Then and Now: The Evolution of Kayaking

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Kayakers. If you’re not one, or you don’t know one, you might not understand this species of athlete. From afar, it likely seems downright bizarre that a group of people should choose to spend their free time under layers of space-age garb, drinking beer out of their soggy shoes, and rejoicing in the seemingly foulest of weather. It’s a unique culture, no doubt, one that celebrates both individualism and the camaraderie of a crew, safety first but fun first-est.

Kayakers have the uncanny ability to go with the flow. One day they may paddle off downstream, receive an ass whooping, discover at the take-out that they locked their keys in the car, yet still come back the next day for another run. They’re tough and humble, rowdy yet calculated, but if there’s one characteristic that speaks to kayakers as a whole, it’s this: they are pretty damn innovative.

Over the past 20 years in particular, kayakers and the sport they love have evolved at a surprisingly rapid pace. I’m hitting the rewind button on all of this progress and taking a look back at the dawn of change, to the days of 13-foot glass kayaks and VHS paddle porn, which helped spur the growth of not just a sport but an identity and a way of life.

In the beginning…

The forebears of whitewater kayaking—the Inuits—knew how to roll a kayak well before there was any C-to-C or back deck roll. Similarly, I can’t continue the trajectory of the kayakers’ evolution without mentioning the sport’s one-bladed brethren, the open boater. Many of the best kayakers in the world—Eli Helbert, Dave “Psycho” Simpson, Bob Foote, and Jim Michaud—cut their teeth between the gunwales of an Old Town Canoe.

Early on, kayakers didn’t have flow gauges or American Whitewater to give them beta. There was no BoaterTalk to hash out access issues or gear swaps. No, these paddlers used their resourcefulness and made weekend plans the ol’ fashioned way—by showing up at the take-out on the day of.

“Kayaking was way less cool in the mid-90s,” says longtime paddler and whitewater guidebook author Leland Davis. “Back then, if you ran class V whitewater, you probably knew almost everyone that also ran class V in your area.”

The whitewater world was a melting pot of people and gear. Some were rocking fiberglass boats like the Dagger Crossfire, on average close to 13 feet in length. Others styled the hottest boat on the market, which, according to Davis, was the Dagger Freefall LT. Soon, plastic boats half the size of their glass predecessors dominated the river. Slalom racers abandoned their long boats for the more maneuverable Dagger RPMs and Pyranha Acro-bat 270s, thus breathing life into a playboating revolution.

Suddenly, it wasn’t enough that you could sprint down a river. Kayakers everywhere were rock splatting and cartwheeling and freewheelin’ their way through every hole and wave available. Friendly competition between paddlers sent the freestyle game through the roof, and with new tricks came new boats and new identities. You could speed through slalom courses or loop in a playboat, boof down creeks or blast holes in a squirt boat. As Jess Whittemore, a founding father of modern playboating, once put it: “It was a renaissance of kayaking.”

Eddy, set, action.

All of that creativity eventually manifested itself in early videos of first descents, epic carnage, and sick tricks. The early ‘90s saw some of the first paddle porns from guys like Wayne Gentry, whose Southern Fried Creekin’ was groundbreaking for its time.

Once YouTube arrived in the early 2000s, the kayaking video scene exploded. Lunch Video Magazine (LVM) dominated the game for years, bringing whitewater entertainment and beta to desktops worldwide. Kayaking industries sponsored boaters to live on the road and paddle around the globe, competing and hucking and “living the dream.” Their documented paddling exploits would inspire the next generation to abandon convention and, unsurprisingly, live out of a van down by the river.

DEMSHITZ was born out of the cross-country ramblings of three sponsored paddlers on tour for Pyranha Kayaks—David Fusilli and brothers Jared and Graham Seiler. The word, coined by fellow paddler Dave George in Missoula, Mont., the summer of 2006, was at its core an inside joke, a silly way of saying “those guys” or “them shits.” “We laughed about DEMSHITZ all summer,” Fusilli remembers, “eventually we made some stickers…”

From there, DEMSHITZ grew into something Fusilli and all DEMSHITZ never could have imagined. It became a brand, a community of paddlers who emphasized good times over good scores or first descents.

“What it stands for is the ability to not give a rip and do what you love,” Fusilli says. “Having fun is really what DEMSHITZ stands for, in whatever you are doing in your life, [but] not sitting around and thinking about it, actually getting out there and gettin’ some.”

From DEMSHITZ came the “brown claw,” (imagine a reverse toilet paper grab) the motorcycle wave of the kayaking world. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to drive a carful of boats through any river hub (say, Friendsville, Md., or Fayetteville, W.Va.) and not pass someone throwing a brown claw out the window at you. Consequently, the word “brown” quickly became associated with running “the gnar,” which really didn’t have to be gnarly at all—it could be a class I stretch of river done on a stand-up paddleboard.

It all sounds silly, but what Fusilli and the Seilers meant is that life’s too short to take so seriously, especially when it comes to kayaking. The result has been a mix of backgrounds and cultures and careers converging on the river, a unique group of people who value the present moment and the adventurous spirit within.

Despite the growing popularity of whitewater kayaking, the community surrounding the sport remains as tight-knit as ever. Sure, you might not recognize every paddler on the river, but the kayaking world continues to act like one big family that welcomes you with open arms, a beer for your bootie, and a brown claw to boot.

Paddle on, y’all.

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