Some of us Dirtbags are paddlers to our core, living, breathing and subsisting on little more than whitewater… Then there are those few boaters out there who shine the light, renaissance men who do as much away from the river as on it to further the sport and enrich our community and the world beyond. Doug Ammons is one such man.
Author, Artist, Editor, Philosopher, Emmy-Award winning Cinematographer, Classical Guitarist, Martial Artist, with degrees in Math and Physics and a Masters and PhD in Psychology, Mr Ammons embodies the ethos of Soul Boater. His books and films are available on doug ammons.com, and a portion of the proceeds support a small school in Nepal. We asked him to speak with us about paddling and his thoughts on the current state of our sport. To tell you a bit about the man, when asking Mr Ammons to do the interview, he said “Hey, I appreciate the gesture, but just call me Doug!” To tell you a bit more… His answers are so in depth we had to split the interview into parts!! Enjoy!
DBP: Doug, you approach the art of kayaking with a humbleness of spirit and generosity that we feel is one of the true hallmarks of all us dirtbag paddlers. You recognize paddling for what it is, a path to personal insight, and for what it is not, a glorious end in itself. Could you share the roots of this philosophy?
Doug: I grew up in Western Montana surrounded by wilderness areas. My dad loved the outdoors, and as kids we backpacked, fished, climbed, kayaked, camped, and rambled around. When you spend that much time in huge beautiful wilderness, it leaves you with a combination of joy and awe.
I’ve always felt that the world around us is full of fascinating mystery, and this sweeps away outward in every direction. I like the feeling that we are small and frail in the larger scheme of things, yet we have our place in it. That’s probably why I gravitated to big wilderness rivers, and that my ideal was to blend with their power and belong there. Kayaking gives us the means to literally immerse ourselves in one of the great mysteries of life and find order in its power and chaos. That’s inspiring to me.
DBP: You became a legendary boater in the 1980s and 90s running classic Class V runs in the old long kayaks. All paddlers love to discuss boats. What was your favorite boat from that era? And what is your favorite boat today?
Doug: A comment before I answer: Really, the word “legendary” is overused. At the time, we were just doing what we thought was interesting with the tools at hand. If we’d had the boats of today, with the history that led to them, we’d be doing the runs of today. The same is true for the guys now – put them back in our era and they’d be doing what we did. Everybody wants to feel they are doing unprecedented things, but the bigger reality is that we can’t escape the structure of our own time. In these adventure sports, the universal motive is always the feeling of trying to reach beyond what has been done and do the next step. So we do. The specific feats are bound in time, culture, and context, but the feeling that drives them is universal.
I don’t really have a favorite boat, I’ve always liked experimenting. Every boat is a tool that reflects a particular vision of the sport. The design reflects purpose, attitude of the paddler, techniques, and goals – everything about what the paddler wants to do in the water. I paddled with every kind of design I could lay my hands on, dozens of them. It’s what you need to do if you want to understand how design interacts with the river, and how choice of any specific boat leads to certain advantages and limitations. Every design is a liberation, and a straightjacket. It defines a certain way to paddle and prevents other ways. My advice to anybody who is serious about paddling is, become fluent in as many movement languages as possible, paddle every kind of boat and watercraft you can, in every kind of situation you can.
DBP: Speaking of your kayaking career, you’ve ticked off a number of first descents, traveling throughout the world making gorgeous films that inspire the soul boater as well as delight the eye. What type of mental preparation goes into a first descent?
Doug: Well, first, I never thought in terms of ticking off descents, but was interested in new experiences and figuring out new problems. I don’t think it’s healthy focusing on a tick list, it takes away from the core experience.
I was fortunate to find, pursue, or collaborate on trips to do first descents on a number of rivers that are now seen as all time classics, like the stunning waterfall gorges of Agua Azul and the Santa Domingo in Mexico, the 250 kilometer stretch of Thule Bheri in Nepal, and others. There were lots of steep creeks in the northern Rockies over a period of 10-12 years.
Mental preparation: One huge difference between then and now is the amount of information available. People now take it for granted that you can find real time flows online, you can look at google earth, or obtain high res satellite photos and “scout” rivers or even creeks almost anywhere in the world – Indonesia, the Yukon, South America – see rapids, trails, find real time weather reports, etc. There was none of that back in the pre-internet era. Best you could do was get poor topo maps of elevation (like 100 meter contours) mostly unavailable for 3rd world countries, very minimal information, so you had to make guesses about everything. When a German friend of mine and I were planning for the Tsangpo in the late-1990s, we were extremely excited when through his surreptitious contacts he got a classified, top secret Russian topo map of the gorge, otherwise you really had no idea of the gradient. We ended up giving it to Lindgren’s team in 2001. That’s just to show how impossible it usually was to get any reasonable information for exotic runs, even one of the biggest and most famous rivers in the world.
