Whitewater Legend Roger Paris

Kayak Session
#17 spring 2006

Few adventurers have been as present in mountain culture over the past sixty years as Roger Paris (Ro zhe' Pair ree). His life reads like a time machine fantasy for outdoor athletes. Ever wonder what it was like in Chamonix in the ’40s? Roger was there. How about seeing the inventor of the Duffek stroke—Milo Duffek—throw the world slalom championships in order to defect from communist Czechoslovakia? or running the Yampa with the Hatch brothers to protest Echo Park Dam? or climbing Mt. Rainier with the Whittakers? or making the first descent of California's Kings Canyon? Roger did it all. In search of a role model for a long life of adventure? Roger Paris is your man.

"The Nazis are coming!" This chilling news spread through northern France like the leading edge of a flash flood, prompting millions to gather their families and flee. Roads leading south from Paris became endless strings of refugees, moving incessantly like a column of ants across the bucolic countryside. Mothers and grandmothers pushed overflowing carts of their most essential possessions. Bewildered children marched alongside, their schoolbook packs loaded with clothes, bread, water—the basics. Many used wheelbarrows to haul their loads. Some rode bicycles. A few, the luckiest of the lot, drove through the slow procession in cars. Eleven year old Roger Paris was one of the lucky ones. He was crammed in the family car with his brother, sister, parents, and grandfather.

Time was running out. Bridges were being blown apart to stop the advance of the German army. Soon the routes leading to the safer southern farmlands would be cut-off. Roger's family raced to get across the bridge before it was too late. As they neared the river, each rose a little higher in their seats, craning to get a view of the crossing. The bridge was still there!

They rattled across with a surge of relief as the tension momentarily eased from the automobile. Moments later, the bridge was blown. Then the car died. Such was life in France in June, 1940.

"Luck is part of life" 77-year-old Roger Paris (Ro zhe Pair ee) happily and wisely tells me. It is a truth he has carried with him ever since crossing that bridge in the nick of time. As the sprightly septuagenarian begins yet another season of paddling, one gets the feeling that he makes his own luck. How else can you explain the fact that he is still adventuring with the same spirit he showed in 1941, when at age twelve he took to the rapids of a broken, bombed-out bridge over a river near his home in Orleans, France.

The Paris family returned to their house after three weeks of hiding in the French countryside only to find their home stripped of household items and ravaged from the invasion. But as Roger says, "Life keeps on going," and so the war-time routine settled in. Roger would begrudgingly make his way to a strictly run school every morning, and carefully come home through the battle debris in the afternoons. He recalls the dark time pointedly, "Food was scarce, war dangers were always around."

When his father came home with a canoe one day, Roger's dreary existence was infused with a glimmer of hope. Along with his younger sister and older brother, Roger pushed the open canoe on portage wheels to the Loire River one mile away, and launched into the nurturing world of the river.

Roger found solace on the Loire. Tucked beneath the war-torn landscape, the river offered a natural environment amidst the grim reminders of occupation that lurked above the river's banks. The river was sanctuary. And as Roger says, "It was freedom." A canal along the river made for easy shuttles, so Roger ran the Loire at every opportunity. He picked up paddling basics on his own, but to maneuver the bombed bridge rapids with confidence, he needed formal instruction.

Roger's paddling career truly began to blossom when he met Andre' Pean. Pean was an athletic former wrestler who helped instruct young paddlers through the local canoe club. Like young Roger, the middle-aged Pean found the river a means of escape from the drudgery of life during world war. The two spent many afternoons on the Loire, firmly developing a bond through canoeing. Pean soon took on the role of coach, and Roger was his star athlete.

As Roger's paddling skills developed toward a competitive level, the war came to an end. General Patton's American troops came marching through Paris and its suburbs. War reconstruction began. Roger's brother Andre' returned from the woods where he'd been hiding from Nazi conscription. Life began to normalize.

Now an eager teenager, Roger followed his older brother to the Alps after the war. They lingered in the mountain Mecca of Chamonix, and Roger fell in love. He swooned for the forests, was smitten with the glaciers and hanging valleys and roaring waterfalls and plummeting ski slopes, and yearned for every last mountain meadow and craggy alpine peak. He knew that the mountains would be where he would spend the rest of his life.

