Editors note: We bring you a story from Cavan Williams of the first Duo attempt at Metlako Falls back in 2011. It is an interesting story, and puts the recent riverboard descent by DBP Admin Mike McVey into perspective!
Wearing a blue drysuit, black helmet and yellow life jacket, Sam Freihoffer sat in his kayak. His
eyes squinted, half open. Cool and collected. For now.
The only audible sound was the roar of crashing water.
In front of him the green pool he sat in gained speed. Rushing over a lip, falling 82 vertical feet.
Its called Metlako Falls.
It’s not the first waterfall Freihoffer has paddled over. But it was still a first. Not just a first to him, or to the state or even the country though. It was to be the world’s first.
Directly behind Freihoffer is his friend and fellow paddler, Todd Wells. They are in the same
boat, a tandem. Metlako is the highest waterfall anyone has ever attempted in a tandem kayak.
As they paddled towards the abyss beyond the lip, Freihoffer’s half open eyes focused on the drop only feet in front of him. Nothing else.
At the bottom of the falls waited their fate. There was only one positive outcome out of a
handful. They could either succeed, fail, be injured or die.
Sam Freihoffer has been in the hull of a kayak since he was 8. By 12 he was already paddling
Class III rivers near his home of Lyme, New Hampshire. His passion and talent for navigating
rivers set the tone for a future that would revolve around whitewater. At 14, he took his talents to the World Class Kayaking Academy in Washington.
At the academy Freihoffer gained a formal education while developing his exceptional whitewater skills, surrounded by other athletes.
In his first year, he traveled to Canada to paddle the Ottawa River in Ontario. When he turned
16, the following year, he traveled with the academy to Zambia to paddle the legendary Zambezi Rver, then to Uganda where he paddled more class V rapids on the Nile.
Metlako Falls is straightforward, not requiring the technical skill African rivers demand. But
anything can go wrong during a freefall. If the boat lands flat paddlers can break vertebrae. If
they lose their balance they could land upside down on their heads.
Earlier that year world class kayaker Tyler Bradt crushed his L1 vertebrae after landing flat off of
a 100 foot drop in Oregon. Another paddler named Jesse Coombs suffered a collapsed lung off
the same drop.
Drops like Metalko come with risks. But those risks are the very thing that attract the best
kayakers in the first place.
“Oh man it was scary, definitely a dangerous idea,” Freihoffer said.
In Africa Freihoffer braved drowning in Class V whitewater alongside killer hippos and
But as he stood on the trail in Oregon, the tandem kayak by his side, looking across the canyon
at Metlako Falls, he was scared. He drank a few beers beforehand. Liquid courage.
Dark green moss clings to the trees along Eagle Creek in Oregon. Ferns and evergreens
surround the bank. Steep slick cliff walls surround the water.
The March weather left a chill in the air and in the water.
The whole area looks straight out of Jurassic Park. Individual rays of light find their way through
the dense canopy of the Pacific Northwest rainforest and the only sound is the falls.
Freihoffer’s slight, muscular frame packed the kayak further up the trail, past the falls, up to a
giant pool of deep green water, surrounded by high smooth cliff walls covered in moss. Above
the pool is another falls, Punchbowl Falls.
Eyes half open, he joked about the drop, trying to calm his nerves and hide his own anxieties about the drop. As he put the boat in the water, however, reality set in and he thought about worse case scenarios.
“Once you’re at the lip waiting at the top, that’s when you get scared,” he said.
He wished the trip was planned better, or even planned at all. A world record attempt usually
takes months or years of planning. Freihoffer dreamed up his attempt the night before.
According to friends, thinking ahead may not be Freihoffer’s greatest strength.
Once, while attending the weekly ski races in Missoula, Montana, he ate mushrooms and
disappeared into the trees, just to enjoy the woods. After the races finished he found his way out
of the woods and sidled up to the bar next to his astonished friends. No one knew where he was
and his friends informed him ski patrol had been looking for him for almost an hour. He owed all
the patrollers looking for him a drink.
The waterfall drop was just as half cocked.
Metlako was thought of over beers the night before at Well’s house in Trout Lake, Washington.
Immediately they ran into their first hurdle. Neither of them owned a tandem boat. They would
have to borrow one.
The Eskimo brand Topo Duo kayak, was almost 20 years old, but it would have to do. When they inspected it further, though, they found the boat had already taken a beating. Stress marks showed the hard plastic boat was already folded in half once and it had lost rigidity in the center.
Freihoffer and Wells shoved floatation bags in the center of the boat in hopes to stabilize the
boat. It was a vain attempt that gave them little piece of mind.
There was also an issue with the two’s spray skirts, the neoprene apron around their waists that
attached over the cockpit holes to prevent water from getting in the boat.
The cockpits in the tandem were much smaller than either kayaker’s individual boat. The spray skirts hung from the edges of the cockpit loosely. They wouldn’t provide much protection from the water. The poor functioning spray skirt in this situation was as useful as a broken seat belt in a head on collision. Except if the passenger is flung from this vehicle it instantly fills with gallons of water.
