Triumph and Tragedy

[Eds. note: This story appears in the December issue of Canoe & Kayak, available on newsstands now. The following version has been updated. Doug Ammons wished to add the following clarification as well: “Jeff West was the most powerful kayaker I’ve ever had the honor to paddle with. He also was one of the best people I’ve ever met. After my mishap about 30 percent of the way down the run, Jeff made sure I was okay and had a chopper evac, then he continued on and soloed the entire rest of the run, portaging twice (the upper half of Site Zed, and The Hole that Ate Chicago), reaching the takeout at the Tahltan confluence by nightfall. So he definitely was up for the challenge to solo the Stikine, because he basically had already soloed it in a day. He was an amazing guy, thoughtful, always humble and willing to help, a boyish enthusiasm joined with extraordinary strength and skill. I’ll miss him forever.”]

Ben Marr during the first descent of Site Zed. Photo by Evan Garcia.

Not since 1981, when a team of expedition paddlers first attempted the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, has North America’s benchmark whitewater river seen such triumph or such tragedy. The Stikine drains some 20,000 square miles of British Columbia wilderness through a narrow crack in the Coastal Range. This 45-mile cataract is the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, a series of massive Class V-VI rapids surrounded by inescapable, 1,000-foot vertical walls.

The stretch, typically run as a three-day, alpine-style self-support, has become a rite of passage for the world’s best expedition paddlers. Their names are legend: Lesser, Holbeck, Ammons, Lindgren, DeLaVergne. In 31 years, none of them attempted Site Zed, an extraordinarily long and complex rapid with three distinct river-wide holes. Says big-water specialist Austin Rathman, who swam above Site Zed in 2007: “It will change how you view yourself, the world and everyone in it.”

In late August, Ben Marr became the first paddler in history to notch a complete Stikine descent by running Site Zed. “The line was full of obstacles that could flip and push you to river-left,” says the 26-year-old Canadian. “It pops out at you, but takes a while to be confident with each move and each Plan B.” After clearing a series of diagonal waves to stay right of a nasty eddy he saw as the rapid’s primary hazard, Marr was ecstatic to paddle into an otherwise terrifying hole—exactly where he wanted to be. “I was pretty confident if I did get stuck in it, it would pop me out pretty quick, so I was almost celebrating before I hit that,” says Marr, who was engulfed and spit out upside down, only to roll up for the remaining run-out. “It was a great feeling just to make it there on line—I smashed into that thing and it was all good.”

For generations, the Stikine has smashed, humbled, and made paddlers in just that fashion, from John Wasson’s 1981 thrashing, which gave us Wasson’s Hole, to Bob McDougall’s near-death experience in 1989, about which he wrote an essay simply titled “Drowning,” to Taylor Robertson and Jay Kincaid’s harrowing high-water escape in 2000. The Stikine has given paddlers a taste its immeasurable power and mercifully, sometimes inexplicably, allowed them to pass. That, too, came to an end this season.

Jeff West, 42, was a highly skilled and experienced paddler. A fixture on Southeast whitewater, from its stoutest drops to daily instruction on its calmest stretches, West had twice made the finals of the U.S. Team Trials, and owned the Ace Kayaking School in Chattanooga, Tenn. He was well versed in the Stikine’s challenge, having completed a single-day descent with Todd Wells and Erik Boomer in 2010, and finishing the majority of an early September descent alone in a single day after his partner, Stikine pioneer Doug Ammons, swam on the first day and heli-evacuated out of the canyon. Immediately after that trip, West returned to the put-in to attempt a bold first: a solo, single-day descent of the river. He put on early in the morning of Sept. 11, 2012, and passed catarafter Mark Cramer at the Site Zed portage. When Cramer arrived at Camp Two, he reportedly found West’s body floating in the eddy.

“There are only a few features I could imagine that could do Jeff in on Day Two,” says Boomer, who has run the Stikine seven times and was himself contemplating a one-day solo descent this fall. Perhaps, he says, West’s tragic death comes down to bad luck.

No one who has paddled the river can discount its deadly potential. Ammons, who was the first to solo the river during a three-day descent in 1992, believes that is part of its appeal. “Nobody goes in there and comes out with a swagger, because the place makes it obvious that you’re so damn small,” he says. “I don’t know of any other river or set of experiences that comes close to what this place offers. It is the purest expedition run in the world.

West’s death leaves a void in the hearts of those who knew him. “I’m heartbroken,” says Boomer. “Jeff was a great friend and inspired my entire paddling career. He took me down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado when I was 16, and 10 years later we paddled the Stikine’s Grand Canyon together, which was one of the best trips of our lives. The entire paddling community is going to miss his amazing spirit.”  — Eugene Buchanan

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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