Chasing a Dream and the River
“Worry is interest paid on a debt you may never owe.”
EJ does not often spout his philosophy, he prefers to live it. You seldom hear him go on about relishing the moment, the journey being the reward, but look at him: traveling the mountain back roads from one remote river to the next, a man with no savings, no 401k, no fixed address, crisscrossing America to kayak the way very few others have ever kayaked.
Home is his RV--31 feet long, dirt-caked, rain-streaked, its left front bumper bashed in and secured with rope after a wreck at an icy guardrail in the Colorado Rockies. Inside are his wife, Kristine, their two children--7-year-old Emily and 4-year-old Dane--and two Dalmatians. Lashed to the rear are a tangle of bicycles. Piled atop the roof are half a dozen kayaks, vital possessions that survived the great purge last fall, when the family sold pretty much everything--beds, chairs, dressers, home electronics, most of the kids’ toys, some $6,000 worth of belongings--to hit the road full time.
Eric Jackson has much to fret about, if he so chooses. He is nearly broke, down to his last $60. His checking account is in the red by at least twice that. Even in his own family there are critics, well-meaning relatives like his stepmother, who wonder what in the blue blazes he is doing out here, rolling through the Sierra Nevada, 3,000 miles from where he belongs.
How will this affect the kids? Emily is a second-grader; she left behind her classroom and all her friends. Dane is nearing school age with a severe hearing impairment; his speech therapy has become Kristine’s responsibility.
If these concerns trouble him--and they do--EJ rarely shows it. One of the world’s most accomplished kayakers is living a dream. His ambitions of greatness and his craving for thrills have required this leap of faith--on his part and his family’s. They have sacrificed comfort and stability so that EJ can devote himself to his sport, fully immerse himself in white water.
There may be no more than a couple thousand others like him: extreme athletes living on the move, their travels governed solely by the changing seasons and terrain, the calendar of competitive events. Almost all are men, and almost all live in RVs and campers, buying canned stew and Spam and sunscreen with the revenues of part-time jobs and sponsorships. Unlike EJ, most are young and single, a generation lost to the hinterlands, conquering rivers, ski slopes, mountain trails, rock faces.
Nomadic kayakers migrate west or south in the winter, to the American and Yuba rivers in California, the Ocoee and Watauga in Tennessee, to hundreds of others, from nameless, rain-swollen creeks in Oregon and Washington to tropical cascades as far south as Brazil and Costa Rica. The thaws of spring and summer bring the paddlers back to the East--to the Adirondacks, the broad-leaf forests of New England--and to the sparsely populated watersheds of Montana, Idaho and Colorado. There are those who spend five months, seven months, even nine months or more on the road, whatever their incomes allow.
EJ did that for a decade, traveling, coming home, traveling, coming home, until he reached a point at 33 when almost any man with a family would have been forced to choose between his sport and his home.
In EJ’s case, the two came together. In EJ’s case, the normal rules don’t apply, because he is special, or he believes he is special--and maybe both of those count the same. He has extraordinary confidence, an outlook tough and flexible as a fisherman’s net. He is married to a funny, keen-minded woman of 28 who is willing to break away from suburban life, to accept the burdens of the road.
Although it would be a mistake to say that their attitudes and desires are exactly the same, EJ and Kristine have found a workable balance. EJ refuses to trade today’s happiness for tomorrow’s security. Kristine yields to his obsession, trusting that the unconventional route may turn out to be the more fulfilling one. EJ is the Pied Piper; he cajoles, prods, gets his way with charm. From certain angles he resembles Tom Hanks--the dark brush cut and unabashed grin. He professes to feel no guilt over leading his family on this rootless odyssey--"sailing from crisis to crisis,” as he says--because he is doing what he believes he was meant to do.
Deep down, he sees himself aligned with the inner workings of the universe. That is the really strange part, the way he sees himself connected with unknown forces, joined on some elemental level. Remarkable things happen to him. Problems arise and vanish: Broke and desperate, he gets money out of nowhere--an inheritance comes through, a mystery check arrives, a gift from an anonymous donor. The world bends to his needs. EJ flows with the considerable tribulations of his life much as he flows with the placid waters of the open river, or with the steep, boiling currents that kayakers call “hair.”
“He believes that because he is the luckiest person on the planet, by some magic everything’s going to eventually work out OK,” Kristine says at a misty stop along the Kern River, north of Bakersfield. “For me, it’s a very long, very hard road. For him, it’s cake.” She laughs--it’s all she can do. “We go the same road, we’re traveling an identical road, but for him, somehow, the struggle just doesn’t seem difficult.”
