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THOMPSON: Remembering the Olympian who taught me how to kayak

March 30, 2020 - 12:03 PM

My first time whitewater kayaking was in the late 1970s in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. It was pretty ugly. You could inscribe on the head of a pin what I knew then about kayaking and whitewater…with room left over.

But like cowboys who ride a bull the first time…somehow I lived to tell about it. By the way, my whitewater story gets better every time I tell it. The truth is…I was athletic enough to survive despite doing almost everything wrong.

There was no finesse…and the river beat me up enough that a smarter man might have chosen another activity…perhaps chess. But the allure of shooting down a narrow gorge in cold water with five-foot drops and dangerous rocks…well, it’s hard to resist.

Still, for another decade I pursued whitewater kayaking the way some play golf. Never take a lesson…never watching someone really good…just having a miserable time losing golf balls. You know these golfers…they never break 100.

Whitewater kayaking looked so incredibly simple…what did I need to know? Hop in the water…let it carry you downstream…and in rapids paddle like hell. This logic is the same as golfers who swing hard just in case they hit the ball.

Then by happenstance…which is how some of the best things in life come to be…on a Summer day in 1989 I met someone who changed my life…kayaking wise. I was paddling on the Nantahala River near Bryson City, NC.

After completing a run of Class III rapids - considered intermediate in difficulty with no more than three-foot choppy waves - and spying a huge boulder near the shore, I entered an eddy to get out, rest and scout the more challenging rapids ahead.

A young fellow on the bank of the river was eating a snack. I pulled my kayak up beside his, said hello, and pulled some trail mix out of my dry bag.

“Sir, would you like to learn how to kayak the right way?”

I chuckled, and asked, “Am I that bad?”

He smiled broadly and said, “No, sir, but I could give you some tips…make it easier...more fun”

He was no more than 17 years old…slim but muscular. I might have blown him off, but there was something brutally honest and still engaging about him. His North Carolina mountain accent was respectful. So, I asked, “Like what?”

He told me I needed to push with one arm and pull with the other when I paddled. Pretty basic…but for ten years I had been pulling but not pushing.

“Try it,” he said, “And we’ll meet up there at the take out…see if it worked for ya.”

Half an hour later we were drinking Cokes at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. I told him that his advice made my paddling less strenuous and gave me more speed and control…and thanked him for the free advice. His name was Adam Clawson…and despite his age…he had already kayaked the Nantahala River for nine years.

“I know near ‘bout every rock in this river,” he said, then asked, “How long you here?”

“All Summer,” I answered. “Would you give me some lessons?”

That Summer I learned fundamentals and subtleties I’d never thought about. I paid Adam $20  for each lesson - about an hour - and saw him eight times over the next two months.

I would never be an Olympian, but I finally had the skills to make it fun rather than a matter of survival. Besides, I no longer felt like a fraud when talking with friends about whitewater. That summer’s experience inspired me to kayak other rivers nearby…the Oconee near Ducktown, TN - home to the Canoe Slalom events in the 1996 Olympics - and the Chatooga RIver, which snakes along the border of South Carolina and Georgia. The movie “Deliverance” was shot there.

But the two best rivers I ever kayaked are the Gauley River and New River in West Virginia.

Both rivers are among the top five whitewater rivers worldwide. The entire Gauley run is 24 miles…but only world-class kayakers attempt the full river in a day.

I did the Upper Gauley - a nearly ten-mile stretch - with ten Class IV and V rapids and a host of Class IIIs. If you don’t know how to Eskimo Roll…ferry…and a plethora of paddle strokes…you can’t even put your kayak in the water. Experts on hand test you if they think you’re bluffing.

Same goes for the New River…which ironically at 65 million years old…is the oldest river in North America. At the bottom of a 700-foot gorge, the New River seems more dangerous because the gorge is narrow and so deep a helicopter can’t evacuate injured kayakers.

I remember learning this only after making camp in Thurmond, WV on the river bank.

The camping alone was an experience. We - myself and three friends - arrived late one afternoon in August ready to start our adventure at 6:30 the next morning.

We barely pulled in to the river campground when a young man with an amazing resemblance to John Candy’s security guard character at Wally World in the movie “Vacation” ran up to the driver’s window…tapped several times on the glass…and simply said, “Whatever you do, do not throw rocks at the ducks.”

His head bobbing up and down, all four of us in the SUV started nodding our heads in unison…in agreement. It turned out he was the campground manager…a little disturbing…but not as scary as the toothless mountain man in “Deliverance”…a character played by Herbert “Cowboy” Coward…who is today a member of my brother’s church in North Carolina. But that’s another story.

There were two-person tents dotted along the riverbank. We chose two tents about ten feet apart, and off-loaded our gear. We ate and drank that night around an open campfire just 30 feet from the river.

As we were drinking after dinner, six men started making camp about 50 feet away from us…we said hello and offered a light from our campfire. They were on a religious retreat and would be rafting together down the river, one of them volunteered.

The next morning I discovered two things.

One: When you’re sleeping in a tent on a riverbank, your head, ass and ankles all end up puddled three feet apart at the lowest end of the tent.

Two: People on religious retreats get up early and are in an entirely too good of a mood.

Yes, at 5 A.M. we awakened to one of our neighbouring retreat campers singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Hey, don’t get me wrong, I like the musical “Oklahoma”…just not at 5 A.M.

I poked my head - conveniently near the tent flap along with my ass and ankles - out and stared at the guy singing. He finally noticed me…stopped singing and yelled, “Howdy, neighbour!” Surely, this was not a touring company of “Oklahoma.” I nodded, pulled my head back in and yelled to my friends…“Time to get up…the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

But even a slightly off-key serenade and too-early wake-up call could not spoil the time we had on the New River that day. None of us were trashed…and we only used a throw bag - a plastic bag with a line - once to help another kayaker struggling.

I no longer kayak whitewater. At 70 years old it seems more dangerous than golf or chess.

But looking back…it was loads of fun. I never would have enjoyed it as much if it hadn’t been for that kid Adam back on the Nantahala River in 1989.

About four years after taking lessons from Adam, I saw him on the Nantahala. He was no longer an unknown kid in the Smoky Mountains. At the 1991 World Championships in Yugoslavia, his canoe team won the gold medal and Adam won the individual silver medal…he wasn’t quite 19 years old.

Kayaker Adam Clawson is seen training for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, GA.
Kayaker Adam Clawson is seen training for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, GA.

He went to the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992…placing 21st kayaking and in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta at age 24…he almost won gold…ahead of all competitors in time but missing the final gate.

I had taken lessons from one of the greatest kayakers in the world. I thanked Adam every time I saw him over the years…realizing it was perhaps the best $160 I ever spent. As I was deciding on a topic for this column…I thought about Adam and sadly my research found that he died in 2017…at age 45.

I’m sure he is missed terribly by friends and family and fellow kayakers. When I think of him, I see this kid on the banks of the Nantahala River with a smile a mile wide…with some friendly advice. Thanks, again, Adam.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

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