Lifestyle Wallace

ONE LOVE, ONE RIVER ~ The Paddling Community, Race, and Reconciliation. by Mike Toughill with Dale Guarniere & Javan Robinson

Cover:Chicago Mike guiding a trip at Kosir’s 

Before I was Editor-in-Chief of DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE, before I founded one of the most popular Facebook pages on whitewater, before the events and contests and giveaways, I was a river manager at Kosir’s Rapid Rafts in Wisconsin. The position there is a bit different than at some bigger outfits, more of a glorified trip leader rather than a shirt behind the counter. There was where I learned to be decisive, to be a leader, to set the tone and do what I thought was right. No fear, no delays, and no backing down. Decisions made on the river, particularly during a crisis, can’t wait. And I learned to own my choices. For better or worse, they were mine to make and mine to answer for.

Part of what made me good at my job was that I took that responsibility seriously, and I was confident but never cocksure. I also handled the tough decisions to the best of my ability; be it reprimanding a guide for a poor decision, or handling a drunk customer, or even a difficult neighbor, I tried to keep my cool yet stand my ground. Once, a drunk fisherman at our private put-in was screaming obscenities at my trip, which was full of kids, because we were crossing in front of his lines to get on the river. I got pretty fired up, and got about two inches from his nose on the shoreline to tell HIM to fuck off. Not my proudest moment, but a good lesson for me in keeping my cool in times of adversity… next time.

Being in charge here reminds me a lot of those days. Mostly it’s all fun and glory, just like rafting the Peshtigo, and everything is easy. Some days are big, like when we go up on the main stage at Gauley Fest, and it’s like those exciting high water spring runs all over again. And then there are the days when I make a decision on what content to run, and some of the responses are negative and strong. Days like that remind me of the fisherman…

One of the good (albeit cold) days on the Peshtigo…

Last weekend I ran what I believe is a very interesting story by DBP Admin Kelsey Gaffigan that discusses in detail outdoor adventure sports and inherent unintended racism. It’s something I’ve been considering for quite some time. Even before starting Dirt Bag Paddlers, my friends and I had a strong desire to bring people together. I love traveling around the globe, and I’m blessed with many friends from all different backgrounds, and many colors of skin. I’ve inwardly recoiled at the poor treatment I’ve witnessed them receive, and reflected back on the times when I had perpetuated similar behavior. So I vowed to do something about it. I’ve purposefully shown images and movies of all ethnicities out enjoying rivers, men and women, all ages, telling stories of these folks in the pages of this publication in order to give a framework for understanding where we ALL feel included. I’ve done this consciously to erase the lines that we inherited from previous generations, and to sow the seeds for a better tomorrow.

Now, I don’t think our paddling community is racist. Far from it, I consider us as a general rule of thumb to be very open and welcoming. I wouldn’t have so much love for us if I didn’t feel that way, that we are the good guys, the real hope for a brighter future for all humanity. I’m a dreamer, I know… But this is how I feel.

So I was definitely taken aback by the harsh assaults on Kelsey and on DBP for daring to discuss the topic of racism. I got lots of “keep Race out of paddling!” “No one cares!” “The only racists are the people who bring this crap up!” “Why are you making issues where there are none?” “You’re the ones making the divisions!” and worse… Much worse. I thought we were an open society within society. I found out that it’s not always the case. But, just as I did when I was a river manager, as a leader I take full responsibility for my decisions. And I went nose to nose for a moment with the fisherman. Not my finest hour, but I’m a man of passion. I repeat, I myself nor Kelsey in her article NEVER CALLED ANYONE A RACIST. Those that read that must acknowledge their own constructions. But I also never wanted to create a rift. We’ve got enough of that already in the world today.

    I would also like to note that Kelsey’s article was very American in its viewpoint. My European friends were somewhat taken aback by some of the pronouncements. I wanted to clarify that here. 

So in the spirit of reconciliation, I asked two very different DBP Admins to also speak on behalf of Dirt Bag Paddlers and about this topic. The first is Dale #danewho Guarniere, one of the original members who worked with me all those many years at Kosir’s. He was up on that stage at Gauley Fest and he was there that day with the fisherman nine years ago. He’s one of my oldest friends. The second is the newest of our nearly 200 admins from around the world, Javan Robinson. I’ve not met Javan in person yet, but he’s an avid kayaker whom I met during the raging Facebook debates over Kelsey’s article, and we share many of the same viewpoints, in particular on this topic. So I’ve invited him to join DBP, and to write a bit as a fellow boater who happens to be of color, about his personal experiences being welcomed into the community, and what he thought of Kelsey’s article and his impression of the comments both for and against. Befriending Javan was an unintended but direct consequence of running an article that drew so much ire; in making that decision I’ve been rewarded with another new brother.

