Europe, reigned supreme. The sport that had started in the Alps in the 1930s and would first be held as an Olympic discipline for the first time in 1972, was the breeding ground for most of the great paddlers of the 1970s. But Blackadar’s initiation into paddling came in his mid-40s, as an extension of the hunting and fishing life he’d bought into with such enthusiasm after moving to Idaho.
That’s right. The greatest big-water paddler of the late 60s and early 70s was a slightly rotund, middle-aged country doctor who started paddling in his mid-40s. New Jersey by upbringing, he moved to Salmon City in 1949, at the age of 27, with his wife and two young children, for a life of fishing and hunting. In 1953, he ran the Salmon River with a friend in a rubber raft, and returned every spring thereafter to run the big-water Grade 4 rapids, trap beaver, fish for steelhead, skin beavers and take his changes with wild-eyed hermits. It was not until 1967 that he and a friend put onto the river in kayaks for the first time.
Both suffered cold, bruising swims and the loss of their fragile glass boats soon after entering a more turbulent section. He realised that if he could roll (Walt had seen it demonstrated by a visiting kayaker two years earlier), then he could run anything. He tried teaching himself from a book but found it hard – it’s hard to believe now, but he was the first whitewater kayaker in Idaho, so had nobody to help him.
He wrote to five-time national slalom champion Barbara Wright, who could roll with one hand, for help. Barbara came to the Salmon River in 1968 to teach Walt to roll, and the two remained paddling companions and friends until Walt’s death a decade later. During that trip down the Salmon in 1968, Barbara noted that Walt’s roll was unpolished, relying too much on upper body strength. She also delighted in his willingness to paddle into everything, and the two enjoyed trying to outdo each other in hole-riding. The next year saw a failed attempt at the North Fork of the Payette, then Blackadar organised a 27-kayak trip down the Grand Canyon, then considered at, or certainly near, the limit of kayaking.
Not only did the good doctor run every rapid successfully, but he started to pick out stout lines on purpose, like running the river-left holes on Crystal, an attitude uncommon in those days. Blackadar was making his mark as the prototype big-water hell-man – the first well-known go big or go home guy. He ran Lava four times on that trip. Just pause for a moment to remember that this is a man of 47, a practising doctor with a wife and home, a bit of a paunch and a 13ft (4m) GRP slalom-derived kayak.
The next year, 1971, was the one that would confirm Blackadar’s place in the history books. The place was Turnback Canyon on the remote Alaskan River Alsek, a serious, walled-in section of Grade 5 whitewater that had never before been attempted and was thought to be unrunnable. What made his trip even more amazing was that he went alone, camping among the bears by night and running borderline suicidal whitewater by day, with only ice floes in there for company. He just packed his vodka and his gun and went.
The next great paddler from Idaho, fellow big-water man Rob Lesser, who paddled with Walt towards the end of the 1970s, rates Turnback as harder than then Dudh Kosi, famously ran by Mike Jones and team five years later. Not only is it harder, but Blackadar, aged 49, with three years’ experience, ran it alone. A feature about the exploit in Sports Illustrated followed a year later, marking the beginning of Blackadar’s rise to fame. Whitewater kayaking would enter the mainstream in the 1970s and, in America in particular, Blackadar was a big part of establishing the sport in the eye of the public.
In 1972, he ran his other great Alaskan River – the Susitna. This time, he took Kay Swanson and Roger Hazelwood with him. The trip was a partial success, in that, despite some epic swims and recoveries, they all came home alive. That year, the first Olympic slalom events took place in Augsburg, Germany, and Barbara Wright appeared on television, teaching William Shatner (Star Trek) to kayak. Two years later, Blackadar would appear on American Sportsman taking on the Grand again. Blackadar appeared again briefly in news reels that year, fishing Evel Knievel out of the Snake River (“there are two men rowing towards him” can be heard on one newsreel!) after Evel’s failed ‘rocket’ jump of the Snake River.
Soon after that, he was featured, again on the Grand Canyon, in the full-length feature film The Edge. That was followed, in 1976, by another run of Devil’s Canyon, this time part of a team for American Sportsman again. Blackadar was hoping to stay in his boat for the whole run, after taking a swim on his first attempt, but this was not to be. A third attempt at Devil’s the following year, as part of Rob Lesser’s expedition, would see Blackadar swim again. Completing a pure run, in his boat all the way, as he had on the Alsek, was a thing that would always elude him on Devil’s.
Contemporary paddlers and those evaluating Blackadar today agree that he was a long way ahead of his time. They agree that he was not technically the best paddler in the world – far from it. But what Blackadar had was an unlimited supply of zest and bravery, on and off the water by all accounts. He was an intense companion, his peers relate, an egotist, a flirt and a wit, engaged in a constant battle of one-upmanship with the world, its rivers, and his own increasing age. He was also, to judge by accounts, brave, generous and kind, going out of his way to help others.
Blackadar died in the saddle on 13 May 1978, pinned under a submerged log. He aged 56.
The mountain standing at the entrance to Turnback Canyon (first photo) was named Mount Blackadar in his memory and stands there to this day, a reminder of what can be done with a slalom kayak, a working roll, the ability to read a river, a whole lot of heart and a few vodka lemonades. Blackadar should be remembered not just for his extraordinary achievements and bravery, but for singlehandedly starting the whitewater kayaking scene in Idaho, one of the paddling epicentres of the world, and becoming, probably, the closest kayaking has ever had to a celebrity, helping to popularize the sport the world over.
There are two clips of Dr Blackadar on YouTube. The first is of his 1976 attempt to run Devil’s Gorge on the Susitna without swimming. The second, put up just recently, is some home movie footage, in colour, of Blackadar and friends Barbara Wright and Lynn McAdams paddling the Selway River in 1969, a rare but brilliant snapshot of not just Blackadar, but the era.
The author is keen to track down more footage, particularly of the American Sportsman series featuring Blackadar. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you can help.