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BREAKING THROUGH

PART TWO

a six-part series profiling athletes reaching the next level in their sport.

Brooke Hess
Story by Carmen Kuntz

At play in the biggest whitewater on earth, Brooke Hess is a rising freestyle phenomenon.

At play in the biggest whitewater on earth, Brooke Hess is a rising freestyle phenomenon.

“I have to finesse it.”

Driving through Gatineau, Quebec, I see lines of driftwood along the sidewalks and water marks on the sides of buildings, evidence of the recent flood that washed through the streets of the city. The Ottawa River, which separates Gatineau from Ottawa, surged beyond its banks this spring, turning streets into rivers navigable only by boat. The Ottawa River is a whitewater kayaker’s paradise, so it makes sense that I’m off to meet American freestyle kayaker Brooke Hess. Brooke’s life is saturated with whitewater. The 24-year-old Missoula native holds a fresh degree in fluvial geomorphology, she is a member of the U.S. National Freestyle Kayak Team, and she lives out of her truck chasing flooded rivers around the world. She’s one of the few women specializing in big tricks in the male-dominated niche sport of big-wave freestyle kayaking, and she’s plunging face-first into the sport, fearlessly proving she’s on the fast track to the top.

Big-wave freestyle is defined by massive waves on high-volume whitewater. Kayakers surf on double and triple overhead river waves, launching airborne tricks, many of which involve being upside down or rotating up to 360 degrees—and sometimes both, as in one of Brooke’s favorite tricks, the airscrew, essentially an aerial barrel roll above the wave. Photo by Seth Ashworth

I pull into Tim Hortons and park next to a Toyota Tacoma loaded with kayaks. Brooke is sitting inside, sipping a steaming cup of coffee and picking at a Boston Crème doughnut. One foot rests on the ground and the other wriggles with energy. Easy calories, cheap coffee, and free wi-fi have made Tim’s a go-to for whitewater kayakers, and the ladies behind the counter know Brooke by name.

I get my coffee to go and we head to the river. Cars line the road to the put-in. Everyone is here for Stakeout, the spring high-water paddling season when melting snow in northern Canada causes rivers in Quebec and Ontario to swell to mammoth proportions. Some of the best kayakers from around the world show up to surf the massive standing waves and high creeks. “My whole body hurts,” says Brooke, who has just returned from three weeks in the wilderness of northern Quebec riding kayaking’s version of Mavericks. She rolls her shoulders and stretches her neck; the abuse of throwing new tricks on cold and violent whitewater takes a toll.

Learning to hold your own in big water is as much psychological as physical. Brooke’s comfort in big water is evident. She can throw an airscrew on a 14-foot, ice-cold wave in northern Quebec and take the beatdown when a trick attempt goes wrong. Beatdowns can mean being pushed around underwater in 1,000 cumecs (cubic meters of water a second). That’s about half the volume of an Olympic swimming pool every second. Photo by Raoul Collenteur
She’s plunging face-first into the sport, fearlessly proving she’s on the fast track to the top.
REI

Brooke steps on the rear tire of her truck and reaches up to untie her kayak, a scratched bubblegum-pink Jackson Rock Star. Defined back and shoulder muscles contrast with her slight frame. When the Ottawa River overwhelms its banks, water blasts between off-shore pillars—remnants of an old bridge—forming a steep, crashing wave. Kayakers call it the Ruins, an appropriate name given the Colosseum feel of surfing between large stone columns. The wave is accessible only by kayak, and today the flow is just right. The lineup is all boys—not uncommon for whitewater kayaking, and high-water freestyle especially. One of few big-water-focused ladies, Brooke has high standards for herself. “My goal in big wave is to be as good as the guys and to be able to compete in the men’s category,” she says to me a couple hours later as we sit on one of the stone walls, feet dangling over the boiling eddy. “I’m not there yet but I will be.” Based on her boating this spring, Brooke is well on her way. Whitewater women are starting to close the gender gap, with some ladies beating out the world’s best male kayakers and breaking into the top 10 at whitewater events like the North Fork Championships. On the water, Brooke’s pink kayak is clearly smaller than the rest, but her control on the wave is the same. Her pin-straight hair is soaked, tangled between her helmet and lifejacket strap. With calm, well-placed strokes, she steers her boat across the reactionary wave—a diagonal curler that feeds water into the eight-to-10-foot wave. At first her face is a mask of concentration, almost stern. But as soon as she feels the momentum of the wave pick up her boat, a smile lights up her face and stays there until she’s flushed off into the powerful backwash, consumed by froth, spray, and whirlpools as her paddle whips around in a full sprint to make the eddy.

“I saved up all my money - sold boats and some gear - and bought a ticket to Africa. I spent a month in Uganda, living on an island and paddling six hours a day.”
Uganda
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The White Nile With her focus on big wave freestyle, wintering on the warm water and fast waves of the White Nile gave her a solid base of fitness and skill for this spring.
Brooke fuels up between surf sessions. Photo by Seth Ashworth
freestyle
freestyle
Brooke’s truck is a gear shed, kitchen, bedroom, and library. Minimal belongings and a flexible schedule allow Brooke to spend most of the year seeking out big water and following competition schedules. Her 2003 Toyota Tacoma carried nine boats on the bumpy dirt roads of northern Quebec. Since she bought it less than a year go she has put nearly 30,000 miles on it, parking and sleeping at riverside campgrounds, Walmart parking lots, and friends’ driveways. Photo by Seth Ashworth

“During Stakeout, I’ve been traveling around with some of the top big-wave freestyle paddlers in the world, comparing myself to them and pushing myself to step it up,” says Brooke as we watch current freestyle kayaking world champion Dane Jackson make passes on the wave, linking one trick after another.

