Profile of whitewater paddling legend Rob Lesser

 

(Another version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Kayak Session)

 

 

At 58, Rob Lesser is 35 years into his love affair with whitewater kayaking - and still going strong.  Perhaps best known for his first descents of the big water wilderness rivers of Alaska and Canada, he also evolved with the sport from fiberglass designs to plastic kayaks, using them to run rivers great and small, far and near.  “Rapid Rob” was the first professional kayak rep and once had the entire western United States and Canada as his territory.  He is considered “the godfather of modern freestyle competition,” helping start two of the first whitewater rodeos as a gathering grounds for kayakers, and then systematically supporting the rodeo scene through its infancy and adolescence during the 80s and 90s.   Catching up to him in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, showed he has no signs of slowing down.  He continues to be passionate about the sport, its future, and the worldwide friendships he has made.

 

 

It’s a beautiful sunny weekend in mid-June and every kayaker in Idaho is out paddling. All except one that is, and he answers his phone in the same way he has for the last 25 years, rolling out his r’s: “R-r-rob here.”  What is this inveterate kayaker doing at home on a perfect day? Taking it easy, avoiding the crowds, sitting with a remote watching Wimbledon, and generally being a homebody.  Hardly the image of a whitewater legend. But in response to a question of whether he’s been paddling at all, he says, “Well, some.  You know, traditional, old timey stuff”.  Then the dam breaks: 18 days on the Grand Canyon, four days on the Selway with some river guides, runs of the South Salmon, East fork of the South Fork of the Salmon, North Fork Payette, the Owyhee, not to mention all sorts of shorter runs. Down in Colorado for American Whitewater’s 50th Anniversary and the Teva Mountain Games.  He thinks a second and adds, “ran the Animas too, got ten days of whitewater.  Saw a lot of the old crowd of whitewater boaters, Risa, John, Charlie, Kevin”. Oh, and he forgot to mention, two days ago on Thursday he hiked in and paddled the lower ten miles of the Bruneau River. It was low water, but the desert canyon was beautiful, it was a small group and a wonderful experience.  Next week Bob McDougall may come up from California to do an oldtimer’s run on the North Fork, and after that, he’s going on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. With Rob, you see what qualifies as “some” paddling. 

The sport of whitewater kayaking began growing in the 1970s, accelerated in the 80s, and came to mainstream age in the 1990s. Rob was there in many ways for all of these as a pioneer first descenter, the first professional kayaking rep, a fervent supporter of whitewater rodeos, and most of all, an ambassador far and wide for the wonders of moving down a river with a kayak.

Rob was born in Mountain Home, Idaho, a small town near Boise, the son of a doctor.  He was first introduced to kayaking in 1969 in Missoula, Montana by a close friend and climbing partner who showed up one day at the university with a 13 foot fiberglass boat called a “Duffek,” built by local fireman and kayaker, Lynn McAdams.  The meeting was momentous.  He crawled into that kayak on the Blackfoot river, paddled around some, and “a light went on in my head. It was an instant love affair.”  A week later he was in McAdams’ shop ordering his own Duffek.   “It was amazing to me that Lynn was building boats.  I thought, Wow, you can get a kayak right here in Missoula?  It was pure circumstance to get exposed to the sport back then because it was so small and unknown. The boats weren’t much for subtlety, the Duffek, and the Urban were basically big floating cigars.  But the sense of possibilities, the smell of fiberglass, those feelings still pervade my sense of the river.”

At the time, Lesser had been putting his energies into backpacking, climbing, and finishing his masters degree in zoology. He intended to become a ranger up in Alaska, something that melded his love for the outdoors with the practicality of a job.  But he already could feel the endless possibilities of using a kayak for a different kind of traveling and exploring.  Far from its being another complementary skill, it was soon to become his primary vehicle and the very fabric of his life.

The light that went on in his first kayaking experience stayed on. The next year, 1970, MA degree in hand, he headed up north on the long, gravel Alcan highway toward Alaska to do some rangering, McAdam’s Duffek on top of his rig.  Two of the key pieces of his life had been set together: the new wonder of kayaking rivers, and the Alaska wilderness expanding in every direction.

