Current Events: The Kayaking Legacy of Reg Lake

by Ted Rosen

There are two sports worlds. There is the world of mainstream sports, with its glamorous superstars, enormous budgets and massive marketing machines. Then there’s the world of passion sports, with its underdog heroes, relative poverty and niche marketing efforts. Everyone knows the mainstream sports legends. But in the passion sports, our heroes are legends in the true sense of the word. Stories of their accomplishments filter through the sport. Eventually, their names become renowned, if only among a few thousand enthusiasts. Kayak legend Reg Lake is one of those heroes.

Reg playing at Skookumchuck Rapids
Reg playing at Skookumchuck Rapids

As a young man, he enjoyed hiking in the Sierras of California, but in the late 1960’s something new grabbed his attention. “While hiking at Point Reyes National Seashore, I met a couple of people who built their own kayaks. It wasn’t so much what they said but their enthusiasm, the way they talked about it.  A short time later one of the guys at United Airlines [where Reg was employed] had a kayak for sale so I bought the kayak for a hundred bucks and I contacted these folks, seeking a source of instruction. It ends up that I found a tighter bond with the whitewater group than the backpacking crowd. ”

Thus began a long career in kayaking that drove Reg from day paddles to epic, boundary-smashing explorations. Once he got the feel for whitewater kayaking, he started to ask himself: is there anything more?

“The sport was so young, so many rivers that hadn’t been done before. All the ones without portages had been done.  So then you have to think: what hasn’t been done?”

This train of thought led him to some bold ideas. What if kayaks could be carried over a great distance to seek out some of these previously un-run rivers? How hard could it really be?

“In 1980 I connected with some climbers that I met on a trip on Rio Bío Bío in Chile.  We realized we had an interest in the front edge of kayaking.  So we came back to the Sierras and checked out the topo maps and started plotting a couple rivers to do. I didn’t have the climbing knowledge; I trusted the climbers knew what they were doing. I felt my decision making would matter on the water. . . I would run it if I could and if not, it was a portage. ”

And portage he did. Teaming up with famed climbers Royal Robbins (of Royal Robbins outdoor clothing), Doug Tompkins (co-founder of North Face and Espirit) and Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia), Reg began a series of long hauls to run some truly wild waters. They would pack up their kayaks and all their camping gear and trek across the mountains to find elusive untouched whitewater rapids.

“I felt out of my element in the climbing part of it.  But being with Royal Robbins and Doug Tompkins, if there was any rope work to be set, they’d set it. It goes back to putting confidence in your partners.  Much like the way they climbed, when the lead would change, somebody would get to a crux move on the river and he’d scout it and then describe it to the others or they would point to their eyes and you’d get out and look at it yourself. ”

So, the mountain people and the water people got together and had some epic adventures. They made their way across forest, rock and snow to some of the most remote rivers in the West. Along the way, they got pretty good at it.

Reg Lake on the first descent of the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone River in Wyoming.
Reg Lake on the first descent of the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone River in Wyoming.

One day, Royal was poring over a map and found something of interest to the team. No one had ever kayaked the headwaters of the Kern river, a mighty run that starts in the steep Sierras of Inyo county and peters out just east of Bakersfield. There was just one catch: getting there would mean a 22. 5 mile carry across Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. What sounds insane to you and me became a challenge to Reg and his team.

“For the 22 and a half miles of portaging over Mt. Whitney, we looked into an aerial drop, we looked at using pack animals, and there was no real legal way of doing it. . . So we were going to go through Yosemite and hire some climbers to help tow some gear but Doug ended up getting a couple employees from Espirit [the company he owned at the time]. We all carried our own kayaks but there was extra gear these employees carried. Once we got to the river, they carried the backpack frames and other stuff back out. So, it was a really good experience for them and it worked out well for us. ”

The climb was arduous and the long, steep whitewater was a mental and physical challenge, but the trip ended in weary, wet success: the first running of the upper Kern. Reg and his team had done the impossible.

