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 Part II-
DBP: On the topic of soloing, perhaps your greatest feat was the soloing of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in 1992. Rob Lesser’s epic first descent has been sited as your inspiration to begin kayaking. I’m sure you’ve followed with the rest of the world the exploits of the Serrasoles brothers as well. Can you share some memories of this special place?
Doug: When you first do the Stikine, you are focused on the whitewater.
When you go in again, you start being able to appreciate more and it expands your imagination. It is one of the most remarkable, complex, and dramatic canyons anywhere, particularly when you start understanding not only the rapids, but the geology, wildlife, Tahltan native beliefs, the plays of light and shadow, the moods of different levels, and how much the place can evolve.
Here’s a few vignettes, in addition to the soloing experience above:
Being at The Wall the first time, black walls rising straight out of the water, river disappearing in roar and mist and unable to see what is below, not knowing what is in the rapid. Then peeling off into the rapid with all senses firing at 100 times normal speed, dropping in reading and reacting, these blurred shapes suddenly crystal clear and every move precise, life laser sharp. All these years later I still feel that intensity of focus.
In the Garden of the Gods there’s this black dark sandy beach stuck below big sandstone bluffs, one of the only beaches in 30 miles of river. After the wild rapids and narrow gorges above, you enter this quiet secluded place, feeling totally cut off from the outer world. A kind of inner sanctum of peace surrounded by raw power. On the beach, there’s grizzly, goat and wolf tracks all over. The wolves were clearly a pack of pups just having fun and leaping and playing, and their joy and the wilderness is all written there across the beach in their tracks. Made me smile deep down into my bones.
Explosive anxiety watching Bob McDougall climb the 400 foot cliff at Entry Falls after being obliterated in an undercut hole. It was caused by new rockfall, backing up a line that went five years before. I’m holding onto the wall, seeing his tiny form way up on the wall, thinking at every moment I was going to see him peel and fall to his death.
The pageant of beauty coming down the last 20 miles. Class III rapids though a basalt canyon and overhanging walls, yellow aspen groves and black rock wet in the rain, sense of resolution and amazement at what we’d just been though. Sunset lancing through small holes in the clouds, and paddling the last miles in the growing dark feeling close to your partners, wordless friendship in the band of brothers.
On the solo, the internal pressure at first was nearly unbearable, but as I went farther in the canyon everything settled into this intense flowing feeling, all senses hyperaware. I made it to Zed quickly, left my gear and spent the afternoon in spitting rain and blustery wind, sitting in the huge broken boulders above the rapid. It would clear up, then the clouds descend again and the wind whip through, then clear again. Ragged clouds, lying on gigantic shattered boulders with the 1000 foot rock walls looming over me. I felt so tiny, so vulnerable, yet feeling I was staring at truth, living within pure truth. At one point, I took off all my gear and bathed naked in the turbulent water between boulders with the rapid shaking the earth around me, filling the space with its power. I felt like I was rubbing the raw energy of the river into my soul. Twenty years after that, in 2012 I had a conversation late one night with several friends who are Tahltan natives. They had come by my room in Dease Lake after hearing of Jeff West’s death. We talked about many things, about Jeff and his spirit, and life and death. They asked about my experience alone in the canyon, and I told them that story of bathing in the river at Site Zed. They had tears in their eyes, touched their hearts and said, “Thank you for praying in that place.”
Many people will think I’m crazy, but I don’t care. I’ve found my portal into a different awareness, and all I can do is point to the door for how to enter it. Come if you wish. Go elsewhere if you want.
DBP: You took along both your friends and the rest of us to many paddling destinations throughout the world in your movies, which include RIVERS OF THE MAYA, WILDWATER, JUNGLE KAYAKERS, and my personal favorite STIKINE RIVER FEVER, which fired my imagination way back when I was first getting into paddling. Do you enjoy watching the myriad productions coming out now, and the resultant movement towards more and more video boating that the GoPro era has introduced, or do you feel as some of us do that it has altered the experience of being on The River?
Doug: First question, do I enjoy watching the productions?
