It all started at the age of 24 when I got inspired by watching “A River Wild.”  Being from the flatlands in Indiana, I had to see if these types of places truly did exist.  So, I did some research to locate popular whitewater destinations and a month later, my friend from high school and I headed from Hobart, Indiana towards wild and wonderful West Virginia in my beat to hell Dodge Colt…. (Wish there was such a thing as the internet back in the day. Then I would have found whitewater in Wisconsin, KY, and closer destinations.) Back to the Colt; you had to use the emergency break to stop the thing because the brake pads no longer existed.  Another unique feature was using a penny to start it, which is a story in itself.   The short version…  I lost my car keys while climbing up a sand dune (We don’t have mountains in Indiana but we do have huge sand mounds…  Imagine that!!) Ironically, a former felon/ fugitive, who probably had just pulled off a jail break at the nearby prison, had been overlooking my struggles.  He offered up his services. He was highly skilled in the art of “felonology.”  He quickly broke into my piece of shit car, hotwired it, and from that day forward, a penny was used to trip the circuit to start the damn thing!!   I remember literally having a penny, with a hole in it, attached to my key ring as my “key” to start ‘er up.
     So my buddy and I drive to “Fetla’s,” the local army surplus store,  and purchase some pool toy type boat that came with these little plastic blue shaft, white bladed paddles that you couldn’t even beat an egg with…  and off to the Appalachians we went.  We arrive at the state line and went to the Welcome Center, pick up a brochure, and learn about this wild and woolly place known as the New River Gorge.  By afternoon, the two of us, wearing our Ski Doo life vests, were drifting to our doom, down a flooded river that we had absolutely no business being on.  One thing we did do, (by accident) was put on the easier upper section. THANK GOD for our stupidity at reading a map.
     Here’s my recollection of what happened:  For several miles we beep bopped our way down class two “fish fart” rapids and wave trains. I loved it, and felt a real sense of adventure that was completely new to a kid that lived in the “lack of relief” lands of Indiana, but that soon changed.  As we rounded a bend to the left, we were passed by a commercial raft trip.  Instantly two raft guides paddled over to us and we engaged in a conversation.  All of our comments were carefully cross examined and we were encouraged to take off the river instantly.  As one guide was pleading with us to head back to the city, another guide yelped over, “Hey Bobby Joe…  Ya’all needs to look at this!!!”  He had taken my buddy’s paddle and was bending it up and down with ease using his bare hands.  It was like he was using it as a fitness exercise device.  We decided to ignore their suggestions and we pressed on.  
     Within a few moments, we approached our first real challenge.  Surprise Rapid… and we were surprised to say the least.  We watched the rafts that had earlier passed us go through these enormous mounds of water… it looked like they were riding a rollercoaster.  At this point, I knew we were going into something big.  Soon we were sucked towards the tongue of the rapid.  I looked ahead and saw what appeared to be a tsunami, and countless helmeted river guests near the shore below in rubber rafts, all waiting to get one hell of a show.  I yelled “abort.”  We frantically paddled the pool toy in an effort to escape the torrent with the hopes of sneaking the main flow.  This failed.  We were sucked down the flume like two bugs in one of those power flush, commercial type toilets.  We hit the first wave.  My buddy gave me a look that can only be described as pure terror.  Somehow, the pool toy punched through the surge only to hit a second wall of water.  This liquid mini-mountain completely “taco’d” the raft, but we somehow bobbled through, still upright.  In the calm pool below, we started to reassess the situation knowing that the rapid we just came through was a mere water fountain in a shopping mall compared to what lied below.
When we got downstream a little ways, we arrived at the put-in for the Gorge section. This is where the river gets tougher and, according to one of the guides, “boys must turn into men.” My buddy wanted no more.   We decided to hike down the paralleling railroad tracks to see what loomed downstream.  Then it happened, which probably saved our lives…. an explosion!!  We raced back to our pathetic raft and witnessed several river guides huddling around it.  “Looks like she popped,” said one of the guides in a southern, monotone voice.  Was it the sun’s heat, a sneaky guide trying out his new safety knife, or divine intervention??  I will never know, but what I did know was that our river trip for that day had ended.  So we were forced to hitch out of the gorge.            
