Ladies and Gentleman please allow me to introduce longtime Team Dagger paddler Pat Keller. Read on and enjoy some questions and answers with one of the smoothest, fearless, and enjoyable paddlers out there. Be sure to check out the video of Pat's recent 1st D of Wolf Creek Falls:
Where are you from? Where do you live?
I was born and raised here in Western North Carolina. I grew up in the Mountains of Maggie Valley, and the family moved to the whitewater mecca of Asheville when I was ten. Here, the Green River and surrounding rain fed creeks provided the perfect training grounds to then go out and seek the best experiences one could ask for, in the challenging grounds of the world.
How/Why did you start kayaking?
I guess it all started in the stories of the household, as my parents and their friends would discuss the days on the river as raft guides, where my parents met. At a young age, I was captivated by the “magic carpet effect” as I watched leaves and sticks float down the streams nearby – always taking advantage of the opportunity to jump in and make a big splash.
Then came my first river day, sharing a canoe with my dad on the ultra classic Nantahala. Here, stories came to life as I discovered a taste of the elation I grew up seeing in the faces of mom and dad. Not long after, at age 6, my parents put me into my first craft of freedom. In this big, stable, blue inflatable – I was given the chance to discover anything I chose to paddle towards. I remember always loving the choice of whether to follow my dad or one of his buddies (usually the late Bob Waller or ever happy Steve Zarnowski) down the rapid, or go off in search of NEW lines, lines that may pinch down through a slot on the side, lines that smashed right through the biggest waves or holes I could find, lines as diverse as my imagination could think up. In this early trial and error stage, I was aware to not mess around (and learned the hard way a few times), but was given a massive safety net to cumulatively learn the subtle differences between what made up a wise line and an unwise line.
Age 7 brought my first moments upsidedown, in the craft of the kid-friendly Dagger Blast. Freaked out by the feeling only until the application of some noseplugs, I quickly became comfort to this new level of experience through the help of a one week kids clinic at NOC. BANG – got my roll. BANG – got my offside. BANG – got my combat roll. On we went… The adventures with my dad and his friends became all the more complex, and therefore delightful. I had the paddle-strokes and maneuvering from the inflatable, now I got to play with this hard boat, where I could lean over on edge and have my boat carve, to pierce through waves and holes, rather than climbing over each one. I became captivated by the videos of the best of the best doing these massive enders and pirouettes, moves that would take utmost control, with benefits so clear to see through their smiles.
A big shift happened for me at age 9, when I tore my ACL in my right knee while skiing. The doctors told me that I shouldn’t do karate, gymnastics, or ski until after surgery – which would have to wait until after my bones stopped growing around age 15. He had no problems with me kayaking so kayaking became my whole life. My parents got me in the local slalom boating society and I ran with it. I loved making the moves, but was always goofing off and trying to do playboating moves that a fragile slalom boat never should. I placed 7th in the Junior Olympics in Richmond, VA. then set my sights on the world of freestyle.
At age 12, Bill Edmonds took me under his wing and showed me the ways of the force. Riding with him out to Colorado and back from my thirteenth birthday through age 16, we quickly became best buddies with the occasional big-brother-life-lesson. It was great! Paddling with anyone around (which were usually top boaters like Charlie Beavers, Jimmy Blakeney, Erica Mitchell, Eric Jackson, Shane Benedict, Daniel Delavergne, Clay Wright, Al Gregory, Tommy Hilleke and so many others) I was living large, soaking up the life of the freestyle kayaking circuit – learning how to do the moves I grew up watching and visualizing. Play moves, river moves, and creek moves.
My hunger for river knowledge was insatiable. I wanted to do was get better, compete, and run harder rapids like the guys and gals that were out there charging. The competition circuit quickly demanded more time than the local school systems here would allow, so my parents offered to let me go to Adenture Quest, where our travels, on-water training with the best minds you could ask for, and schooling were all balanced. Friendly A-team and B-team competitions on fridays became the way in which I measured my performance, week by week. Between travels to Canada, New Zealand and Chile, I began to be a regular of the A-team. Pretty soon, I wanted to win every week. My mind was learning how to get it done, and be consistent with it.
