Adventure Kayaking Lifestyle Wallace


[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″]2015 ALL-WALLACE TEAM mate Malcolm Lee Smith[/vc_column]
[vc_column width=”1/2″]2016 ALL-WALLACE TEAM Captain Gage Forrest Laughton[/vc_column][/vc_row]

It’s a pleasure to speak with two of the world’s best young up-and-coming kayakers and their dads about what boating means to them and their families. Malcolm Lee Smith was elected a member of our 2015 ALL-WALLACE TEAM by our community, representing paddlers around the world who lived the #OneLoveOneRiver Philosophy of being totally dedicated to sharing the passion of whitewater boating with the world. Gage Forrest Laughton was named Captain of the 2016 ALL-WALLACE TEAM by popular vote. Amazing results for two ten-year-old kayakers!

DBP: It’s obvious that you’ve captured the imagination of boaters everywhere. Gage and Malcolm, what was it that got you interested in kayaking, and how old were you when you first started, and first hit whitewater? Lee (Gage’s dad) and Steve (Malcolm’s dad), what gave you both the confidence to take your boys out onto the river?

Gage: Dad had a bunch of kayaks in the barn from when he used to paddle years ago and I used to see him grab one out every now and again when our little river on the farm was in flood. I used to ask him to take me paddling but he said not before I could swim properly. When I turned 7, Dad took us on a trip down the Ohinemuir River and I loved it. It was an easy class 2 run and it was like a roller coaster on water.

Malcolm: Both my dad and my brother kayak. I was 4 when I first got into my brother’s slalom K1. I loved it immediately, and started learning to paddle right after. My home up in the mountains of western North Carolina is surrounded by whitewater. It’s great here because we’re close to the Nantahala Outdoor Center and the Ocoee. We have an awesome junior slalom team with amazing paddlers like Evy [Leibfarth]. She’s from the mountains too! My first river trip was on the Nantahala with my dad and our friend Gary. It was the best!!!

Lee: Before we tried whitewater, I took both Gage and my daughter Darcie on flatwater and taught them paddle strokes, basic boat control, and how to get out of a boat if capsized. Both became incredibly bored of flatwater very quickly so I knew it was time to step things up a little bit. As a past kayak instructor, I knew I had the knowledge and skills to take the kids to the next level but we still had some very nerve wracking moments along the way.

Steve: I was concerned about keeping my son safe on moving water, so I had to put a lot of thought into his gear, boat and where we would paddle. His mom helped with safety some in the beginning. Our friends Gary and Allen were great about becoming mentors to Malcolm, so he always paddled with a team of safety. Having an active local paddling club has also been integral. When it comes to paddling, Malcolm is usually leading his own progress. He’s driven, but hard headed sometimes. It can be challenging to coach him on technique and making choices on the river. He loves paddling and being out in the elements. He’s learned that slalom training has been really helpful on demanding whitewater.

DBP: Boys, there are many reasons that us Paddlers are drawn to whitewater – some for adventure, some for escape, some for other reasons – but for all it’s a true passion. What do you love most about kayaking?

Malcolm: It’s a blast, plus I get to be out there with my dad and our friends. I love getting on a new river, surfing a sweet wave, or just paddling every little part of my favorite rivers on a downriver trip. Whitewater rivers are always in beautiful spots too. And there is always something new I learn or discover, like I just got my handroll down on both sides with hand paddles and on my right with just my hands! I’m learning how to do stern pivots and flat spins too.

Gage: Traveling around the country, seeing and paddling new rivers and making new friends. Big wave train rapids are the most fun.

DBP: Dads, can you tell us about the obstacles you had to overcome to get your kids boating? Both within your families perhaps, and in the community? Was there any backlash?

Steve: In general, the community and our family have been super supportive the whole way. We live in a very active paddling area and community, so that has been great for Malcolm. As Malcolm gets bigger and better, it gets easier to outfit him, and people have become more comfortable about paddling with us. Gary and Allen are still our core rivertrip family. Team Dagger is always there for when Malcolm wants to step it up. My biggest obstacle now is keeping up with Malcolm!

Lee: As paddlers, we know and accept the dangers of being on the water, but when you start taking a 7 year old down grade 2 and 3 rapids, look out! The paddling community here in New Zealand and now the world thought it was amazing that Gage was out there doing it, but to much of the general public I was the bad guy who was putting his child at risk. Some comments even made me question if I was doing the right thing and if we should even carry on. But once the momentum of Team GFL grew, there was no way any of us were going to conform to the ideas of typical helicopter parents. I am just showing my children the start of a path to an amazing journey and lifestyle, it will be up to them as they get older to fully venture down it and I hope they do.