Dale #danewho Guarniere

DALE: “This is a story that relates to one that I have told over and over again, the beginning of Dirt Bag Paddlers. Now I’m not here to retell the whole story all over again… I’ll simply refer to it. The man, the myth, the legend, Frankie Sade forced unity upon the raft companies in our local area of Northern Wisconsin, as well as everywhere he went; he “surfed” people together. The #OneLoveOneRiver Philosophy perfectly describes what he wanted DBP to be about.

Frank Sade

We now have a worldwide audience, and sometimes we find ourselves swimming in water that breeds controversy like amoeba,so it becomes more difficult to follow the philosophy Frank laid out for us. Naturally we split on ideas. This is not always a bad thing.

The reason we love this community is each of us, not just DBP, can express ourselves without judgment. But when all this happened over the subject of racism, the shout downs were so different because it’s never like that on the river. When the expressions are in anger (something I wish none of us would do), although the points may be good we rarely try to learn and comprehend what is actually being said by the other side. I myself am a huge violator of that last one, and it’s come to the point we all need to refocus our energy towards unity. In a divided world we do not need to divide our paddling community. This is one of the strongest groups I have ever been part of, more than my football and baseball teams (my wrestling team is not far off; a bunch of dudes that constantly touch are close friends). This community, especially my crew, is extremely tight. It doesn’t take anything more than a cam strap belt or the right sticker to find a friend to share a brew with in this community.

Rest easy, Frank

DBP finds itself in the middle of controversy again, and we love it. We want to be YOUR canvas to express your thoughts, but we need to be civil, once again myself included. (Trust me, Kelsey and I were at odds at one point.) We will continue to express our feelings and take in yours, but we will not let it divide us on the inside, or split us from our fans. What is freedom of speech if a friendly debate can’t occur? If we were in person would the anger come out the same way? So I say to myself, and I ask of us all: Try to write thoughtful, meaningful and most importantly be sincere.”

For One Love: Dale at work with fellow DBP founder Jason Flannery

JAVAN: “First off, I just want to thank Mike for allowing me to contribute to DBP. I’ve been following DBP for some time now and I really like what he’s done with the place. Thank you to Kelsey as well for writing such a thoughtful and informative piece bringing awareness to a subject that is so seldom talked about.


I’ve been paddling going on 2 years now and I’ve had a wonderful time doing so. Before I had weightlifting, hiking, swimming, videogames, yoga, etc. but whitewater is the activity I am drawn towards the most. I am a whitewater paddler and I love it.

Javan with the Keel Haulers 

The community and especially our club The Keel Haulers has been extremely helpful in me becoming a (somewhat) skilled and safe whitewater paddler. I was actually shocked how normal everyday people would take time out of their schedules to meet up with a person that they didn’t even know and teach them how to roll for weeks on end.

I wholeheartedly appreciate what the community has done for me and I love returning the favor, both to newcomers to this sport and experienced paddlers alike.


With that said, I think I would be remiss in saying that I didn’t take a look around and realize that there aren’t very many people that are like me – or that look like me, on the river. This is something that I’ve been accustomed to throughout my life however, so it did not come as a huge surprise to me that most paddlers were white men and women.


While I never did experience any discontent or negative attitudes towards myself while out on the river, I did wonder from time to time, “Will I ever see another black person paddling?” It’s not something that keeps me up at night, but I think there are positive, constructive discussions to be had about the issue.

In Kelsey’s article she talks about the number of black people being extremely disproportionate to their race. She brings up issues such as family lineage taking a liking to outdoor activities, subconscious racism and even the media. All of them have their merits, but I think the ones that resonate most with me are the media and institutionalized racism.
But instead of talking your ear off about how slavery only ended 150 years ago, how the 13th amendment still allows slavery in some form and how segregation ended just 50 short years ago and how still today some areas are HEAVILY segregated (Milwaukee!) – I will give my thoughts on the media.

