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  • A J Walker Author

Criminal Kayaker

Updated: Jan 20

As we’re continually faced with dooms-day-esque headlines that seem to continue to drive a wedge in unity of our country, I thought it would be a good time to share a more comical life experience. If only for a few moments, to get your mind off any negative thoughts you might be having or feeling about the state of the world and share in this ridiculous mishap of mine. Hopefully, this experience will bring you a moment of relief, as at the time it left me with a federal misdemeanor. Enjoy.

Back in 2008, shortly after my eighteenth birthday, a few friends and I were set to stand before a judge in federal court. What was the crime? Illegal whitewater kayaking. That’s right, in some circumstances a recreational sport is considered against federal law. “How in the heck did you get into this situation, Andy?” you might ask. Well, let me tell you.

As a late teenager, I found myself following in the footsteps of several individuals in my community who were pushing the envelope with what could be done in the sport of whitewater kayaking. One of my peers taking part in this kayaking revolution, Nate, was already an attendee at the infamous World Class Kayak Academy, where I and another friend from Bozeman, Eric, were enrolled for the coming fall semester. There’s no denying that World Class shapes some of the top athletes in whitewater kayaking. Since I was making quick progress with my skills in the sport, I thought my future possibilities with the sport were endless. At the time, I faced a major obstacle if I wanted to prove my worth in the sport. All the top athletes were kayaking off bigger and tougher waterfalls, but I’d never ran my kayak off a waterfall.

I knew from the YouTube movies Nate showed me, that I would get the opportunity to practice this skill, provided I made ‘the cut’. World Class was the perfect learning environment for taking my first big plunge. That being said, I was friends with a previous attendee of the kayaking boarding school. It was strongly recommended, and in my best interest to get the full expeditionary experience of my time in World Class. That meant improving my skills before the semester started if I wanted to make the A-team. Nate was on the A-team already, from the school year before, and told me about how the subset of advanced students got to probe the more challenging runs with the teachers before the rest of the class went. The A-team also had the opportunity to run anything they wanted to, provided a teacher safely ran it first. Since I’d never run a waterfall before, well not one more than five or so feet, I was eager to get my feet wet well before showing the World Class teachers my skills.

Just over the border and about an hour into Idaho, there’s a great first-timer’s waterfall called Mesa Falls. There’s a viewing deck to see the upper falls, which is about a hundred feet and falls to the shallow river below, but farther downriver is a unique waterfall. One side, the lower falls is a fifty-foot drop, but on the left, it cascades off a fifteen-foot, low-volume waterfall, and into a large pool of foaming water. This pool angles down off a long ramp that ends at a fall about thirty-feet tall. The lip is a mellow roll and provides a great first waterfall experience. I personally know two people who ran this section of the waterfall in an inflatable raft, headfirst.

Well, Mesa Falls was the second target on our list. We’d heard through the grapevine that there was another, more mellow waterfall nearby. Standing about ten-feet shorter, Cave Falls provides a nice rolling lip into a gentle, river wide waterfall. It looks like it was made for being a first-timer’s waterfall. The only issue is, it’s inside Yellowstone National Park. For those who don’t know, some national parks don’t allow kayaking outside designated areas. From a preservation standpoint, this makes complete sense and should be respected. In Yellowstone National Park, they allow boating activity on lakes as long as there’s no wake. In rivers, however, they allow wade fishing, but not kayaking.

My friends and I were all aware of the no kayaking rule, as Eric’s father had been caught before doing the Black Canyon section of the Yellowstone River, a very sought-after section of whitewater in the lower forty-eight. Where the Black Canyon requires painting the boats black and hiking in under cover of darkness, our Cave Falls expedition was much less involved. To get to the waterfall, you drive around the park on the Idaho side and access it from a road that has no welcome gate. The waterfall is the only trail at the end of the road, and it’s only a few miles inside the park boundary. We decided this would be a perfect spot to access unseen and run the mellow waterfall as a warmup before graduating to Lower Mesa Falls on the way home.

I relayed the plan of kayaking the falls to my parents and got their approval. I left out the part about kayaking in the park being illegal, but there was such a low chance of getting caught, it wasn’t worth worrying them. I drove the Old Green Suburban and picked up my friends Nate, Eric, Stephan, and Tanner. I don’t remember who managed to get it, me, Nate, or Eric, but we brought along a case of PBR for celebration purposes. I drove us down to West Yellowstone and around the park toward Ashton, Idaho, the entire time blasting music. We weren’t trying to look sneaky as this access to the park didn’t have a welcome gate. We didn’t even bother to take the kayaks off the roof of the Suburban. In hindsight, driving down a road to a known waterfall inside the park with kayaks on top of the car and blasting music was a dead giveaway to what we were up to.

We pulled into the parking lot for Cave Falls and got everything set up. Since this was going to my first time, we brought a tripod and some cameras to document. While Stephan and Tanner maned the cameras at the base of the falls, Nate, Eric and I suited up to go run it. Nate and Eric had more experience, so I waited at the lip of the falls to see how it went for them. Just as they were putting in their kayaks, they quickly got back on shore. I didn’t know what was going on, but figured they wanted to come and take another look. Pretty soon they came back, telling me to hide my kayak in the woods because the park rangers were there. “Oh crap,” I thought. How are we going to get out of this?

