What does the “Edge” Cut, Anyway?

Jim Snyder is one of the most renowned figures in kayaking. He has paddled for over 43 years, while earning his keep for years as a scruffy raft guide, wood paddle designer, and boat builder in West Virginia. He was an “edge” kayaker for many years in more conventional, difficult whitewater, particularly pioneering steep creeks in and around West Virginia. He is probably best known as one of the pioneers and designers of an entirely new form of kayaking, called squirting. With massive experimentation as well as testing help from his brother Jeff and various close friends, Jim evolved a set of progressively smaller and more wing-like boats that allowed controlled vertical and three dimensional moves like cartwheels, and underwater moves like mystery moves, along with a unique set of “cubic” moves and techniques. His book, The Squirt Book is a classic that redefined what one could do in a kayak. He has designed over 70 different boats, most of them independently, and also has been deeply involved in river conservation for the Cheat River watershed for many years.
 
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 What does the “Edge” Cut, Anyway?

Jim Snyder

 There has always been a “Hey, LOOK AT ME!” aspect to this sport and I’m glad it’s alive and well. It’s usually prefaced with “Hold my beer.” The thing to remember is—at its heart—this sport is a personal evolution and discipline, and amounts to little more. It’s a recreation, no matter what we are trying to prove. It doesn’t compare to being true to your family or actually doing something of worth to others in this world. All the progress in this sport doesn’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the real issues in our lives. Our personal evolution is a spiritual evolution and, as such, has little traction in the “real world” except for that it makes us better people—a bit more humble and awestruck perhaps.

The river has taught me some humility over time—something I sorely lacked as a young buck. The humble comes when you make mistakes and learn to question your judgment. Or when you lose friends. You second-guess yourself, and that’s actually the key to longevity—keep your head in the sky but your feet on the ground. But, maybe the thing is to cling to the real offerings of the river, clues and insights into our own nature and God’s vast Nature. You know, the personal stuff that happens in such brief moments and defies description—just so much magic on display as ordinary events. How puny it makes us feel, what a treat to get an honest glimpse at our minuscule schemes. Knowledge is always a bit of a face pie.

I can see where it’s tempting to think that Tao ran a big falls, got noticed and is now fat and happy (big assumption). So maybe it follows that someone runs a falls a few feet higher and asks, “where is my reward?” Good question. But really they should be asking themselves some further questions. Maybe the whole reward aspect of it crapped out but there is still this awesome experience to feel good about! Money is a thin incentive for plunging over big hazards. The river has a way of stomping on thin incentives. There’s got to be more to it. “Leading the sport” is sort of like a worthwhile ambition, except that the sport is a lazy octopus that hates to be led.

You know, if it’s really all about the money, then you have to look at things pragmatically. The sport is dendritic; there are many branches to the tree. The branches have many leaves. And they are all “cutting edge” to some degree—cutting the wind on behalf of the sport. But the leaves fall off eventually and are replaced regularly. Entire branches can be overshadowed and wither. And some branches find their way to greater “sunshine” and enjoy “prosperity.” How fortuitous! Still, none of the leaves can actually pull the tree along and make it obey the leaves’ will. It’s a reticent tree and all its branches want to stay where they are.

If one of the leaves wants a lot of sunshine it has to strive to the open space—but really the sustenance comes also from the roots of the tree. This might lead one to assume that only the sedate old schoolers are making the big sap because they are closer to the trunk and power base of the sport. They are more like the branches themselves. So really the trick to making a fortune paddling would be to be closely associated with a main branch but have abundant sunshine available—not an untried concept. EJ is like that. But EJs are rare in this sport.

 Still, it seems the “leaves” are always striving to be away from the branches, the rest of the crowd, striving for the warm glow and high visibility. In our

generation we aspired to being “stuntmen” when we grew up and we could make a lot of money doing that! And a precious couple made that scene work. But now it seems like Jackass has that scene all sewn up and there’s not much room for innovation there.

I could babble on and on about what works and doesn’t work, but let me just lend my unique perspective from someone who has not made a fortune innovating and designing and yet continues unashamedly. Sure, it would be great to make a ton of money designing, but I don’t. I’ve learned that about the only way to make a bushel of money in this sport is to make someone else 10 times that much. And yet I keep designing and innovating. Am I particularly stupid (could well be) or is there something else going on here?

To tell you the truth, what I do is selfish. I’m working for my own needs and desires and for those of my friends also. A lot of my designing is problem solving and it’s so hard to stop doing that, especially when you get positive reinforcement from your friends. But what does this mean to the rest of the sport? Very little, I suspect, and in any case, it’s not my bailiwick to sort out. I’m just designing the best stuff I can and taking my good old time about it. It’s fun! So my incentive is small—not money, not revolution, not reward—just problem solving and fun hunting. Maybe that’s why I have had such a robust career—over 70 designs with minimal corporate endorsement. The grandiose goals seem to deflate so easily and legions of followers can turn their backs in a moment if there is a better train wreck happening somewhere else. We are all very alone in this world and we’re here for just a flash and that’s why the big stones of our lives—our family and friends mean so much.

If you REALLY want to be cutting edge in this sport, try being the “Happiest Paddler on the Planet!“—now there’s a worthy challenge. You could start with EJ’s beautiful dream of being “whitewater rich“—paddling whenever the opportunity allows—and then make sure you’re good with your family and friends on how you disappear frequently (and return responsibly). And then proceed to pile up the excellent times we all want. Let them soak into your soul and make you that much better. And if you are still inspired to stick your head up and say “I am GOOD! I must be the happiest paddler on the planet!” Congratulations, you’re right! But don’t look around too far—there are a lot of us and if you’re still competing, you may still have a long ways to go. But it’s all good. Time well spent.

Going to the cutting edge and returning safely is a proper thing to do and is a time honored tradition, except that historically, in most cases, it has been a real imposed question of survival of someone and their kin- such as in ancient revolutions and plagues. Journeys to the edge are a sign of a life well lived. But to assert that the cutting edge is anything but personal, much less the potentially cutting edge of a sport, or the cutting edge of human athletic achievement, endurance, bravery, or brilliance is probably assuming too much.

This sport is small for good reasons. You have to be a bit bold to go forth into the midst of the frothy waters, and not everybody is cut from that cloth. And it’s just not going to happen—we can’t make everybody like and want to do what we like and want to do.

People like Nature and people like to feel safe. That’s why recreational kayaks are a much more popular product. It’s why touring boats are the main market. You shouldn’t value your hard beating heart at the base of a big falls as better than the hard beating heart of a beginner in a rec boat. God loves both of them. Heaven holds a place for those who play.

If you really want a great job paddling every day, do what so many before us have done: be a raft guide! Live like a gypsy! Hang around the campfire! It’s hard to do much better than that. A lot of great men before us (Alexander the Great, George Washington, Napoleon, and many others) have spent buku hours around the campfire. They all thought it was pretty cool too. Time well spent.

So watch your wake, eat your cake, and sing—very softly.

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About Leo

Taking it one day at a time...
This entry was posted in Quotes, Atricles and other's Ideas, Whitewater and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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