Spotlight On An Original Dirtbag: THE JEFF WEST STORY by Sam A. Benetto

      Often the search for freedom is a tangled web of setbacks we weave through daily. It begins with a simple revolution in the mind which leads to our evolution as beings. If we do not evolve with our surrounding world, we begin to lose sight of the nature of being, therefore one must evolve to become ONE. In whitewater, there are constant changes that force all paddlers to evolve to unfathomable levels of perception and understanding of whitewater and life in general. If this concept was ever understood and lived out fully by any human being, it was Jeff West.
Sitting at the right safety below grumpys ledge is the easy part of catching the safety all together. As a third year guide, and not a good one at that, I felt a strong sense of accomplishment for obeying my trip leader and actually setting safety for whole trip. As I sat there, mesmorized by the dynamics of such an ebb and flow Grumpys produced and the precision with which guides tackle it, it left with me with a deep rooted sense of togetherness, one big functioning machine part of one big picture. A familiar voice jumped out at me that moment, “Hey Sam! Hows it going?” “Its going, just waiting on the trip leader.” I turned to look and it was Jeff. He flashed a big warm smile at me without a hint of exhaustion or ego. “Watch this”, he said, “I am about to take out,” as he paddled on up the eddy. To take out at the put in created a topsy turvy world of confusion at that moment in my mind that only Hunter S. Thompson could have dreamed up and exposed as truth.
     With minimal strokes, Jeff surfed up the first set of ledges that make up the right side of the rapid; once he was near House Rock his kayak seemed to sit still as the whitewater flowed about him. Before I knew it, he was sitting in the eddy behind Whiteface Rock waiting to make the ferry to Pyramid Rock, then he attained the put in ramp.
Suddenly, the river stopped making a sound, my guests disappeared, and the sun shone brighter than ever. My trip leader floated by with his paddle positioned in the “go sign” and I was none the wiser.
Jeff had put on at Broken Nose, less than a mile away and was taking out at the put in ramp to the Middle Ocoee River. 

     Everything I thought I knew about surfing, eddys, waves, ledges… everything had just been reinvented. He had attained a feat so great using the basic fundamentals of whitewater that we all so casually ignore. To ignore these fundamentals is to throw away any growth that will lead to enlightenment. Where as Jeff continued on his path, many of us had stopped ours, always relying on the ego to carry us through. 
A new path was paved that day by Jeff West. The path of the great master who served a greater purpose as a student by showing light to a dark path to an unknown student of the scene. The scene faded that day and the true purpose of being on the river came through with one simple message from Jeff, “attain evolution by practicing the fundamentals.” That day was the simple beginning for me and the middle of the story for Jeff West. The master whom attained.

     What does it mean to to paddle with a whole hearted desire that makes one dread the take out? As paddlers, the put in is the standard place of dread, where all the emotions of the run to come begin to cascade over, bringing many realities to a solid light. A heavy weight comes crashing down into the pit of our stomachs that we ignore. We begin to move forward without feeling, sweeping those emotions aside. A strong presence pushes us, and at times we attribute it to the river’s power or to a strong inner energy that sustains our motivation. Once that inner strength is sapped and the communicated energy is not being perceived how does one move forward? Do we change our perception? What do we do when no one is there to hold our hands anymore?
     We paddle on… a terrifying concept. Jeff understood this concept more than most. This lesson of his  may have been the hardest to discipline one’s Self in. To be absorbed in his attitude toward putting on solo on the Stikine River is to accept one’s ultimate freedom of choice in regards to their personal well being. What one chooses for their life may not be what we would have chosen and it may give us pangs of the heart nothing can cure. How one may cure a broken heart does not apply to all. Jeff chose to paddle on, an ideology many of paddlers have given up on. If Jeff West ever represented any solid concept it was perseverance. 
     When Jeff took his final run, it represented many paddlers’ final run.  A huge rock slide occurred at the entrance to the river, like the paddling psyche preventing progression, a blockage of one’s heart within whitewater. Much like the blockages of Jeff’s own heart, he had to move the paddle to break the stagnate waters, to set emotion aside. He had to break free of any need for a hand to hold to truly hold on to his paddle. He progressed forward. 

