Our next Backyard Badass feature shines the spotlight on one of the greatest unsung heroes the paddling community has ever known. As Executive Director for American Whitewater, Mark Singleton takes Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine’s motto “go outside and play” very seriously—by day, he’s donning a suit and tie to sit before a congressional committee on behalf of every dirtbag raft guide and kayak bum in the country, fighting the fights no one wants to, but everyone should.
By night (and of course, on the weekends), he’s a father of two, a husband, and an adventure machine. From the shores of Micronesia to the mountains of western North Carolina, check out how Mark came to live, breathe, and work adventure for over 30 years.
BRO: What were the early years of a young Mark Singleton like? How did you come to be such an experienced outdoorsman?
MS: I was pretty much thrown into it kicking and screaming. I was introduced to the outdoors primarily through traveling with my parents. I was born in Micronesia where my parents taught high school as part of an American international development effort, sorta like the precursor to the Peace Corps. We traveled the Pacific Rim, from Micronesia to California to Japan. The first teaching gig for my dad [after obtaining his PhD in anthropology from Stanford] was in Hawaii.
BRO: What is your earliest memory of paddling?
MS: When we lived in Hawaii, my parents were part of a YWCA. There were a lot of older Hawaiian guys who paddled outrigger canoes which were dugouts made of wood. The old Hawaiian guys would grab young kids that were just hanging around this Y and take us out to surf. Our job was to dive for the bailers whenever those dugouts capsized, which, they’d go down regularly because there wasn’t any rocker. That was my introduction to the paddling. It’s funny because I still remember very clearly the first time I was in a dugout. You could feel it pop up on the wave and hum down this face. I’ve just been chasing that sensation ever since.
BRO: Talk about that some—where did chasing that sensation lead you after Hawaii?
MS: We moved near Pittsburgh where I went to high school. That was a bit of a tough transition for me. But my parents, they were smart. They got me involved in outdoor activities in western Pennsylvania. I started whitewater paddling in the Ohiopyle area and started to ski. I started teaching skiing at a pretty young age outside of Pittsburgh and started guiding river trips in Ohiopyle. Those were really fun years because you could ski in the winter, paddle in the summer, and I ended up doing that both through high school and college. Eventually I did a lot of work in the ski industry after college.
BRO: Did you pick up traveling again after college?
MS: I ran the ski school at Wintergreen during the mid to late 80s. It was the perfect job for me, because I worked seven months a year from Halloween to April Fools’ then took the rest of the year off. I was able to chase rivers and started wind surfing. I spent a lot of time cycling.
BRO: Where did you spend your time during the off-season?
MS: For paddling I would start in West Virginia for the spring season then go out to Idaho or Wyoming or Washington for the summer then come back East for the Gauley in the fall. That made for a nice paddling circuit. I also spent a summer cycling through Europe then into Nepal and Tibet. Eventually I started doing a lot of wind surfing in Hatteras then the Columbia River Gorge.
BRO: Wow. It definitely seems like there are some perks to being employed seasonally.
MS: The reality of that [line of work] is I never had any money but I did have the freedom and time to do it. I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities then. I was single, I didn’t have kids, and I took full advantage of that in terms of being able to travel and pursue the things I wanted to do.
BRO: How has your relationship with adventure changed since then?
MS: For the last 20 years, I now work all of the time. I’ve got teenage daughters. Adventure comes in a slightly different package, but it’s still adventure and it’s still really fun and really good and we still do a lot outside. Things may change but lifestyle is a choice. For me, the outdoors and pursuing activities that keep me close to the outdoors is just something that has been really important to me.
BRO: How did you end up working for American Whitewater (AW)?
MS: Well, the NOC [Nantahala Outdoor Center] was looking for a Marketing VP, which is what brought me to western North Carolina. I worked for about 12 years as their marketing person before I was basically recruited as executive director in 2004.
BRO: Can you think of one success story from your time with AW that hits particularly close to home?
