Since walrus hunting by kayak has severe limitations as a spectator sport, the next best thing for admirers of the craft is to catch Eric Evans' act in a national slalom championship on a torrent of white water. Evans, 28, won his eighth straight U.S. title the other day, his ninth in 10 tries. As one observer said, "You won't see Eric's record broken in a hundred years."
No other kayaker has put together even two championships back to back in a sport that is not only difficult but extremely dangerous: two experts have lost their lives in recent months, one on Idaho's Payette River, the other on West Virginia's Gauley.
The Nantahala in North Carolina, where Evans paddled to title No. 9, is a gentler stream, but its 800-meter championship slalom course was one of fiendish difficulty. The last 15 gates were bunched in 400 feet of continuous rapids. Four gates had to be negotiated upstream against the current, and four stern first—none of the gate-poles to be touched, of course, without a levying of penalties. As is usual on a slalom course, the poles were 40 inches apart. Kayak paddles are some 6½' long and, at only 20 pounds, the kayaks themselves are less than stable even in still water. The winner on the Nantahala would need both power and control. "Exquisite control," said one of more than 70 competitors, resignedly referring to Eric Evans.
Each contestant had two runs down the course, the better of his two times to count. As Evans' first turn drew near, he stood alone studying the river, jaw set and eyes narrowed, the image of a man facing a worthy foe. (Evans' favorite book, he tells friends, is Or I'll Dress You in Mourning, the biography of the bullfighter El Cordobès.) Finally he said, "It's time."
June 11, 1978
Starts were staggered, a minute or two apart, and Evans was 70th off the mark. Earlier he had said, "A great paddler plans two or three gates ahead," and after Gate 18 he angled left, through Gate 19, shot across and downstream through Gate 20 and whipped his tiny boat around, to back through 21, 30 feet below. None of the others went through that stretch as smoothly and quickly. Evans' time was 297.6 seconds, 1.7 seconds ahead of the runner-up, but he complained, "It was a bad run. I should have been down in the 270s."
With the second run well under way, spectators were amazed to see Evans along the course, far down the shore, "checking the height of the poles," as he explained. Suddenly he was gone, to come storming down the river minutes later for his own second run, more commanding, if possible, than before. But then came Gate 26. This hung at the edge of a three-foot falls, and Evans had said of it, "Most people will freeze there. You've gotta be decisive, and go!" Evans went too far. The route he chose carried him well past 27, and for 10 seconds he had to battle back frantically. Nevertheless, he finished with a time of 286.5, the day's best by two seconds. Though he did seem pleased, he said, "If I'd gone through 26 correctly, I would have been ecstatic with my time."
"Wasn't there an element beyond your control?" he was asked.
"Hell no," he said. "I was asleep."
Mental lapses do make for bad slalom runs on turbulent streams, and no wonder Eric Evans is hard on himself. But that hard? "Well," he says, "my father is just like George Allen. He was always saying, 'What are your goals? Where are you weak? What can you do to improve?' "
In Evans' first slalom race, in 1964, he tipped over, and since he had yet to learn the Eskimo roll, he kept jerking his head to the surface, gasping fitfully for air as he dogpaddled toward shore to right himself against the rocks. He could easily have slipped out of the kayak, but that would have meant disqualification. He recalls, "All I could think of was finishing." He did—last.
His father, Jay, a former Olympic coach in the sport, won the 1967 Masters, for kayak competitors over 40. At the time he was assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth. It was there, in the college swimming pool, that the elder Evans originated indoor slalom competition in this country. He hung gates from the ceiling, and in races required paddlers to do intricate maneuvers, and to tip over and right themselves. Eric practiced obsessively. In 1966 he finished 10th in a slalom on Vermont's West River. But his father came in eighth, and Eric recalls, "Was I upset! I thought I was better than he was."
Even so, Eric set his sights on the world championships, to be held the following June in Czechoslovakia. But his mid-junior-year grades at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut showed him tied for 101st, last in his class with, as he recalls, one Edsel Ford II of Detroit. "No worlds," his father said. By next term he was in the upper third of his class. He made the U.S. team and finished 25th in a field of 50.
Students at Hotchkiss were required to take a sport each semester, "a real sport," as they told Evans when he suggested kayaking. So he ran cross-country and played hockey and lacrosse. At graduation he was voted the best athlete in his class, and instantly forsook everything that did not relate to paddling. When he lost the 1968 nationals by [6/10]ths of a second, he wore his hands raw practicing all winter, and won the following year. In 1968 he entered Dartmouth and began skiing cross-country to stay in shape. But in 1970 he lost again, by one second, because, he says, "I choked."
As a skier, he used his arms so much his friends began calling him Hammer. The nickname stuck. Later, because of his paddling style, he acquired another, The Mean One. "I am mean on the course," he says, "subtle as a crowbar," and he loves the image.
Evans has found that each of his national championships has meant a little less to him. As for the Olympics, he cannot improve on his seventh-place finish at Munich, because the kayak slalom is no longer an Olympic event. So his one remaining goal is to win a world championship. He has tried for six of them, all in Europe, and has never done better than 10th. But next year the worlds will be held in Jonquière, Quebec, and he beams, "No jet lag, no weird food or water. Jonquière is all I live for now."
Last April Evans quit an executive post he had held with a company making cross-country ski equipment—the job had interfered with his training—and now his money is running out. He still gets an occasional small check from magazines like Canoe, for which he writes a column, Eric Evans' Whitewater Journal, but says that all he can presently afford is a seefood-root diet: "If I see food, I eat it; if I don't, I root it out." He travels the slalom circuit in a 1975 Datsun station wagon, his kayak on the roof, down below a mattress, a portable stove, the 1,450-page Treasury of World Literature and a small spring device to strengthen his grip. He is emotionally sustained by Charles Bronson movies, '50s rock-'n'-roll music and Rudyard Kipling's poem If. Certainly Evans is filling "the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run."