We called Dane Jackson while he was in Maui, searching for waterfalls. That’s just what the 22-year professional whitewater kayaker does. “Hang on,” he said into the phone. “We’ve been searching for waterfalls, driving back and forth across the island, and we finally found one.”
He estimates that he’s paddled over about 25 waterfalls taller than 50 feet. The biggest one? A 130-foot falls below a dam on the Alseseca River outside the town of Tlapacoyan, Mexico, which Jackson made a first descent of in 2015. The falls required him to rappel in, then paddle across raging boils in the river in order to get to the lip of the falls. Here’s how he made it out in one piece.
“As soon as I made it across the boils and into the middle of the river’s flow, I was at the lip and about to fall. There wasn’t a lot of time to think or make adjustments. Every waterfall is different in its own way. Some are harder than others. It’s one of the scariest things you can do. You try to pick your line, and there’s not a lot of room for error. It’s nerve-racking. You have maybe half a second to make sure you do everything right and then you just hope for the best.”
“Anytime you’re running a waterfall, your goal is always to land as vertical as possible to minimize the surface area and make it the softest landing possible. There’s no simple way to get your boat vertical. Generally the less you do at the lip, the better. You let the bow of your boat fall with the water, over the edge. As you get vertical, you can use your paddle to get the right angle. You only have half a second to set your angle. Whatever you do at the lip sets you up for the rest.”
“Once you go over the lip, it’s wild. It basically feels like jumping off a cliff. There’s no turning back. You’re going over a horizon line and all you see is the nose of your boat and the water falling over the edge. You’ve got to stare down that landing. Then you’re falling for one to three seconds. It can feel like forever.”
“Right before you land you have to get as far forward as you can and put your paddle on the side. That minimizes your surfaces area. The more in the flow you are, the less of an impact you’ll have. A bunch of water slams into your body. Sometimes it’s soft, like a bunch of pillows. But other times it’s hard, like someone hitting you across the chest with a piece of wood. When you land, you’re phased for a second, then you need to gather yourself and get away from the base of the falls as quickly as you can.”
“It takes practice. In the end, you have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone and know that with waterfalls, you’re never going to be truly comfortable.”