Daredevil Al Faussett pushes the modern limits of whitewater boating
By Whit Deschner
August 3, 2004
Editor's Note: The following story is an excerpt from the book Liquid Locomotive, a collection of extraordinary river stories compiled by John Long - a gripping must-read for every paddler and non-paddler.
Hume said that only the daredevil can confuse us more than a genius or a fool.
What makes a daredevil strive after "deathcom six," the point at which the rest
of us run for cover? And what of
the question why? There are no simple answers to these presumably simple
questions. Hardcore adventurers detest the name "daredevil," for it tends to
overlook the often formidable skill of the adventure athlete. And yet once
the adventure athlete starts pushing the outer envelope of her ability, she
immediately becomes something of a daredevil. She dares her own skill and
mortality with a devil-may-care abandon. Nothing less will do.
The following narrative covers the strange and dazzling career of daredevil
Al Faussett, a sort of whitewater kamikaze. During his time Faussett
astounded many with his cool disposition as he swept toward the lip of
another colossal waterfall and another heart-stopping vertical plunge.
Gambling with his life to survive the big drop into hungry waters, Faussett
was convinced that these monstrosities could not be tamed but could
certainly be survived. His efforts provide some of the oddest and most
amusing river chronicles in print.
Sunset Falls on Washington's Skykomish River drops 104 feet over a 275-foot
granite slide. Many a boater has stood spellbound alongside the roaring
explosion of waters and inevitably asked, "Can it be run?" The answer is a
fat ho hum to those who believe they can push the modern limits of
whitewater boating: It was run in 1926. The man's name was Al Faussett.
And Sunset Falls was only the beginning of Faussett's cataract-jumping
career. Over a period of four years, he descended six of the Northwest's
most treacherous falls, including 212-foot Shoshone, 45 feet higher than
Until 1926 Faussett had been a lumberjack or, as they were known back then,
a "dirtyneck." He ran a gyppo operation trying to compete against
Weyerhaeuser. Faussett might have kept on running his shoestring logging
outfit had it not been for Fox Studios, which was in the area to shoot a
The script for Fox's soundless feature called for an Indian to ride over a
falls in a dugout. The choice for the take was Sunset, and the studio
offered $1,500 to anyone who would jump the falls.
Faussett was the lone taker of the bait. However, when he saw Fox's canoe he
claimed it was far from adequate for such a feat. He would craft his own.
Faussett felled a spruce and hand-hewed from it a thirty-four-foot canoe.
But when Faussett added safety features to his canoe, there was little
resemblance to an Indian dugout. He had covered the foredeck over with sheet
metal, the aft deck with canvas. In the stern he left a small opening where
he would strap himself in. To absorb the impact of colliding with boulders,
Faussett fastened to the hull five-foot lengths of vine maple at various
angles. When Fox saw the finished boat, the company reneged on its offer.
Faussett wasn't going to collect his $1,500, but his friends convinced him
that was no reason why his canoe should start gathering termites. Thus it
was announced that on May 30, 1926, Al Faussett would run Sunset Falls. A
dollar admission would be charged.
Whether or not the enterpriser knew what he was in for, he spoke confidently
of the ride, telling the Everett News, "It will be a dangerous and thrilling
ride. But the people who come will see me make a cool ride, and one they had
never anticipated. There is nothing to be afraid of, for I have studied the
dangers carefully and believe I can negotiate these falls where twenty men
have lost their lives."
On May 30, a crowd of 3,000 gathered along the banks in the cool mist of the
falls. It was not an event to be missed. Some had come the night before, and
a good share had crashed the gate. The event was to have taken place at one
o'clock. At four the crowd had grown impatient. At last word rushed through
the crowd that Faussett was adrift in his canoe, floating to the brink.
At a speed upward of eighty miles per hour the canoe crashed through the
falls, engulfed in tons of pounding water. The boat grazed over a large
granite protrusion and shot almost clear of the water, only to slam back
down and disappear. It was several seconds before the boat and its human
cargo reappeared, emerging out of the spray and gliding free into the pool
below. When Faussett waved to the crowd they erupted, clapping and cheering.
In the Everett News Faussett wrote of his descent, "People will never know
and little did I dream of the power of those treacherous waters in the
falls. When I went under, the water hit me with a crushing force and hurt my
lungs. It twisted my body and head. I was hurt inside and could not breathe.
The water came so fast it crammed down my nostrils and throat.
"At no time was I afraid of those falls, not even when the water seemed to
be crushing the very life out of me. It was all over in a few seconds, and
when I saw the light of day as I rode out of the turbulent waters, I thanked
God that I had ridden safely through. I have challenged the world to the
effect that I can ride anywhere any human can in my good canoe."
As Irv, Al Faussett's son, said of his father, "Dad was another Evel
Knievel. He was just born forty years too soon. There just wasn't the
instant publicity back then to make him rich and famous."
Three months later and four miles upstream from Sunset, Faussett chose to
run Eagle Falls, a series of jagged tiers dropping a total of forty feet.
This time the daredevil concluded his longevity might be increased if he
rode inside of the boat. For his new craft he hollowed out two halves of a
log and banded them together. It was sixteen feet long, cigar-shaped, and
had a trapdoor for access.
Due to low water, the Labor Day event was more comical than spectacular.
Faussett was bid good luck by his friends, climbed in his boat, shut the
hatch, and was shoved into the lazy current.
Halfway through the falls the boat wedged in the rocks. Faussett opened the
hatch, yelling for assistance. His friends managed to knock the boat loose
with a pike pole, and it and Faussett bounced to the bottom of the falls
"On to Snoqualmie and Niagara," he told the press.
lrv said of his father, "In those days people back East still thought of
Washington and Oregon as territories. What people did in the Northwest
didn't matter to others. Dad wanted to go east and do Niagara. He wanted to
put Washington on the map."