Back from a year at AQ, I was given the choice to go back into the high school system or to homeschool via a correspondence course. I chose to go kayaking everyday and study at home. The local play spots and, of course, the green became my daily program with the likes of Jason Hale, Bill, Matt Sheridan Scott Harcke, and whoever else could paddle on a particular day. No rain – we went to the green. Rain – we went somewhere harder.
Age 16 brought a spot on the U.S. Freestyle team, going over to Austria for the World Championships. Happy with my performance over the whole event, I was slightly disappointed to lose my edge in my last run and fly home with the silver medal. Freestyle was changing, and my mind was spending more and more time on the big stuff.
Idolizing the likes of Tao Berman, Brandon and Dustin Knapp, BJ and Katie Johnson, Clay Wright, Johnny and Willie Kern, Tommy Hilleke and Scott Lindgren – I began my search of the ultimate dynamic experience and the feeling you get when you make it out of the maw unscathed.
Choosing, boofing, floating, pushing, portaging, searching, training, racing, exploring, sending – and here I am now.
What makes a perfect day on the water for you?
A small group of good friends with like skills, wilderness, sunshine, water, gradient. Perfection is in the many details you discover on the way down.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you when you were learning?
Always bring a throw rope.
When was the last time you were scared in your kayak? Why?
I get scared every time I’m out pushing the envelope, even a run on the Green, a run that seems to me like the back of my hand. The fear reminds me that the forces in which we play are real and can be very serious. Some of the worst accidents on the river can happen in seemingly inconsequential places, so why let your guard down. In even the easiest river floats, I try and stay aware of any possible dangers and keep an eye on all the members in the group.
Anytime I see the “scared” question, I can’t help but to think back to three moments. The first happened a hard river trip in British Columbia, Canada in 2004. A large river in its own, the Mosley Creek plummeted through the coast range on its way to the Homathko River, then out to sea. The Homathko is a class V ultra classic multi day run, but the Mosley had never been paddled. Fed by glaciers, she would be too out of control to attempt in summer flows nor fall flows, when the warm sun is still baking on the glaciers, ‘keeping them turned on.’ We went in April, when there it is warming up, but still very cold. A heli drop off and scheduled pickup gave us a timeframe with which to move downriver, and with the 3-5 inches of new snow all about, our warm dry clothes were a topic of much thought. In this zone of deep, gorged out cold, I took a wrong turn and suddenly screamed, “THIS IS IT!” This wrong turn placed me inside a massive cave, with a sieve draining all the water out of the bottom of the cave, then into a portage. The cave is large enough that you can clearly see it on google earth. On the wrong side of the river and with no way out, I ramped up on a rock in the back of the cave and found a way to get my boat up atop the boulders and seal launch into the ferry of my life, back to the relative safety of the group. We pushed on until gorge walls covered in snow and sieved out rapids of death sent us scurrying up the canyon wall for a 8 hour portage, down into the holy Homathko trifluence, then out the main canyons of the Homathko to our heli pick up. Shaken and humbled, I returned home the mindset of someone who’d felt the moment, though it all played out ok.
The second memory the “scared” question immediately brings up began with a new line off a wonderful waterfall in Washington. The Lewis River was running high and a group of us youngsters were searching. Upon arriving at the Upper Lewis Falls, my eye caught a view of a line that was farther out in the middle than the two more standard lines are run. The line I was seeing would take a large double drop and turn it into one big fall, with a twisting reconnect over halfway down. No rock, all water. It looked glorious! There was a gnarly cave to the left of my landing that would be in play if my sprayskirt were to blow – which I pointed out to my comrades, but I didn’t dwell on it. I couldn’t pass up this thing I was seeing so clearly in my imagination, so I made the decision to try it and hiked up for the first man down.