I like to keep up on what people are doing and where the sport is going, There’s some great footage out there across the videos, really impressive – spectacular rivers and tremendously skilled paddling. There are many things I find inspiring about what people are doing now. However, most of the videos focus on technical skill and difficulty, and are cut and paste highlight reels put to music. The paddling is great but they lack art and storytelling, so after a while I find them repetitious. There’s nothing holding them together except action. They could be saying so much more, but they aren’t. The films seem to assume that difficulty and stouts and action is the full sum of the sport. To me, it isn’t. Obviously they aren’t making their videos for me, and there is an audience for that highlight reel approach. It’s just a shame there seem to be few new ideas. They paddle harder things, but the story stays the same simple thing.
Second question: do I enjoy more video boating?
Well, like any tool, there are good and not so good things. The equipment is light and has extraordinary resolution and color quality, so those are gains. You can shoot higher quality images and footage easier, and show people new places and capture the action better. Anybody in the world can be up on what the paddlers are doing technically. That has a contagious effect on the sport, allowing paddlers worldwide to see what people are doing and the sport to progress rapidly.
RE Altering the experience: People have a choice about whether it alters their experience . I think most people take it for granted that watching the professionals’ videos is part of kayaking, so they want to have their experience altered this way. It’s a personal choice.
Here’s a couple potential negative ways this extensive videoing alters things: (please note I say “potential”): filming everything tends to make spectacular places seem ordinary. “Seen that, so what”. Incessant filming feeds a weird kind of narcissism. Go ask a clinical psychologist whether it’s healthy when people focus on filming an endless series of selfies.
One big point. I believe deeply in the value of the unknown. I think the greatest experiences people can have come from committing to a goal and not knowing what’s coming. It’s the metaphorical challenge of life. It happens when you leave your family to live on your own, when you commit to another person, when you have a child with your partner, when you are seriously injured and may not recover, or are diagnosed with cancer. Kayaking has that confrontation with the unknown in a simple, elemental form: coming to the horizonline, figuring it out, committing. Perhaps fearing the worst, not knowing what’s there, but coping. It’s a greater challenge when you know less. Your senses are open, you’re engaged more, it’s a richer, more meaningful experience, and changes you more. But videoing everything, showing a head cam of all the lines in all the rapids of a river, these things prevent you from ever having the experience of the unknown. It’s a great loss. If you only paddle that way, then you don’t even know what you’re missing.
People should realize too – beginners and intermediates as well as experts – even if you are doing local runs, you still are exploring for yourself, and so the same mindset can be applied. It is tremendously enjoyable and should be cultivated.
For a place like the Stikine, the unknown and how you grapple with it is the biggest aspect of all. When everything is videoed from every angle, or you have a head cam guidebook of the lines in every rapid, that takes away the unknown. It makes running the river into merely the solution to a physical problem you’ve already seen the answer to. I think it’s important for people to have to face places and times where they do not know what will happen, or what will be required. It’s more difficult to find that experience. The Stikine was one such place, but now…. I understand why they make a head cam guidebook of all Stikine rapids, but I think it harms the most important experience other people can have. It’s something I would never do myself.
Mystery and the unknown fire your imagination. They make it burn like a torch, seeking and struggling and pressing. It makes you confront fear and go to places inside yourself that you can never reach otherwise.
Working your way through that is an evolution of self. There aren’t that many places so grand, so powerful, so frightening that demand it of you. So to me it’s a great loss to take away the mystery of a place.
Never tell all you know. Never show all you’ve seen. You should always leave some of the mystery for those who follow.
DBP: Going back to “Whitewater Philosophy,” you also wrote about the movement of the paddling community towards running big waterfalls. The popularity and regularity have only increased since the articles in the book were composed; now massive drops are done on a regular basis by the pros, every day boaters are running laps on falls that were once considered rarified territory, and rafters, SUPs and open boaters are dropping huge stouts along with the kayakers.
Do you feel the same way about the approach and skill required to hurl oneself off a waterfall, whether it be in a boat or a tube?
Doug: The short answer is “yes”. Every craft has its approach and skills, so potentially you can reach a similar point mentally no matter which you use.
But for difficulty, some tools are better than others. An open boat has inherent problems, for example, due to its bigger surface area and weight there’s more force on impact. Ouch. And, I’ve yet to see a SUP paddler do more than paddle off the edge of a big stout and jump away from the board, basically cliff jumping from the board. If somebody has done more, please tell me. But then, plenty of good kayakers running stouts end up with the boat swamped, sprayskirt blown, the paddler swimming.