I asked Reg how his success at these massive climbing/kayaking expeditions affected his understanding of what “difficult” really means.

“It’s funny now, if there’s a quarter mile portage people start grumbling.  You have to do stupid stuff to make it all relative. It’s the same thing with doing long days. Usually 20 miles in a river is a good long day, but five or six times in my life I’ve done over 100 miles in a day. So you can do 20 miles in an afternoon if you have to. You just keep moving. ”

Reg Lake, Royal Robbins, and Doug Tompkins at the pass on Mount Whitney, elevation 13,777 feet before the first Descent of the Kern River. A remarkable 22.5 mile carry to the put-in at 8,000 ft.
Reg Lake, Royal Robbins, and Doug Tompkins at the pass on Mount Whitney, elevation 13,777 feet before the first Descent of the Kern River. A remarkable 22.5 mile carry to the put-in at 8,000 ft.

And Reg kept moving. He continued finding new explorations in California and went on numerous coastal expeditions in Chile. During this time, he was running his own kayak shop and learned the intricacies of kayak design.  He was struck by the differences between sea kayaking and whitewater, and he explains why he prefers the whitewater.

“There’s a great line from songwriter Chuck Pyle: ‘For every mile of road there’s two miles of ditches. ‘ On the river, for every mile of river there’s two miles of shoreline. So there’s a lot of really good scenery. You take it all in, experience it. You drop down through some different life zones and there are different trees, the river changes character.  It usually starts out steep and gets milder near the bottom. We’d put in at over 9000 feet sometimes and drop from alpine to tree-line to high desert. It’s an interesting experience. ”

Nowadays, Reg Lake is busy with his friend Sterling Donalson at Sterling Kayaks in Bellingham, Washington. They build some of the most beautiful and technologically advanced kayaks in the world, with orders coming in from all over the globe.  A recent fire destroyed the shop, but after some understandable grief and consternation, they are back at it and plan to be running at capacity by summer of 2013.

If you want to get Reg Lake excited, talk about kayak design.

“I was getting frustrated with sea kayak design because I kept modifying a little bit or looking for designs where the stern was freer. And it never was! So when I was working with Sterling, I knew the value of freeing up the stern so we did that on the Grand Illusion. The Icecap and the Illusion had really good control. They’d out-perform the competition. But then with the Grand Illusion, we really got to play with it. And it was  so maneuverable that I thought we were giving away some speed or something. I thought we did too much; something must be wrong. Turns out nothing was wrong; it worked the way I thought it should!”

Though hurtling inexorably into his silver years, Reg continues to paddle. The passion remains undiminished. Among kayakers he remains a living legend. He’d bristle at this description, but in the world of passion sports we need our heroes. They don’t get TV deals or their faces plastered all over cereal boxes. Instead, they have their own secret club full of tremendous athletes; some of them fans, some of them champions. The only thing holding them together is their love of adventure, from the trails to the oceans.

Reg has some sage words on the subject of “adventure”.

“Bruce Mason at Oregon University says ‘Adventure is something that while you’re doing it you wish you were back at home telling your friends about it. ‘ That rings true. Adventure, rightly stated, is only incompetence. Like Yvon Chouinard says, ‘It’s not an adventure until things start going wrong’.  People will say, ‘I want to go on an adventure with you!’ And I’ll respond, ‘How about worthy goals accomplished uneventfully?’ Usually they’ll go along with that. ”

Then Reg chuckles to himself: “I told this to someone and they used it in a book series: The difference between a fairy tale and a whitewater story is: a fairy tale starts out ‘Once upon a time. . . ‘ and a whitewater story starts out, ‘No shit, there I was!’”

There he was, indeed.

Interested in learning how to choose a kayak? Check out this guide:


  1. This piece is a revelation to me. I know athletes making all the sacrifice of others who get paid millions, yet do it for the love of the sport. I lacked the words to describe these athletes. Thanks to reading Ted Rosen’s piece, I have learned the lingo of “passion sports.” I think its athletes are the true athletes. Great work.

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