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Dan Gavere Standing Tall

Dan Gavere is out of his element. He’s standing in an airy, ultra-modern photo studio on a hill overlooking his hometown of Hood River, Oregon. Shirtless. Flashes pop, lights glare. It’s not the attention that bothers him—media glitz and a little self-promotion are part of the game when you make your living as a professional funhog—but it’s clear he’s not used to taking this much direction. In all other aspects of life, the almost-40-year-old adventure junkie has become accustomed to doing, well, whatever he wants.

These days, Gavere wants to surf, in the ocean and on the river. On a surfboard. While wielding a long-handled, single-bladed paddle. Six years after he quit competitive kayaking, the former Wave Sport-sponsored boater has again made a proverbial splash in the paddling world, this time on a standup paddleboard (a 10- to 14-foot surfboard that’s a little wider and a little thicker than a standard longboard). “It’s the perfect meld between surfing, snowboarding and kayaking for me,” says Gavere, stealing glances my way while being told where to point his chin and rotate his shoulders. He points to magazine photos of celebrities on standup boards and the inland surfer-style craze as proof that paddlesports as an industry can still move in a new direction and, more importantly, remain afloat in tough economic times.

Now a rep for Werner Paddles who specializes in promoting the Washington-based company’s standup line, Gavere has a knack for spotting the next big thing. Snowboarding. Mountain biking. Kiteboarding. Whitewater kayaking. His life is a string of accomplishments in what were once considered obscure, niche action sports; his most marketable talent seems to be an ability to burst onto the scene, immediately excel, and use his signature grin and easygoing demeanor to pull others along for the ride.

But where Gavere has made the most impact is on the river. As a long-haired, baggy-clothed bad boy in the 1990s and early 2000s, Gavere played a leading role in bringing a fresh, skate- and snowboard-spiced attitude to whitewater in a time when the sport floundered for recognition and new participants. And he did it by having more fun than anyone.

As a 9-year-old, Gavere started paddling the way many do—in the bow of a Royalex canoe piloted by his father on easy whitewater runs near their Salt Lake City home. “He was a natural for reading the water,” Allan Gavere recalls about his son. “Looking at a rapid, Dan would be able to pick a route that was challenging, but probably not going to do us in.” After spotting a kayaker on one of their trips, the younger Gavere was smitten. In a kayak, nobody would tell him where to go, or what to do. Gavere’s parents were separated, and when he was 10 years old he returned from a summer with his mother to find a brand-new Perception Dancer in his dad’s living room. “My hips were half as wide as the boat,” he says. “My dad tried to pad it out, then we went and charged a couple of rivers.” The two spent a month touring Utah and Colorado in a borrowed Volkswagen Bug, canoe and yellow Dancer strapped to two-by-fours mounted on the gutters, camping at put-ins and hitching shuttles.

By the time he was in high school, Gavere was road-tripping to Jackson Hole, Wyo., to kayak. He ran Idaho’s North Fork Payette, a benchmark Class V, the weekend before he graduated in 1988. The following year at the University of Montana in Missoula, he was one of a handful of snowboarders on a tiny resort called Montana Snow Bowl, and opened a shop called Board of Missoula with another rider from that crew. Gavere spent the next few winters in the Wasatch Mountains, riding for Nitro snowboards and getting his picture taken jumping off cliffs. “I specialized in getting into magazines,” Gavere says. “My buddies were all photographers.” But he never stopped kayaking, even when the ice all but claimed their backyard run on the Lochsa, and this love affair would ultimately pull him from the shop and back to the river.

At the 1993 Bob’s Hole Rodeo on Oregon’s Clackamas, Gavere ran into Corran Addison, then a young South African slalom kayaker who had come over to the States and to freestyle paddling after competing in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The two loaded their Prijon Hurricanes onto Gavere’s 4Runner and paddled and filmed their way to Missoula, where Gavere had organized the Lochsa River Rendezvous. Along the way they charged a handful of hairball runs, including Coyote Falls on the South Fork Clearwater at near-suicide levels. When they arrived, Gavere quit school, sold the snowboard shop, and began kayaking full-time. “I was three years through a recreation management degree, but then my recreation took me away,” Gavere recalls. “It’s kind of ironic.”

His timing, however, was impeccable. “Back then there was no such thing as a professional athlete in kayaking,” says Addison, who helped Gavere work a sponsorship deal with Prijon. “There were a few people who were getting some free boats, but no one was on a payroll just to be paddling.” Gavere and Addison toured the U.S., from rodeo to rodeo, and began to make the “circuit” a way of life. They spent much of the summer playing at Hell Hole on Tennessee’s Ocoee, the site slated for the 1993 World Championships. It was Gavere’s first year on the U.S. Freestyle Team. “We had no idea how to train,” Gavere says. “We would literally get up and kayak for like six hours, then eat three candy bars and go to bed. We did that for three months straight.” They were among an elite few boaters practicing moves, like wingovers and cartwheels, while remaining in the hole—instead of exit moves and pirouettes, the standard for freestyle at the time. “Corran was leading the charge of doing four-, five-point cartwheels,” Gavere says. “That was right when playboating got big.”

