By ALEXANDRA ALTER CARIBOU-TARGHEE NATIONAL FOREST, Idaho—An avalanche of raging white water explodes into a deep pool below, sending up three-story plumes of mist. A professional kayaker nearly broke his back on this waterfall in southeastern Idaho last fall, when he slammed into a boulder and was flung from his boat. For Ben Stookesberry, a 30-year-old white water kayaker from Shasta, Calif., running the 65-foot waterfall on a cloudy, buggy June morning is just practice. Mr. Stookesberry is one of about half a dozen professional kayakers who tackle waterfalls above 100 feet. He views the fast-charging Lower Mesa Falls as preparation for even more ambitious drops on kayaking expeditions down uncharted rivers in Brazil, Chile and Pakistan. A little over a decade ago, a 50- or 60-foot waterfall was thought to be the biggest drop a kayaker could survive. But sturdier boats and new techniques have allowed daredevils and explorers like Mr. Stookesberry to push the outer limits of the sport. By mastering big waterfalls, the most extreme kayakers are venturing into unexplored river gorges and uncharted rapids that were previously deemed out of reach, sealed off by fortress-like waterfalls where portaging is impossible. Like 19th-century explorers and alpine climbers seeking to conquer untamed peaks, these adventurers risk their lives to claim a “first descent” of a waterfall or a long, treacherous stretch of river. In March, a Brazilian kayaker plummeted off a 127-foot waterfall in the Amazon, shattering the previous world record, set just four months earlier, of 108 feet. A month later, Tyler Bradt, a 23-year-old extreme kayaker from Montana, ran a 198-foot tall waterfall outside of Spokane, Wash. An accelerometer in the hull of his kayak measured his g-force, or rate of acceleration in free fall, at 9 gs—the force of a maneuvering fighter jet. Mr. Bradt, who is currently searching out waterfalls in Norway and Iceland, walked away with a sprained wrist. So far, no one has died on a massive waterfall, though there have been numerous deaths and near-drownings on smaller falls. Such exploits have brought visibility to the sport and helped to attract a new generation of recreational paddlers. Amateur kayakers, like professionals, are taking advantage of newer, more stable kayaks to conquer more daunting waves and rapids. More than a dozen cities across the country, including Casper, Wyo., Missoula, Mont., Rochester, N.Y., and Vail, Colo., have created artificial waves and white water “play parks” that allow kayakers to practice rolling their boats and surfing big waves in a less risky environment. Last year, Glenwood Springs, Colo., completed a $1 million artificial wave and “hole,” a crater in the river bed that causes the water to recirculate. Kayakers say these spots—the white water equivalent of a skate board park—have radically altered the learning curve. “The stuff that people are doing in their second and third year now would have beat me in the world championships in 1993,” says Eric Jackson, a four-time freestyle kayaking champion. Mr. Stookesberry ekes out a living on some $22,000 a year, working commercial construction in Shasta for three months each year and selling DVDs of the kayaking films he shoots during expeditions. He gets gear and some sponsorship money from Werner Paddles, Jackson Kayak and Kokatat, a dry-suit manufacturer. He self-finances most of his expeditions. Since taking up kayaking a decade ago, he has bagged 51 first descents in 11 countries, he says. Mr. Stookesberry, who majored in math and geology at Southern Oregon University, uses Google Earth satellite images and draws on his geology background to search out some of the world’s wildest rivers and waterfall formations. He was the first to paddle what kayakers believe to be the steepest runnable section of river on the planet: the Rio Santo Domingo in Chiapas, Mexico, which drops 480 vertical feet in an eighth of a mile, and includes two 90-foot waterfalls. He hopes to be the first to complete the lower section of China’s Tsangpo River, which crashes through a lush, snaking gorge that’s more than three times as deep as the Grand Canyon. Sturdier equipment has spurred advances in the sport. Brittle fiberglass kayaks have been replaced by tougher, molded plastic boats that can absorb big impacts. Unlike their cigar-shaped predecessors, newer kayaks have flat bottoms like surf boards, allowing boaters to skip off crests of waves and bounce off rocks in a move kayakers call a “boof.” The most extreme kayakers have also developed new techniques to control their descents over massive falls. Boaters tuck forward like high divers, laying flat across the bow and angling their boats nose first, which reduces the surface area hitting the water and softens the impact. Some even attach fins to the back of the boats so that they drop straight down, like a dart. The most common injury, kayakers say, is a broken nose. “Approaching the lip, there’s this feeling of being completely out of control, completely in the hands of the river,” Mr. Stookesberry says. “You lose all that fear and all that anticipation, because there’s no turning back.” On an overcast, windless morning, Mr. Stookesberry returned to Idaho’s Lower Mesa Falls, where he claimed the first descent of the 65-foot drop in 2001—a stunt designed, he sheepishly admits, to impress his girlfriend at the time. The fact that he had done it before, and that a few other kayakers had followed, didn’t trigger overconfidence. The ever-changing rapids mask constantly shifting currents and new, unseen hazards. Mr. Stookesberry and two friends parked their cars by the roadside, hoisted their kayaks onto their