     However, before leaving the scene, something caught my eye.  Pulling to the shore was a group of boaters in hardboat kayaks, but one dude was manning an inflatable kayak.  Intrigued with his craft, I approached him.  He happened to be a video boater for a rafting company and was kind enough to give us a ride back to our car.  During the ride, he gave me some information about inflatable kayaks. At first, I thought about maybe trying a traditional kayak, but that would require some practice. I just wanted to get to some big rapids right away.  And then there was another issue..  I always have been somewhat claustrophobic.  Being sealed to a boat, especially underwater, did not appeal to me.  However, this inflatable thing looked to be right up my alley.   Soon I was sold.  Later that year, I purchased a Sevylor IK and the advent of my boating career had arrived!
“The Early Years”
     Two things happened at this point.  First… I now had a boat for whitewater.  I was really proud of my craft even though it was one small step up from the pool toy, piece of shit raft that recently exploded.  Not to be confused with the Sevylor Tahiti, this model was the next step up!  It was yellow, and not very rigid. It was a bucket boat and did not self-bail out water.   It had these crazy splashguard things laced to the bow and stern, and it had two “A” shaped seats that you blew up and wedged into the boat.  One seat for me, and one for whoever I could convince that it was “a good day to drown” kind of a day!
     The second thing….  I found some old school guide books at the local library.  I was amazed to read about so many whitewater rivers within five hours from my hometown, even some in the Midwest including Indiana and Illinois!  My inaugural trip with my new boat was down the class II Big Pine Creek in early March, Indiana’s premier whitewater run.  Later that month, I talked a buddy (a different friend from the New River debacle) into going to Kentucky to run the Cumberland River Below the Falls.  I was so proud of myself that day.  The two of us manned my boat flawlessly down the high water class III rapids (On a sad note, the Colt’s transmission took a shit on the drive back… The Colt was no more… I guess there was a fly in ointment after all on that trip.)   I then started to research other adventures.  That Summer and Fall, I took my craft down the Wolf and Peshtigo rivers in Wisconsin, The Vermillion River in Illinois, the Nantahala in NC, White Oak Creek in Ohio, Kentucky’s Rockcastle, the Saint Francis in Missouri, and even the Ocoee.  
     There were a few times I got worked… and when I did in the Sevylor, the yard sale that ensued was often times epic.  You would see the boat upside down, two little seats floating nearby, and sometimes the inflatable floor mat would magically escape to take on an entire different line than the rest of the debris. It was quite a scene…. plenty of crap available to lend a swimmer a handy flotation device.  My first real Wallace was on Section 4 of the Wolf River in Wisconsin at 18inches…   a pretty beefy level even by my standards today.  A friend and I, riding tandem, got trundled in a hole on Upper Ducknest rapid.  I vividly remember swimming like an Olympian towards the shore and watching my vessel disintegrate into pieces while being washed around the bend through Lower Ducknest Rapids.  Eventually, I reunited with my friend, who was clinging to a tree, and collected the boat fragments that stalled out on the alluvial fan of rock at the base of the rapids. Once order was restored, my friend decided to portage the remaining drops. I ran them solo and upright.  I gained confidence.
I pushed that boat beyond its intended limits.  It was a great way to get me into the sport, but by the following spring, the time came to get a new boat… a state of the art inflatable. I would spare no expense.  I retired the Sevy, named it “Danger Boat,” and purchased an ocean blue Sotar IK. 
“Old Blue”
     Purchased in 1997, this boat has done a lot.  In fact, it still gets use today.  I call it Old Blue, or sometimes it’s referred to as “The Brett Favre.”   This is because every time I tried to retire it with a new boat, I would still end up liking it more than the new purchase…   and so I’d bring it back from retirement.  Now is probably a better time than any to also mention my friend Joel.  Joel was my paddling buddy for years.  Joel and my younger brother did some boating with me in my early years.  These two young men enjoyed many a first because of me.  Not only was their first river experience due to me, but also their first time drunk and first time in a bar was my doing…  and underage of course. (What can I say??  I was a true Dirt Bagger even back then!!) Joel soon fell in love with moving water, and he quickly graduated to using Danger Boat.  Later, he purchased his own Sotar.  His was yellow, and we often referred to it as the “Yellow Banana,” and it too still sees action to this day.
     For two years, Joel and I paddled many Southeastern classics.  Using William Nealy illustrations, Appalachian Whitewater volumes I and II, and Monte Smith’s Southeastern Whitewater guide books, we targeted some pretty good water.  Being a school teacher, my summers were wide open for paddling. Joel was in college and off for the summer, so he was good to go, too.  We’d set a destination, run a river, poach a shuttle, kill a 12 pack while cooking brats over a fire, and pass out in a leaky tent only to wake up to do it again the next  day.    