Roger met the great climbers Lionel Terray and Louis Lachenal, and promptly set off to study for his license as a mountain guide. When Roger's mandatory French military service called, he naturally entered the ski troops, and was sent to occupy the Alps of Austria. After his year in the army, he returned to the city and tried to re-enter the mainstream by studying economics. As we might expect, this endeavor was a complete mis-fit for Roger, and he soon returned to the mountains.

He skied, climbed, and paddled. There was the upper Isere, the upper Arc, and La Rue. Several were first descents, and some were last descents, as many are now lost to dams. Running new rivers held the most intrigue for Roger and his contemporaries, but racing held the promise of money from the French sports authority. Just as today's paddlers might compete in freestyle events to earn sponsorship for their next paddling safari, so too did Roger and his peers race slalom in order to fund the next river trip.

Paris raced C-1 and C-2. His partner, hand picked by his coach Pean, was fellow Frenchman Claude Neveu. The Paris/Neveu duo captured the French national championship in 1948, and attended their first world championships the next year.

The Rhone River course featured a huge wave that flipped Paris/Neveu on their first run. Fortunately, the scoring format took the best time of two runs, and on their second attempt, Paris and Neveu aced the course, finishing second. Second in the world! They were elated. By the time they attended their next worlds in 1951, Paris and Neveu were old pros. They won the race, and were crowned world champions.

Slalom racing, and the advanced techniques inherent in it, was well-developed in Europe by the 1950s. Canoe clubs were established institutions. Whitewater paddling was a recognized and rapidly developing sport. On the other side of the Atlantic, it was a different story.

There were a few paddling clubs and adventuresome river runners in America, but whitewater equipment and technique lagged far behind Europe. This gap between European and American paddling began to close in the 1950s, and Roger Paris was one of the main reasons why.

In 1953, Roger traveled to the United States to compete in what was known as the Salida Race. This downriver event on the Arkansas River in the state of Colorado held large cash prizes which drew Europe's top paddlers throughout the 1950s. The influx of world class talent brought advanced skills and cutting-edge boat designs never before seen in America. The first decked whitewater canoe in the U.S. debuted at the Salida Race, as did the first slalom course in the Western states. Many Americans saw their first duffek stroke at Salida, and the superiority of fiberglass boats over wooden foldboats was established there. American paddlers came to Salida to learn from the Europeans, and Europeans traveled there to see the American West, and maybe win a little cash. In the 1950s, the Salida Race was the place to be.

Roger's coach Andre Pean had traveled to the Salida Race in 1952, and returned with great tales of high mountains, big empty spaces, and dozens of rivers that had never felt the stroke of a paddle. Paris needed little convincing. At the age of 24, he boarded a ship and set sail for Colorado.

Paris, along with Pean and Neveu, landed in New York and traveled by bus to Chicago. There they met a friend of a friend who agreed to drive the trio to Colorado.

Like many who travel to the American West from more tame environs, Roger was stupefied by the high-elevation sagebrush valleys, the obvious lack of villages, people, and greenery, and the vast expanses of absolute nothingness. In 1953 there were no freeways dashing across mountain ranges, no ski resorts of transplanted opulence. Roger passed through Vail on a winding two-lane road. "There was nothing there," he remembers.

Gathered in the middle of this sparse spacious land was a rendezvous of paddlers in tiny Salida, Colorado. The international gathering of boaters were ready for competition, good times, and whitewater. When it came time to race, Roger switched from his regular boat, a C-1, to a kayak, which he hoped would provide greater speed. Despite having limited experience in a kayak, he finished third, and came away with $300 in prize money. It was enough to travel on for awhile, so after the race Paris and his companions stayed and explored the surrounding area.

Not far upstream from the race course was Browns Canyon—a remote section of river that rollicks between fields of granite boulders interspersed with sparse gnarled pines. Today it is one of the most popular commercial raft runs in the world, a classic class III-IV romp. In 1953, it had never been run, so Paris and crew gave it a try. Despite being seriously psyched for the first descent, the Europeans found it hardly challenging. They had run much harder rivers in their homeland. "If moderate runs like Browns Canyon were just starting to be explored," thought the Europeans, "just think of the many unrun rivers that must lurk in these mountains!" Roger and company would be back.