A kayak is more versatile than an inner tube. It is a device that allows much more range of movement and development of skill. But I do expect that an inner tuber will sometime run Palouse Falls. There’s no reason they can’t, and somebody will step up to that plate. Frankly, the Creature Craft are just glorified inner tubes, and they ran the Stikine. Not with a lot of finesse, and probably they require less skill, but they did it. The fact is, any tool can be wielded with increasing skill. There’s that old Musashi samurai lore of capturing flies out of the air with chopsticks. The fact – and cliché – is that a master martial artist can make anything into a perfect, deadly weapon. Point being, you can push skill to the brink with any craft.
Waterfalls are a great part of rivers. They are fun, dramatic, aesthetically beautiful, and challenging. If you’ve got good technique, it opens up fantastic additional runs and great experiences. Whole new types of rivers are available.
It’s great to see the sport evolving and skills changing, new things being done. I think a core reason we all love paddling, no matter what kind we do, is the combination of focus, intensity, beauty, excitement, and challenge. Those things can be there no matter what the craft.
At the same time, waterfalls or big rapids are only one part of rivers, so frankly I get bored after seeing a few dozen “stout” shots, no matter how nicely they are done or how good the paddling.
SUPs flying off falls and the paddler leaping away. That’s good fun, but whether it’s a skill to pursue should be left to those who are passionate about it. To each his own.
To me, waterfalls or stouts are only one small part of rivers, and rivers are only one part of the world. The river experience should expand your perspective, not narrow it.
Here’s a different perspective: these are all great skills when used for fun, challenge, and as tools to solve additional problems in a creative way. For the more extreme end of the sport, linking and combining these is a great synthesis, and a worthy goal. In about 1993 I wrote an essay about the future of the sport. That was right after we’d done the first Stikine self-contained runs, I’d soloed multiple “out there” things, we’d done the Santa Domingo and Agua Azul waterfalls and gorges, we’d rock climbed and canyoneered and paddled the river of the Shumulha where it crashed down through into a narrow gorge and disappeared underground, and we paddled it through the mountain for about a mile until it came back to the light.
These all were things that were inconceivable to the world of kayaking. Also, It was right after doing the NF Payette at far higher flows than anybody had ever contemplated, these gigantic continuous rapids at 6500+ cfs, and handpaddling it, and doing steep creeks up to 1000-1200 feet per mile. Given these changes, all within a couple year period, I suggested what seemed obvious: the future of paddling could be thought of in developing all these different skills, and more, and then applying them to increasingly complex rivers and rapids until every combination was demanded from the paddler, every skill he had from climbing to rope skills to waterfalls to squirting to romping – all to run one river, and possibly, even just one amazing rapid. I think these days we’re closer to that ideal than ever. But note the interesting part is the synthesis of all the skills into an ideal- the ultimate matching of oneself to the complexity and beauty of the river, not just “running stouts”. “Running stouts” by itself is a dead end philosophy, and not particularly interesting. As a skill to do something further, it starts becoming more interesting.
I’d like to make this point about the huge focus on running difficult whitewater and “stouts”.
These are focused physical problems and much easier to do than figure out a new way to see the sport. There are plenty of people trying to do “stouts”, as you say they are commonplace. Here are some things that are so hard that almost nobody does them: artful storytelling, insight into the experiences, or finding wisdom from what rivers teach us. New perspectives in filming, new ideas. I don’t see much of those things, these are major gaps. We see more and more rivers run, shot from more and more angles, put to music with small interviews often with the paddlers merely stating cliched phrases or recounting their line stroke by stroke. Please realize, every time you state a cliché, you are being uncreative. You are going brain dead. It represents a part of your mind that you’re not using. If you paddled that way, you’d get hurt. The river demands you be creative in your movement at every moment, but people don’t take that simple lesson and apply it to their thinking. They seldom apply the lessons that paddling teaches them; they just like to paddle. Fair enough, but it means there is this massive area that is untapped in what you can get from the sport.