The north country has always held a special place in Rob’s life. The vastness seems to represent all his interests, and especially, his core passion for adventure.  “For me, adventure has always been the key word about the north country. A very authentic sense of adventure. You know something about the land as a biologist, a climber, river person, and a ranger. You have that respect, but then there’s the whole element of how huge it is and how much you don’t know.   Up there you’re either going to load a plane and fly in somewhere, or go to the end of a road and get out - and then you’re on your own. There’s no way to get word to anybody, and around every corner you’re wondering, ‘what are we going to run into? Rapids? Logs? Holes?  A caribou herd crossing the river? Bears? Horrible weather?’  There always is this rush of anticipation.  Not for the risk, but for how sweet it was going to be when you were totally reliant on your own judgment and skills, and they were all you had. Even today, what fires my life is the prospect of another adventure in the north country. It’s not like driving here or there in the lower 48 states.  You just say, ‘okay, we’re off’ and disappear.” 

              Lesser didn’t become an instant expert in whitewater. Like others who started in the early years, he had to invent virtually every wheel he used.  There was no place to go to learn, no mentors, just one endless experiment by himself or with a few stalwart others.  The slalom paddlers had their gig, but they inhabited a different world of competitions on small technical rivers in the Eastern US and Europe, not the infinitely remote Alaskan and western wilderness that so captivated Rob.  Rolling techniques were still being invented, and the ice-cold northern rivers weren’t exactly hospitable.  Kayaks were 13 feet long, brittle fiberglass, with hand molded kneebraces. None of the specialized outfitting was available - the idea of it existing hadn’t occurred to anybody yet.  There were no breathable fabrics, no minicell foam, and only rudimentary polypropylene. Boats were easily broken and hard to repair.  Gear consisted of wool sweaters, wool hats, hockey helmets, handmade sprayskirts and paddles, and thin nylon splash jackets. 

Moving to Alaska for seasonal work as a ranger in McKinley Park, with the Nenana River right at his doorstep, Rob started honing his paddling skills and his sense of adventure for what was possible in a kayak.  He was a keen student of the new sport. He soloed a lot in those days, because there was nobody to paddle with.  He never paid attention to first descents, perhaps because there were so few paddlers that “first” didn’t mean anything.  Also, because what drew him was the experience - the satisfaction that came from challenging what he calls the “tactile” elements of kayaking, the flow of water, the rocks, finding a line, and using these to move through remote canyons, see the wildlife and the world from a new, exciting perspective.

Everybody who started back then was a character of some kind.  Rob first met and paddled with Walt Blackadar in 1970 on the Salmon river in Idaho.  His first impressions were of a man with a commanding personality, brash, and “a true alpha male.”  He also recognized Walt’s sense of adventure and appreciation for the power of moving water. There was mutual respect and they occasionally paddled together in Idaho.  They did a big water trip together on the Susitna in Alaska in 1977, but Walt had his own ideas and motivations. Through the mid-1970s, he was bigger than life, enjoying the notoriety of his solo descent on the Yukon’s Alsek in 1971.  He was the first kayaker recognizable on a national scale after his widely shown ABC films about the Susitna and a Hollywood production by filmmaker Roger Brown called “The Edge”, which showed Walt on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.  In these, Blackadar was the leading man, an unforgettably charismatic, paunchy 50 year old doctor from Salmon, Idaho doing the impossible.  Meanwhile, Rob was not one to be attracted to the limelight. He was busy up in Alaska and down in the states developing his skills. When Walt died in a river accident in 1978, Rob had already been paddling passionately for nearly ten years and had just hit his own full stride.

In retrospect even the barest listing of the major rivers Rob ran seems astonishing.  He found a full world of possibilities and drank deeply from it.

Taking his combined experience from Alaskan waters and wilderness, he did the Susitna in 1977, an epic trip with Blackadar on which Walt swam, had to climb out of the canyon and Lesser ended up paddling much of the canyon alone. Back in the lower 48, he did the first full top to bottom of the North Fork Payette and descended Cross Mountain canyon at high water for an ABC film, meeting John Wasson for the first time, who was impressed with Rob’s “dialed kit of equipment”.  As John says, “I can still vividly remember the first time I met him.  I was this barefoot, bearded Colorado kid, my gear pieced together while his whole set up was better than anything I’d ever seen.  He was more evolved, completely prepared, and had applied everything he’d learned up in Alaska, right down to the perfectly placed and inflated float bags. Everything about him was dialed.”

With that type of approach to his quarry, Rob sought more challenges.  In 1979 he went further south, flying to South America to do the first kayaking descent of the Bio Bio in Chile.  Turning back to the far north, he did the second descent of Turnback canyon on the Alsek in 1980 with Wasson, Don Banducci, and Bo Shelby. Then, with a hand-picked group of all-star paddlers, including Banducci, Lars Holbek, and Wasson, he filmed the first attempt on the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in 1981 for ABC Sports, which shows what must be the biggest whitewater ever run. “It’s going to be hard to find something to top this,” he said in total understatement on one voice over. However, they didn’t finish the attempt, which set the stage for his return attempts on this impressive river.

