We continue our look at Nat Geo’s 10 candidates for “Adventurer of the Year” with kayaker Steve Fisher.
I have been a fan of big kayaking expeditions since I first saw Rush Sturges’ “Africa Revolutions Tour” on youtube years ago. Loading up your kayak and setting sites on some of the wildest, most remote rivers of the world? Using whitewater as your excuse to see some of the more pristine corners and cultures on the planet? Now THAT’s an expedition.
Not being a kayaker myself and having all the water skill of a cement brick, I have never partaken in anything like this. But the more I read about Steve Fisher and his buddies, the more I want to.
Fisher has been called the world’s best kayaker in various magazines and, leading the only team of paddlers to ever run the Inga Rapids, it would be hard to argue this title. For those who don’t know, Nat Geo’s interview with Fisher lays it out pretty clearly. The Inga Rapids are a 50 mile stretch of the Congo River, with some 16 cataracts and where 1.6 million cubic feet of water blasts through a channel less than a mile wide. The resulting chaos has never before been survived. Fisher led the expedition with world class kayakers Rush Sturges, Tyler Brandt, and Ben Marr. Here’s the Red Bull Media teaser. The entire film runs 77 min.
Fisher grew up in rural South Africa, paddling rivers from the age of 6. By 21 he had become a full time kayaker and guide on the Zambezi, then off on a world tour, taking top prizes in at least seven major kayaking competitions. You might think leading the Inga project would be a crowning achievement since there are no bigger runs on the planet, but as Steve himself points out: “I try not to hang onto one single accomplishment… if you hang onto one item, like a world record or a title, then when someone betters you on that, what do you have? Nothing. I try to hang onto a well rounded list and to be an all-rounder.”
To be honest, when I first saw video from the Inga Project, I watched with a pang of doubt. Red Bull got behind this project in a big way, which I have nothing against, because God bless those guys as sponsors. Still… one of the key reasons the team was able to navigate this wild ride was because they had a Red Bull helicopter overhead spotting for them. The major challenge of the Inga, Fisher points out, is that it’s too damn big to see what’s coming. You can get bounced out of jaw-breaking hole right into a massive whirlpool and… so long charlie. Having a helicopter overhead was the only way they got through it. Which begs the question – when you are claiming a “first descent” of an impossible rapids – what about the kayakers without a helicopter/spotter? Is it really a level playing field? Or should there be an asterisk on this one?
Truthfully, I don’t know. You could just as well challenge the use of oxygen to climb Everest and no one takes that away from Hillary. Sports evolve. Techniques are pioneered. This is what great explorers and competitors do. They figure out HOW to achieve something that’s never been achieved. And Fisher’s been doing this for years, pioneering more tricks than Shaun White in the half pipe. To watch this guy on the rapids is like watching a martial artist dance and pirouette his way through a battle. It’s pretty damn spectacular. As so is the humility with which he wears it. Can’t wait to see what he does next.