     Some classics that we ran were section 4 of the Chattooga, the nearby Chauga Gorge, the Little River of the Smokey’s, the Cheat Canyon, Wilson’s Creek, Daddy’s Creek, the famous Upper Yough, and the Watauga Gorge to name a few.  We hit just about all the tougher rivers in Monte Smith’s book.  We really built up our skills.  We paddled our inflatables just the same as a skilled hardboat kayaker.  We would surf holes and catch eddies like the best of them.   Eventually I decided I had the skills to run the Upper Gauley.  My friend, Bob McCormick aka “Aintry,” led the way.  I had a clean run.  A proud moment in my boating career!

Striding Wonder Falls on the Big Sandy River, WV
     Then one day while I was reading my latest AWA magazine, I saw it.  The front cover had these two idiots running Pillow Rock Rapid standing up!  The thought of that seemed impossible to me.  As I flipped through the edition, I marveled at snapshots from the Moose River Fest that featured these two clowns running these huge drops, in inflatable kayaks, completely standing up.  For a minute, I was convinced that this was some kind of special computer graphic inserted into the scene.  I was enthralled.  I didn’t truly believe it until I witnessed it in person.  That happened while running the Upper Yough on Cheat Fest weekend in 1999. I was hanging out on the rocks in the National Falls area and I heard a roar from the mass of boaters congregating.  I followed the fingers of nearly everyone pointing upstream.     
     Something unusual was happening to draw this much attention, or someone was getting worked real good and everyone around was not wanting to miss a good look at the shit kick!  When I looked upstream, I witnessed this human figure standing his way through Triple Drop Rapid, the lead into National Falls.  He looked like the Grim Reaper on the River Styx.  He had a wooden paddle that had to be ten feet long, and a wooden helmet to match it… it was in the shape of a firemen’s hat!  He balanced his way towards the infamous boof move, grimaced towards the onlookers, lined up, and landed the drop while holding this enormously long paddle above his head with one hand.  The crowd applauded.  It was the legendary Jeff Snyder, the “inventor of striding.”  He ferried over to river left and I made my move.  I introduced myself and he excitingly let me examine his rig. That night, over several bottles of Yuengling around the campfire, I decided that striding was going to be my next endeavor.  
“My Inaugural Stride Run”
     My first stride run was going to be on the river where I cut my teeth.  I would go back to my roots. I would return to the place where I learned how to surf, brace, read water, catch eddies, and swim for my life.  I would go back to my beginnings and start the learning curve all again on my river.   The stage for my first stride run would be on Section 4 of the Wolf River on the Menomonee Indian Reservation on Memorial Day weekend. I had a few weeks to outfit the boat, but more importantly, I had to get, or somehow make, a paddle long enough to effectively “stride.” So I drove to a paddle shop two hours away that catered to flatwater boaters and purchased their longest breakdown paddle, but it still seemed too short for striding.  So, back at the homestead, I cut apart an old paddle shaft from one of my early paddles and used the center portion as an insert.  I drilled a few holes, placed in a button release clip and some bolts, added a bit of duct tape of course, and before long my first stride paddle was born. Next, additional thwarts were inserted and my modified craft was ready for the Northwood’s. I tried my rig out.  Everything seemed great in my living room.  Two weeks later, I was floating the Wolf River standing proudly.
     The class III+ Wolf River starts with miles of flatwater.  In fact, most of the entire run of six miles is flatwater.  The term Pool/ Drop hardly does this river justice.  To be more precise, it is more like “Lake/ drop,” but when the Wolf drops, it sheds some gradient over a short distance.   I realized right away in the calm water that I was going to have my work cut out for me.  The physical work that was involved was tremendous, but the water was at a lower level so I kept my hopes up.    Eventually I arrived at the first drop, Sullivan Falls. Sullivan’s is a two tiered, auto boof drop, with a washboard run-out on Precambrian Granite. The entire drop lands you close to ten feet lower from when you start the plummet.   I landed it cleanly.  Shortly after Sullivan’s, I had my hands full with Ducknest Rapid… a quarter of a mile of holes, waves, cross currents, diagonal flumes, Indian spirits, etc.  I took the easy left side in the upper part of the drop to assure that I would miss the holes lurking on the right, but nearly lost it in the rock infested Lower Ducknest.  Here I discovered the real challenge that goes along with striding… hitting little hidden rocks.  Normally while sitting, I would glide over these nuisances, but when standing, these sudden impediments quickly caused the boat to stop and I would topple forward, often times out of the boat and into the soup.  Later, I coined these as F— me rocks.  That day, l briefly stumbled but still managed to stay upright all the way into the pool below Ducknest Falls.  Next we arrived at Teakettle Rapids and shortly afterwards, the visually impressive Wolf Dalles.  I took the easy lines successfully through both of these class III drops.  