     He truly practiced what he taught. Throughout his guiding on the paddler’s path to enlightenment, there was a sense of a light leading the way. In reality Jeff was walking the path himself. A master that was a student, he proved to “be like the water”, to persevere, to preserve a passion he passed on to so many. 
     He put on that final day holding his paddle, propelling the boat forward, breaking any blockage in his way, freeing his paddler’s psyche – challenging the paddling community to go forward and paddle hard, physically and mentally. Persevere always, no matter what. Let go, because Jeff has cleared the paddlers’ path to enlightenment and progression. Hold the paddle as one would hold a firm comforting hand and paddle on.”

     The awareness of thankfulness or appreciation is a crucial piece to the puzzle of progression. Not only with paddling but with any passion we may have in our lives. Without that thankfulness, we as paddlers would never possibly ever truly feel the immersion of whitewater and all elements pertaining to. Within our paddling community and the Ocoee River community, the thankfulness runs strong through the hearts of many whose lives and perspectives were forever changed by Jeff West. Donnie Woodland, a friend and master equal to that of the progression of Jeff, yet in a raft, expresses his thank  fulness for Jeff Wests perspective on the collection love and appreciation for all paddlers within whitewater. Donnie begins his story.
     “In life, there are many lessons to be learned. And these lessons come from an array of places, from the most expected to the less obvious, from a trusted teacher or from a complete stranger. Its all in how you look at it. One can never feel that they are at a level at which there are no more lessons to be learned, only lessons to be taught. Nowhere have I seen this more than in whitewater. Regardless of discipline, whether raft or kayak, canoe or SUP, squirtboat or riverboard, the river has lessons that transcend all crafts and all genres.
     “It was around my 10th year raft guiding when I learned one of the most valuable lessons I have learned so far. It had rained quite a lot that winter and i had a small group of paddlers that I was a part of that wanted to raft some of the creeks in the area, some considered unrunnable by many of the kayakers in the area. I remember being at the put in of the Tellico river one cold January morning after it had rained the night before. We were hoping to run one of its tributaries but settled on running the Tellico itself, putting in at the top of the Ledges section. There were a few kayakers there that day as well. As we unloaded our rafts and began to inflate them, I notice the kayakers joking and snickering to themselves, laughing at the boats we were taking that day. There is always one who will inevitably ask and always with condensending tone “Are you gonna RAFT this river?” or ” Can you actually get a raft down this river?”. Today was no different.
     “We put on to stares of disbelief and laughter. These kayakers actually followed us along through a couple of rapids until they saw that we were having no problems. No props were given as they paddled downstream ahead of us, only glares as they muttered to one another. Almost like the fact that we rafted this section had taken away from the accomplishment they felt by kayaking it. Whatever, we continue downstream until we get to Baby Falls, a 12 foot drop with a technical entrance (in a raft anyway) that leads into another rapid just below called Diaper Wiper. I was R2ing with a friend of a friend who had never seen whitewater before, at all. So we decided to scout Baby falls so he would know where to swim and where not to be.
     “As we walked along the bank down to Baby Falls, I notice a group of kayakers scouting too. They were all gathered around one person, hanging on his every word. As we get closer, they start heading upstream to run the rapid and i look up to see Jeff West leading this group. It was his intermediate creek boating class. I knew Jeff fairly well at the time. We say “hello” as we pass each other only to have Jeff say “Wait! Donnie, are you rafting today?” I say “Yes, Jeff. This is Rudy. Its his first time on whitewater and we are scouting.” Jeff West says “Are y’all gonna run Baby?” I say “Yes we are?” as Rudy shakes his head and smiles.
     “Then Jeff does something that I didnt expect. He actually turns his group around to come back and watch Rudy and I run the falls. Talk about pressure! Jeff was always one of the local icons of paddling and considered one of the finest teachers around, having developed his methods from scratch. So, Rudy and I run the falls and continue downstream without mishap. Were at the takeout after loading up and I see Jeff West and crew taking out. I say to him “Sorry you walked your whole class back down to Baby for nothing. No carnage today.” What he replied touched me that day. Jeff said “Actually, I was using you as a teaching method, Donnie. I knew you would either make it, and i could show them why or you guys would crash, then we could watch you clean it up. Either way, I could use you for reference on proper technique regardless of what boat your in.” It just so happened that the kayakers from the put in were taking out too. They overheard Jeff say this and I would like to think that they learned a little something as well that day.
     “Jeff West made a huge impact on me that day. The river has many more lessons for me. Both to teach and to learn. The spirit of Jeff West has seen to that. Appreciation is all I can feel for that moment and the relationship that grew between us after that day.”

