A tribute to fallen kayaker, Bill Bowey
By Christian McKnight
August 16, 2004
Editorís Note: On July 24, 2004, kayaker Bill Bowey, 48, who helped pioneer the sport of "creeking" in the Northwest, died while making an exploratory run on Stevens Creek in Mount Rainier National Park.
To Bill's children:
Today will be one of the saddest, most confusing days you'll ever have to endure. At your young ages of 11 and 9, this day, above all others, will test your understanding of the world and leave you hoping it all isn't just a bad dream. But it isn't a bad dream.
Today is your father's memorial service.
I can't fathom what emotions are churning through your minds and I can't claim to have any understanding to how much it hurts.
I didn't know your father very well - we had met just one time, one month ago at the take-out of the Green Truss section of the White Salmon. But I certainly knew of him.
Your father, you see, is a legend. He belongs to that tiny fraternity of adored athletes who pursue their passions in the shadows of the extreme sports' superstars. He did achieve that dubious glow of media attention a couple times, I know - on the original cover of Jeff Bennett's Guide to the Whitewater Rivers of Washington and in an Isuzu commercial. From what I gather, however, he preferred an esoteric gorge's cool shadows to the rolling cameras. He'd rather hang with a group of his close paddling buddies than impress film crews.
But like I said, I didn't really know your father. I gleaned everything in this story from some of his closest kayaking friends.
I knew him as Bill Bowey or Wild Bill and as the kayaker who discovered and explored one of the nation's best steep creeks: the Clear Fork of the Cowlitz. He did that a decade ago, when the long and pointy crafts were designed for speed; not for the tight moves required on rivers like the Clear Fork.
Your dad was the first to stare into the hydraulic churning like a liquid tornado at the bottom of 16-foot BZ Falls on the White Salmon River and decide he could break through it.
He was among the first, if not the first to kayak the Little White Salmon River, the Ohanapecosh, the Cispus, Muddy Fork, Silver Creek and countless more.
By the time groups of kayakers began exploring the same rivers for themselves, your dad had been kayaking on them for years. He already knew which boulders were safe, where the unrunnable rapids were and which hydraulics were especially sticky. So he was able to guide countless groups of kayakers from an eddy: "Run it here." Or "Don't go there." Or "If you go here, make sure you have speed."
"You were never safer than when you were paddling with Bill Bowey," says Jed Weingarten, one of your dad's closest paddling partners.
Your dad was a brave paddler but he wasn't reckless. Despite watching scores of kayakers drop over the lip of Spirit Falls throughout his decades of paddling, he never took the plunge himself - too much free fall, not enough control.
"We all wanted to see Bill run Spirit Falls," Weingarten says. "There was going to be a day that Bill was going to run Spirit Falls."
Your dad broke his boat on the Big Quilcene River so badly once, the boat offered him no option but to hike out of one of the state's deepest, most imposing gorges.
"We figured he was leaving the boat behind," says Weingarten, who was with him on that trip. "We parted from him and finished the river a couple hours later, and there was Bill with his kayak on his head, waiting for us."
One week later a similar situation compelled a second group of kayakers to hike out in the exact same place. The steep, sometimes near-vertical terrain forced them to surrender their boats, use teamwork and ropes. They reached the road at 3 a.m., 12 hours later.
"The only thing Bill ever mentioned about the hike was that he had unfinished business there," Weingarten says.
Your dad used to brush his teeth with a toothbrush before running a rapid. He took cans of Kippers - sardines - with him in his kayak and he heated up his beans by placing the tin can near the truck's exhaust. He never ventured into the woods without his chainsaw, ax and boots.
These are the things you knew about your father, if you had the priviledge of knowing him.
Most of us knew him because of his pioneering pursuits. And as you know, that is how he died.
His friends say he had been scouting Stevens Creek near the Wonderland Trail on Mount Rainier for years before he finally drove to its churning, silty waters on July 24 with his truck and bike.
No one had ever kayaked it before your dad attempted it, but it has the right amount of gradient - 250 feet per mile - and the right amount of water - 250 cubic feet per second - to lure any exploratory kayaker to its banks.
That blue squiggle on the topographical map had, in fact, enticed Portland kayaker Chris Wilson too. He had talked about the river it represented with your father and had planned to kayak on it with him that same day, until work beckoned him elsewhere.
One week after the accident, however, Wilson and a group of kayakers did run the river, scouring its banks and eddies for some explanation of what happened to your dad.
They found a silty, glacial stream, riddled with sprawling logs and sharp rocks.
"It's bad," Wilson said simply. "It's mostly Class IV but it's shallow. So if you flip over, you'll most likely get hurt. And then there's Sylvia Falls."
Most waterfalls give some sort of geological warning before they drop to whatever fate awaits at their bases. Usually there's a roar, a horizon line and mist. And almost always, there are eddies.
But Sylvia Falls has none of these. Just above its lip, the river constricts from 15 feet wide to less than 10. The creek takes a hard right turn through a bedrock channel, piles into a midstream boulder and then drops 40 feet into one foot of water.
Your father wouldn't have intentionally kayaked Sylvia Falls. He was too smart, too calculating.
And he wouldn't have been kayaking carelessly. That simply wasn't in his nature.
He was a chemist in his lab, an explorer in the woods. But he was always a husband, always a father.
Your dad's friends, Paul Heffernan and Ron Blanchette ventured to Stevens Creek since July 24 to scout the river. Both said the river above Sylvia Falls is especially deceptive.
"I'm not so certain that any of us would not have done the same thing," Blanchette said.
The events of that terrible day -- whatever they might be -- will never change what your dad meant to exploration in the Northwest.
"He was my hero, dude," Weingarten says. "My hero."
Still, I would guess if your dad could choose between all those rivers he explored and a game of hide-and-seek with you two, he wouldn't hesitate.
I knew him as a kayaker, a pioneer.
You know he was much, much more.
He will be sorely missed.
Editor's Note: A Bill Bowey memorial fund has been established for his wife and children. To contribute, go to any Bank of America and make a tax-deductible donation.