I've written about high profile kayak-related deaths before. I wrote about Jeff West, and about Peter Thompson. I didn't know those guys, but their stories shook and touched me, and so I wrote about them. If I were writing one of those posts right now -- the one that would fit this headline -- it would go something like this:
|Shannon Christy racing the Cheoah|
Shannon Christy, an experienced and well-known paddler from North Carolina, died Thursday on Great Falls of the Potomac River while training for this weekend's annual Great Falls Race. According to those who were with her, Christy swam after Grace Under Pressure and was swept into a sieve at Subway. This wasn't the first time an experienced kayaker was killed in that spot, but we've been extremely lucky in that there
But this post isn't about that. Not really. I could write that post for Jeff West and Peter Thompson. I was touched by their deaths, but like I said, I didn't know those guys. They didn't lead me down my first Class IV river. They didn't read my blog and say I was "killin' it" both on and off the river. They didn't send me text messages just hours before their deaths.
I don't even know where to start in writing this - my thoughts are so jumbled. In a sport that is still dominated by boys, the field of badass female paddlers is comparatively small. There are a handful of sick female paddlers who I definitely respect and watch - Katrina Van Wijk, Nouria Newman and Emily Jackson come to mind - but I don't know those girls any better than I knew Jeff West or Peter Thompson. That is to say, I don't know them at all. But I did know Shannon, and if ever I had a serious I-want-to-be-you boater chick crush, this was it.
I met Shannon in May at the Boater Chick Festival. I had been sitting alone in a rocking chair on the porch, surrounded by southern boaters who I did not recognize, and without Nikki there to help me navigate the crowd and without my sidekick around to make me feel cool and comfortable, I felt awkward and anxious as I waited for my name to be called for my group trip to the Cheoah.
When I heard my name, I left my chair and stepped off the deck to walk over to the boater chick who would lead the trip. She turned and looked at me, and with the biggest, warmest smile says "Cheoah? Yay!! Boater chicks!!!"
I liked her immediately. Shannon was exceedingly charismatic - one of these people who inspired trust just by smiling at you. And she smiled at everyone, all the time, even while paddling. I just really like smiling, it's my favorite, she wrote on her Great Falls Race bio.
I trailed Shannon down the Cheoah like an eager puppy dog. I was nervous as hell even though I wouldn't admit that to anyone, and Shannon made me feel safe somehow. I liked her lines, I liked her style. When we split off into groups before running Bear Creek Falls, I claimed Shannon right away. Shannon encouraged me all the way down the Cheaoh, and when we reached the end she told me - still with the biggest smile - that was so awesome, Shelly, you killed it!!
When I returned to DC, I remained in vague touch with Shannon - as much touch, at least, as a Class III+ DC boater who isn't on facebook can maintain with a badass Class V boater chick from North Carolina. When Shannon shot me a message on Twitter that said she'd be in town all week and would love to see me, I think my smile was about as big as Shannon's. That was so cool.
I missed my chance to paddle with Shannon at the Chutes on Saturday because I had opted for a Little Falls run and missed her call while I was on the water. But that was no big deal; she'd be here all week. On Thursday I sent her a text and invited her to stop by my birthday party that night for a beer, and I was super stoked when she responded that she would come and asked for directions. I'm heading to the falls around 3 so i'll jet over after i leave from there :)
I thought about saying "be safe," but I thought that sounded lame and so instead I just said that was awesome, and I mentioned that I'd be at the chutes at around 5 if she happened to float that far downstream.
When I arrived a few hours later at Anglers go to surfing at the chutes, there were emergency vehicles everywhere. Ambulances and police cars in the parking lot, rescue rafts at the put-in and all over the river. Helicopters chopping overhead. I thought, at first, that maybe this was just a really elaborate drill in preparation for the Great Falls Race, and I didn't think too much of it until someone at the put in said there had been a drowning.
Not a paddler, right? I asked, as if somehow non-paddler drownings on the Potomac are no big deal but if it were a kayaker that would be sad. Doubt it, the guys told me. But they didn't know.
I saw my friend Matt as I paddled up to the chutes, and he looked pretty pale. I'm just so glad to see you out here, he said before explaining that he had overheard "something really awful" from the rescue guys' radios, and that something had happened involving a female paddler.
Right away I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. I knew. I mean, I didn't know - how could I know. Right?
Oh my god, I said, it wasn't Shannon, was it? And even as I asked the question I realized that there was never going to be a good answer to this. Only a handful of women run the falls, and I'm pretty sure I know all of them.
A few minutes later the rescue team returned with the missing paddler's boat and I started to shake. I knew that boat. It was the same red mamba that I had stared at for three hours on my way down the Cheoah. It was Shannon's mamba.
It took another hour or so for more details to unfold, and eventually I heard that they had recovered her body. I don't really know how to feel about all of this. I feel shaken, sad, confused and full of disbelief.
Did this really happen?
Well, for my part I'm still processing all of this - and I can only imagine what those who knew her better are feeling. All my deepest sympathies to Shannon's family, her friends, her paddling buddies - everyone who loved her. This time, I can relate.