     But it ain’t over until it’s over… the grand finale waited downstream…. Big Smokey Falls.  There was no sneaking this class III-IV drop.  In fact the sneak is the normal route.  The left side of the drop is laced with all kinds of death traps.  Going down the normal right side route, the Wolf makes a sharp left turn, goes through some fish fart class II water, quickly steepens, and  over about 40 or so feet, drops nearly twenty vertical feet down a granite slide ending in a seven foot sheer drop.  The rapid also features a flank rock right at the brink of the final plummet.  Here the water explodes skyward creating the famous roaster tail, which is somewhat like a baby version of the “Thing” on Oceana Falls.  This is quite a visually impressive whitewater scene, especially for the Midwest.  All of this is within view of a spectator area located directly above the drop.  You usually have many eyes watching you as you barrel down the Wolf’s signature cascade.  As I was waiting for Joel to get the camera set, the anticipation was killing me.  Win, lose, or draw, I wanted to get this over with.  When I got the green light, I left the eddy and glided towards the slide.  I could see the outlines of bodies on the observation area leaning forward to get a glimpse of the unusual sight heading their way.  I used my knees as much as I could to grab friction points on the boat.  I survived the slide.   Next was the final hurrah.  I remember flashbulbs from cameras igniting as I took flight.  I raced over the final drop about one foot to the right of the roaster tail and soared into the maelstrom below.  I had landed the final drop still alive and, even better yet, still in my boat. I was a strider now; one of the few and proud.
       Big Smokey Falls, Wolf River, WI
“Bumps, Bruises, Beat Downs and Wallaces”
After the Wolf trip, a new career had begun. A “what can I stride next” type of mentality took over me… and I got worked, A LOT.  Getting down a Class III was no joke.  The Lower Yough was the next river added to the stride list.   The run started rough when I crash and burned Cucumber Rapid along with another small rapid on the Loop section downstream, but the remaining miles went clean.  Next up was the Ocoee, which was rather disastrous.  I hadn’t even gotten three boat lengths from the put-in ramp and the shit show had already started.  The failures continued as I challenged different rivers.  This was all a new experience for me, in more ways than just one.  While sitting in the inflatable kayak, I never really experienced failure.  Joel and I had our swims and pins, but for the most part, we had very few problems.  Now it was different.   There were problems around each and every bend.   Before, I would begin a river with the goal of trying to have a clean run, now I was approaching each individual rapid with the hopes of having a clean run.  I finally got to experience the frustration and commitment that hardboaters have to go through in perfecting their skills.  But, like all good kayakers, I always went back for more despite the beat downs.

Pier’s Gorge on the Menomonee River, Wisconsin/ Michigan
     Over time, I honed in my skills.  Eventually, I learned to catch small eddies, make ferries, and turn my burley boat on a dime.  I learned how to side and front surf, brace off of towering waves, holes, and land large drops much the same as I did back when I would paddle sitting down.   Once I had increased my skills, I ran many of the same classics that I once sat down to paddle back in my early days.  My goal was to stride Jeff Snyder’s hometown run, the class IV-V Upper Yough.  My first shot at it came in 2001 and I pretty much got my ass handed to me that day, mainly at Triple Drop Rapid.   It took me two more attempts until I finally had a relatively clean run.  

