by Jill K. Moore
Although he’s been portrayed as bigger than life, Johnnie Kern exudes a quiet confidence in his laid-back style and good nature. Unless you asked him, you’d never know he’s run some of the most dangerous rivers on planet Earth, and experienced life in a way that most of us are afraid of, let alone aspire to. Along with his fraternal twin brother, Willie, Kern was among the only group of kayakers to complete a descent of the Tsang Po River in Tibet, known as the Everest of Rivers. You can also see him in more than half a dozen kayaking videos. He’s designed two creekboats, and co-designed a series of three river-running kayaks with Shane Benedict, all of which have been huge sellers for Liquidlogic Kayaks. In early 2005, Kern moved to western North Carolina to become a full time employee of Liquidlogic. BRO caught up with the intrepid 33-year-old outdoorsman at a coffee shop in Hendersonville, N.C.
BRO: How did you get started in kayaking?
JK: I grew up ski racing in Maine and Vermont and that area, so skiing and sports were a big part of our life. Soccer, basketball, all that stuff. Then my brothers and I went to kayaking camp and paddled for a while before we had our licenses. My mom would run our shuttle and things like that. Chuck and Willie started going hard when I was in college. I was more into college and focused on slightly different things, but those guys started devoting every waking moment to kayaking. I kinda learned through the school of hard knocks. I definitely got my fair share of beatdowns trying to keep up with those guys.
BRO: Why did you pursue kayaking in stead of skiing or another outdoor sport?
JK: Again, that would have a lot more to do with my brothers than with me The day after I graduated from college, they took me to 35-foot Spirit Falls on the Little White Salmon in Oregon. I followed them off that and it was really fun, so I continued to follow them around. I think the fact that there were three brothers that were paddling together generated a lot of interest in us.
BRO: It’s cool that you had your brothers with you to be your mentors.
JK: I wish everybody in the world was a twin or had siblings close to their age because you always have somebody to play with. We were always excited about being outside and scaring ourselves, so we’d push each other a little bit. They were the best two mentors anybody could ask for because Chuck was really analytical, and we’d talk about which stroke to use here or there, and Willie was much more based in his gut. So to put those two things together and be able to draw on them when you need, I felt was a very well-rounded education.
BRO: You’ve led an unconventional life –never owned a car, rented an apartment or paid regular bills until you were over 30. What kind of person do you need to be in order to live the kind of life you’ve led?
JK: I think that you have to be able to amuse yourself. <laughs> You have to be a little bit resourceful in terms of making all the ends meet. I think more than anything, you have to have really good friends who care about you and are inclined to help, because there’s no way that any of us could have lived that lifestyle if we didn’t have people that care about us. So it has to do with the people you know, I guess.
BRO: Extended couch surfs and so forth?
JK: Very extended.
BRO: Are you ready to settle down? And will you regret leaving that other life behind?
JK: I think I’ll always have a sense of nostalgia about the way it used to be. I don’t think I’ll ever consider the last decade or so my glory years, but I’ll certainly look back at them with a whole lot of fondness and appreciation. It’s challenging when all your college buddies are dentists and lawyers, and I’ve made some pretty definitive decisions to steer clear of that. I’d like to say that I’ve lived a pretty rich life. I wouldn’t change anything.
And there’s no way that I’ll ever be done recreating outside. I’m sure I’ll be ski touring when I’m 70 years old and going outside doing things that I love, barring some huge accident. I’ll probably be a little bit more discriminating in what I choose in terms of recreation. Before, I had both quantity and quality. Now I won’t get out quite as much, but my trips will still be of the same high caliber.
BRO: What’s it like working full-time for Liquidlogic?
JK: It’s been a slightly rough transition going from no hours to 40 hours a week-that’s not true, I’ve always worked, but it’s been a bit of a rough transition. But it’s going well. It’s an amazing group of people and I consider it an amazing opportunity.
BRO: You’ve been sidelined by a back injury recently. What other stuff besides kayaking do you enjoy nowadays?
JK: Right now I’m trying to do all those things that I said I was going to do when I was older. I don’t think I’m older now, but I’m laid up so I’m trying to do more with my photography. I’m trying to learn how to build frames and get more proactive in selling some more artistic, scenic prints.
BRO: What are top three adventures of your life so far?
JK: The Tsang Po, a month-long stint in Norway in ’99, and a seven-year adventure in California where I skied and kayaked, learned the most, and had a whole lifetime full of fun.
BRO: How would you describe Tsang Po?
JK: All of my senses were heightened because of the intensity and the location. What I remember most was just being able to stand in a place like that, especially in this day and age. We’d stand on river left, and we’d get out and scout where there was a high likelihood that no human had ever stood before. That was something I’ll never forget. Just a feeling of ‘Wow, I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here.’
BRO: If you had it to do over again starting from, say, high school graduation, what would you do differently?
JK: I was an English major with a focus in creative writing. Not a whole lot of forethought there, just doing what I liked. I think I would round out my collegiate education so I had a few more options, take some more sciences and things like that. There are a few decisions, probably two or three on rivers, that I would change, but aside from that, I can’t say I would change a single thing. Maybe I would put a little photography school in there, but all in all it’s been pretty solid.
BRO: There are a lot of young kayakers looking to get sponsored . What advice would you give to would-be expeditioners?
JK: Whenever you’re asking for money, you have to make it worth their while above and beyond what people are doing now. Don’t think you’re something special unless you’re giving something special in return. And I would say there’s nothing that can replace experience. Get out there, kinda cruise around and sleep in the woods and do a lot of other things out there besides kayaking. The biggest skill you can develop is common sense. I don’t know if you can develop that or if it’s something that comes along, but don’t be stupid.
BRO: Any other advice you’d like to offer kayakers?
JK: I would say, stay on line.
BRO: One last critically important and serious question: boxers or briefs?