DBP: Malcolm, you’ve also been able to share your love of whitewater with some of your friends, especially in connection with your travels to Mexico. Can you and your dad tell us about what that’s meant to you?

Malcolm: I wish we were on a trip now!!! But I broke my wrist at a dirt bike race this winter, and my cast has only been off for a few weeks. I love adventuring with Dad and Gary!!! Mexico was awesome, beautiful and warm. I loved being in the jungles, paddling waterfalls, and seeing monarch butterflies. There were a few times while we were driving that I got a little nervous. I hated to leave but was happy to see home when I got back.

Steve: Malcolm really matured as a paddler and as a person on that trip. Mexico has always been a special country for me, with a wonderful culture, history and climate. Malcolm got to see a lot of amazing wildlife, jungle habitats, and ancient ruins. It was great for him to be able to paddle with a local paddling club. He even got to participate in a club race and got second place! I think that he got to see that paddling is a universal language and culture.

DBP: Gage, you’ve been given some very special recognition in your home country of New Zealand, in particular being sited by your local government official, and being invited to open the local whitewater park, Vector Wero. Can you and your dad tell us what that was like?

Gage: Every three weeks at school we have an assembly to give out awards to students who have done well. On that particular Friday, the school had been sent a large letter addressed to me. It was a letter from Winston Peters, leader of the NZ First political party and a member of the NZ Parliament, congratulating me on my kayak achievements. He even congratulated and mentioned me when Parliament was in session. Being invited to take part in the opening of Vector Wero Whitewater Park was a real buzz too. I got to paddle with some real good kayakers and I got to meet Ian Ferguson, who won 4 Olympic gold medals and 1 silver for New Zealand in men’s k1, k2 and k4 kayaking.

GFL and Mr Ferguson

Lee: To find out that Gage’s achievements were brought up in Parliament was a huge proud dad moment and then a few months later to be contacted by Vector Wero and have them invite Gage to take part in the opening ceremony was another. Before Gage was allowed to take part in the ceremony though, he had to be assessed on the course itself. It was a pretty basic test and he would have to roll at least 2 times out of 3 attempts on grade 2 water, plus show other basic skills on the man made river. Thing was, Gage was having trouble rolling his Remix due to not being able to reach over the high bow enough to properly get into roll position. The night before the assessment, I didn’t want to risk Gage failing so I told Darcie that she was losing her slalom boat and that her brother was now gonna use it. After much debate and protest, Gage and I were up till midnight altering and glueing new foam into the seat and hip area to get him fitting snug. The next day we arrived at Wero and I’m not sure who was more nervous, Gage or myself. This was the first time he had ever paddled the Vadja and even though I was a nervous mess watching from a distance, Gage never faltered. Three Wero instructors put him through all the tests and he nailed his rolls. After that the rest of the assessment was a breeze. Four days later Gage got to paddle in front of New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.

DBP: Malcolm, you really had a special year in 2016, topped off by running the Class V Upper Gauley River, a West Virginia classic. Steve, what were your feelings going into that big weekend, and seeing your son at the takeout?

Steve: I was very thankful that Malcolm got to paddle the Upper Gauley surrounded by Chris Gragtmans, Brad McMillan and Team Dagger. I was nervous and knew that my wife was anxious at home. But Chris and Brad took awesome care of Malcolm, and Malcolm did great! He loves the Gauley, it is one of his favorite rides.

DBP: Gage, you also had an amazing 2016. I think the highlight for your father was when you beat him on the slalom course! Lee, describe your emotions at that seminal moment.

Lee: Hahahah! We had entered the Wairoa River Slalom in the “creek boat” section as we didn’t have our slalom boats with us on that particular trip. To my surprise, there were a total of 18 boaters entered in this category, but no matter your age we all had to race against each other. Gage was by far the youngest in this competition and I told him at the start, don’t worry about where you finish, we are only here to get more paddling experience. I went first and wasn’t having a bad run until I flipped going for an upstream gate. I was pushed up against a wall and was unable to roll up and you guessed it, Wallaced! Both of Gage’s runs went well down the grade 2-3 course, as did my second run. What I didn’t know until the end of the day was that this slalom was based on both times combined and since I had a DNF in the first run, I was out. Gage had beat me for the first time and if that wasn’t enough, Gage finished 3rd overall. I was absolutely as thrilled as he was, as we only entered to give Gage a little more experience. It was a long drive home as I was constantly reminded of my swim. Hah!