Through all of this, Rob fed his passion exploring Idaho’s plentiful wilderness trips on rivers that are all classics now: the Main, Middle and South Forks of the Salmon, the Owyhee, Bruneau, Selway, and Lochsa, padding in California, Colorado, and all through the northwest US.  The North Fork Payette, right in Rob’s backyard near Boise, began its use as the definitive practice field for big water paddling, seeing consistent action from Rob’s paddleblades as he started a string of top to bottoms in preparation for other trips and for fun, something that was unthinkable just a few years before. 

 In 1982 and 83, he did return trips to the Devil’s Canyon on the Sustina with Wasson and Shelby.  They added the beautiful Nelly Juan River in Alaska’s panhandle. In 1984 with Wasson he joined a “billy goat” crew that included Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia/BlackDiamond and Doug Tompkins (who had just started Esprit) and did the first descent of Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone in Wyoming, a deep Sierra-like granite canyon.  Along that time, he met a powerhouse big-water paddler/big-wall climber, Bob McDougall, who accompanied Rob overseas on the Braldu River in Pakistan in 1984.  The first full descent of the Stikine followed in 1985 with Holbek and McDougall. I was lucky enough to join forces with Rob in the mid-1980s, one of our runs being a return trip to the Grand Canyon Yellowstone in 1986. That one ended with Rob, Bob and I getting busted by the park police (see photo), having our paddles and boats confiscated and put in a jail cell at Park headquarters.  In a way, Rob was coming full circle – from park ranger to park renegade. As those who know Rob will attest, he always likes to see both sides of an issue and all the grays between.

In 1989, together with McD and myself, Rob set his sights on a self-contained run of the Stikine, only to have McD get annihilated in the opening rapid and do a desperately exposed free solo out of the canyon. Another epic ensued and both McD and I lost the boats we’d just spent nearly two years getting out of the Yellowstone Park jail.  “Epics R us” we called it, “Blasted and Busted.”   In 1990, Rob, Tom Schibig and I returned to the Stikine and did the first self-supported descent, and the second descent ever, bringing a nice closure to his experiences with the river.  Still feeling the lure of adventure, Rob went to Nepal and Bhutan, Norway, Chile, did other first descents in Alaska (e.g., the Kijak, Hallet, and Chakachatna) through the early to mid-1990s.  To continue the list of major descents would hog the rest of this article.

A few last examples have to be mentioned though, because they involve the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River, which understandably became Rob’s signature run.  Perhaps more than any other place, this river has everything he ever asked for in a run: a hidden, formidable gorge deep in the Canadian wilderness, immense whitewater, complex problem-solving – it is the perfect symbol of the raw power and beauty of the north country he loves so much.  Moreso than any other run, it demands the sense of focus and self-reliance he has always been drawn to.  Phil DeReimer, who did it in the early 1990s, calls it “the ultimate test piece”.   Rob lived the history of the run, from the scouting in the 70s to the descents mentioned above. He calls it one of the “purest” of expeditions.  Small wonder then, in 1998 at age 53, Rob returned to the river with Charlie Munsey, Gerry Moffatt, myself, and two others to make another descent, his fourth, filmed for National Geographic and Outdoor Life.  We had to work on him over the phone for several weeks, because after all, it’s a 1700 mile drive to one of the hardest runs in the world.  We were pleased when he said yes, and amazed when the old man just drove up and did it.  At the put in as we were packing, he commented, “There’s plenty of time to think as you drive, going through the rapids one by one, wondering what has changed. And finally, you take a deep breath and say, ‘well, here we go again, shaking the dice…’”

As if that wasn’t enough dice shaking, in 2001 at 56 years of age, he headed up there yet again with Chris Spelius, Bo Shelby, Rick Williams and several others, only to meet rodeo phenom Jay Kincaid and Taylor Robertson who had just staggered out of the forest. Jay and Taylor had intended to run the canyon, scouting for a film they planned to do when the rest of their team showed up several days later.  They hadn’t realized how powerful the river was, especially at a level over twice as high as it had ever been run.  After being flushed downstream out of control through the first several rapids – the survival of which tells you just how good paddlers they are - they ditched their boats, fortunately climbing out before they entered what Rob calls the “upper Narrows.” They were chased by a moose, had no compass, map, or gear for cross-country travel.  They were a mere ten miles down the 60 mile run but it took an exhausting two day bushwhack, lost toenails, and some sober thinking to get out. It was fortunate they were two very tough guys.  If they had gone another corner or two, it is likely they never would have been heard of again. 

