kayakers on the clark fork/meaghen brown

max’s wave 

They finally had to put the lake place up for sale. Why keep it? The boy’s parents could hardly stand the sight of water anymore. Haunted by ripples and eddies and the garage full of kayak gear that would never get used again. Even the hot tub had been removed. Their timber frame cabin would probably be sold off to some young Silicon Valley family looking for a summer vacation home, a family who would never know the teenage boy who taught himself to roll in the still bays of Flathead Lake. Those countless hours and obsessive repetitions while a father and a black lab, watched quietly from the dock. A focused persistence he’d applied to few other things in his seventeen years of life.

Montana is a landscape that echoes with the ghosts of buried children, and by the time I turned 24, I’d been to more funerals than weddings. Young kids, throwing blunts, hucking cliffs and challenging landscape with every pool drop and inverted aerial. And later, older kids. Skiing the backcountry and running remote whitewater. First descents and class five rivers. Aware of their vulnerability, yet lusting after an inexplicably primal self-awareness. An entitled sense of freedom. Boys, raising each other out of necessity and circumstance and a shared devotion to the adrenaline of wild places.

This is a story of kids who grew up traversing rivers and mountains, simultaneously and separately affected by the events unfolding around them. Teaching each other to mountain bike and ski. Cutting class on powder days, ordering burritos from a local taco joint and hanging out at the board and kayak shops, watching videos of their heros until well past curfew. Sometimes there were drugs. Pot mostly, and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. A few joints and a discount case of beer were just a way of unwinding, of calming the endorphins before the rush of adrenaline filled all the spaces. Addictions manifest in air and water. The magnetic power of dangerous attraction.

The boy in this story, isn’t much different from many of the kids I grew up with. Almost as soon as he could walk, his parents taught him to ski, and by junior high he’d joined the Missoula Freestyle team and learned to paddle his lime green Jackson kayak down perfect lines on the Clark Fork’s Alberton Gorge. Hovering harmlessly at the margins of adolescent delinquency, the incessant activity helped give focus to some of his thrill seeking tendencies. Many days after school he’d head out, practicing bow stalls before the first spring runoff and backflips on an old trampoline in his yard.

When summer rolled around,we’d all head north, to the pint sized town of Polson, Montana on the southern tip of Flathead Lake. Carloads of stray kids and more gear than should ever have fit in the back of our parents’ Outbacks and beat-up Toyota pickup trucks. Our parents always worried. The drive involved an hour long stretch down Highway 93, once considered one of the most dangerous two-lane roads in the US, and brought us close to the border of the Flathead Indian Reservation where unemployment hovers around 60 percent and alcoholism is rampant. The town of Polson has long been divided between affluent out-of-towners building second homes on properties that locals can no longer afford and the poverty of reservation communities. A few Missoula families had managed to hold on to inherited lake property, but the numbers were dwindling with each passing year, and we spent as much time there as we could, shuttling back and forth between friends’ cabins and empty pieces of land an hour’s drive from Missoula. Long days followed by campfires and reckless teenage debauchery. Cheap beer, bought with fake I.D’s and Yonder Mountain String Band echoing over makeshift campsites late into the evening. Hundreds of weekends spent drinking and dancing and memorizing the lyrics to Wagon Wheel, and relishing in our immortality.

But high school started and the boy, though naturally gifted, was having a hard time with traditional classroom learning. Shortly thereafter, he enrolled in a traveling high school for serious kayakers based out of Trout Lake, Washington, and spent the next six months running rivers from Mexico to the American South. Reading The Alchemist by the banks of the Copalita River and visiting more obscure places than most of us would see in a lifetime, the days falling in to a rhythm of learning and boating. When he returned home a few months later, the force of ascendancy belonged to the boy, who was now almost a man, and we hounded him for stories.

In many ways, he was living a life we all instinctively knew, but on a grander and more varied scale. Chasing a dream through the world’s wild places and posting pictures on Facebook when Internet was available. We lived vicariously through his adventures and clung to him as long as we could. He attempted another semester back in Missoula, but sitting in a classroom was close to unbearable, and it wasn’t long before he was gone again. Off to Canada and later to West Virginia’s Gauley River for another semester of fast water and envious lines.