Darcie on any given paddle trip carrying 3 cameras, 2 tripods and a video camera.

DBP: Lee, the Laughtons are a true family affair, both on the river paddling together, and behind the scenes putting together his photos and videos. Your daughter Darcie is key behind the lens. Can you all tell us a bit about how that works?

Gage: I would like to thank Darcie for giving up some of her paddling to film me. She takes care of everything and all I have to do is paddle.

Lee: Darcie has become Gage’s main photographer and she has been doing this since his popularity first kicked off. In the beginning I had to ask her to jump out of her boat and stand on the river bank as I still needed to be on the river for Gage. Over the last 3 years Darcie has got better and better at organizing the cameras, whether they are on the river bank or setting up the GoPro’s on helmets or kayaks. Three years ago I had no idea we would need so much camera gear to go paddling. Darcie is like a kid at a candy store when we are anywhere near a camera shop. Darcie’s latest wish is that we get a drone and I do have to agree with her, but that might have to wait for a little longer yet. Darcie is currently taking all the subjects required at high school so she can join the NZ police force in 3 years but is also interested in bettering her photography skills.

Darcie: Before I became Soggy Bottom Productions photographer I had a fascination with cameras and what moments you could capture with them. When Gage became big for kayaking I realised I had the chance to put my photography skills to the test. I enjoy filming and capturing photos of Gage on the river and the self satisfaction in knowing that my pics of my little brother are seen around the world.

Tellico River. Photo- Nell Rose Steed

DBP: Boys, what are your favorite boats and paddles? Dads, what challenges did you have in getting gear that fit your kids?

Malcolm: Dagger’s Axiom 6.9 is the best all around boat ever! Jim Snyder and RivrStyx makes the most amazing and beautiful custom wooden paddles!!!

Steve: The hardest thing is finding gear that fits Malcolm. Usually it’s too big. Like right now, Malcolm is still growing into his PFD and spray skirt. The Axiom has been a great boat for him. At first it was a little big, but that worked because it provided more stability and buoyancy for him. As Malcolm grew into the boat, his ability improved and now he can almost boss that thing around. Jim has been invaluable as a paddle maker. He talks to Malcolm, watched him paddle and then adjusts the paddle to Malcolm’s size and strength.
Gage: I love my Liquid Logic Remix and Core paddle which were given to me by Michael Burgin and Top Catch Whangarei. I also love my Vadja 360m slalom boat.

Lee: We didn’t have too much trouble in this area as Gage has always been very big for his age. In Gage’s first boat I had to drill new holes and move the foot bar back. When Top Catch Whangarei sponsored Gage the LL Remix, I moved the foot bar back and added 4 inches of foam to each pedal. Gage has now grown into the boat and it fits perfectly. Dry tops were more an issue for us but not because we couldn’t find any to fit, but more that Gage was growing so quickly. I avoided spending big money on something I was gonna have to replace every 6 months. We decided to go back to old school kayaking ways and we went to see Darren Shields at Wettie Wetsuits and Spear Diving. Darren set us up with .5mm and 1mm wetsuit tops that stretched and allowed Gage more room to grow before needing another top and these were a third of the cost of a dry top.

Malcolm on the Upper Nantahala. Photo- Adam Arrington

DBP: Malcolm and Gage, you young fellas are fast becoming heroes to us all! Trust me there are plenty of old-timers watching you kids and getting inspired because you’re doing things at such a young age that so many people would never dream of trying, like sending waterfalls (Gage) and paddling Class V (Malcolm). Who are your heroes?

Malcolm: Everyone out there paddling is my hero! I definitely look up to everyone on Team Dagger and everyone I paddle slalom with. Also, everyone who’s fetched me out of the river when I swim is my hero too, and I’ve swam plenty (big smile). And I love old-timer paddlers, they are the best heroes everrr!!!. I love hearing stories about Jim and Jeff [Snyder’s] crazy boating adventures, or listening to my Dad, Gary and Allen talk. It’s great kayaking with kids of all ages. The older kids are always looking out for me, making sure I’m good, like Evy, Seu and Micaja, Jeremy, Jacob, Devon and Sierra. We’re all always having a blast when we paddle together.

Gage: I have a few but Rafa Ortiz once sent me a message and commented on my Facebook page and that was so cool.