I always love to quote the TED-style talk that Yara Shahidi gave earlier this year as she puts it perfectly: “Many shows consciously and unconsciously perpetuate stereotypes by creating characters or casting people based on what a few empowered individuals seem to deem as believable. So if a black man is always cast as the drug dealer (or basketball player) but rarely as the righteous successful businessman, the conclusion is that it is not believable for a man of color to be inherently good or successful or on the side of righteousness. Good, bad or indifferent, TV (the media) helps define our collective reality. And if a child grows up never seeing themselves representative as successful or the hero – then they are the anomaly if they succeed and the expectation if they fail.” In a nutshell, the media could do a much better job of representing people of color and other minorities.

If so, little Jakwonda and Trey might take a liking to completely new and different activities that they never would have thought about before. All because they see someone that looks like themselves on the TV or the radio doing it.

DBP Admin Javan Robinson

I’m not saying that it is impossible for a black person or a minority to become adept at a “white man’s” sport (look at me!), but making it easier, approachable and more accessible would go a long way. Whether that means putting a black person on the cover of a magazine more often, taking part in inner city programs to get many of the underprivileged youth out into an activity that they never would have tried, or purposefully selecting more African Americans for a job I’m not sure.

But I’m going to try and do my part to figure out what we CAN do, and it sounds like I’m not alone. The support of our paddling community has been amazing and I’m excited to talk and take ACTION with some of my close personal paddling buddies and amazing and thoughtful persons such as Mike whom I’ve had the pleasure of sharing thoughtful conversation with lately.

To those of you who disagree with these words and these sentiments, that’s okay. We are here to promote topical and engaging discussions for all parties involved. In response to Adam Piggott’s article HAVE YOU TAKEN THE KU KLUX KLAN RAFTING? and those who agree with his viewpoints, I’ll say this: The article was repugnant, vile, condescending, sexist, misogynistic and actually really hilarious. (The bit about cancelling the trip due to only 11.3% of black people was an absolute riot! – but that’s actually the only funny part; the rest was borderline racism).

I would assume that Adam is in the same camp of people that don’t believe that housing segregation, employment segregation and the like have any impact on a black person’s life whatsoever.

Granted, I am one that believes that one can achieve ANYTHING if they put their mind to it, but why should one have to work harder just because of the color of their skin or the place that they were brought up? I totally get that the world is not necessarily “fair”, but “in the land of the free”, why are women still underpaid? Why does William H Macy have to protest until Emmy Rossum is paid the same amount that he is? Why are members of my race being gunned down almost weekly by the persons that are sworn to protect and serve us? Why do we continue as a conscious and intelligent society to sweep these issues under the rug and trot on like everything is okay and tell people that we just need to “work harder” instead of making equal opportunities for everyone??? It’s bullshit!

Listen up Adam: The world is changing. I’m not sure if you heard, but the minorities are going up in percentage every single year. I would implore the common citizen, the media, businesses, etc. – to go out of their way to acknowledge and accept people of color and other minorities. In doing so we could get ahead of the curve and attract attention from these groups and be an active participant in their cultures and lives. Instead of them being marginalized, outcasted and thought to behave a certain way; what’s wrong with going out of your way to accept and welcome them with open arms?

In closing, I will say that I appreciate all of the comments that may come from these columns both positive and negative, and I look forward to working with Mike, Dale and other members of the paddling community to take ACTION on these issues and see what we can come up with. Peace and Be Wild.”

I can assure you that this Magazine will not become a pamphlet of Social Justice Warrior based themes. We aren’t here for that. We exist to share the collective stories of our global community, of the people who live to paddle whitewater.

But we will continue to be an instrument of change, in a positive and unassuming way. DBP has always depicted people of all colors and creeds doing what it is that we love. It’s a simple way to invite more folks on board. Expect no change.

I offer up complete reconciliation with all who have taken offense over the subject of racism. I never meant to offend you. And I will also stand up against that Fisherman with whom I don’t agree, but this time I’m not going to tell him I’m gonna punch him in the face. Like Dale asked, I’m going to be sincere.

One Love, One River – a term I first borrowed and adapted from another black man with dreadlocks named Bob Marley – where “One” signifies all. Love for all, and for all rivers everywhere. It’ll be nothing less for Dirt Bag Paddlers.

Mike Toughill



By Chicago Mike

Editor-in-Chief "Chicago" Mike Toughill is co-founder of Dirt Bag Paddlers and former Peshtigo River Manager at Kosir's Rapid Rafts in Wisconsin. He's been Wallacing since 2003.

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