             National Falls on the Upper Yough, MD
“Practice and Persistence Pays Off”
     As the years moved along, I totally left behind the sitting world of kayaking. I started adding some classics to my river list that I only have seen through the high eyes of a strider such as the Lower Big Sandy, the Rip Gorge of the Penobscot, The Arkansas Numbers, Aspen’s Roaring Fork, and the Russell Fork Gorge.  Though I mainly stick to class III to IV+ water, I have been known to tackle the occasional “old school” class five rapid.  I had my first clean striding run on the Upper Gauley back in 2005 and followed that up with a solo run on the Ripogenus Gorge of the Penobscot River up in Maine.  (I did, however, get munched on my second run through the Cribworks a few years later which resulted in an epic swim so I am 1 for 2 on that rapid.) In 2008, I tackled the dangerous and unforgiving Russell Fork Gorge successfully for the first time. I am probably the only person in boater history who ran this river (and many others) for the first time as a strider.   I have dropped some good size waterfalls over my striding years, and surprisingly have stuck the landings.  Some close to 20 footers… Wonder Falls on the Big Sandy, The Russell Forks El Horrendo, and Baby Falls on the Tellico have made for great photos.       

Running El Horrendo, Russell Fork

Submerged in the froth of Pillow Rock Rapid, Gauley River, WV
     Mostly these days, I stick to my favorite class III and IV runs such as Tennessee’s Tellico and Daddy’s Creek, West Virginia’s Upper Meadow, the Lower Gauley, and I still stay true to the rivers that started this craze up in Wisconsin: such as the Wolf, Peshtigo, and Pier’s Gorge on the Menomonee River.  But my favorite run is the Upper Yough.  To date, I have run this rock infested Maryland classic over fifty times.  The four miles of continuous rapids with countless eddies, boofs, and blind drops has always been a sacred and beautiful whitewater wonderland to me.
Now after fourteen years of striding, I am still one of the few that do it. During this time I also have discovered several advantages while boating standing up.  Being able to exit my boat quickly helps me facilitate quick scouting, rescue, and has saved my ass from a pin situation more than just a few times.  I don’t get splashed as much by the water while striding versus when I would sit in my boat.  This is especially nice on those cold days in cold seasons. I also get a great core and full body workout while striding.   However, the best advantage of striding is the increased visibility. My fellow boater buddies will often elect me to creep up to a horizon line, grab a tiny eddy, and use my height advantage to discover a smooth line to lead the group of lemmings through the turbulence.  
     Speaking of other boaters, I am asked quite a lot on how I got started in the bizarre world of striding.  I respond by saying that I liked the challenge, and that it looked pretty damn cool watching Jeff Snyder doing it.  It has brought me a lot of attention and, at first, I liked the accolades. Many boaters would drift over to me and say that I was crazy.  I was flattered.  Now that the novelty has worn off, I prefer to paddle when it is just a small group of paddlers, or better yet… simply me solo.  I’m guessing that many people probably see me striding and instantly think that I do it to get that “rush” that daredevils can associate with.  The truth is that it does just the opposite to me.   It relaxes me.   Now, with my confidence and experience, I put on class IV rivers calm and collected.  
​     As I have grown older, I have grown to appreciate the entire river experience.   I am not just focused on upcoming rapids. Many of the beauty aspects of river running were never really enjoyed by me when I first started boating.  Back then, I was just focused on not getting juggled in a hole. Now, I take in the scenery, wildlife, and soothing sounds of the rushing waters.  Even though so many things have changed since my first debacle run down the New River, the lure of moving water has remained the same.  I have been blessed to meet so many wonderful people while inhabiting so many gorgeous places, and from the unique perspective of striding.  There will be future changes. Someday, I may not be able to stride the class IV+ runs, but I highly doubt that I will ever give up the river experience entirely.  There are countless class III runs all over the country that can keep me entertained for a lifetime, and I still have several good years in me for tackling the Upper Yough.  Someday, when my knees have been entirely worn down like the brakes on my old Dodge Colt, I may have to give up striding.  At that point, I may go back to sitting in an inflatable, or perhaps I will take on openboating, but as for now, you can guarantee that I will be seen striding softly… and carrying a big stick.   

  RIP Gorge, Penobscot River, Maine


{ EDITOR’S NOTE: The original Dirtbags have known Bob for years from his paddling on the Peshtigo and Menominee rivers in Wisconsin, and his epic nights playing Rapid Resort as The Pianoman, or with his brother as The Garbage Men. His antics on stage are as legendary as his paddling, with costumes and classic covers. Our favorite? Wagon Wheel…
     He has rocked many a river festival, most notably Gauley Fest, where his penchant for playing well into the wee hours, and the crazy lovable kayaking friends (especially Orange Crush) have made him persona non grata. Well Bob, you’re always welcome to paddle and party with the Dirtbags, bro! } 

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