Kristine understands--they both understand--that the path they have chosen is fraught with hazards. The kayaking itself is a temptation of fate. To have any shot at greatness, an extreme boater must be capable of navigating any runnable stretch of the river. That often means waterfalls, plunges of 15, 20 feet or more. Twice EJ has gone over 45-foot falls, once without any warning, a case of bad guidance by a fellow kayaker that just about turned his adrenal gland to a raisin.
Waterfalls are leg-breakers, back-breakers and killers, but they are not the worst of the rivers’ vices. Down below the falls, below big rocks and low-head dams, there are “holes,” or “hydraulics,” places where the water curls under itself, where it circulates as in a washing machine. “Drowning machines,” some boaters call them; they can take you down and thrash you for hours and never let you up for air.
If the hydraulics don’t get you, if you survive the falls, there are other opportunities to die. You might end up in a “sieve,” a funnel where the river gushes down through the rocks, or under fallen logs. Water goes through but not a kayak, not a human body; you can get pinned and suddenly the whole weight of the current is on your back, holding you in your boat, crushing you and flowing right over the top.
Last year, a particularly bad one for extreme kayaking, 15 boaters died in the United States, including two of the nation’s best. Rich Weiss and Chuck Kern were both friends of EJ. They paddled with him, competed against him. Weiss went over a 30-foot waterfall on Washington state’s Upper White Salmon River and became caught in a powerful hydraulic; his body was found nearly two hours later, on the bank below a smaller, 15-foot falls downriver. His wife was six months pregnant.
Kern plunged into a sieve on the Gunnison in Colorado, where the white water tumbles between the steep, 3-billion-year-old rock walls of the Black Canyon; it took a helicopter and a trained rescue team a full day to bring his body to shore.
“It’s depressing they died, and all that,” EJ says matter-of-factly. But he has not grown any more afraid because two men he knew never came back. “Any time you have a steep rapids, you can’t see the water in front of you. All you see is a horizon line and maybe the tops of trees down below. No matter how many times you do it, there is something completely unnatural about sitting at the tops of waterfalls, and not being able to see where you’re going, and knowing you’re about to paddle off the edge.”
To do so requires unnatural attributes, one being a high tolerance for pain. Kayakers get beaten up on rocks, flipped upside down in water barely above freezing; EJ has broken a rib, torn back muscles, taken numerous stitches on his forehead and has bone chips floating in his elbows.
Another requirement is the exceptional confidence that EJ possesses, an inner conceit built up through years of experience, running harder and harder rivers. As EJ’s father, James, puts it: “No matter what gets thrown at him, he ends up on top. There’s no way you’re going to back him into a corner. He’s got too many ways to survive and recover. He’s the guy I want to paddle with, because he’s the guy I’m going to survive with.”
Some of that quality seems unnatural too. EJ tells a story about driving through Maine en route to a river. It is well past midnight, Kristine at the wheel of their van, EJ dozing in the passenger seat. Suddenly, he sits up, shouting, “Hit the brakes! Stop, stop! There’s a moose in the road!” Only a dark curve is visible ahead. Kristine cuts her speed, slows to about 30, and comes around.
There in the road: a moose.
‘On the Water Every Day’
EJ’s goals are sweeping. He plans to compete in the 2000 Olympic Games, pursuing the gold he failed to win in 1992, in Barcelona, Spain, when he was the top U.S. finisher, in 13th place. He hopes to dominate the rodeo circuit, which in kayaking means stunt-riding: Boaters do spins and cartwheels in the manner of bronc riders. He aims to promote and expand extreme kayaking, organizing races for cash through some of America’s most treacherous rapids.
Three years ago, EJ founded the World Kayak Federation, which held its inaugural event on the Great Falls of the Potomac River, awarding a $1,000 prize to a boater who was first through 80 feet of huge drops that were once considered unrunnable, until an anonymous paddler made a solo descent 22 years ago.
The federation’s headquarters is EJ’s motor home. Records are kept in his laptop computer. He plugs in where he can to check his e-mail, and makes necessary calls on a cellular phone--those rare times he is within signal range.
Travel money comes mainly from sponsors: Wave Sport, a kayak manufacturer, and Swiss Army, the knife and watch company. Kayaking videos fill a seat-bottom compartment of the RV, so that EJ can sell them to retailers.
The year’s itinerary includes slalom racing in Tennessee, U.S. slalom team trials in Wisconsin, training clinics that EJ will teach on the Potomac and on the Ottawa River in Canada, kayaking camps and rodeo events in Colorado, white water sojourns to Oregon and Washington, slalom racing in Barcelona, and rodeo competitions in New Zealand.
