Remembering Whitewater Kayaking Legend Roger Paris

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Roger Paris. Photo courtesy Colorado Rocky Mountain School

Roger Paris could be the most influential figure in the history of North American whitewater paddling. When Paris traveled from his native France to Colorado’s Salida race (today’s FIBArk race and festival) in 1953, he brought with him the paddling acumen of a continent, and American kayaking was never the same.

Roger Paris (French pronunciation RO-zhe PAIR-ee) learned to paddle by threading a rapid of Nazi-bombed bridge debris on the Loire River near his childhood home. It was respite from a world at war, “It was freedom,” Paris later explained. He began competing in two-man decked canoe (C-2) with partner, Claude Neveu, as a teenager. The duo won the French national championship in 1948, when Paris was just 19 years old. By ’51 they were world champions.

When Paris made his debut at the Salida race, he traded his decked canoe for an unfamiliar kayak, and still finished third, earning enough prize money to tour the Rockies. The region made an impression, and he would soon emigrate there. By 1958, Paris was a familiar favorite at Salida, but competition was stiffening, so he eschewed his wooden-framed folboat that year to borrow a sleek fiberglass design from Californian Tom Telefson. The race wasn’t even close. Within the decade, nearly every serious paddler in America used a fiberglass boat, ending the era of wooden kayaks.

Roger Paris kayaking
Roger Paris kayaking. Photo courtesy Colorado Rocky Mountain School

His lean, chiseled physique and distinctive French accent gained iconic status in the nascent whitewater culture of the West. In 1964 he made a first descent of California’s Kings Canyon along with paddling pioneers Maynard Munger and Bryce Whitmore. That same year, German immigrant Walter Kirschbaum (for whom Kirschbaum Rapid on Colorado’s Gore Canyon is named) invited Paris to help with instruction at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School near Aspen.

Roger and his wife, Jackie (also an influential paddler of the era), were teachers at CRMS for the next 16 years, introducing hundreds to the sport of whitewater kayaking, among other adventure pursuits. He later coached with the USA national team, and ran his Roger Paris Kayak School from the banks of Colorado’s Crystal River. During the ’70s this was THE place to learn whitewater technique, and his list of proteges reads like an all-star collection of paddling heavyweights; Eric Evans, Rich Weiss, and Linda Harrison were all national champions, the Wiley sisters, Jennie Goldberg, and Andy Corra all expanded the river running universe through clubs, events, and further instruction. There were many, many others who shared a trip with Paris while he guided on the Salmon and Green rivers with Hatch Expeditions. Roger’s tree of paddling influence is definitely old-growth, still expanding and nurturing far beyond its roots from over a half-century ago.

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Jackie and Roger Paris at a kayak race in 1974. Photo courtesy Colorado Rocky Mountain School

Although his river exploits left the greatest impact, Paris was an all around outdoor athlete his entire life. He climbed peaks of the Alps and the Rockies, taught Nordic skiing, and instructed downhill at several of Colorado’s biggest resorts. I once met Paris as he returned from a week of solo hiking in Utah’s Canyonlands. Wiry and tanned, he paddled upstream against the sluggish brown water of the Green River, pausing to explain how his contrary approach wasn’t work at all, but “very interesting” when compared to going with the flow. It is a credo he lived. In an era when a two-car garage and a pension was the penultimate American dream, Paris made a life from the mountains, showing us the line through the rapids of life.

MORE C&K CHAPTERS IN PADDLING HISTORY FROM TYLER WILLIAMS:

Doug Tompkins: Life and Legacy

The Triple Crown: Three Rivers and Three Men that Changed Kayaking forever

The Secret History of the Green River

Legends of Rafting

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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