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From Globetrotting Dirtbag to Responsible Dad

A pro paddler is humbled when he settles down and gets a “real job”


I was willfully letting go of a life that most people could only dream of: the simple but vibrant existence of a professional kayaker and paddleboarder. For 10 years I had been migrating from river to river in search of the ultimate wave, the ultimate rapid, the ultimate experience. 

I didn’t have an ounce of body fat. I could run a <5:30 mile, scale a 30-foot overhanging climbing wall without my feet, carry a 90-pound loaded kayak over a 12,000-foot continental divide, and run class V whitewater for days. I slept in the dirt, the back of my truck, or under the Northern Lights, almost always falling asleep to the primal roar of a river. I was in the business of exploring some of the most beautiful places on earth, and business was good. 

But eventually after running 90-foot waterfalls, speaking from the TED stage, and managing a team of pro athletes for a major kayak brand, a sunset appeared on this season of life.

Following shoulder surgery and the cumulative impact of losing several close friends, I couldn’t visualize the long game in the outdoor industry. My physical performance was fading, and the next crop of youngsters wanted the baton. I’ve observed aging athletes trying to cling to relevance for too long, and it’s not a pretty sight. I could also feel monetary pressure rearing its head, and I owed it to my wife Ashley to consider my longevity alongside our mutual desire to start a family.

I’m a sucker for analogies and have always appreciated the expression “the river of life.” Time and rivers are two forces that flow powerfully downstream whether we’re ready or not, and indecision makes a poor paddling partner.

So I analyzed the river, picked a line, and prepared to peel out into the current. In search of a permanent career path and a stable income, I explored a nagging instinct that my future could exist in real estate and pursued a license.

I’ve never been very good at talking about granite countertops or curb appeal, so I focused on the high-stakes world of commercial and investment real estate. While I knew this was going to be difficult, it turned out to be downright masochistic. 

My ego deserved a good check, and that it received and much more. While I got my ass kicked left and right at work with virtually nothing to show for it, I scrolled my Instagram feed of friends traveling the world and living the lifestyle that I previously knew. There were many questions: Had I made the right call by leaving the familiar bubble of the outdoor industry? Was I chasing money? 

But then something funny happened. As I slowly improved my skills in this new career, I met many like-minded people. I started doing real estate deals on mountain bike rides, kayak shuttles, and chairlifts. And an unexpected trend developed. The more authentic I was, the more opportunity presented itself. I started riding my road bike to property showings while the brokers on the other side of the table pulled up in Porsches. I learned to stop being self-conscious and found creative ways to integrate my passion for the outdoors into my new career. 

As my brokerage business blossomed, I started buying specialty properties in places where other people weren’t looking: right next to the best rivers, trails, and natural resources in the country. With the Early Blue Motel, a property that I purchased recently with a lifelong friend, I was able to help reenergize a neglected 24 room motel with one of the most beautiful mountain views that I have ever seen, overlooking the sacred Green River Gorge. 

Staying true to my passions at work has allowed me to embrace my most important vocation, as Ashley and I have welcomed three beautiful daughters into the world. Life can get pretty serious, but kids are masters at snapping us back to the present moment and helping us appreciate the important things, like a cool beetle walking on the trail. The opportunity to pass along the lessons rivers and mountains have taught me is indescribable. Your child’s first full ski run or standing paddleboard stroke—no massive waterfall can compare. 

If life is a river, sometimes we find ourselves swept into the depths of a deep canyon with exploding waves and menacing whirlpools. Right when we most want it, there may not be an eddy in sight. But if we do our best, work with the power of the river, and stay true to ourselves, the tumult will soon ease and we’ll find ourselves in stunningly beautiful settings. 

All rivers eventually flow to the sea, and we might as well be our authentic selves along the journey.

Cover photo by Nick Gragtmans

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