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A short history of not caring

Sam Ellis

Steffan Meyric Hughes has an impassioned plea to know our history better, mainly because he didn’t complete this month’s column on time! (December 2015).

Know your history, advises Corran Addison in his ‘Whitewater Kayaker’s Little Book of Wisdom’. Did you know, he continues, that the cartwheel was invented by a slalom paddler as early as the 1970s? Well, you would know if you’ve been reading my column. And I only know because Corran told me in an email. So I suppose that makes me the secondary or tertiary source. Or just some bull-shitter who’s rambling in print because he hasn’t managed to deliver the article he promised the editor on the 1930s paddling legend Gino Watkins.

Whitewater Kayaker’s Little Book of Wisdom

That was the plan, you see. There are only so many Victorian gents who paddle wooden sit-on-tops on placid rivers and lakes we can take after all, so we were going to skip six decades from John MacGregor (last month) to the first Briton to perform the Eskimo roll.

But while we’re on this subject of knowing our history, why is it that so few of us have any knowledge of our discipline? Why are there so few good books about kayaking?

Compared to sailing, climbing, walking and fishing, which all have good bodies of literature that elevate them in the imagination and broader consciousness, kayaking has very little in the printed word, albeit with a very healthy (and increasingly so) videography. But great books cement a sport or movement more publicly in the imagination than YouTube clips ever do: just look at what Izaak Walton did for fishing with The Compleat Angler or what HD Thoreau did for outdoor living with Walden or what Herman Melville did for sailing with Moby Dick. Even Christianity – it would be nothing without the Bible. Two millennia old, book sales are still good.

More recent books have popularised and legitimised everything from camping (The Art of Camping by Matthew de Abaitua in 2011) to wild swimming (the massively successful Waterlog by Roger Deakin in 2000). They are well-written narratives, with the result that people might see these activities as equal to something like kayaking. Wild swimming, for instance, is just something that happens to us when things go wrong, and I’d bet I’ve had swims far wilder than any in Deakins’ book (much to my chagrin but to the great enjoyment of all who have witnessed them). Similarly, to consider camping as an activity in its own right is anathema to the paddler. It is just a necessary (if enjoyable) adjunct to the main course, which is paddling.

The result of this lack of good books is not just how badly the profile of kayaking suffers in the public sphere (most people have no idea what it is, unflatteringly equating it to rafting), but a lack of shared knowledge even among ourselves, such that even a group of teenaged skateboarders could probably have a better attempt at a “top ten” skaters debate than a group of adult kayakers could about paddlers. The miscarriage of justice that follows is that one man’s camping adventures are better known than the first and last descent of the Yellow River (to take just one example).

Yellow river, china

There are good reasons for this, one of them being that a high proportion of the few kayaking authors we have had have died young. Kayaking is a dangerous sport at every level, and whatever people tell you in order to present paddling as a safe sport, paddlers die all the time, most recently the founder of North Face’s Doug Tompkins (just yesterday at the time of writing) and hundreds like him who die on lakes because they can’t roll, to expedition paddlers who get caught in stoppers and under ledgers and in siphons. Even at the Grade 3-4 level most of us paddle at, it occurred to me recently that I’ve hardly paddled a river that has not claimed at least a few lives. Of course, we must keep a perspective. Kayaking is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous sports there is (just think of tennis, football and so on), but it’s probably relatively safe when you compare it to crossing the road or driving a car! It is studiously ignored by the specialist press and seldom of interest to the mainstream press, making ours a sport that buries its dead, as well as its history – and the two go hand in hand.

Terry Storry was very lucid not only in his wonderful classic guidebook (British Whitewater) but in his stories about paddling down the rivers of the world in the 70s and 80s (Raging Rivers, Stormy Seas). He died (in a climbing accident) in 2004. Dr Mike Jones’s book about Everest was telling in its own way, but he died (heroically by all accounts) paddling in 1978. The best book – perhaps only good book – about kayaking of recent times (Living the Best Day Ever) is by another deceased paddler, Hendrik Coetzee, lost paddling in 2010. Co-author of another classic guidebook, Southern Alps Whitewater, Ian Beecroft, died paddling in 2012. One suspects Dr Walt Blackadar might have written a great book, but he died paddling before he could (in 1978). It’s by no means the only reason. I suspect the main cause of the lack of great (or any) kayaking books is more to do with the sort of people who go paddling, who tend to be of the practical more than the literary bent, a consequence of the demands of the sport.

Blackadar is probably the best example of how kayaking forgets its history. He was probably the biggest superstar the sport ever had. With appearances on the front cover of Sports Illustrated and on national TV in the American Sportsman series, not to mention some incredible solo first descents, he came the closest of anyone to establishing kayaking in the same league as other action sports. You try to find those American Sportsman episodes now. You approach the broadcasters. Nothing. You track down his daughter in a kayaking shop somewhere in Idaho. Friendly response – but no video. Believe me I’ve tried.

It’s as though Blackadar never existed. It’s the same as Gino Watkins in the 30s, and you’ll have guessed already that he died paddling before he could write his story. I’d never heard of him until Graham Mackereth of Pyranha suggested I look into him, and it turns out that two books have been written about his life. When they came up on Amazon after a bit of a wait, they cost 1p each. They cost 1p because no one buys them, and that’s because no one cares.

This is really simple: I want us to pay more attention to what we do, and what our forbears did. A few years ago, I was at Pyranha Fest, camping near the Treweryn. In the burger queue at the evening do held in a marquee in a muddy field, I spotted Dave Manby and Graham Mackereth waiting patiently, chuckling over a joke, or perhaps a distant memory (“remember when I lent you those boats in 1976…). No one else in the queue had recognized them. I know this, because I asked most of them in an impromptu straw poll (“Do you know who those two men are?”).

The paddler ezine

Photo: The November and December 2013 editions of the Paddler ezine covered story of the first descent of the Yellow River by Sam Ellis.

November 2013 issue of the Paddler read here…
December 2013 issue of the Paddler read here…

The talk that evening was given by Sam Ellis, who had recently made the first and (probably last) descent of China’s Yellow River. Ever. Consider that for a moment, then consider how little attention the world’s media paid to that feat. And few paddlers even know about it, myself included, had I not been there to hear the talk. It seems, to put it bluntly, as though no one gives a shit about us. And that includes ourselves most of the time.

I know it’s part of kayaking’s charm that mortals get to paddle with immortals on a regular basis and paddlers generally (certainly in this country) don’t tend to take themselves too seriously. But to take that informality and privilege for granted is to miss the whole point of why it’s special in the first place. To have no shared recollection, no remembrance of our dead, no sense of wonder or history at all is a pretty dull, empty sort of achievement. So I hope we can all learn a bit more about our own history.

Obviously it’s not going to help if I indulge in rants instead of delivering copy as promised (apologies to the editor), so next month, I promise, I will bring you Gino Watkins about whom at the moment, I know as little as you.

About thepaddlerezine (572 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler ezine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK and WindsurfingUK magazines

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