In between the planned stops will be any number of impromptu side trips. A river is running good and he’ll hear about it from the locals, go out with them. “I’m on the water every day, 12 months out of the year,” EJ says. “The one constant is, I get up in the morning and go paddling.”
In theory, he will train as he travels, staying days or weeks at a time at selected rivers and slalom sites. As a practical matter, the logistics are difficult. Driving time cuts into training. In the winter months, when many eastern rivers are frozen, the rivers in warmer states are sometimes too low to run.
Training is more important than running his organization, so the federation languishes; few sports are more telegenic--the action would seem ideal for ESPN’s Extreme Games--but there are no TV contracts. The federation sanctions only one or two events a year.
“He’s not very organized,” Kristine says. “If he makes commitments, he very often forgets that he made them.”
EJ concerns himself with the big picture, the over-arching scheme. Kristine handles the necessities: teaching the kids, washing clothes, serving cereal and pancakes in the morning, milk, sandwiches and oranges for lunch, running the household. When EJ goes paddling--taking a five-hour run down 10 or 12 miles of river--Kristine drives ahead to the take-out point, parking there and schooling Emily in math and reading.
A bright, affable child who once learned 42 nursery rhymes in two weeks, Emily has lively brown eyes and her mother’s streaming dark hair. She studies math with flashcards and reads books piled in a jumble in the motor home closet: “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Children’s Atlas of the United States,” “The Trumpet of the Swan.”
“You should read that book--that’s a good book,” Kristine says, picking through the pile while EJ is out training on the Kern. “We’ve been focusing mainly on literature now.”
Dane, the 4-year-old, has pale blue eyes and sandy hair, the colors of the river. He does his own flashcards while wearing his hearing aid. EJ doesn’t like him to use it; he wants Dane to be able to choose someday between using the device and other options, such as sign language. But in one of the family’s many compromises, Dane wears the aid four hours a day and Kristine works on his pronunciation. “If we don’t, he’ll start dropping letters,” she says. “ ‘Forrest Gump’ comes out, ‘Oris Ump.’ ”
All Kristine wanted in life was to raise a family. EJ, mindful of the dangers of his sport, was reluctant to father children. “We made a deal that the kids were my responsibility,” Kristine says, “and if he chose to do anything with them, that was his choice. It wasn’t an expectation.”
EJ ends up spending more time with his kids than probably 95% of the fathers in America, setting a tone of happy tolerance that all the Jacksons seem to share. But there are limits to his involvement; EJ simply doesn’t do things he doesn’t want to do. “Emily, her favorite thing in the world is puzzles,” Kristine says. “If Eric doesn’t like puzzles, he’s not going to do puzzles with her. He doesn’t meet anyone halfway.”
Kayakers consider EJ a “gonzo paddler,” a hard-edged competitor who is a super guy, in some estimations, and a noisome self-promoter in others. At 5-foot-6, 160 pounds, he has a chiseled upper body--he can do 40 chin-ups--and skinny legs he tries vainly to build up by running. His pulse rate is 50 and he can hold his breath for three minutes, a feat he demonstrated by winning a contest with other boaters in a hot tub at the Ottawa River--while drunk, no less.
That ability has proved useful; at the Great Falls three years ago, EJ came down the rain-engorged river and took a drop and got caught in a sieve. The rapids flooding over him, he managed a Houdini-like escape by popping the rubber skirt of the kayak, the membrane that keeps water out of the hull, and wriggling backward enough to fold up his knees and tumble out. “I came up, took a breath, took one stroke and went over the next drop, about a 6-foot drop,” he remembers. “I landed right on a rock.”
The impact broke a rib, and he fought his way to the muddy bank. He couldn’t kayak for six months.
White water kayaking has grown enormously in the past decade, buoyed by the same technological advances and cultural trends that have popularized sky surfing, ice climbing and other dangerous sports. Boats once made of Fiberglass are now molded of plastics that flex and twist like Tupperware, gliding right over rocks. Much as skateboarders devised techniques for scaling curbs and mountain bikers for jumping logs, kayakers came up with ways to maneuver through jumbled rocks and go over falls: “boofing,” for example, keeping the boat horizontal in the air, landing it flat. That is the sound when it hits: boof.