People are always getting better at the physical skills, by practice, by experience, and with help from improved gear. But for all the push into “massive stouts”, I have yet to hear much wisdom. Let me ask a couple questions in return: what is so special about running big waterfalls? Why is it of importance in the world? What does it teach us? What I find is that people have no answers, they just mostly think waterfalls are cool, so they do them. I guess if you’re 20 and all you do is paddle, then that’s good enough, but not for me.
I think the paddling world in particular and the adventure world in general are full of promise that is mostly unborn. I’d like to call out to those people who want to do something different, and ask them, plead with them, to be creative, look for meaning and stories, and not just treat paddling like an addictive drug and end in itself. Aspire to more than making selfie films of stouts and freestyle tricks. The entire world of rivers and their scenic and cultural surroundings are out there, almost untapped. Your life’s goal can be finding a creative line using all your skills and all your mind.
By the way, I like inner tubes. Go look at the silly move called “Zoltan” about the Class V inner tuber – it’s hilarious, creative, and in its own funny upside down, satirical way, shows that inner tubing is every bit as intense as paddling, and without the pretense.
DBP: You live in the heart of one of the great whitewater regions, which begs us to ask one of our favorite interview questions here at DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE: it’s a perfect high water day, sun is shining, (we typically say “with any paddlers of your choice,” but we’ll leave that one out for you!) on any river in the world…. What River is it that you’re running? And may we venture to guess the North Fork of the Payette?
Doug: Actually, for sheer fun of paddling and clean romping water, the Lochsa river is one of the all time greats. Through the 1980s, I spent so much time there with my best friend, Monty Morevec, that it’s ingrained in me. Monty committed suicide in 1995, and it almost destroyed my paddling. I went through a deep depression for years. I’ve only been on the Lochsa twice since then, because it made me so sad to do it without him, and reminded me of his loss. He loved the river and his personality matched it perfectly – he was a great athlete, tough, a wonderful person, funny, creative, silly, playful, and at the same time deep and thoughtful. He was the whole package. We had great rollicking rides with the world rolling out in front of us. For me personally, our friendship was the heart and soul of that place.
In the years after he died, whenever I drove by early in the morning on the way to the SF Clearwater or NF Payette, before sunrise with fog on the river, I’d stop and write a private note to him on the board at the Fish Creek put in. Then I’d do a toast to him, drinking the clear creek water just as it went into the river. Nobody else would understand it but him, and it made me feel like he was still there. It was a private gesture of thanks for a great friendship and everything he meant to me.
So more than anything, I’d like another run on the Lochsa with Monty, like we used to do. A spring day with sun coming up over the mountains, light streaming through the big cedar trees, elk on the ridges and the water sparkling and flying, laughing and feeling the joy of a world opening up before us.
DBP: Doug, you’ve lived a full life both on and off The River, and accomplished so many goals in your personal paddling. Are there any big goals still left to tick off for you?
Doug: Well, goals change over time, but the priority list is enjoying my family, my wife and the great friendship we have, my children, and grandchildren who I teach to paddle, snowboard, and see the world as a fascinating place.
For personal projects: I am in the process of finishing five books I’ve been working on for many years. Those include the Stikine, the sequel to Whitewater Philosophy, a book on the “secret” to flow, a science fiction paddling story that will blow people’s minds, and a historical novel I’m writing with my wife that has the prospects of being a classic.
There are movies I want to finish, two which extend what I’ve learned from rivers to the adventure sports and creativity. I’ll soon publish a set of scientific articles that I’ve worked on for the last 30 years. The first two are almost ready to go. For paddling, I’d like to go back to the Stikine again with Charlie Munsey and Gerry Moffatt. It’s one of the most beautiful and dramatic places in the world, and a symbolic bond between the three of us. I’d like to paddle a couple of the Sierra classics that I never got to. Take my family down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. I never tire of paddling the local rivers around here with my kids and friends.
Beyond paddling, I’d like to wingsuit fly, big wave surf, do some big lines in Alaska on my snowboard, paraglide with my friends Will Gadd and Jim Grossman, scuba dive at the Great Barrier Reef, and paddle my SUP between the Hawaiian Islands. The world’s more fascinating every day.
DBP: Indeed, sir! Cheers!
Part I of this interview ran last Saturday.
Doug’s website, where you can purchase his books and films and much much more-