“They are so encouraging and motivating. They don’t treat me like a girl; they treat me like… a badass paddler.” Brooke focuses on learning from the smaller paddlers, younger guys closer to her size, body type, and muscle mass. “It’s hard to learn freestyle tricks by watching the guys; their arms are so much bigger than mine,” say Brooke. “They muscle it, and I have to finesse it.”

There's muscle, there's finesse, and there's also raw confidence, valuable currency when you're linking combos and throwing loops in competition. In June Brooke threw down at team trials in Buena Vista, Colorado, and earned the chance to paddle for her country at the World Championships in Argentina this coming November. This makes Brooke’s goal to close the gap between male and female big-water surfers feel more attainable. With every trick she throws, and every beatdown she endures, she gets closer. And surfing a variety of waves helps. Brooke spent the month of January in Uganda, living on an island and paddling six hours a day. Wintering on the warm water and fast waves of the White Nile gave her a solid base of fitness and skill for this spring. Now, watching her surf the Ruins, I can hardly believe this is her first full high-water season.

“Brooke crushed Stakeout,” says Dane, who is considered one of the world’s best all-around kayakers. “Where lots of the boys were struggling, Brooke was slaying. She went for almost all the big waves, and she was catching them but also was going for the tricks. It’s fun to see a chick slaying Stakeout.”

Brooke

Brooke surfs waves tall enough to swallow a Greyhound bus. With names like Black Mass and Detonator topping her list of favorite play spots, it’s surprising that her kayaking roots come from splashing around in a pond. “When I was 13 my dad took me to a pond in Missoula and taught me how to roll. Then he signed me and my friends up for a local kayaking club,” she says. Brooke most enjoyed just spending time with friends on the water, but then the club created a small racecourse, and Brooke beat the entire class. “That day was the most defining moment that helped build my confidence when I was learning how to kayak.”

This spring, Brooke competed in Unleashed, a new multistage whitewater kayak event in northern Quebec. Over the course of 10 days, the competition tested kayakers on exceptionally big, powerful, and cold whitewater. “This type of competition pushes the sport,” says Brooke. “It was a way for me to push my own paddling, by kayaking and competing with the best big-wave paddlers in the world.” Brooke placed second overall, behind fellow American shredder Darby McAdams.

No matter how progressive, freestyle kayaking competitions tend to highlight a different, less inspiring, side of the sport: the inequality of funding and prize money between male and female paddlers. “During Unleashed, the top three men all had paid sponsorship and the top three women didn’t. In fact, two out of the five women had to leave the competition early to go back to work!” Brooke believes that part of the reason there are not more women competing in kayaking events is that they don’t have the same paid sponsorship opportunities as men. “Prize money is almost always less for females, and there are usually fewer spots on national teams.” Brooke isn’t afraid to tell organizers that she will attend next year if the prize money for men and women is equal. “Women often get half the prize money and we train just as much and compete on the same feature. It’s such a slap in the face because we work so hard.”

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Condensation rolls off our beers as we sit at a wooden bar on the deck of an Ottawa River rafting company, Brooke’s second home. She’s telling me about how, three years ago, she started Ladies on the Lochsa, an annual all-women kayaking rendezvous in Idaho. “We hold the event there on the same weekend every year, and we usually lead down three to four new girls each year.” Brooke says. “There is a really badass community of kayaking women in Montana and Idaho, and I really just wanted to bring them all together at the same time.”

Lisa Ronald has been attending Ladies on the Lochsa for the last two years and now helps organize the event, which sees about 20 ladies charging together. “Kayaking has challenged me to become a strong, brave, athletic woman,” says Lisa, who has been kayaking only for a couple years. “Through kayaking I’ve discovered a new definition of bravery—to be scared and to try anyway. Brooke taught me to kayak, and that’s the best lesson I’ve learned from her.”

Time off the water. Photo by Seth Ashworth
Riverside dining. Photo by Seth Ashworth
Casey in the street
“I don’t think I liked kayaking at first,” she admits. “I just liked hanging out with my friends.”

Prize money, competition rides, and sore muscles are washed from Brooke’s mind when she drops into a wave like the Ruins. As whitewater thunders around her, all that matters are the angle of her boat, her paddle strokes, and how best to use momentum to send her boat airborne. She cycles the wave, rockets toward the trough, and throws a blunt, a trick wherein her body moves like a ball and socket rotating airborne 180 degrees around the nose of the kayak. Suddenly the wave folds, and she subs out, disappearing under the crashing, cola-colored water. Beside me one of the boys mumbles, “Uh-oh,” but without even a hint of concern.

He knows Brooke will pop up, roll over, and hustle to make the eddy. She gets the same treatment as anyone else out there. This is big-wave freestyle.

The waves don’t care what color your boat is, or how much you weigh. It’s all about throwing as big as you can. Brooke says it best: “Surfing big water is like flying.”

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Story / Carmen Kuntz Design & Development / Austin Branham Lead Series Editor / Leslie Hittmeier Series Producer / McKell Favrot Back End Engineer / Andrew Wells Photos / Seth Ashworth, Raoul Collenteur & Peter Holcombe Executive Producers / Drew Holt, Steve Jones & Todd Jones