Rob had already known the water was going to be high, and after hearing Jay and Taylor’s horror story, he and the others flew over the canyon.  Spelius called me later and said it was laughable. “Rob insisted from the beginning that it was too high. As we cruised over Entry Falls, he looked at it and said, ‘Nope, too much water.’  But I thought, ‘hey, there’s a line there, we could run that rapid.  Maybe Lesser’s just getting old.’  But as we flew a little further down into the canyon, the walls closed in and got deeper and deeper, and the river got wilder and wilder, I just started laughing.  It was ridiculous.  I’ve never seen water do anything like it. There were huge waves breaking from one side of the river all the way into the wall on the other side. There were holes sideways to the current. Wasson’s Hole was just one massive explosion, recirculating at a million miles an hour.  Impossible. There was no line, no nothing. The Old Man was right.”   With the Stikine at 30,000 cfs, Rob knew he had met his match.  “I’m still willing go out and test myself, but I don’t need to do the things the young kids are doing for risk.”  The team waited for the water to go down, but the river didn’t oblige and they called off the attempt.  He says he’s still willing to go if the water level is right. 

            This thumbnail sketch of descents is only one facet of Rob’s career in kayaking. There is another side of him than the gritty pioneer of big water rivers, a side that played an equally important role in the development of modern kayaking. 

Putting it mildly, Rob is chatty by nature, enjoys socializing with outdoors people and loves meeting new, interesting friends. In an era that started with a small core of committed people, he grew to believe that the wonder of water and kayaking was something to share, encourage, and nurture. Fortuitously, he found a role that fit his personality perfectly, becoming a part of the fledgling kayaking company Perception.  It was a tiny starting place with huge possibilities in every direction. 

At the beginning, he was the rep for the entire western United States and Canada and dove into an active role.  He already had helped start the first whitewater rodeos and the rep job now allowed him to support virtually every event, no matter how small, that sprouted up across the western US in the late 70s and 80s.  He traveled endless miles with a trailer of demo boats, paddles, sprayskirts and other gear.  He coordinated events, hung slalom gates, competed in everything, provided sponsorship, a helping hand, and endless good will.  He paddled with the locals in every place he went, and every place in between. For at least 15 years the thousands of new western paddlers coming into the sport recognized him as the face of kayaking and Perception.  Through Rob, these became one and the same. Many of these people knew him on a first name basis, because what he focused on most of all was to create gathering grounds for people excited by the new sport.

 Rob was always encouraging, enthused about new moves and new possibilities for designs. While he wasn’t a designer by personality, he was always keen to see where designs led and what they could be used to do.  A kayak wasn’t a thing in itself, it was a potential vehicle for other ways to look at the water and the world, and to expand the sport.  

When asked about this input to kayaking, he hems and haws a little, somewhat reluctant to try and summarize things.  “You know, I was just reading about Corran Addison going to Rainbow kayaks. I have to admire him for that, here he is creating another company and taking the sport in interesting directions. But when I look at my own role, it’s been more a steady plodding.  Not as creative, but I did the leg work with a lot of different people, especially in establishing the retail network, rodeo cycles across the US.  Also, I definitely had a philosophy about the events that was not specific to my work with Perception.  Really, being a rep for them allowed me to do what I thought was needed in the sport.  What interested me was the camaraderie and community of paddlers. The cross pollination of east to west, slalom and big-water, play and wilderness trips, Europe and the US.  We all could learn from each other. We all were part of a growing sport.” 

Because he started when and where he did, Rob was in a noncommercial environment. There was no commercial side for the first ten to fifteen years. “My true grounding in the sport is a purist’s sense of personal adventure.  My whole perspective comes from that core.  I was there during the formation and placed some bricks in a slow, methodical way, one rodeo after another, one conversation, one potential kayaker at a roll session, one small sponsor.”

It is interesting to hear Rob talk about the commercial end of the sport, which has grown so immensely over the years.  “Back in the old days when I approached potential sponsors, my goal was to have them contribute a product that increased the fun aspect of the sport. The point was to wrap it up into the community of paddlers, not to make a buck. I look back and realize it was a much purer type of support.  In the 1990s, people started asking straight for money, ‘I’ve got this event and I need 2000 dollars, cold hard cash’. That’s very different.  At that point, I started wanting out.”

