Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Idaho kayaker honored by peers

Six inducted into new whitewater hall of fame

Express Staff Writer

Rob Lesser

Idaho kayaker Rob Lesser, a pioneer of big-water expedition paddling, has been named to a newly created Whitewater Hall of Fame.

The new institution is part of a complex under construction in western Maryland called Adventure Sports Center International. It is being built adjacent to the Wisp ski area, and will include whitewater slalom and freestyle venues, mountain biking trails and an adventure sports museum.

"I thought my storage garage with its 60-plus boats was going to become the museum for whitewater, but I didn't act quickly enough, I guess," Lesser, 60, said jokingly during a phone interview from his Boise home.

Collected over his 36 years of kayaking, those boats cover the changes in design and technology the sport has undergone since its infancy.

When Lesser learned to kayak in 1969 on the Blackfoot River in Montana, he and a friend had to teach themselves—there was no one else around who knew how. But before long, he, more than any other American paddler, was pushing the sport's boundaries, with first descents on rivers in Idaho, Canada, Alaska and elsewhere.

The inaugural inductions into the hall of fame were made in four categories—Pioneer, Explorer, Champion and Advocate. Though Lesser was indeed a pioneer of the sport, his forte has been as an explorer, and the sports center's 40 judges recognized him as such. To most Idaho paddlers, the selection should have been an easy one—indeed, the choice of anyone else for that category would have been deemed a travesty.

Lesser is perhaps best known for his participation in 1981 in the first descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River in British Columbia. A big-volume river flowing through a narrow, vertical-walled gash in the earth, it is widely considered the most demanding big-water run in the Western Hemisphere.

Spending most of the 1970s working as a park ranger in Denali National Park, in Alaska, Lesser pioneered descents on many of the state's wilderness rivers, usually flying in by float plane.

He was also among the group that first probed the difficult stretches of the now-famous North Fork of the Payette River in Idaho in 1977. With legendary rock climbers Yvon Chounard and Doug Tomkins, he did the first descent of the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River in Wyoming in 1984.

Also that year, he participated in the first successful descent of the Braldu River in Pakistan. Flowing through the Karakorum Range, the river drains Mount K2, the world's second highest peak.

For someone whose life has been directed by whitewater boating, his introduction to the sport began almost by accident. One day in April of 1969, a friend of his, who was a climber and constantly in search of new adventures, got a hold of two fiberglass kayaks and talked Lesser into accompanying him on a trip down the Blackfoot River.

"I had no intention at all of learning to kayak," he said. "But as soon as I got into the boat and felt the freedom of moving around on the river, it just went straight to my core. I was totally hooked by the time I got off.

"Immediately I saw that this was a tool for exploration. That's what turns me on about kayaking to this day—being out there on your own. We have the ability and the knowledge to take ourselves to beautiful, natural places and to experience them in a way that no other people can."

Lesser's immersion in what was then a new sport also brought him a livelihood. He became the foremost whitewater photographer in the United States, wrote articles for whitewater magazines and spent 16 years as a sales rep for Perception kayaks.

Looking back on all that, he acknowledges that such an unconventional lifestyle has demanded sacrifices. Though he said he never had a strong desire to have a family, he knows he's missed out by not having a solid romantic relationship while he was traipsing around the globe looking for the next great river.

"I do feed off having my freedom, though," he said. "I think I've probably followed my inner soul in that regard. Being in the outdoors ranks very high."

Lesser said he also cherishes the worldwide group of friends the sport has brought him—those who live in the remote corners he's visited, and those who show up on his doorstep when they come to paddle in Idaho.

Of all his whitewater accomplishments, he said, he has no doubt that his descents of the Stikine mark the high point.

"It's the most complex," he said. "It was obviously a step above the other rivers that had been considered."

His first view of the river was in 1977 when he chartered a plane to fly over it while on his way to Alaska to paddle the Susitna, another big-volume run.

"It looked absolutely outlandish," he said. "I just pretty much wrote the Stikine off, but after I ran the Susitna and the Alsek, I started to think about it again."

By 1981, he said, he had decided that at a lower flow than what he had seen it at, the river was doable.

The first descent was supported by a helicopter hired by ABC television to help with a film of the run for its American Sportsman program. Ferrying stuff around and providing a fantastic way to scout rapids, the helicopter was a nice luxury for the boaters. The drawback became apparent when the TV crew suddenly proclaimed they had enough film and were leaving—before the kayakers had completed the river. At that point, Lesser said, their gear was spread all over and it was impractical for them to continue on their own. But he and others returned in 1985 to complete the first descent.

"We solved the problem there," he said. "We solved the puzzle."

That challenge, he said, has been the main motivation behind his first descents.

"I like a more and more complex puzzle. I'm not out there to scare myself."

Yet, long after he solved the puzzle on it, he continues to run a river in his own backyard that ranks as one of his favorites anywhere—the North Fork of the Payette. That river, he said, has been a training ground that has helped him to run rivers all over the world. Last week, he put in for a special run of the river to mark his 60th birthday.

His birthday was also marked by a phone call informing him of his selection to the new hall of fame. He will attend an expense-paid ceremony in Maryland on Oct. 14.

"I'm honored," he said. "I haven't exactly settled myself into the pack of nine-to-fivers, so I might as well be a big fish in a small pond."

"And," he said, laughing, "it's certainly a small pond."

That pond, of course, is growing all the time. New technology and new techniques have made kayaking even more exciting. Lesser said he's envious of the moves that the good, young paddlers are doing now.

Still, he said, he's glad he started when he did—a time when seeing other boaters was a rarity and so much was new.

Other boaters chosen for the hall of fame are:

· Pioneer category: Rob McNair, who helped form the American Whitewater Affiliation and wrote the bible on canoeing technique.

· Champions category: Davey Hearn and Jon Lugbill, both internationally renowned C-1 (decked canoe) slalom paddlers.

· Advocate category: Payson Kennedy, who co-founded Nantahala Outdoor Center; and Charles Walbridge, known internationally for his promotion of whitewater safety techniques.

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