Christopher Ketchum and Eric Konheim on the Green River, June 1988.
Credit: Photograph by Robert Morris
In June of 1991, Eric headed west the same as every summer to run new rivers. In the days before he left New York, he threw a party with a keg of beer iced in the bathtub of his crummy apartment. But he'd been too busy to telephone the invitations. Debora was in Oregon visiting her family, just a handful of people showed up, and Rob Morris was the only guest who stayed for long. Eric got drunk, and Rob listened as he talked. Near daybreak Eric broke down in tears, said he was afraid he'd never see Rob again, and threw his arms around his friend. "Uh, Eric," Rob said. "C'mon, you've gone on these trips a million times. You're not gonna die."

By the time he hit Oregon, Eric seemed in better spirits. For a few days he stayed with Debora. But when he told her goodbye, he took her in his arms, too, and whispered: "This is it. I think this is the one." Debora just thought it a joke and laughed and kissed him on the cheek.

From Portland he headed south, hitting Eugene and Springfield, where after years as a rogue on the water he finally took a class to qualify as a whitewater guide. The instructors concluded that Eric was among the best young boatmen they had seen, which so delighted him that he phoned his mother to tell her. Then he went to celebrate by surf kayaking the infamous waters of Coos Bay, on the Oregon coast. Two rivers run from the mountains into the bay, creating a havoc of currents and violent "sneaker waves," which come up silently, often from the opposite direction of the incoming swells a surf kayaker hopes to ride. Eric was eager to test himself against the bay's traps.

On June 12, 1991, at around 4 pm, Eric paddled in his T-Canyon, the same kayak we had carried with us on the Green, into the heavy-running 50-degree surf. He wore a helmet, whistle, shorts, synchilla shirt, and life jacket, but no dry suit. It was to have been a short run, over in time for dinner.

By late afternoon three other swimmers and boaters had drowned during what turned out to be one of Coos Bay's deadlier days. At 5 p.m., the T-Canyon was found rocking out beyond the breaks. That night divers in a helicopter search discovered Eric's body floating facedown 150 yards offshore. "Asphyxia by drowning, immersion hypothermia," read the medical report, noting that his core temperature was 73 degrees. His mother, Carolyn, has long speculated that a sneaker wave snapped his oar into his head and knocked him out; the autopsy found a large bruise on his forehead.

A few months ago, I sat with Carolyn, my father, and Rob Morris, who is now 42, the same age that Eric would be today, and we watched a film that Rob took of our trip with a Super 8 camera. The footage was raw and jumpy and without sound. Waves like coffee boiled up, burped, hit the lens. There was a shot of me looking pale, with Eric standing behind, watching downriver, tanned as a panther. Cut to a shot of our yellow waterproof cassette player (probably blaring the Dire Straits album Brothers in Arms). A heron walked the water and took wing. A wild horse, white, with silver mane, drinking. Cut to Eric in his kayak shattering through brown foam, the camera not keeping up. "He was such a good-looking guy," said Carolyn, with tears at seeing her son. She hadn't watched the film in 15 years.

I don't believe in God or an afterlife, but for a long while after his death I foolishly imagined Eric was watching to see what happened to the 15-year-old in these reels. In my 20s I wasted a lot of time, writing poetry that never got published, dead-ending in jobs that taught me little. I returned out west a lot, backpacking the canyonlands that Eric opened to me. Then I became a journalist and was, in a sense, saved: I found what Eric didn't.

Only recently did I realize that it is easier to replay old films of old roles than to face the fact that none of us who were close to Eric did a very good job watching him. At the time he died I think he knew his adventures were reaching some sort of endgame. Paula Rosenfeld, who calls Eric "my first love," who has recurring dreams of him being alive, says, "If it didn't happen that day, it would've happened some other day. I think unconsciously he was trying to kill himself his whole life. He wanted to be bold. He wanted to be strong. But he didn't want to look inside. I don't think Eric knew that he was already the person he was looking for." Perhaps in his emotional partings from Rob and Debora he was asking for somebody to pull him out of the water. If so, no one, not Rob, not Debora, not Paula, not his environmentalist mother, not his rich father, not his horrible little stepbrother whose leg he saved, did.

The last time I saw Eric, three weeks before he drowned, we sat on a stoop in Brooklyn and he told me we should do another river soon. It shocked me the way he said it: almost shyly, like I was an equal or friend. But I was still scared of him and ashamed of what had happened on the Green, so I shrugged and said, "Yeah, another river'd be good," and that was that.

I didn't understand how sincere the offer was until a few months ago. I was reading the letters written of him after his death, the flood of letters that came in from girlfriends and whitewater buddies and recycling obsessives. So many of the notes said the same thing: Eric was a romantic, he wanted beauty and order, and when these failed, as they must, there was disappointment and then rage. "That's when I most worried about him," his college friend, Alessia Ortolani, wrote. Oddly, there was something of our trip down the Green that had lived up to the ideal. "He told me several times," Alessia wrote, "how proud he was of his little brother, Chris, for being so brave the time he broke his leg."

Christopher Ketcham has written for 'Harper's' and 'GQ.' This is his first feature for 'Men's Journal.'