So, it depends on the run, but one huge mental aspect is being patient, willing to put in a lot of work scouting, hiking in perhaps multiple times, coupled with judicious gambling, and willing to expend a huge amount of energy on the gamble. I always scoped out the geology of the area, because that determines a lot about the character of the rapids. But also rainfall, altitude, snowpack – usually all by secondary means because there weren’t automated systems, and in many cases, nothing for the specific area. For runs like the travertine rivers of southern Mexico, you have to get a feel for the crazy aspects of what travertine does to interpret the map. For rivers or big streams in the US and Canada, if there was a gauge, in most cases it’d be a chart changed once every month or quarter, and you’d have to go to the University library and look it up on microfiche or in the USGS water publications in the Forestry department. Or, find contacts who you’d have to just estimate given other larger tributaries. That kind of patience and developing information is actually what builds up a personal relationship with the place. If all you want to do is tick off a list of great runs, then buy a guidebook. First descents are a different breed, slower, more painstaking, but much deeper and more rewarding in the personal relationship with the area and river.
The Stikine is an example of the limited information. In the late 80s and early 90s, the best you could do was to call Ed Link of Water Survey Canada, and if he’d changed the chart in the last month, he could tell you what the level had been. Otherwise you were looking at last year’s averages. Once you’d been up there and made friends with locals, you’d call your chopper pilot buddy at the Dease Lake base and ask what the weather was, and he’d laugh, “the usual – rain, some sun, a little snow, wind, cold, some warm.” There were no weather reports. There was no way to know. When I went up on my solo, I headed up not having any idea what the level was. That is a hugely daunting thing. It was raining at the put in with snow a few hundred feet up, and I got on not knowing what the weather was going to be – freezing or thawing. Sun or rain or snow. Now you can get a good weather forecast and the river level in real time. That kind of certainty completely changes how you approach things. It takes 90% of the uncertainty away and makes the experience distinctly different.
A first descent is an interesting gamble on the character of the place, what is required in gear, timing, water level, applying your skills, and in the end casting yourself out into the unknown. It’s a puzzle that you create out of the beauty and challenge of the natural world. Then once in, you have to be willing to figure things out on the fly, and take what comes, regardless of how obnoxious it might be, while minimizing dangers as best you can.
There still are plenty of first descents around. We did one last year in Glacier National Park. We forded the MF Flathead, hiked in 18 miles and paddled out glorious amounts of class III and IV on Nyack Creek. Portaged around a huge class VI gorge – all in pack raft, a very fun craft that makes it much more versatile and less torturous than carrying a 40 or 50 pound plastic boat. You wouldn’t want it on big water, gnarly slides or class V, but it has its place, handles well in technical class III and IV, and opens up completely different kinds of runs.
I have my eye on two others within 60 miles of my house. They’re still out there, you just have to sleuth them out – or have a friend who does, and work for it.
People should remember that you can have a personal first descent on any river, and you should treat it that way. Don’t feel that any river is the trodden trail. Enjoy it for what it is: a new vision of the world for yourself. The water flows anew every instant.
DBP: You’ve enjoyed the company and the privilege of paddling with some of the all time greats: Rob Lesser, Charlie Munsey, Gerry Moffitt, Bob McDougall, Jim and Jeff Snyder, and Scott Lindgren, just to name a few. Is there a common thread spiritually that runs through all of the great boaters?
Doug: These are all people with huge motivation to explore, who loved paddling, were willing to really push themselves, but even more so, loved moving into new territory and solve problems. All of them are smart, even if most of them don’t have academic degrees. In another life they could be doctors, entrepreneurs, scientists. Like Charlie Munsey, he could easily have been an emergency room doctor or some high-powered specialist, but instead he did 15 or so trips to the Himalaya, made the NF Payette his backyard, multiple trips to the Stikine and Triple crown, and became a fantastic photographer, one of the very best in the history of these sports. In general, these guys got diverted off into the adventure sports at earlier time and found a different kind of niche.
Jim and Jeff are unique, in that they have always had their own gigs going that were dinstinctly different from everybody else. Jim is as close to a true guru as we have in kayaking, he’s a great boat designer, but beyond that he’s a modern Zen Basho poet combined with a West Virginia backwoods dude. Whenever I write something I need feedback on, I send it to him.
The other guys all have their distinct personalities. They all share a passion for grappling with challenge and exploring the world. As Rob said once, I’m roughly paraphrasing, his spirituality is expressed in the wonder of going around the next bend.