DBP: This is always one of my favorite questions…Boys, given unlimited resources, who would your paddling partners be and what river would you run on your dream trip?

Gage: If I could organise a paddle trip I would invite Dale Guarniere, Paul Teasdale, and Ollie El-Gamel and we would paddle the Grand Canyon. Dad just said we will need Mike Toughill and Amy Van Eerden to raft down as well and carry the supplies.
Malcolm: It was so fun paddling the Upper Gauley with my Dagger family and my Dad! It would be amazing to paddle with everyone, like everyone I know that paddles, all together on the river. I would really like to paddle the Zambezi in Africa. Wouldn’t that be cool, for us to all paddle the Zambezi together? Yeah, even with Gage and his people? Now that would be rad!!! Let’s go Gage!!!

Columbus, GA. Photo- Damien Esteban

DBP: Malcolm, it IS amazing to paddle with all your buds! I’ve been blessed to have days like that… We have a saying at Dirt Bag Paddlers that applies to everything we do- “Flow Together, Grow Together.” Lee and Steve, it’s always great to give a shout to the folks who got you where you are today. Let’s hear about those special people and companies please!
Steve: Gary Studwell, Allen Mayers- thank you for being family on and off the river! Chris Gragtmans, Brad McMillan, Snowy, Adrienne Levknecht, Anna Levesque, Isaac Hull and Team Dagger- thank you for taking us to the next level. Dagger’s Axiom 6.9 is a great boat. As Malcolm grows into it, he learns new ways to ride it. Then an old river is like a new river all over again! Jim and Jeff Snyder- always showing us what next level is while reminding Malcolm to be safe, have fun and love the rivers!!! Jim makes the best paddles, I love the fact that he hand makes them out of wood and that they sparkle. Evy Leibfarth, Lee, Seu and Joe Jacobi, Sam and Avery Davis, Micajah McCurry and Team NRC- go slalom! Patrick Kessler- thank you for hosting pool sessions in Franklin, NC and for taking care of my bones! Damien Esteban- from Cowee, NC to Columbus, GA!!!

Lee: The last three years have been an amazing journey and it all started when Emma Drudge of Rapid Magazine posted a pic of Gage back in January of 2014. Our biggest shout out goes to Michael Burgin of Top Catch Whangarei, if it wasn’t for the generosity of this man, Gage would not have got the great head start into this wonderful sport he so needed. A huge thank you to Avril and Joe Walker, who live in the heart of our main paddling region and kindly allow us to stay with them whenever we are in the area. Dirt Bag Paddlers has been the backbone of promoting Gage worldwide and I would like to make special thanks to Mike Toughill, Dale #danewho Guarniere, Paul Teasdale, and Chris Macdonald. I would also like to thank all those who follow and support Gage on Facebook. From what he just told me, he has almost reached the 300 mark. Thank you to Alan Williams who has also been a huge promoter of Gage and posts him up on so many media pages.

Lee and Gage

DBP: Well, thanks Lee and Gage for the props, you guys are the best! Thanks so much to both the Smith and Laughton families for your time! Last question- what’s in store for 2017 for GFL and MLS?

Gage: I am hoping to be allowed to paddle in the 2017 NZ Secondary School Slalom Champs in April. The minimum age allowed is 13 but Dad is trying to see if I can be entered and race in the under 14 age group. One of my others hopes was to paddle the Kaituna River and today I got to do that with {DBP admin} Amy Van Eerden.

Lee: Yes, Gage has gone one step further than me again, running the mighty Kaituna river with Amy. He took a bit of a Wallacing and is currently sporting a lovely black eye, a grazed up face and a huge bruise on his right shoulder but loved the run and wanted to do a second lap- but we had to get home. Funny story, a young 20 year old paddler came up to Gage, and she said, “you’re the famous little paddler I see everywhere!” Gage’s reply was “well I paddle.”

Malcolm: I don’t really know what’s in store. There are things I would like to do, but my parents are like “not yet, let’s wait on that a couple of more years.” You know, if I ask about Cascades, or the Green. The Nantahala, Pigeon and the Ocoee are always a blast. I would love to paddle more of the Tellico, the Cheoah and maybe even the Chattooga. Really, there are so many creeks and rivers here that I can’t name them all. Columbus GA is always fun, but hot!!! I definitely want to develop some freestyle skills, and I would love to start some C1. I’ve also started learning some about aviation, so we’ll see if any of that affects my paddling. Thank you DBP!!! Happy New Year and Happy adventuring in 2017!!!



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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