shoulders and hiked for a mile through pine forests and fields of wild flowers. White-water kayakers often tackle tough rivers in small groups, armed with throw bags and ropes in case one of them needs a rescue. The path opened onto a grassy bluff overlooking the falls, a churning wall of water flanked by huge cliffs of porous volcanic rock. Wearing mismatched flip-flops and a green T-shirt that says “Just Boof It,” Mr. Stookesberry, who has sandy blond hair and grayish blue eyes, swatted at clouds of mosquitoes and began thinking about what might go wrong. Based on the river’s speed and the height of the falls, he estimated that he would hit the pool at 40 miles per hour. There’s an ideal line where the water falls cleanly and then shoots out in a “flake” spraying off a big rock, away from the churning water at the base. The path is just a few feet wide. The rest is frothy chaos. Edging too far to the right could send him hurtling into a steep cliff where the water churns violently at the bottom. He could get caught in the eddy. Worse, he could be sucked into a cave behind the falls, out of rescuers’ reach. Too far left, and he would likely be pulled into the middle of the falls, where the water collapses inward into a deep rock fissure. On the river bank, Mr. Stookesberry mapped out his course with his college buddy and kayaking partner, Eric Seymour. He tossed big sticks into the river to identify small waves and other features that would help him navigate a precise path. As the men discussed a worst-case scenario rescue plan, the roar was so thunderous that they had to stand next to each other and yell to communicate. Finally, Mr. Stookesberry climbed into his bright orange kayak and pushed off the bank, gliding out into the rapids. Without hesitating, he paddled toward the edge. After five strokes, a powerful current swept him over. He shot over the lip into a vertical plunge, a streak of orange against an avalanche of white water. Halfway down, he hit the spout of water he was aiming for and skipped off a protruding boulder. He was propelled forward, then swallowed by the torrent. He popped up in the frothy pool, miraculously upright, and raised his left fist. Mr. Seymour let out a whoop. Mr. Stookesberry paddled to the other side of the river, grinning, and hiked up a rocky slope to the top of the falls to run the other side. Some experienced paddlers view the push toward bigger falls as reckless, and pointless. “You get these people who just want to get their names out there, and jumping off a big waterfall is a good way to do that,” says Mr. Jackson, who owns Jackson Kayak, the world’s largest white water kayak manufacturer. “A first-year paddler can do that.” Waterfalls rank among white water’s most treacherous features. A 30-foot fall can be lethal. In 2003, Mr. Stookesberry witnessed the death of his friend Jeff Ellis, who drowned on a routine 15-foot drop on Shackleford Creek in northern California. Mr. Ellis was trapped in an eddy at the base of the falls when his boat filled with water. He was sucked back into the falls, where he apparently was pulled from his kayak by the river’s force. When he surfaced, about 30 seconds later, he was unconscious. Mr. Stookesberry and three others formed a human chain and grabbed him by the life vest, but the vest ripped off when they tugged on it, and Mr. Ellis was pulled under by a current. His body floated to the surface down the river. Mr. Stookesberry has narrowly escaped death. In 2004, he nearly drowned at Silver Falls, a 40-foot waterfall near Mount Rainier in Washington, when the cascading water pinned his boat to the cliff wall. He decided to abandon his boat and swim, hoping the force of the falls would flush him out. Instead, the current pulled him under, holding him down for more than a minute. He could see light and air bubbles at the surface, but couldn’t reach it. He was sure he would die. More than fear, he felt sadness. His father had died in a car accident four years earlier, and his mother would have to endure another loss. The water turned black as an undercut pulled him below the turbulent surface and flushed him out of the swirling eddy. He emerged downstream and grabbed a log, where his friends where able to pull him out. Though the adrenaline rush is part of what drew him to the sport, Mr. Stookesberry says it’s the urge to seek out unexplored parts of the planet that drives him. Drawing on his geology background, Mr. Stookesberry searches satellite images and topographical maps for geological features that tend to form big waves and runable falls, including glacially eroded granite and travertine—a rare rock formation of calcium carbonate that builds up on the river bed, forming humps and slides in the water. The approach helps him find unexplored big rivers and waterfalls in places such as Brazil, Papua New Guinea and Guyana, areas not known as extreme kayaking hot spots. His longest-running ambition is to complete the first descent of the lower section of the Tsangpo River Gorge, one of the wildest and most sought after river runs on the planet. Western explorers have been captivated by the gorge, thought to be the world’s deepest, for more than 100 years. Kayakers call it the Everest of rivers. The lower section of river cuts through a deep chasm, flanked by cliffs that make it impossible to portage around some of the waterfalls and steep drops. Once you start down the river, there’s no turning back. It has never been run. Mr. Stookesberry aims to be the first. Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page W1

— world class kayaker earns 22K a year while risking life  

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