The 1993 Worlds consisted of two competitions—freestyle through a rapid and hole riding. Eric Jackson, another Olympic slalom transplant, won the event. Gavere placed second in the hole-riding portion and seventh overall. “I had chance to win the World Championships head-to-head with E.J.,” Gavere says. “That was definitely the start of my career.” Before the next freestyle worlds, in Augsburg, Germany, Gavere and Addison went on a filming spree. Six months later, Paddle Frenzy was released on VHS. “We were charging, we were in really good shape, we had a guy running around with a camera and a throwbag,” Gavere says. “I was like, ‘I’m going to make this into a career.’ I saw a lot of potential for the sport to grow.”

For the next few years, Gavere and a mohawk-plumed Addison paddled, traveled, and questioned authority—and regularly stepped up to the podium at freestyle events. “We were two punk kids just being mischievous and always protesting this or that,” Addison says. “We were both of the opinion that the old guard needed to go.” On the water, better boat plastics and the advent of planing hulls translated into multi-axis moves, and bringing play onto difficult whitewater. “We didn’t paddle down a Class V run just surviving,” Addison says. “We were doing rail grabs like we were on snowboards, or we would jump up on a rock and do a 360 spin and slide back into the water. By today’s standards, it was no big deal, but at the time, people just didn’t play on a river that was dangerous and scary.”

Gavere came to the 1995 Augsburg worlds a month early to train, camping beneath a parked semitrailer in a one-man tent. The rodeo revolution was gathering strength, and the competition was getting better, seemingly by the day. Gavere paddled an Eskimo Kendo prototype that he calls “the world’s ugliest boat ever,” and nonetheless netted a top-10 finish. Before and after that competition, he traveled Europe with the Prijon team. Much of the 8-mm footage they shot in the Alps would end up in 1994’s Paddle Quest and 1995’s Kavu Day.

The films garnered a cult following in Europe, but Gavere was already looking farther abroad, migrating to South America to paddle during winter in the Northern Hemisphere. “Dan became the quintessential pro paddler,” says Addison, who stopped traveling with Gavere when he moved to Montreal to start Riot Kayaks in 1997. “My focus shifted from being a cowboy and traipsing around in a motor home, to building something for when I wasn’t going to be a pro paddler anymore.”

That is where Gavere parted ways with Addison and many of his other peers. They settled down. He never stopped.

Back in 1987, Chan Zwanzig had started Wave Sport Kayaks with the idea that making whitewater look fun and accessible would sell boats. “Kayaking in the 1970s was a survival sport,” says Zwanzig. “You had to have a ridiculously high threshold for pain and an insane supply of adrenaline to drive you through that threshold.” Many credit Zwanzig with creating the career kayaker, and assembling a company team not just for marketing, but to generate new boat designs. By 1994, Wave Sport had one “professional” athlete, software engineer, Gauley video boater, and kayak designer in Dan Brabec. The next year, Zwanzig hired Chris Emerick to shoot videos, and two teenage paddlers from Ohio, Billy Craig and Erica Mitchell, to bring a young, hip image to the sport.

Eric Jackson came to Wave Sport in 1995 after a brief stint with Dagger. He also met Gavere at Bob’s Hole in 1993. “Dan was usually the best guy at the river,” says Jackson, who left Wave Sport to start Jackson Kayak in 2003. “He made paddling look fun and made the boat that he was paddling look really good.” A few years later, at Great Falls on the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., Jackson convinced Gavere to try Wave Sport’s hot new model—the Kinetic. The 1999 Wave Sport promo video shows a laid-back Gavere telling viewers his dream in life is “to drive a monster truck at the Delta Center in front of 60,000 people.” He became the brand’s first big-name paddler, among others who would later become big names—like D.C. locals Sam Drevo, Eric Southwick, Tanya Shuman, and Jackson himself. “I wanted to be a household name in kayaking, but mostly because it would be the most fun thing to do,” says Gavere, who proceeded to transform his 1970s Dodge Class A motor home (nicknamed Brownstar) into the red, white, and blue Wave Sport logo-emblazoned funbus that would become iconic on the rodeo scene.

The team rolled the RV from California’s springtime Kern River Festival and Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival to Colorado creek races in June, passing through Oregon for the now-defunct Gorge Games in July, and ending up at West Virginia’s Gauley Fest in the fall. “I had the Wave Sport gas card, I had a little salary, and I was off and running living in a van down by the river, following the path of my paddle to the next rodeo,” Gavere says. “After a while people looked forward to the Wave Sport entourage and the party we brought to town.”

