Harnessing Adrenaline Into Art

Posted by Zach Grossfeld on

Part 1 of our January campaign series featuring Pro Kayaker Bren Orton


Take a deep breath. “Don’t worry about a ting,” Bob Marley speaks through the headphones as another run awaits. Heartbeat and mind remain steady. Specialist gear encloses the kayak and protects from freezing temps. Air and white water erupt neck in neck. The kayak ricochets off the jagged rock face on either side. Rapids rage and eddies swirl, constantly adjusting the course. The waterfall horizon comes into view. Visualize the line practiced hundreds of times before this run. Grip the paddle with enough strength and skillful technique to avoid wrenching out the shoulder socket on the way down. Angle the bow. The higher the drop, the more vertical the kayak needs to be to ensure safe entry and avoid a broken back. Drop off the waterfall. Paddle the curtains slightly on the way down to make minute adjustments to the entry angle. Tuck forward. Move the paddle away from the face and turn the head away from the water. Brace for impact.

(Photo: Kevin Kennedy)

To most, a waterfall represents a powerful, dangerous force of nature to admire from a safe distance. To professional kayaker Bren Orton, a waterfall doubles as one of many whitewater obstacles to display skillful tricks and artful execution, while having a little fun. First hopping in the water on a school trip out to the countryside, Orton says, “I always loved kayaking from the start. It just sort of seemed to fit me.” Waterfalls make up just one of many elements of the sport. River running, creeking, and freestyle all contain their own intricacies and skillsets. “I love it all, but if it could only be one I would say river running. I like cruising down good white water with great people,” says the Warrington, England native. River running combines paddling ability with the overall flow of the river. Surface features, such as waves and eddy lines (separation of upstream and downstream current) adjust the stream continuously, adding to the picture of the ride. Freestyle involves more vertical, peppered features, like standing waves and play holes that showcase the skills and technique of sequenced tricks.

“My favorite trick is the Sterntap Airscrew,” says Orton. The kayaker corkscrews in mid-air, turning 360 degrees back to face forward, tapping the stern upon landing. Orton has invented a few tricks to his name, including the Lunar Leap, Slim Chance, and Tricky Tantrum, which all involve spins, flips, and turns in stylish fashion. For anyone who has never been around freestyle and other aspects of the sport, Orton wants three things to be known: “It is incredibly fun, it’s not what you expect, and the whitewater community is some of the kindest and most supportive people you will ever meet.”

(Photo: Nuria Newman)

“I always loved kayaking from the start. It just sort of seemed to fit me.”

Over the course of the year, Orton hops in the water almost daily. “I like to be up early no matter what so I have time to stretch, work out a little, read books, and answer emails. We will normally be out on the water most of the day filming, dialing in moves and techniques, or working our way down a juicy section of whitewater,” says Orton. A year round travel schedule allows for Orton and his crew to find good white water with the changing seasons. “I don’t spend many days off the water. If I do I’m either injured, in transit, or resting up for competition,” explains Orton. As part of his dry routine, Orton works out in the gym and performs calisthenics. In the winter, he bulks up with heavier weight on the bar and lower, strength-focused reps. Come springtime, the weight decreases and explosion becomes the main focus for competition. His favorite exercise is to train with gymnastic rings. “I am also working hard on my breath holding throughout the year,” says Orton. Whether in the gym or running a waterfall, the most important part of preparation is “leaving the cameras, stress, and fear that comes with running consequential rapids behind, and just get back to the core reason of why me and my crew kayak: to have a great time on the water with our friends,” Orton admits.

Looking ahead, Orton aspires to leave a legacy like any professional athlete. He shoots to have a threefold impact on style, newbie kayakers, and his own happiness. For style, Orton enjoys correct execution, which for him means as “smooth and effortless as possible, flowing with the water.” The sport has evolved greatly in the past decade. “It used to be enough to make it to the bottom of a rapid in one piece, no matter how hard you crashed that would be deemed successful. Nowadays, of you are not absolutely styling, I wouldn’t call it successful,” says Orton. Beyond style, he also wants to create easier access to the sport. Getting into the kayak becomes harder when kids aren’t exposed to the sport at an early age, and stomping grounds are continually wrecked by corrupt dam construction. “I want to make it easier for kids to get into the sport and have access to the opportunities and experiences I’ve had,” tells Orton. Intertwined with experience and opportunity, happiness trumps all for him. “If people remember me for anything, I’d hope they’d forget all the rapids I’ve run, waterfalls dropped, and tricks landed, and remember that I’m happiest when I’m kayaking, and all I’ve ever strived for is to spend more time on the water with my friends.”

(Photo: Lee Royale)

“I don’t spend many days off the water. If I do I’m either injured, in transit, or resting up for competition.”

With his legacy molded by each choice he makes, Orton paddles through his own normal everyday. What most see as an adrenaline junkie rush, Orton views as another day at the office. “The times I had an adrenaline rush came early on in my career when I was relying much more on enthusiasm and luck than skill and experience. The fear came at the top from not knowing entirely what I was doing, and the relief came at the bottom from making it work and being okay.” Now, Orton often replays his line of the waterfall while still underwater. The rush of making it down unscathed is replaced by stern analysis of style and technique. An emotional spike is the last thing Orton needs when running a river or a waterfall. A happy medium of relaxation and extreme focus allows him to execute moves flawlessly through the run. Only then can he celebrate. “I’m not looking for an adrenaline rush, more that inner pride of a job well done,” says Orton. The media tends to show only the extreme side of the sport. Thousands of hours of practice go into each thirty-second viral clip of white water thrills. Record falls, devastating injuries, and extreme runs garner YouTube views, but don’t show the true capacity of the sport. Orton aspires to change the image of the sport from adrenaline-filled fringe stunts, to a safe way to harness the diversity of whitewater. A large gap of “chill” downtime exists between the glorified skill work on flat-water and waterfalls. “I’d challenge anybody to come kayaking with me on a grade three river (medium difficulty) and not have a great time,” says Orton.

To those thinking about getting in a kayak, Bren Orton has one message: “Relax people, you won’t get stuck inside the kayak if you flip over!” In his experience, this is the number one reason people refuse, even though the chances of getting stuck are slim to none. The chances of Bren Orton shredding in a kayak tomorrow are almost definite. The alarm will sound, and Orton will continue to shape his path in the sport, just like the path he carves in the water.


Through the month of January, 10% of your purchase of any product in our shop will go towards supporting Bren Orton. For adventure sports like kayaking, funding doesn't always come easy, and elite athletes often times have to incur large personal costs to compete at a high level. The Frynge is proud to provide a platform that allows readers and customers like yourself, to have a direct impact in supporting athletes like Bren Orton. So be sure to check back each week for new stories, gear and apparel!

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