Extreme Kayaking – Have These Kayakers Lost Their Mind?


To the average person, the prospect of negotiating a stretch of raging white water in a small canoe would be the definition of insanity, but to a professional kayaker, the more dangerous it is, the better. Extreme kayakers deliberately go out of their way looking for the steepest waterfalls and most treacherous descents. Their aim is to smash previous world records and film their exploits for others to marvel at.

What is White Water Kayaking?

Kayaking is nothing new. For millennia, man has navigated creeks, streams, rivers and other bodies of water in kayaks. It was a means of transportation rather than an adrenaline sport, but by the early 20th century, white water kayaking became a recognised sport, and intrepid explorers went looking for sections of river and canyon that were previously unexplored.

Today white water kayaking has become an extreme sport, much beloved by adrenaline junkies keen to push their bodies to the limits of human endurance. White water is graded according to the International Scale of River Difficulty, where calm, slow waters are a 1 and dangerous, almost impassable torrents of fury are graded a 6.

River Running and Creeking

Beginners to the sport might begin with the challenges of river running, which involves making your way down a river without drowning, but for extreme kayakers, this would be pretty tame. These guys prefer ‘creeking’, which is river running in waters graded anywhere from 4-6, with lots of steep falls and other dangerous technical challenges thrown in for good measure. The more aggressive the white water and the steeper the drops, the more fun it is – or so they say…

Extreme Kayakers

Freestyle extreme kayakers like Rush Sturges love to push the limits of their sport. Sturges, who like many of his peers loves to film his exploits, nearly came to a sticky end when navigating the Bonita Falls in Argentina back in 2010. Instead of plunging down the 59-foot waterfall nose first, he dropped into the water flat like a stone. He was lucky enough to survive the accident, but thanks to a broken back it was a while before he was fit enough to get back to the sport he loves.

Fifty or sixty years ago, a 50-60 foot drop was considered to be the limit of what a kayaker could survive, but today thrill-seeking adventurers are regularly risking their lives in an attempt to claim the “first descent” of 150-feet waterfalls.

World Record Descent

The current world record holder for the highest waterfall descent in a kayak is Tyler Bradt. He says there isn’t a lot that scares him, but dropping 18 stories at East Washington’s Palouse Falls must have given him cause for a few moments of concern. Luckily for Bradt, he emerged from the water with nothing more than a sprained wrist and a broken paddle. Oh yes, and a world record that probably won’t be broken any time soon.

Extreme kayaking is certainly not for the faint of heart, but advances in equipment have made the sport safer. Modern kayaks are no longer made from brittle fibreglass; rather they are constructed from tough, moulded plastic that allows kayakers to surf waves and bounce away from jagged rocks. Injuries are not uncommon, but most of the time the only thing a kayaker has to deal with is a broken nose.

If you fancy giving extreme kayaking a shot, start off slowly and practice, practice, practice. But be warned, it takes time and commitment to reach the level where you can handle a grade 4-6 run without drowning. For more information about kayaking and other paddle sports, check out the Paddle Pursuits website.