Clamoring for notoriety, the most zealous competitors have pushed the sport to the point of near-lunacy. Corran Addison, the 28-year-old Quebec City daredevil who holds the unofficial waterfall record, set it by kayaking a U-shaped hydroelectric channel down a 30-degree slope until it spit him out in a 100-foot free fall, whereupon he arced down like a missile into a French lake. That was in 1987.
Two years later, he raised the stakes further, paddling over 85-foot Looking Glass Falls in North Carolina into a pool only five feet deep--the equivalent of the high diver landing in a bucket. The landing broke three vertebrae and Corran crawled out of the river to enjoy the relative ease of six weeks in traction.
EJ is not so reckless. “That’s Incredible,” a TV show, offered him a shot at setting a record on television, and he scouted for suitable waterfalls in Brazil, Costa Rica and New Zealand before finally deciding against it. Waterfalls bigger than 40 feet are a bad risk, he thinks. Too much can go wrong. The acclaim is not worth being a paraplegic, or dead.
Still, EJ has drawn criticism for organizing extreme races. When Rich Weiss died on the White Salmon, he was training for a race sanctioned by the federation. Local organizers changed the course to exclude the falls where Rich drowned, but EJ made a point of running it anyway, unwilling to let death or the river intimidate him.
“They wanted us to put in below,” he says. “I was like, ‘No way, man. I’m not going to skip this waterfall just because my friend died on it.’ He wouldn’t say, ‘I don’t think you should run it any more.’ ”
An Active, Strict Upbringing
EJ’s father was a mechanical engineer and former Green Beret, a tough, meticulous taskmaster who camped and kayaked and built full-scale airplanes down in the basement. His mother, Karen, was a staunch Methodist. EJ was raised in Pennsylvania, Florida and New Hampshire in an active, tightly run household in which fun was a priority, but even the slightest disobedience warranted punishment. Dad did not allow complaints or back-talk. EJ was sent to church. He became the New Hampshire state swimming champion in the 100-yard butterfly. He was 23 when he sipped his first beer.
Kayaking as a young teenager, EJ fell in love with a sport his father loved, a love they shared, even while their views diverged. EJ developed an eclectic philosophy based on mysticism and karma, the notion that God is like a science student, the Earth his semester project. Create it, leave it alone, see what happens--except God cheats, intervenes here and there, lets it slip when there is a moose in the road.
EJ quit engineering school to paddle and met Kristine at a race in 1987. They married a year later. Kristine was worldly. She had grown up in a wealthy family on Long Island, dating drug dealers, wrecking three cars by the age of 17. But she had never known the likes of this guy who dreamed of being rich by 30, who would strike up conversations with strangers at the market. “Any time we went into a fast-food restaurant, he’d always wind up getting all his food for free,” Kristine says. “He’d just ask for it, and they would give it to him. Very strange.”
By the time they met, EJ’s mother had died of cancer and his father had stopped kayaking, owing partly to an accident in Maine: He got caught in a hydraulic and barely got out, swimming half a mile before collapsing on the bank, unable to finish his run. To EJ’s regret, his dad soon cut back on river outings, and when he remarried he sold his gear.
EJ stopped too after getting involved with Kristine, accepting a job as an insurance salesman. “He was making more money than he had ever made, but he was extraordinarily unhappy, and we were not doing very well as a result of it,” Kristine says. “I told him . . . ‘Bag the whole insurance thing. You’re only 23. You have your whole life to make money.’ ”
So they settled in Bethesda, Md., renting a room in an upscale community on the Potomac. Emily was born. EJ competed at Barcelona, a thrill that Kristine ranks with their wedding. They were treated like royalty. EJ’s 13th-place performance might have been even better; he was at the far end of the warm-up channel when his race was called, a mistake that caused him to reach the starting line winded. He fell short of a medal but came away telling friends he’d be the Olympic champion in four more years.
Broke after Barcelona, EJ raised money to try out for the 1993 U.S. team by donning his kayak suit and begging. He made headlines--"Olympic Athlete Panhandling on Streets of D.C."--and got to the trials, all right, in Colorado, but he was ostracized and paddled poorly, failing to make the American squad. It caused him to miss months of racing in Europe--fortunately, because Dane was born that summer, three months too soon, weighing a scant 2 pounds, 3 ounces.
Kristine was hospitalized for a month while Dane fought for breath, tormented by oxygen tubes, feeding tubes and daily injections. His ears were filled with fluid; he could hear nothing. The hearing impairment is still measured at 70%, and no one is sure whether the damage was caused by the premature birth or a genetic glitch, since EJ also suffers a 50% hearing loss, in the same tonal ranges, a handicap that had always been blamed on his mother’s scarlet fever.