DBP: In your classic book “Whitewater Philosophy” you discuss at length your passion for soloing rivers and shattering the paradigm of the dangers of going out on The River alone. Reading this book years ago challenged my beliefs and forced me to reevaluate my position, and ultimately grew my appreciation of paddling and my place in it. But still it’s highly frowned upon to solo paddle, especially in light of some tragedies endured by our community in recent years since the publication of the book in 2009.
Do you still find yourself challenged by other authorities in the whitewater world on this practice and belief?
Doug: No, I think people have given up on me, or maybe they don’t care, which is even better.
By the way, I wasn’t interested in shattering a paradigm. I just knew what I personally liked and why I liked it. I pursued that despite criticisms from others.
I wrote that essay because I’d had a lot of people question me, and make distorted statements that didn’t have anything to do with my own motivations. They were flailing about trying to make sense of me, but unfortunately they refused to listen to what I had to say. That included a some of my partners and friends, several of whom got quite obnoxiously critical and righteous. So in response to the bullshit I was hearing, I wrote what I thought and put it out to a general audience. It was written for those with open minds.
In private conversation, my response to critics is, don’t assume that I’m bound by your limitations. Don’t assume that I fear what you do. Don’t assume that your assertions have anything to do with what inspires me. In public I just try to be positive and state clearly what I find inspirational about the approach.
The essence of paddling is personal freedom – you can go where you want, and paddle however you want, for your own reasons. That’s a great gift! There are no rules except what Nature and flowing water demand. So it doesn’t make any sense to me for people to put barriers up about how you must paddle. Why do they wish to limit your freedom?
The solos were personal acts of devotion to the river and what the river represents to me. They were decisions about inward challenge and an aspiration to an ideal of purity. If others don’t understand that, so be it. In kenpo, a style of martial arts I did for a long time, you always bow and do a formalized, symbolic greeting of respect when you step into the dojo. Literally, the dojo is the place you practice, usually the building where the judo or karate school is, but it actually means “the place of enlightenment”. I privately do that greeting, a kenpo salute, when I come to the river: it’s a mark of respect, seeking enlightenment from the ultimate master of flow.
And I ask, what better place is there to seek enlightenment than a beautiful river coursing through a deep canyon it has hewed into the earth? A place that requires skill, purity and clarity from you? What better way than to come to it as a supplication, a deeply honest and vulnerable entering into a place more powerful than you? And what greater goal can there be than to blend with its power and complexity as it actively shapes the rock and world around it? To me, blending with the water is a spiritual act. The river is my dojo, my place of enlightenment.
When I am alone, my mind no longer thinks in words, it thinks in the language of flowing motion. That is as close to speaking the pure language of rivers as we can get.
There is great sense of purity that comes in that state, where nothing exists but the flow of the river within you and around you.
If Siddartha could find enlightenment while sitting motionless before a wall, under a Bo tree, why can’t we seek greater clarity on a beautiful river? Both Hindus and Buddhists believe in “active meditation” in their spirituality, and this is the same thing. You can reach a state of awareness that is nearly impossible by other means. It weaves you completely into the surroundings. You are melding with the rock and the water, the canyon and the sky. I used to get frustrated with the critics, now I consider it pointless to say anything to them. You either see these things or you don’t.
I feel tremendously lucky to have reached that state in places like the NF Payette, the Susitna, the Clark Fork Yellowstone canyon, the Stikine. It also extended into simpler surroundings, and I stopped needing the intensity of hard whitewater to reach that state. It appears when paddling local runs, and even when I am just working out, or simply sitting there in the water, or near the water. I think it is a learned state, one you can cultivate by practice, just like meditation, a desire to be aware. Some of the best times are paddling at night, in the winter. There’s a deep sense of intimacy with the river and surroundings, as if there is no dividing line between you and the river. When I publish my sequel to Whitewater Philosophy, it will include an essay I wrote called “Of Time and Ice and Rivers”. It’s the best expression I have for this experience. My Stikine book will also go into it.
So if people want to criticize, okay, but after listening to uninsightful statements for the last 30+ years, I’m not interested in responding. Personally I think they are blinding themselves and rejecting a path to profound experience.
About deaths: soloing on a hard river is probably more dangerous than when you have partners. However, in difficult rapids there often is nothing that anybody else can do. It is important to realize what the risks are in both situations. This is part of being aware.
Also, soloing doesn’t require paddling hard whitewater alone, it can be done anywhere, leisurely paddling, working out, surfing, running your local class II. I get this sense when I’m far out on Flathead Lake on my paddle board, just me, the board and paddle, the water, mountains and sky. There’s nothing dangerous about it it all, but because I’m alone, I become that much closer to and wrapped within my surroundings. It’s all about how you relate to the water and the kind of experience you want.
STAY TUNED FOR PART II NEXT WEEK!
Doug’s website, where you can purchase his books and films and much much more-