The eastern tradition talk about ‘liberation of the soul,’ the body serving as merely a vessel to carry the immortal spirit from one life to the next. Death, it is said, frees us from the constraints of our humanness. Just like water. But the day he died, the whole world crumpled. The hollowed eyes of kids growing suddenly old, just as we were starting to grow up. Our world- which was to us the whole world, snatched away by the Gauley. Hollowed souls. Even those who hardly knew him, because our town is small, and that’s how communities grieve. Trapped in a crack while attempting to run a creeky line, the boy had been taken by the water he loved. He and a number of other students had run that same line several times in the preceding days, and two other paddlers had run the same line that morning, just seconds before him, but to this day, no one is entirely sure what happened. As far as anyone can tell, just as the boy entered that critical spot, the water level suddenly decreased then surged back up again, trapping him underwater. Over the next 20 minutes, seven kayakers and two coaches tried in vain to free him. The boy’s body was recovered just after 5pm when water levels receded again.

I don’t know many kayakers who regularly read scripture, yet the days that followed the boy’s death were a ritualistic semblance of eulogy and release. In the Theravada rituals, survivors pour water from a vessel into an overflowing cup, reciting the verse: As water raining on a hill flows down to the valley, even so does what is given here benefit the dead. As rivers full of water fill the ocean full, even so does what is given here benefit the dead. The remains are then immersed in a river. For the kid who spent his happiest moments in a boat, nothing seemed more appropriate. Garlands of flowers strung across the mighty Clark Fork as the whole town watched from opposite banks. The boy’s funeral, like his childhood, the coalescence of tradition and invention. A memorial service, tethered to landscape on a perfect October day. Montana, holding us all close in it’s strange, euphonic, compulsive grasp. Later, his fellow students would carry some of his ashes to Zambia and Uganda. Scattering them from Victoria and Murchison Falls, close to the rivers he should have been running along with them.

That night, at dusk, like followers of some ancient ritual, we packed up sleeping bags and handles of Jim Beam and climbed up a mountain to settle score with nature, built a campfire outside an old ski lodge and sang Pearl Jam to the melody of a lone acoustic guitar. None of us really knew how to grieve, so we constructed a tribute the way we’d learned to play. Consuming and philosophical and painful and beautiful. Drunken and mortal for the first time.

I came home smelling of tears and campfire smoke. In the recesses of exhaustion, the turbulent poetry of Pearl Jam’s ‘Immortality,’ playing over and over in my head. Can’t stop the thought. I’m running in the dark. Coming up a which way sign. All good truants must decide.... Some die just to live. Years later, under paralleled circumstances, a friend would quote a similar phrase over dinner in a Colorado mountain town. “Sometimes you have to take risks in order to feel alive.” Landscape might have the power to save us, but it will always win.

Shortly after his death, a fund was set up in the boy’s name, to create a memorial that would honor his devotion to water in the form of a river enhancement kayak park. They’re building the boy a wave, much like the wave created in 2006, for another Missoula kayaker who died doing something he loved. Right where the Clark Fork passes through downtown, Brennan’s Wave transformed a dangerous water diversion weir into a perfect kayak park and concentrating an affirming energy on a central community place, so much so that the wave has since played host to the US Freestyle Kayaking Championships. Walk down there on any evening between April and October, and you’ll likely see a fleet of multi-colored boats playing near the bridge. And a crowd of people, pausing to observe the action. And maybe a few parents and a dog, watching from the banks.

Max’s Wave too, will eventually help set the Clark Fork back on course, and perhaps the town as well. Or maybe just a new course. I’m not sure rivers ever really resume their original channels after suffering the torrents of change. Nor do people for that matter. But the wave will be perfect, because the metaphor of water is one of reconciliation, and this wave was inspired by the people who loved him most. When it’s finished, in 2015, parents will gather to watch, grateful their children have a place to play. And likely a few of us kids will be there as well. Coaching, or watching, or simply contemplating the absolution of water. Max wouldn’t have had it any other way.

*This story is based on truth, but names have been omitted and details condensed to protect the privacy of the community who knew this boy.