Back in the pool above the falls, Freihoffer and Wells get in the boat for the first time. In fact, as they eased the boat into the calm pool it was the first time either paddler ever sat in a tandem kayak.
Paddling seemed simple at first, the two boaters found a rhythm and were able to propel through the water and steer. Rolling the boat was a different story though.
One of kayaking’s most important skills is rolling the boat back up when it flips over. There are
two primary methods of rolling a boat over. First is using a paddle sweep followed by a hip snap
to right yourself. A more advanced, but equally important technique is the hand roll for
circumstances when you lose your paddle, or when going over a waterfall.
On high waterfall drops it’s common to throw your paddle, because the force of hitting the water can either break the paddle, or slam it into your face. That made the more difficult hand roll the only sane option. Should they survive the fall itself.
The duo got the paddle roll down quickly, but no matter how hard they tried they couldn’t
synchronise a tandem hand roll. Stuck upside down and underwater they had to pull their spray
skirts and swim out of the boat.
In the gentle pool with no current this was not a big deal. But at the bottom of Metlako, where the
current gained speed by free falling for 82 feet, swimming was a bad idea. The churning water
at the bottom made swimming difficult. The water’s movement highly oxygenates the water,
which gives a swimmer less tension to grab when they are trying to swim. Like trying to swim
through the air.
“That wasn’t a very confidence inspiring exercise,” he said.
Freihoffer decided to risk keeping his paddle during the fall.
Freihoffer and Wells egged each other on during the entire 2 mile hike up, joking, poking fun and
psyching themselves up for the drop. But it it wasn’t funny anymore.
Freihoffer’s been scared before. Learning to roll a kayak is one of the scariest things you can do, he said. But this was a whole new fear. The fear of a half-assed plan to break a world record off of an 82-foot waterfall, in a type of boat neither had ever even sat in before, which was
structurally unsound, in spray skirts too large to fit tightly over the cockpit. And they couldn’t
even roll it proper.
Freihoffer, in the front, reached behind him and slapped low five with Wells. Even through all the
fear and apprehension, he kept the same laid back stoned-like appearance, eyes half open.
They started paddling. As they crested the lip of the falls, spectators — colored dots along the shore — waited and watched. Among them was Steve Fisher, the pro kayaker and legend, owner of
the world’s highest waterfall drop in a tandem kayak.
Fisher had been scouting the falls, planning to break his own tandem record. According to Freihoffer he was a little annoyed by the half assed attempt beating him to the punch.
The two tucked their paddles as the boat went vertical. Falling freely with the river, their
stomachs in their throats and adrenaline coursing through every vein in their bodies.The fall lasted over two seconds, which felt like an eternity.
The free fall ended in an explosive impact for Freihoffer, whose loose spray skirt immediately
comes off as he is thrown from the boat into the 40 degree water.
“It was like being in a washing machine,” he said.
On his way out he was hit in the head, but he still doesn’t know by what, and he is forced
underneath the tumultuous water.
He’s held underwater by the power of the falls, but only for a few seconds. It was one of the
hardest impacts of his life.
“I was pretty stoked I wasn’t hurt.”
Meanwhile Wells managed to stay in the boat and paddle rolled himself up for a breath. It was one of the softest landings he’d ever felt.
After Wells gets the boat to shore, Freihoffer is standing on the rocks. The falls rage on in the
background as Freihoffer raises his arms in victory and screams, then starts laughing.
The mission is a failure, however. To earn the record both kayakers needed to stay in.
It doesn’t matter, though. Earning the record was never the driving force behind the day.
“It wasn’t a serious attempt, we just thought it would be kinda cool,” Freihoffer said.
The next year Fisher would attempt the same drop with Jackass star, Bam Margera. With proper planning, a support crew and a kayak that wasn’t ever bent in half, they still don’t make the
record, — Margera is flung from the kayak upon impact.
With a slight personal satisfaction, Freihoffer is glad Fisher failed as well.
He looks back on the trip as a strange mix between conquering his own fears, but not at the
extent of pushing the limits of his skills.
“You might have to know you’re not going to die,” he said. “Which takes a certain amount of
Coming so close to a world record still doesn’t bother him either. The day, or kayaking itself,
isn’t about gaining records, or notoriety. Instead he focuses on the beautiful landscape he was
fortunate enough to see and the daunting force of nature Metalko is.
“That place is like a whole nother world coming from New Hampshire, a majestic fairy-tale kind of place,” he said.
“But I wouldn’t do it again.”
He still pushes his kayaking to new levels. He claims first descents on un-paddled creeks in
Montana and he is now the driving force behind introducing the sport to new boaters in Missoula. He offers free lessons on Tuesday evening during the summer and provides gear for anyone getting into a boat for their first time. And he does it all with eyes half open.