We thought by hiding the kayaks they couldn’t prove we were kayaking, despite the kayaking gear we were wearing. After a little while of deliberating what to do, Tanner came running up the trail. He’d just talked to the park rangers but managed to run off when they returned to the parking lot. He told us the park rangers were going to waiting for us to come out and get us. Well, that was it. We were caught for trying to kayak the falls, but what I was more worried about was the beer we had in the Suburban. Tanner told us the rangers knew about the beer in the car. Well, we were in quite a pickle. We were illegally trying to kayak, and the rangers knew we were underage with beer in the car. Now, it was just a waiting game.

While the rangers were in the parking lot waiting for us to walk out of the woods, we began to brainstorm ways to somehow get out of it. That’s when we devised The Plan. Cave Falls has an upper and a lower parking lot. At that time the Old Green Suburban was parked in the lower lot, where the rangers were. The Plan was to somehow sneak around them and move the suburban to the upper parking lot. Then we could load the kayaks and dress down before they could get the proof. We’d just play it off like we were never geared up to kayak and didn’t know what they were talking about. It was brilliant! Not, haha.

I snuck through the woods with Eric while Nate stayed with the boats and Tanner went back to Stephan and the camera to try and coax the rangers away from the parking lot. Eric and I waited until the rangers walked away from the truck to talk to Tanner again. While they were up the trail and out of sight, we snuck into the Suburban. We got in, started it up and drove out of the lower lot without them noticing. Halfway up to the top lot, I stopped, and Eric ran the beer into a safe hiding spot in the woods. Once we’d completed our stealthy mission to dispose of the alcohol, it was time to get our three kayaks back into the suburban and change into street clothes before the rangers figured it out. At this point, Eric and I had already changed back into our street clothes. We ran into the woods to help Nate bring down the boats. By the time we got back to the parking lot with the kayaks, the rangers were there waiting for us. We surrendered, admitting that we pulled a fast one on them. It was a good run while it lasted.

While we argued with the rangers about why it was illegal to kayak, they searched the Suburban for the beer. They didn’t find the beer that they’d seen in the seat a while before. They questioned us about it, but all we said was, what beer? I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no beer. That probably drove them to further irritation and could have been a further catalyst to them issuing all of us with intent to kayak and confiscated the SD cards for the cameras. We argued more about why it was illegal to kayak and they told us that it was an eyesore for people coming to see wildlife. We argued that fishing was just as much of an eyesore. They told us kayakers caused erosion on the banks of the rivers. We argued that put-ins and takeouts were a more localized and ethical degree of riverbank erosion than allowing anyone with a fishing pole to walk along the banks of the river while wade fishing. They didn’t like that eighter and left us with no good explanation other than, because it is.

A few years later, while I was employed with the US Forest Service and living out of a bunkhouse on that very same road, I learned that the park ranger for that area lived in a house that overlooked the road going into the park boundary and Cave Falls. He might’ve spotted the Old Green Suburban heading into the park loaded with kayaks on the roof. Maybe someone called us in, but with the response time, I’m thinking he was at his house, because that road was a very long way out of the way of anything and they were there within a half hour of our arrival.

After the rangers left, we contemplated whether or not we should go ahead and run the waterfall now that we were already issued the fine, but there were some among us who wondered if ‘intent to kayak’ was really a crime. If it wasn’t, it might be arguable in court, so we left in peace, only stopping to grab our stash of PBR before leaving the area.

That minor bump in our plans didn’t stop us from going on to kayak Lower Mesa Falls. As opposed to Cave Falls, Mesa Falls is a well-known public place where hundreds of kayakers are safe to fling themselves off the falls as they please without legal repercussion. And I for one was so glad we ended up sticking with our plan. Running Mesa Falls brought a much-needed sensation of accomplishment after being waylaid by the federal park service for most of the afternoon. I completely botched the drop in by leaning black, putting my hand up over my head, and faceplanting the first low-volume fifteen-foot drop. Once I rolled up in the eddy below, I followed Nate and Eric as they led me over the long rolling lip of the waterfall. I think I tucked up before I even started to go off the edge because I was so nervous. The whoosh of air came and a moment later I felt the pressure of thundering water falling all around me. I felt my kayak rise to the surface, upside down, and I rolled up. I looked back at the cascade of high-volume water and whooped with joy. That feeling of kayaking a waterfall is a sensation that can only really be felt by doing it. Rollercoasters can get you a similar sensation of falling, but there’s no comparison to the other sensory stimulation.

Post Mess Falls, we had a victory PBR and headed back to Bozeman. On the drive home, phone calls were made to inform the adults about our tickets for attempting to kayak in the national park. After a time of trying to decide if it was worth fighting the issue, we decided to take the hit and went to face the federal judge in Mammoth. While I waited for the others to go before me, I watch a bull elk ram his horns into the side of someone’s new truck. Not sure what significance that symbolizes, but I thought it worth mentioning.

When I faced the judge, I pled guilty of my intent to kayak Cave Falls and was fined a few hundred dollars, banned from the park for a year, and issued a federal misdemeanor for the intent to kayak. I still have the paperwork. I framed it because it shows my name, vs the United States of America in federal court. There’s also the word criminal typed in all caps and in bold across the middle of the paper. So now you know that I, Andrew Walker, am a criminal kayaker.



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