The following summer, Roger returned to Colorado. He won the 1954 downriver race (again paddling an unfamiliar kayak), and promptly joined a half dozen other racers for a run down the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas.

The Royal Gorge is as spectacular as its title implies. Granite walls rise vertically for nearly 2,000 feet, looming ominously over the river below. In 1954, the gorge had been run once or twice previously, but many of the drops had been portaged, and it remained a big intimidating place.

Roger's group of seven consisted of three kayaks and two C-2's. A cadre of photographers and friends followed the paddlers from the platform of a flat-bed railroad car, which ran along tracks beside the river. The paddlers launched on a powerful springtime flow. Surging brown water boiled and hissed beneath their cumbersome wooden boats.

The carnage began at the first rapid when one of the kayakers pinned briefly and swam. After picking up the pieces, the group made their way downstream to a much larger rapid. Here Basque kayaker Ray Zubiri entered a big hole and completely disappeared in his fifteen-foot-long boat. When his empty boat emerged from the froth, it was "twisting like taffy" as Roger recalls. The adventure was on. Paris and his C-2 partner Serge Michel were the first to probe the next major drop. Paris wrote of their run; "Once in the rapid every second was an emergency." Paddling with this type of urgency, it is no wonder why Paris and Michel's boat was one of the few that emerged from the imposing canyon unscathed.

The fragility and sluggishness of wooden boats during the ’50s was becoming ever more apparent to those on the cutting edge of whitewater paddling, and a concerted search for something better was underway. When Roger returned to Europe in the summer of 1954, he stumbled into the avante-garde of boat design in his hometown of Orleans.

At Roger's suggestion, a fiberglass roofing manufacturer in Orleans agreed to build a fiberglass whitewater boat, one of the first ever made. Paris and Neveu began racing with the new boat, and their success created a paradigm shift in boat construction that lasted throughout the next two decades.

It wasn't until 1958, however, when the most seminal event in fiberglass' acceptance occurred. Once again, the moment came at the Salida race, and Roger Paris was the driving force behind the change.

Californian Tom Telefson came to the Salida Race with a long fiberglass boat that was crafted after a Swedish flatwater design—fast and unstable. In the days before the race, Telefson realized that his sleek race boat was too much for him to handle, and he began looking for a more forgiving boat. Roger saw the potential speed in Telefson's boat, and was more than willing to make a trade. He exchanged his folding Klepper kayak for Telefson's race boat, and won the 1958 Salida race definitively.

Back in Europe, news of Paris' victory in the new boat material spread, and more racers began paddling fiberglass. Soon a new, separate race class was established for fiberglass boats. By 1965, wooden boats were virtually gone from the scene. The reign of fiberglass had begun.

Although he was a key proponent of new boats, it was Roger's technique that made him a notch above most other paddlers, and he was always willing to share tips with inquiring river runners. One of those who queried Roger for instruction was Bob Hermann, a spirited but unpolished American who had won the Salida Race before Roger and his European cohorts had started entering. Hermann invited Roger to his California ranch before the 1954 race to learn new and better techniques from the Frenchman.

They ran the Klamath, Trinity, Eel, Russian, Merced, and Mokelumne Rivers in an era when the sight of river kayakers brought curious stares from nearly anyone. If you saw a kayaker in those days, it was likely to be Roger. He soon became a recognized figure on rivers in California and throughout the American West.

In 1960, Roger joined California paddling pioneers Maynard Munger and Bryce Whitmore for an attempted first descent of Kings Canyon in the southern Sierra Nevadas. Munger had fished along the river, and felt that with the right team, the class V river canyon could be run. He called Paris and promised towering canyon walls, granite boulders, congested frothing whitewater, deep clear pools, and virgin sand beaches. Roger was nursing an injured knee from the previous ski season, but the temptation of a new upper-limits wilderness run was too great to resist.

