Superman of the Ocoee dies on Stikine
Jeff West—Ocoee resident, owner of Ace Funyaks, and kayaking “Superman”—died last week while paddling in the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in British Columbia.
by Ed Ditto
Jeff West—Ocoee resident, owner of Ace Funyaks, and kayaking “Superman”—died last week while paddling in the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in British Columbia. He was 42.
West’s Clark Kent looks, easy charm, natural athleticism, and sincere interest in people combined to make him an extraordinarily likable and inspirational kayaking instructor. He was esteemed as a river guide for his encyclopedic watershed knowledge, but he was renowned for his ability to steer beginner clients past their fear of drowning and into the sublime world of whitewater play. You’d frequently see West at the private boaters’ takeout at Big Creek, up to his waist in the water and coaching nervous rookies through the basics of the Eskimo roll over and over again, until they were confident in their ability to self-rescue in what paddlers call “combat” situations—i.e., being flipped upside down by a rapid. Big smiles were usually the result.
In 2005 West told the Polk County News how much the happiness of his clients meant to him. “I deal with about five hundred people a year,” he said. “For the most part, my customers walk away going ‘That was the greatest thing I did this year.’ There’s somebody sitting around right now probably going ‘Gosh, I had so much fun at the Ocoee that day.’ And I guess the most rewarding thing is I’ve actually got folks, where, they did a funyak trip because it looked like something fun to do. And then they learned how to kayak, and they became avid kayakers, then they became great kayakers, and then they moved to this area and they kayak all the time. They still have professional jobs, but they bought homes in the area and they go paddling all the time.”
West challenged himself the way he challenged his clients. His kayaking résumé—as published on Ace’s website—included reaching the finals of the U.S. Team Trials twice, placing in the top ten of the Green Narrows Race four times, and winning the TVF Creeking Competition four times. He designed the Perception Lucid, a kayak specifically made to be fun for heavier boaters. He was a member of the Jackson Kayak team, an honor reserved for world-class paddlers. He wrote extensively about kayaking, penning articles for Paddler, American Whitewater, and LVM, and authoring the “Ocoee Guidebook and Training Manual,” the authoritative source of information on the Ocoee’s whitewater features. His record of river, creek, and waterfall descents is way too long to list here.
West was also notorious for his “vertical mile” kayak runs, in which the measure of success wasn’t the distance travelled between a river’s put-in and take-out, but the elevation change between the two. For example, the Middle Ocoee falls roughly 250 feet across its 4.5 mile length, meaning that to notch a “vertical mile” you’d have to run the river twenty-two times in one day—or in other words, you’d have to cover ninety-nine miles of horizontal distance to achieve one mile of vertical distance. Few paddlers are capable of doing even half that much, but West made it look easy, recording vertical miles on at least six different creeks. It’s why people called him Superman.
But if Jeff West was Superman, the Stikine was his speeding bullet, powerful locomotive, and tall building all rolled into one. The river that killed him is immense; a 45-mile stretch of high-volume whitewater containing numerous class-five rapids and innumerable lesser ones, all set into a thousand-foot canyon in a remote corner of northwestern Canada. West, after running it in 2010, wrote in a Jackson Kayak blog post that it was “definitely the best six and a half hours of kayaking I have ever done…everything I had dreamed it would be. A brutally consequential puzzle immersed in perfect beauty.”
“[T]he end result of a Stikine trip is usually black or white,” he wrote. “You either succeed or you are lucky to survive. Swimming here will be the worst mistake you will ever make. Surviving more than a rapid or two out of your boat is unlikely. Actually being able to swim into an eddy is highly unlikely (the eddy lines are surging walls of water you can barely paddle through). If you survive a swim and make it to shore you are then confronted with a 1,000 foot cliff.”
“The epic stories of paddlers climbing out of this canyon sound terrifying,” he continued. “Some groups have tried to quit and climb out only to find themselves trapped. They have to abandon their escape, return to the river and continue downstream. There seems to be two very different types of Stikine trips. You either have the trip of a lifetime or you are terrified and barely survive. A black or white outcome through a canyon painted in every shade of gray.”
And as if the Stikine wasn’t challenging enough, West reportedly died trying to run it twice in one day—a dangerous undertaking, but one he clearly understood the enormity of.
Why he’d risk his life attempting something so difficult seems beyond understanding, or at least at first. But in a quote attributed to an email from him, West explained that, “There is nothing easy about this sport. It forces you to grow and learn. Most people spend their lives completely removed from the natural world. They only see it through their eyes. Kayaking allows you to actually participate in the wonders of nature. It is scary at first and nature will always demand your respect . . . You never had fear before because you never truly experienced nature. . . Your new found fears are a natural part of the awakening process.”
West never stopped growing or learning until the day he died. Many details of his death were un-confirmable at press time, but according to one report his first lap of the Stikine on Monday the 10th was successful. After re-embarking on the river, however, he failed to reach the takeout by Monday night, and on Tuesday the 11th the Royal Canadian Mounted Police received a report that a deceased male had been located in the Stikine between Highway 37 and Telegraph Creek.
Whatever the specifics, word of the tragedy spread quickly throughout the boating community. West’s Facebook page was soon crushed with tributes even as his friends and family dealt with shock and grief and scrambled to make final arrangements. The story made first regional and then national news. It’s still far from over.
While the exact circumstances of West’s death aren’t—and may never be—known, his passing has left…well, what’s bigger than Superman? That’s how big the hole is in the hearts of the people who knew and loved him. You’d like to think that in life you’d touch so many people and be so well-remembered as Jeff West. He was one of the good guys.
At the time of this writing final arrangements were still being worked out, but a fund has been established in West’s name at http://www.gofundme.com/1752o4 to pay for his return from British Columbia, to assist in the survival of Ace Funyaks, and to underwrite West’s memorial expenses. Donations can also be made to the Jeff West Memorial Fund, care of First Volunteer Bank, 137 Highway 64, Ocoee, TN 37361.
Up-to-date memorial arrangements can be found on West’s Facebook page.
Author’s note: I was asked to write this article at the very last minute. I’ve done my best to attribute quotes and confirm the details of Jeff’s death without adding to the burden his inner circle is currently facing. Any errors are mine and not theirs.
RIP, Jeff — I always looked up to you.
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