Others recognize the impact he had.  Recently, Rob was introduced to the crowd at the Teva Mountain Games as the “godfather of freestyle rodeos”.  Animus Whitewater Festival founder and long-time paddler Nancy Wiley told him he was “responsible for the festival, and what it’s become.”   Rob is a little uncomfortable with such compliments.  “I think they are a stretch, but they’re true in terms of the efforts put in the 70s and 80s to pull things together, meet friends. We determined that Eastern paddlers don’t like the western big water, but they run this stuff that’s terrifying to us in the West. That’s the sort of world that grew out of it.  Lots of design work, lots of Europeans starting to come over, the slalom paddlers taking part. Another example is a trip that Ken Horowitz set up to New Zealand in 1982.  It set the framework to have a manufacturer of Perception kayaks in NZ and that part of the world. Again, it wasn’t for Perception, but they were the horse in town and they were the means to expand the sport.  I was an ambassador and a traveling guy who helped connect the dots. A lot of these things reached fruition many years later.  Through those decades my whole life had to do with kayaking.”

Although Rob has lived much of the history of kayaking, he also isn’t one to spend time reflecting on his influence.  “I read other people’s bios, and frankly, they sound a lot more interesting than mine.  A lot of what I did was invisible to me.  I was just doing what I wanted to do; spending time with the people I wanted to be with." When he is asked about the growth of the “retail base” in the west, he replies,  “I wasn’t looking at the retail base back then.  I was just trying to provide something that a person with my interests in kayaking and the outdoors needed. People don’t realize how different it is today than it was back in 1969.”

With the commercialism, he mentions that some people are in the sport for different reasons now. He’s not criticizing, but it isn’t his cup of tea. “I’m no businessman really, I realize it’s all part of the sport.”  He is also quick to say, “what I see most of all from the beginners, from the kids coming out of immersion kayak schools, from a lot of paddlers on the circuit, is people who plain love rivers.  I’m impressed with them, their bubbly personalities.  They have the same credentials and likeability.  I see the torch being passed on to able hands.”

While he was part of the “myth-making machine” of ABC American Sportsman and National Geographic films, he is amazed at the travels of current young paddlers.  “We were at the ground level back then.  I talk with young paddlers and they say they are on the river 300 days a year, they spent two months in Uganda, another month on the Zambezi, then off to Costa Rica, Nepal, Norway.  It’s basically an entire career wrapped up in a single year.  When I started looking at Nepal, for example, not a single river had been run by kayaks.  You couldn’t fly kayaks there, and you certainly couldn’t pick one up there.”

In an age when most high profile paddlers are buffing their resumes, Rob doesn’t even have a list of his descents, much less his other accomplishments. We had to figure it out for him when writing this article. When he speaks of these things, you begin understanding why.

“I don’t think about money or fame.   Those aren’t the key elements that make me tick.  The adventures are the important things.  I don’t have a list of them anywhere because they’re all wrapped up in who I am.”

“There are things I remember after the fact when somebody asks me about it. Like a trip I did to do the Chakachatna in Alaska with Tom Schibig and Jerry Jacques.  The overall experience was what I love, flying into this big mountain lake packed inside a super cub, beautiful glaciers on all sides, we’re dropped off, take the outlet and head into unknown territory.   The Homathko, the Alsek, the Stikine. They’re all like that.  Such magnificent places, huge but tucked away in corners of a vast wilderness.   There is such a purity to them.  I can walk away from all the problems of the world, the screwed up politics, and the experiences are their own reward.”

Long time partner and friend Bob McDougall says of Rob, “I think his most important legacy is that he was there through the whole story, from glass boats, a pioneer with Hollowforms, through all the plastic designs and companies. And somehow through that, he kept his stoke for being out on the river.  Most of us have come and gone, stayed in the sport for ten or twenty years, and then moved to other things.  But he’s out there still going strong, still stepping up to the plate in big water.  I called him up the other day and he’s all jazzed and invites me up for doing a Bruneau trip.  It blows me away, I think it's cool.  We have these threads in our lives and sometimes they converge for a while, then they move away. But for Rob, they’re still all there.”

To some, Rob has mellowed, while to others he’s become a bit curmudeonly. Perhaps it is the natural perspective of older age looking back after a long river, but it might be the view of somebody who is still looking at the river bends to come.   “I may live another 25 years,” Rob says, “or who knows, maybe only 5. A lot of people die of cancer in their 50s and early 60s. But even today, what fires my life is having another adventure in the north country, the purity of doing another Stikine trip, the remoteness, the challenge.  They are the times and places when I’m most clearly focused and enjoying life to the utmost.  They can never be taken away.  They are the fabric of my life.”

 

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