The trio started down the clear mountain river, weaving through class III and IV rapids of perfect polished granite. A couple miles into the run, they arrived at their first scout as the river dropped below the horizon, revealing only white spray suspended in the morning sunshine. After a quick look, the rapid seemed runnable, and Roger led through. After a short pool was another drop requiring a scout, then another, and another. By early afternoon they had scouted nearly two dozen boulder-strewn rapids, running most and portaging a few. The relentless whitewater kept coming. They labored through a narrow section of canyon where waterfalls poured in from the sides, and class V rapids filled the riverbed. Munger knew that even the fisherman didn't come here.

The trio's calculated pace continued through the afternoon as the sun sank behind the canyon walls, and twilight seeped into their world of water and rock. Finally it became too dark to paddle, and the weary explorers curled up on a sandy beach for a miserable night in their wet suits.

In the morning, they found that the rapids relented a short distance downstream, and the team greeted their worried shuttle driver (Roger's wife Jackie) by mid-morning. They had made the first run of Kings Canyon, but more significantly they had made the first descent of any major class V river in California's Sierra—a region that continues to challenge expedition paddlers today.

By the early 1960s, Roger had clearly influenced the sport of whitewater, yet his biggest contribution was yet to come. The Colorado Rocky Mountain School near Aspen was an alternative college preparatory institution with a focus on outdoor activities. Kayaking, skiing, and French language were all registered courses at the school, so when Roger's friend Walter Kirschbaum (a legendary German paddler who pioneered several of America's Western rivers) suggested that Roger come and join him at the school as an assistant instructor, it was a natural fit.

Roger and his wife Jackie packed up their Volkswagen bus and drove from their coastal California residence to the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. The year was 1964.

Roger taught French language, Nordic and alpine skiing, and of course, whitewater paddling. Two years after starting with the school, Roger began his own Roger Paris Kayak School, operating during summers on the rivers of the Roaring Fork Valley. It quickly became the leading kayak instructional center in North America. The Roger Paris name was an instant attention grabber, and the instruction itself was top-tier.

Throughout the late ’60s and ’70s, Roger could be found with his wife Jackie and a crew of instructors teaching a new crop of students how to hit their first roll, or run their first rapid. Roger's instructional progression would begin on a pond before moving students to the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers. For the best kayakers, the classroom would then shift to more difficult runs like the nearby Crystal.

Legions of paddlers got started in the sport through Roger's tutelage, and some went on to become high-profile paddlers in their own right. Nine time national slalom champion Eric Evans was a Roger protégé, along with racers Jon Fishburn, Linda Harrison, Rich Weiss, and David Nutt—all national champs. Other notable Roger students include Andy Corra, Jennie Goldberg, and Nancy Wiley.

In the ’80s Roger took over as professor of outdoor recreation at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. This tenure lasted through 1987, when Roger's unofficial retirement began. His mountain lifestyle has shown no signs of letting up, however. Since the ’80s, Roger has ski instructed at several of the biggest mountain resorts in Colorado, his latest favorite being Crested Butte, where he teaches for Club Med.

When not on the slopes, Roger is often at his TV-less, telephone-less cabin on the headwaters of the Crystal River in the heart of the Rockies. If you can find him, you might get him to tell you a snippet or two from his life of adventure. There was the time during the war when he acquired a gun and was stopped just short of entering a deadly battle, the time he rowed the Middle Fork of the Salmon at flood stage, or when he paddled solo down the Green, hiked into the Maze of Canyonlands for a week, then paddled back upstream so he didn't have to run a shuttle. Or maybe he'll tell of more commonplace but no less amazing moments, like the birth of his sons Mitch and Sasha.

In any case, he has plenty to tell, and plenty for us to learn from. Fortunately, many of us have felt Roger's touch. His realm of influence has grown from the nucleus of his school on the Roaring Fork, and spread with his students throughout the Rocky Mountains, across the continent eastward, and farther still across the ocean back to its roots where a twelve year old boy steered his canoe through a rapid of bombed bridge debris, dodging the hazards, surfing the waves, and finally moving downstream to see what the next horizon holds.