Poor hearing is not the only trait they share. Dane came to exhibit a remarkable tolerance for pain. He also loves the water. At 4, he frolics barefoot along the Kern, getting soaked in weather cold enough for heavy coats. He has his own kayak and can perform difficult upstream maneuvers. He sits transfixed before the TV in the motor home, watching kayakers run waterfalls, pointing out their names.
“We can’t get him to watch ‘Sesame Street,’ ” Kristine says. “He’s come to watch Disney movies, because of Emily, but they still fight every morning. He wants to watch kayaking videos, she wants to watch something else.”
Seeing EJ and Dane kayak together is particularly gratifying to Kristine. Dane learns some new stroke and EJ just beams. The man who never meets anyone halfway spends patient hours teaching the currents to this small, slender boy who can barely hear him, whose own life has been so difficult. The only way EJ can connect with him is to meet him halfway.
Here is this young family a week after leaving the Kern, 300 miles north, in a steep, green canyon in Gold Rush country. Two majestic concrete bridges carry the highway in a loop over the Yuba River. EJ has managed to solve the financial crisis, at least temporarily, by conducting four days of kayaking clinics that brought in $2,000. Now, hefting his boat by the gunnel, he crosses the road to a short path that will take him down to the white water. Kristine intercepts him and gives him a long kiss. Dane comes running after her.
“Dad!” he calls out. “I wuv you!” It comes out that way, cartoonish, comical.
EJ looks up and grins. “You do? That’s cool. I love you too.”
A Family Apart, Now Together
Before they all traveled together, EJ left home for half of every year, kayaking nearly 200 rivers in the U.S., dozens more in Brazil, Costa Rica, Austria, France, Germany. He ran places like the White Salmon in Washington, where the redwoods are as big around as his RV and the logs form immense bridges across the river canyon. “It’s nonstop class V water with 20-footers, 10-footers and this one called Spirit Falls,” he says. The U-shaped, 35-foot falls “looks almost like a little Niagara.”
Kristine was in the D.C. suburbs with the children. She shopped for groceries and managed the small kayaking school EJ had started. Her life revolved around chores and money problems. The Jacksons were spending $1,400 a month to rent their home, and sometimes, even after the unexpected checks and windfalls, they ran out of cash.
Bills piled up. Creditors called. EJ was away when the electricity was turned off. Neighbors brought over wood so Kristine could warm the house.
“It was intolerable,” she says. “Every time he wanted to go out to Oregon or go to Costa Rica for five weeks, we always found a way for him to do that. But the day-to-day living was very, very hard on us. It became so that when he left, that was the good time, and when he came home, that was the bad time.”
Nothing was working. EJ failed to make the 1996 Olympic team--he says he “kind of choked” the first day of trials--a crushing disappointment, one of the few times Kristine ever saw him really down. Coming home, strapped for cash, he tried to expand his kayak school by opening a store. He spent loads on advertising, lost track of the accounts. He ran up $33,000 in debts.
Last fall, EJ finally looked ahead and realized that he could put plenty of students on the river and still not keep the business afloat. No way the family would make it through the winter, not while living on the Potomac, not while he was training, not while he was paying off the debts. Things had to change.
It was Kristine who suggested the RV. They decided to sell the school and the store. They held a colossal yard sale. The kids got plastic bins; whatever toys fit inside--balls, skates, Beanie Babies--they got to keep. The rest got sold.
They left Maryland on Nov. 1.
On the Road for a While Yet
The plan is, they will travel at least two years, through the 2000 Olympics. Someday Kristine would like to settle down again, maybe get a house with land and horses, but when, and where, is unclear. “I try not to talk about the future beyond paddling,” she says, “because I don’t want him to think that’s an expectation that I have, that I’m rushing him toward something else or dissatisfied with what I have now.”
They are living in the present, and the present right at the moment is a highway turnout near Grass Valley, above a fork of the American River east of Sacramento. EJ unloads the boats from the roof and he and several kayaker friends--locals--descend through the cold, forested canyon for a 12-mile run. Deep in this canyon are hard class Vs with 10-foot drops and rocky sieves, rapids that EJ has never paddled. Two expert kayakers were killed here last year.
The winter afternoon is losing light. No one knows whether they will be able to get through by nightfall. “If we were prudent,” EJ says, smiling, “we probably wouldn’t do this run today.”
But they have come to paddle, and no one talks about turning back. At the edge, they push off one by one, EJ gliding into the shimmering water, a shrinking silhouette in the filtered sunlight. Up ahead, the current quickens; the river turns. He is there now, and he is gone.