MS: Taking the job at the NOC was probably the worst thing I ever did for my paddling but the best thing I ever did for cycling. One of my favorite training rides was starting in the Nantahala Gorge and riding out to Fontana Lake up the Cheoah River drainage which, in the mid to late 90s, there was never any water in the riverbed [of the Cheoah]. It was a dry river. I remember cycling up the Cheoah thinking, man it’d be great to paddle that if there was ever any water in it. Then, in early 2000, AW was able to renegotiate a license with a flow schedule. For the first time in more than 50 years, the river flowed again. The combination of recreational and base flows have really restored that river.
BRO: Since taking this job with AW, how has your appreciation of the natural world evolved?
MS: When I was in my 20s and into my 30s, it was all about me. I wanted to ski, I wanted to paddle. I chased it really hard and I totally enjoyed that. It was great. Now, I’ve certainly become more of an advocate. If you like these places [where you play] you need to step up and be a voice to protect them. If you don’t, who will?
BRO: What would you say is the most crucial piece of the conservation puzzle?
MS: It’s really tough to love something you don’t know. You need to know it first and through knowing it really well, you develop this passionate connection with that medium that you’re interested in.
BRO: What has adventure taught you?
MS: At one level, it’s helped me understand who I am and how I relate to things. For me, my learning style is very much by being out there doing stuff. On another level, it’s taught me to be reliant. You have to learn to adapt. And a third level is how important the outdoors are to the American experience. Here in the United States we are incredibly fortunate to have public lands that are, generally, managed pretty well, that provide for close-to-home and faraway recreational opportunities. Those things are incredibly important to who we are as a country and what we think of when we think of the American psyche.
BRO: What do you like about life in WNC?
MS: Western North Carolina is one of the last great places of the United States. The county where I’ve spent a lot of time living is owned close to 80% by the federal government, meaning it’s pied up by national forest, national parks, and other federal holdings. It’s got such great access to outdoor recreation. Obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of different areas and western North Carolina still holds my interest.
BRO: How do your children take to adventure?
MS: I have two daughters who are 14 and 16. We have family contracts that in the wintertime, my wife will post on the refrigerator and the kids have to sign it. It says, “If you want your allowance, you have to go skiing with us when we say so.” It’s not all bad, but teenagers like their sleep.
BRO: What is your favorite river?
MS: My favorite river is whatever I happen to be paddling that day.
BRO: Favorite place to ski?
MS: The center of the ski universe in North America is this place called Jackson Hole. It does have a special place in my heart.
BRO: Most proud moment?
MS: Watching my kids engage in adult conversations about the outdoors is really special.
BRO: Most embarrassing moment?
MS: I was recently on an American Whitewater trip with major supporters of AW on a river in Oregon. I was trying to give someone instructions and ended up saying, “You don’t want to go where you’re headed.”
BRO: Biggest fear?
MS: When I have to go testify in front of a congressional committee, I can’t help but think, “Do I really have something to say that’s going to be worthwhile?”
BRO: Any injuries?
MS: Shoulders crashing off of bikes, legs and knees skiing…where do you start?
BRO: Favorite adventure read?
MS: The Emerald Mile. That’s just a great read.
BRO: Favorite adventure flick?
MS: Damnation – it tells a great story of how quickly rivers can recover when they’re given the opportunity.
BRO: Favorite post-paddle eats and drinks?
MS: I always look for the local brew pub and local food truck. Those two things go together. Innovation Brewing Co. in Sylva makes a really good “Phat Chance” amber ale that is particularly tasty.
BRO: Where is one place in the world you haven’t been to but would like to see?
MS: That would take me to Bali. I would love to go there for the beaches.
Join today! Support American Whitewater and give back to the places where you play. AW is always looking for volunteers to help with big events like Gauley Fest (we’ll be there!) and operates entirely on donations. A few bucks can go a long way in protecting your rivers!
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