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Tough Fun Presented by the 2019 Ford Ranger

Knox Hammack: Meet the Kayaker who Braved Palouse Falls

Story by Katie Lozancich

Palouse Falls is the kind of waterfall that gives kayakers chills.

The body of water, hidden away in Eastern Washington, plunges 189 feet down into a pool surrounded by basalt cliffs. It’s a force of nature that demands respect; four people have died from accidentally falling into its raging current. And ever since Tyler Bradt became the first person to successful kayak it in 2009, it’s held special lore in the kayaking community. Many have dreamed of running it since Bradt, but few have actually tried—that is until 21-year-old Knox Hammack gave it a go. This past April, Hammack was joined by friend James Shimizu to attempt the third and fourth runs of the waterfall. Rafa Ortiz tried in 2012, but he was unable to stay in his kayak.

It was a decision made after months of planning, scouting, and training on some equally daunting bodies of water. Then Palouse hit their target flow of 2,000 cfs, meaning that the mission was green lit. The duo gathered their friends and arrived at the waterfall with butterflies in their stomachs. Hammack won the rock paper scissor match that decided who’d go first. Once in the water, he took the right inside line, made one correction stroke, and then he was over the lip. Any sudden movements can be deadly, so Hammack glided through the air in a kind of meditative flow state. A few seconds later his kayak hit the water. When he finally emerged from the waterfall-unscathed-he was stoked out of his mind.

With Palouse Falls crossed off his list, Hammack is still dreaming big and thanks to a little help from Ford he’s embarked on a summer he’ll never forget. Joined by his bud Trent McCrerey and a TGR film crew, the two are on a hunt for the best rivers and waterfalls they can find. In the midst of packing for their adventure at the TGR headquarters, we sat down with Hammack to learn a little more about his backstory.

Exploring Montana's whitewater was high on Knox's bucket list. Eric Parker Photo.

Can you tell us more about your background?

KH: My name is Knox and I’m from State College, Pennsylvania. My mom got me into kayaking when I was ten years old. We started together at a parent-child camp, and I just got really excited by it, got to spend a lot of time outdoors and see a bunch of cool stuff, so stuck with it. One of my teachers there told me about World Class Academy, and then when I was a junior in high school I went for my first semester, and I liked it so much that I did my senior year there. That’s where I met Trent, and we’ve both tried to position ourselves in ways that we can go kayaking as much as we can, and live that lifestyle.

What about kayaking hooked you?

KH: I was amazed at how hard it was when I first started. I kinda didn’t like it at first, and then I saw all of these videos and it really blew my mind, seeing that you CAN do a lot of cool things. I liked that idea, so I tried to stick with it, and then I met the coolest people I’ve ever met through kayaking. I’ve been able to travel and see these amazing canyons and places in different countries that you can only really go to if you’re going to go kayaking. Being able to see new places and meet new people is a huge part of it. I really like waterfalls and stuff, so once I did one of those I got pretty hooked and wanted to keep doing them.

So are you a year-round kayaker? What do you do in the off-season?

KH: I’m in school, and living in Washington is really nice because you can do schoolwork and go kayaking on world-class runs a lot of the time. In the winter and the fall when it starts to get cold, there’s still kayaking to do. We just get dry suits and warm gear. You really can go all year in Washington. We try to make it to South America and try to go on trips to warmer places when we can. Definitely an all-year thing. That’s another reason I like doing it so much: You can always go kayaking, even if it’s chiller, less stressful stuff, and it’s still really amazing to be able to go kayaking all the time.

The boys try to do their best Baywatch impersonation—they nailed it. Eric Parker Photo. 

Could you describe when you hit your first waterfall?

KH: The first waterfall that I did was like...18 feet? I was 12, maybe. I wear contact lenses, so I remember just going down and hitting a wave at the top. It splashed me in the face and when I closed my eyes my contact kind of slipped out. When I opened them I was like halfway down, totally eating it, didn’t have a good line, but I rolled up at the bottom and just thought it was a cool feeling. Just falling like that. And then I just tried to keep running them. Trying to chase that feeling.

Where was that?

KH: It was in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania.

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What’s it like when you’re in freefall?

KH: It’s super cliche to say, but time totally slows down when you’re free-falling on a waterfall. You don’t think about anything else, everything is totally absent from your mind, and you’re totally wrapped up in however many seconds of falling it is, and it feels really cool. It’s really cool to just be in that moment. And when you hit the bottom and look back up at what you did it’s pretty cool.

Knox has been kayaking since he was ten, so being on the water feels second nature at this point. Eric Parker Photo.

When did you get the idea to run Palouse?

KH: I did a kayaking summer camp every summer from when I was 10 on, and the second time I got back, was right when Tyler Bradt had just run it for the first time. He had set the world record, 186 feet, and I saw it and it totally blew my mind. I didn’t know that I really wanted to do it. But as I kept kayaking, and kept running waterfalls and felt better about them, I was like ‘alright, if I keep doing this, and I keep going a little bit taller, I might be able to work up to that one day.’ And then last year I ran a 90-foot waterfall, near Salem, OR, and it went really well. I was really happy and comfortable, so I was like ‘alright, if I work for it I can make Palouse happen next year,’ and then everything kept going well. I got the support from all my friends and people who I wanted to be involved, like Tyler Bradt, he was a huge part of making it all happen. I staked it out and was watching the gauge all winter and eventually it came in. I actually bought Brendan’s old kayak, ‘cause he had a Nomad 8-5, which is like the best waterfall boat as far as kayaks go because the bottom is really round. When it hits it displaces all of the water instead of slapping, and the outfitting is really good and solid. I bought that from him with the hopes of running Palouse, checked the gauge, and it was in. That day I called a bunch of people to come out and film and run safety, made it happen, and it worked out really, really well. I couldn’t be happier with how it all went.

Did you know that TGR has made some kayak films? Have you seen them?

KH: Yeah, I’ve seen Valhalla a bunch of times. I remember when I was in college, during my freshman year we saw Tight Loose in BHam at the theater, and one of the first ads was our friends in WA kayaking, and seeing that was awesome. I’ve known that TGR has always been a fan of kayaking.

How do you guys get your intel for where you want to kayak? Word of mouth?

KH: It helps knowing people, you meet all of these people at one location and then you know that you can talk to them and be like ‘when is the best time to go there’. So you just kind of learn from people. Also watching a lot of videos is super helpful.

Just riding a couple of land kayaks. That's what you call horses right? Eric Parker Photo.

Would you say that the community is pretty open in that way?

KH: It’s not competitive like even at the races you show up to people really want to win, but no one is butting heads. There’s no hostility, everyone genuinely wants each other to do as well as possible, and that translates over to all of the other aspects of the sport. Everyone wants to sport to grow, and for stuff to get done, and just to see people do well. So people do what they can to make that happen.

What are some of the objectives you’re looking forward to on this trip?

KH: One of the biggest things that we really want to do is the Royal Gorge on the North Fork of the American in California. I remember planning this trip with Trent like three, four years ago, trying to go do it, and it just didn’t happen. We’ve been trying to do it every year, but injuries and other stuff like work have come up, so we’ve never been able to make it happen. To have this opportunity with the truck, and just be able to make it happen is huge, yeah.