A typical day in the RV, according to Taylor Robertson, who joined Team Wave Sport in 1997, went like this:

“The Brownstar was filled with paddlers including Jono Stevens, Charlie Beavers, myself, and Dan. After competing at the Bob’s Hole rodeo in Oregon, we packed the RV and proceeded to drive all night to Golden Canyon on the South Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho. At 5 a.m. we reached the river, which was flooding, and put on. Upon completing the Clearwater, I figured we would take a break and get some sleep. Instead, Dan drove us to his favorite play spot on the Lochsa River about an hour-and-a-half from the Clearwater for an evening surf. After our session I was sure it was time for some rest. ‘No way,’ Dan said, ‘We are headed into Missoula for a night on the town.’ Making the most of your day is a way of life for Dan.”

Other kayakers began to strive for the “Dan Gavere lifestyle.” It became clear he had carved a living out of having a good time, and sponsors capitalized on this energy, skyrocketing him to whitewater poster-child status. “Kayaking kind of started to go through a transition,” says Erica Mitchell, now 31. “Chan was really trying to mainstream the sport and Dan signified mainstream—he was super cool but in a dorky kind of way, very funny, and he helped change the attitude of the sport.” Ultimately it was this attitude and openness that would help whitewater kayaking reach the public eye. “Dan and I always wanted to market the sport as fun and not so extreme,” Robertson says. “He’s an innovator. I credit much of the sport’s growth, if not the majority of it, to that guy.”

The whitewater revolution reached full flower in about 1999. That year Zwanzig sold Wave Sport to Confluence Watersports, which also owned Wilderness Systems and Mad River Canoe, and the company lavished attention on its sexiest, trendiest new brand. Gavere moved to North Carolina as the company photographer and videographer. Chevrolet provided five brand-new Avalanche trucks to the team. “This was right when the whole sport started to kind of go into its heyday,” Gavere says. “We were right in the middle of it, paddling for the best team with the best boats.”

The ride lasted four years, until Confluence’s majority owner, an avid boater named Andy Zimmerman, sold the company in 2003. Gavere never made nice with his new corporate bosses. Before long he packed up his Avalanche and drove to Hood River, where he bought a house and started kiteboarding. He fell into some kite sponsorships, travel, and media attention. He stayed in the paddling game too, working customer service for longtime paddle sponsor Adventure Technology, and announcing and helping organize premier competitions like the Teva Mountain Games in Vail, Colo., and the Reno River Festival. Gavere, who immediately excels at any sport he tries, even landed a sponsorship for racing radio-controlled cars. “I’m just a competitive person,” he says.

Despite his competitive streak and abundant talent, however, Gavere spent 10 years on the circuit without ever claiming a world title. He came closest in 1999, when a world squirt championship seemed his for the taking. Inexplicably though, he washed out of the wave. He never came so close again, perhaps because the all-fun, all-the-time approach that so endeared him to sponsors and fellow competitors wasn’t enough to win against the more disciplined approach of boaters like Jackson and Jay Kincaid. Though he says that 1999 washout in New Zealand still stings, Gavere insists he has more to show for his kayaking career than medals. “My whole thing is being diverse,” he says. “I wasn’t participating in the events just to win, though I always wanted to. My body was just kind of tired and ready for something different.”

While working at AT, Gavere started standup paddling around nearby Wells Island on the Columbia River when there wasn’t any breeze for kiteboarding. That was three years ago. “After awhile I never even put my kites on the car, I was just going out to paddle,” Gavere says. As SUP grew more popular, Gavere landed a job with Werner to help guide their standup paddle designs, and sell the California and Hawaii territories. “That was right where I wanted to work, so it was kind of a no-brainer,” says Gavere. Just over a year ago, he jumped into the company van and took to the road again.

Fast-forward to last summer, when Colorado’s epic snowpack melted into record flows on rivers around the state. Many eyes were on the newly built playwave on the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, wondering if its structure would hold as the flow crept to 24,000 cfs. It did, and Gavere arrived one June day to find a waist-high foam pile spanning half the river. It was a perfect day for standup surfing. “The kayakers were pissed because I was able to make it out of the eddy while they had to hike back up and catch it on the fly,” Gavere says.

Back in Hood River, Gavere calmly hops onto his 12-foot-6-inch board and runs me through the basics of standing, balancing, and paddling forward. He feathers the paddle at his side like a witch stirring a cauldron. I keep a wary eye on the current. Earlier, Gavere compared running Class II on a standup board to running Class IV-V in a kayak; for him, it’s just another way to find new thrills. While we’re cruising, Gavere chats about the Fresh Waterman Challenge, a series of SUP river events and races he’s organizing on the Columbia in July, and how river SUP design and materials are evolving. “I see standup right now where whitewater kayaking was 15 years ago,” Gavere says. “It wasn’t about running waterfalls and scaring yourself. I like introducing people to standup on the river and the safe way to do it.”

As we nose out into the main flow, I think about the magazine story I’d seen on Gavere’s coffee table. The photo shows him surfing his standup board on the Glenwood wave, and the pull-quote reads, “There’s something special about riding a wave that never gets to shore.” It might not be monster trucks at the Delta Center, but it looks like Gavere’s wave will never break.

This story originally ran in the 2009 issue of Canoe and Kayak’s Whitewater magazine.

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