In the April issue of Outside magazine (“The Adventure Issue”), long-time kayaker Doug Ammons was listed as one of the “ten greatest adventurers since 1900.” The editors mentioned Ammons’ descents of the Stikine, especially his solo descent in 1992, as being a “game changer in adventure.” PL checks in…
“What Reinhold Messner (No. 2 on the list) did for alpinism, Ammons did for paddling,” the story reads. The Montanan’s solo on the Stikine still stands as one of the sport’s ultimate tests of commitment and perseverance. “I tried to do the hardest thing I could conceive of, in the purest style possible,” Ammons later wrote.
Polar explorer Roald Amundsen, mountaineer Reinhold Messner, and climbers Lynn Hill and Yvon Chouinard were also on the list. In determining the list, Outside’s editors stressed the audacity and boldness of the feat, that the accomplishment “permanently altered the landscape of adventure,” and the people lived to tell their tale.
It’s pretty heady company for a dirtbag kayaker, except Ammons is not quite the usual dirtbag boater. He has a Ph.D. and works as an editor of two large scientific journals. He’s been married for 25 years, has five children, and also is a martial artist and classical guitarist.
“I had no idea they were creating a list like this,” he says. “They asked me for photos about two months ago, but I thought it was for a big list of 50 or 100 people across the adventure sports, and that I’d be some footnote. Last week when I clicked on the link they sent, I sat staring in disbelief. Frankly, I don’t feel worthy to be on the list. I can think of plenty of other people who could be there in place of me, like Walt Blackadar, Rob Lesser or Scott Lindgren, to name just three. I’m honored and stunned.”
“I guess the strangest thing,” he adds, “is that I never said anything publicly about that solo for nearly 18 years, or any of the other solos I did. They were all done as private vision quests and intensely personal challenges. To have it turn around all these years later and be put forward publicly in this way, is a hell of a surprise and hard to fathom.”
Ammons also points to those who paved the way before him. “Lists like this don’t show how we all are indebted to the people who came before us, and what we learned from them,” he says. “I’d single out Rob Lesser as a major influence on me. His original run in the Stikine was what lit a huge fire for me. When I saw the power of the place, I knew kayaking was the sport I wanted to do, and the Stikine was the place I wanted to go. As fate had it, I met Rob shortly after that and we became friends and partners. A few years later we did the first self-contained run of the Stikine (second descent) together in 1990.
“So the list doesn’t reflect the threads that tie us all together,” he adds. “It just highlights individuals, but individuals are never the real story.”
Ammons has done dozens of other first descents worldwide, and many other notable runs, such as the North Fork Payette at peak flows, handpaddling runs, and even a vertical mile (three top-to-bottom) handpaddle run on his back yard river. His solo expeditions include Devil’s Canyon of the Susitna and Clark Fork of the Yellowstone.
He has also helped make seven major documentaries for National Geographic, ESPN, and Outdoor Life, four of which won Emmy Awards for action cinematography.
He is also the author of two well-regarded books, “The Laugh of the Water Nymph,” a collection of short river adventures, and “Whitewater Philosophy,” a collection of essays about what we learn from rivers. He is about to publish a third book on the Stikine and his solo descent, which has had in draft form for more than ten years.
“I wrote it for myself to understand the experience,” he says. “The Stikine canyon is one of the wonders of the world, a beautiful, raw, powerful, dark magnet of a place. “I’m finally feeling I have the distance to tell the story.”
Proceeds from all book sales go to supporting two small schools in rural Nepal.