Committing to my line, passing through the moment where I released my physical body to the visualizations of my mind and dropped in. Everything perfect, everything online. Sailing off the lip, I remember the stellar view below me, as I became the merger of the two falls to my Right, and one large fall to my Left. I had misjudged the effect of the water reconnection and my boat suddenly spun off axis, exposing my sprayskirt to the downward power of the falling waters on landing. Suddenly a splash on my legs gave me a horrible sinking feeling, knowing that my skirt was blown and I was going into the cave behind the large fall. Taking deep breaths and trying to conserve energy was my ball game as I tried to stay calm and survey my new challenge. Overhanging ampetheater walls of 60 feet, crashing water all around which made it hard to breathe and with nowhere to grab onto or stand up, I was continuously pounded into the smooth vertical wall like a toy. Waiting on Evan to run the falls and somehow get inside here to help me was becoming less and less of a viable option as my core temperature started to plummet, and panic began to win out. I had to find a way out on my own. I noticed that there was a bit of a swirling eddy inside the cave, which I decided to use to my advantage. If I did it just right, I could use the swirl to get past an arête in the wall that made a peninsula of sorts, a point where a swimmer like myself would no longer be in as much danger of being sucked back into the falls roaring behind me, or into the seemingly endless pocket choked with logs (and my kayak) to my left.
Swimming for my life only allowed me to get splattered across the point of the arête, with my hands clawing for a handhold to safety and my feet being sucked back towards the pocket, kicking and kicking. It was getting increasingly hard to breathe and panic was ratcheting up from below as I pushed off the wall, swimming a bit more toward safety and righting myself to the wall. Not there yet. Still being slammed into the point by wave after wave, the waveless points only providing occasional breaths dampened by the unrelenting mist. Then, a miracle. Two handholds appear before me in the form of a mossy crack and a flat, snotty crimper hold. Gaining purchase on these, I hit my knee on a protrusion so hard it left a bruise. Now focused and determined, I was damn well going to use that protrusion as my foot-hold out of here. Nearly two minutes had passed swimming in a river of fresh snowmelt.
As I struggled to keep my frozen fingers holding strong and my shoed foot on the protrusion, I pulled myself up and out of the freezing waters. A new challenge emerged as I began to climb up the wall behind the falls, then traverse over towards the shore on river Left. Close but not out. Here, the waterfall met up with another arête and there was nowhere else to climb. The veil of the falls seemed close enough now, so I lept into the falls where it hit the pool. Luckily the currents here were moving water away from the falls, rather than behind it like out in the middle of the river. As I emerged back into the world, it seemed like I was given this incredible gift – not just in the aesthetics of the line or the luck in getting out from behind the falls, but in the way I was now viewing the world around me, and the friends who were still rushing to help. This was real, the natural world is real – so alive and full of color! I bent down right there and picked up a rock that caught my eye. Half was a dark copper color, and half a light copper. Rolling it over in my hands, I smiled when I noticed the back side had the same colors, same 50/50 ratio, but the sequence was switched. My coin landed on the side of life.
Pat pushing the envelope. Wolf Creek Falls, CO
What is your proudest kayaking achievement? Why?
First D’ing Wolf Creek Falls, Toxaway Falls, Linville Falls, Valser Rhein Falls, Cane Creek Falls, the Mangler, and many many rapids along the way
My lines down Sahalie Falls, Hamma Hamma Falls, Three Degrees Till Separation, Looking Glass Falls, Scotts Rapid, Koosah Falls 2 out of 3 times, Graceland, Upper Death Falls, S F Crystal’s Punchbowls, ,Desoto Falls both times, many runs down Big Boy and 40/40 Micos Putin Falls, Tenaya Falls, Metlako Falls, Greeter Falls, La Paz Falls, the Middle Kings, the N F Payette, Gorilla, the Mine Section of the Ashlu, everything we ran in Japan, etc, etc.
Runs on the Alsek of British Columbia, the Mambucaba of Brazil, the Upper Creek in North Carolina, every river ive done in California, Switzerland, Italy, Chile, CO, NC, etc etc etc.
Winning the Green Race two times, getting second every year I haven’t won and setting the standing short boat record of 4 min 40 secs, winning the Val Sesia Games when I was 17 (which was dubbed the unofficial creek racing world championships at the time), winning the Teva Mountain Games in Vail twice, racing on a winning team with Ned Overend, etc etc
My point is, if all our life’s experiences have some merit and significance, why just cover one moment? We’ve all had a past that has shaped who we are and how we react. I can’t just talk about one experience when there have been so many. I feel like I did something good in a past life to have such a good round. Ask me sometime, ill gladly share a story.
Also be sure to check out the video's of some recent first D's by Pat: