Kayaking Descents: Bravery vs. Stupidity

Posted by Zach Grossfeld on

Part 2 of our January campaign series featuring Pro Kayaker Bren Orton


Every person who chases greatness must fight the battle with ego. With elevated skills comes an elevated sense of self-worth. This progression invites the voices inside our head that tell us we are good enough, that we are ready. Without recognizing limitations and possessing an inner respect for the craft, these voices can wreak havoc. “To know what you are capable of, to realize the limits, to understand the consequences of what you are doing and yet still push past them, that’s bravery,” says pro kayaker Bren Orton. He has seen up and comers cross the line from bravery into stupidity, constantly overreaching and wiping out with no regard for limits. Going back to run easier white water builds a foundation and perfects style before jumping the gun. Fearless execution and pushing through risk fuels progression by identifying boundaries, but unlike other sports, kayaking doesn’t end when the ball goes out or the whistle is blown. No shot clock stops the current. A crash is only the beginning of a race to rescue before air in the lungs runs out. “I myself went through a gloriously ignorant and stupid stage in my kayaking four years ago, which culminated in me clinging to a rock above a sixty foot waterfall. We are all students to the river,” says Orton.

(Photo: Dane Jackson)

“To know what you are capable of, to realize the limits, to understand the consequences of what you are doing and yet still push past them, that’s bravery.” - Bren Orton

Staring into oblivion over the edge of the waterfall, Bren Orton kept his death grip on the rope and started kicking. The kayak plummeted over the falls. Dave Fusilli, Orton’s mentor, pulled frantically at the rope to reel him in. Far from according to plan, this USA pro tour run at Hamma Hamma Falls began much more smoothly. “My confidence grew everyday, and it all led up to that moment at Hamma Hamma,” says Orton. Sharing the same sponsor, the prestigious Demshitz crew invited Orton to roll with on the most challenging rapids in the country. The self-proclaimed “stupid stage” of Orton’s career was in full swing, as he took down hard run after hard run. “I went through a baptism by fire,” admitted Orton. Then comes Hamma Hamma Falls, a double drop waterfall starting with a nasty twenty footer leading into a perfect sixty. “I tried to copy the line that Dave was doing off the entry falls, but I didn’t have the skill or finesse to pull off that line at the time,” says Orton. A blunder pushed him into an undercut wall between the two falls. Panic ensued, as he couldn’t roll up against the wall to correct the line, opting to pull the spray deck and ditch the kayak. Clenching rock face on the edge, Orton battled the undercut sweeping his legs downstream.

(Photo: Kevin Kennedy)

Preparing to swim over the falls, Orton caught his breath in case he would be forced underwater. Alerted to the shout of his name, he spun around to see Dave unfurling the throw rope off a semi-submerged rock. The rope hit Orton squarely and Dave savagely pulled him across the river in time. The crew ran the falls to rescue Orton’s equipment and pulled him out of the cave between the two drops three hours later. “The part of the story few people remember is that I went back twelve days later and ran the waterfall again, this time with everything going perfect,” tells Orton. The importance of safety and running with a reliable crew could not be more overstated when something goes wrong in the kayak. In a situation like Hamma Hamma Falls, lack of breathing and overthinking causes panic that will hinder a safe rescue.

“The part of the story few people remember is that I went back twelve days later and ran the waterfall again, this time with everything going perfect.” - Bren Orton

Freaking out with a harmful thought process helps nobody in dire straits. “Okay, I can’t breathe, let’s fix this. Grab hold and pull myself to the surface. Great, now I can breathe,” told Orton to himself that day at the falls. Staying in the moment and knowing the physiological states of blacking out allowed him to realize he had more time to remain conscious. On Orton’s best runs almost nothing goes through his mind. Like a pilot adjusting the landing controls, an experienced kayaker makes minute adjustments while staying in a free flowing state of thought. Often, this experience is the only thing that separates bravery from stupidity in the mental process.

(Photo: Casey Bryant Jones)

Aside from a relaxed mindset, proper safety measures can make or break a run. No two waterfalls are the same. The team must obsessively scout out the lines, the drop, potentially dangerous parts of the river, and the base. “The most important piece of kayaking equipment is the throw bag, the second is a good set of shoes,” says Orton. Usually, another kayaker in the group will be at the ready to come in and help, with a second man standing on the edge with the throw bag should something go wrong. Even when a situation does go awry, getting injured in a kayak is difficult for most. A freestyle slip-up earns the kayaker only a crash into the water. Recreational white water may result in a dislocated shoulder. Unfortunately, “broken backs, cracked ribs, and drownings are not uncommon on the most difficult white water, even though accidents are surprisingly few,” tells Orton. Fortunately, Orton hasn’t suffered life-threatening injury, even though he may have lost a pair of shoes and trekked two miles barefoot through a cactus field after once running a rapid blind. “It was miserable, but a good learning experience and funny now that I look back on it,” says Orton.


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! 



Part 1 - Harnessing Adrenaline Into Art


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