     Collectiveness is the key to appreciation. To continue on with our progression no matter what it may be directed to, we are all connected by one. In our connections with whitewater, we must soul boat no matter the craft we choose. We must as well appreciate all paddlers for their passion toward their craft, a basic yet prolific concept Jeff demonstrated to all and all noticed. To feel a humbled sense of oneness and thankfulness between two masters who are and were simply students themselves, left many more students in awe that day and this student appreciative of the heart that we as humans build and nurture within the big picture whitewater is apart of, or to many is the big picture. Let us give thanks for those whom the river has given us and know with assurance, it has never taken away only given. Progress and go with thanks.

     Jeff was and still is a truly inspiring friend and mentor. The light that he shined on and off the water instilled a sense of hope inside me that will never be forgotten. Hope that one day I may have the open heart, kind spirit, and unforgettable humbleness that he carried with him and spread to others like wildfire. The charge that he taught me to have on the water will continuously be carried throughout my life and I will forever be in awe of his legacy he has left behind for us to carry on for him.
     As Katie Adcox, an Ocoee trip leader for High Country Adventures, avid kayaker, student and good friend of Jeff West just expressed in her appreciation of West and his leadership has created a new wave of inspiration and captures the true message of Jeff’s teachings whether it was through Ace Ocoee Funyaks, simply observing him at his best, or paddling with him as a friend and mentor, the imprint left behind will never be shattered nor forgotten. The hundreds of lives that Jeff touched and ultimately changed for the positive did not leave with him the day he left from us. He was a true living legend not just of his time but of all times. In the thanks we give to him for plowing out a path for all paddlers to lead not just follow, we need to be reminded of what Jeff was thankful for. He was thankful for life and the life he gave so that we could all carry on. Not just us as paddlers but him as well. Above being a master of students, whitewater and life, Jeff was thankful for the ability to paddle, so thankful that he came into this world in a warm womb of water and left in the same way. He made a choice to die the way he lived, to set the standards for those who have given up and a heart that was giving up on him. In that there is an acceptance of the ability to choose to live freely and paddle freely. 

   (Jeff paddling a Ducky with his Mom)

    To those, Emily Baker Deaton, Joseph Grudger, Blaine Donaldson, and so many more, he was thankful for all of you, because his dream and work with Ace can continue. As a whitewater community, we must go on out of appreciation for all that whitewater has given us, Jeff gave us, and we give back. Do not shy away from the loss of Jeff West but celebrate the life he had and continues to have through each and every one of you. Take that humble ability and let any hinderances escape your paddling hearts. Jeff West trudged, paved, and guided down a path to achieve an enlightenment that so many of us dream about achieving. In reality though, we have achieved it and we are all apart of that path. WE are as one and one is all we are. Continue like Jeff with that humble mindfulness to be the master of yourselves as continuing students of whitewater. Be thankful for Jeff West and all life. This is the last lesson taught by Jeff West and the most prolifically spiritual to take notice in and that is Be thankful and do not paddle calmly into that quiet night, for it is not quiet, its is chaos, the only place where true peace can be found. Paddle on and paddle hard, after all, is that not what we are all in this together for?

     In the words of the Flaming Lips, I leave us all with this line, “Tell everybody waiting for Superman that they should try to hold as best they can, he hasn’t dropped us, forgot us, or anything. Its just too heavy for Superman to lift.” Lift the community back up and Give thanks always. Our Superman is still here.
    (Jeff’s final picture, descending into the     

          Grand Canyon of The Stikine)

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