Brennan's waves

A Missoula kayaker's vision approaches reality, with a little help from his friends



It’s Friday night at Tarkio, and dinner simmers in the kitchen of the big house overlooking the Clark Fork River as it spills through the steep stone Tarkio Gorge just downstream of Alberton Gorge’s more famous rapids. The smell of prawns and noodles in a glowing saffron sauce fills the log and timber lodge, while just out the back door, a dozen high school kids enrolled in the World Class Kayak Academy prepare their own dinners on a grill outside the lofted bathhouse that serves as base camp and part-time classroom for the traveling boaters; they study in the mornings and spend their afternoons boating some of the world’s best whitewater rivers, preparing themselves through immersion for entry into the upper echelons of their chosen sport, like tennis prodigies at camp in Florida.

Across a cleared meadow perched on the timbered shelf above the river, another building—this one soon to serve as loft lodging and common space—is partially finished, built from the 100-year-old log remains of a caved-in barn abandoned on a neighboring property. And between the big house and the barn, tucked away at the edge of the meadow in its third and perhaps final location, is the cozy 500-square-foot yurt that Brennan Guth insisted upon as temporary shelter while the compound was being built, the standard camper trailer for such use having been found too status-quo for Brennan’s eclectic taste and vision.

And Tarkio today, according to all tellers, is the fruition of Brennan Guth’s vision, from the land itself, which he found, to the spectacular view from the porch of the Clark Fork’s downstream bend—a view made possible by Brennan’s having roped up the pines growing on the steep slopes below the house and rappelled down, trimming the thicket of branches as he descended.

Never mind that Brennan himself died more than two years ago. It’s the definition of vision that it inflames the passions of others to move it farther, carry it to completion, and Brennan’s vision—of a place for dedicated boaters to congregate and share the sport with others—was compelling enough to have corralled the efforts of countless friends and family to its furtherance, not least among them “Doc Dave” Guth, Brennan’s father David, a Missoula urologist in his day job, who doesn’t like to take credit for it, but who clearly foots the bill for the myriad improvements on the property. Doc Dave acts a little embarrassed about the big house with its simmering prawns, in fact. He says, “I never wanted a trophy home,” which is pretty much what he’d have, if the pines weren’t strung with the drying neoprene of a dozen kayakers sharing a bathhouse, if the first thing Doc Dave and Brennan did after buying the 50-acre parcel hadn’t been to pull down the No Trespassing signs littering the property’s perimeter. Doc Dave—like his son, an energetic fireplug of a man—much prefers to show off the semi-outdoor two-headed shower attached to the bathhouse, the peripatetic yurt and the recycled logs of the barn—all more apt symbols, one gathers, of Brennan’s aesthetic sense.

But then there’s the plaque memorializing Brennan, placed on an upright stone a good distance from the house on a rise overlooking the river. Doc Dave showed me the spot well after dark and I could barely read the inscription in the wiggling illumination of a flashlight. Doc Dave chose this particular spot for Brennan’s memorial for a multitude of reasons. For one, Brennan had chosen to bury a favorite dog near here, so Doc Dave knew Brennan considered it special. For another, he simply couldn’t have mounted the plaque in, on or near the house, knowing how embarrassed Brennan would have been by that prominence. In fact, Doc Dave hoped, this story wouldn’t be about Brennan at all, because his son was not the sort to seek credit or fame for himself.

I told Doc Dave I would do what I could, but that since the reason I was at Tarkio in the first place was to write a story on the latest of Brennan Guth’s visions to approach reality—a whitewater engineering project called Brennan’s Wave for the Clark Fork River near Caras Park in Missoula (and named after Brennan posthumously by project supporters)—that might be a bit difficult.

Brennan Guth became one of Montana’s highest profile ambassadors of the dramatically growing sport of kayaking, to which he was introduced by his dad, himself an avid boater of an older school (in short order, Dr. Guth remembers, Brennan decided that if he was going to improve, he was going to have to start paddling with a different crowd).

But Brennan’s was not a single-track mind. He graduated from Hellgate High School, where he captained both the basketball and football teams in his senior year, in 1987. He was skilled as a telemark skier and rock climber, and served at various times as a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor and an AmeriCorps worker on environmental issues. He wandered through colleges like the world traveler he was, attending Davidson College, Reed College and Colorado College before returning to Missoula to study philosophy at the University of Montana.

During part of what nobody seems to want to call his career, he starred in kayaking videos, including 1995’s groundbreaking PaddleQuest, shot on whitewater locations in Chile, Montana, Idaho and Alaska. Later on, he assembled Team Tarkio, a collective of top-notch whitewater paddlers and instructors that currently includes brothers Johnnie and Willie Kern, Polly Green, Scott Doherty, Courtney Ludden, Land Heflin, Dunbar Hardy, Peter Kettering, Tracy Inglis, Becky Bristow, Traycee Bowerman and Shawn Robertson. Team Tarkio began building a clientele based on kids’ kayaking camps, intensive instruction, multi-day teaching expeditions on Western rivers in the high-water spring and exotic foreign whitewater adventures in the winters.

Brennan was traveling and kayaking in the Chilean summer of 2001 when he bumped into fellow paddler Eric Nies, and the two decided to share some runs on the Rio Palguin near the city of Pucon. After a long day of paddling class IV and V rapids, Brennan decided to run an 8-foot drop he’d run before on the lower Palguin. Roughed up on his landing, Brennan was forced to exit his kayak and swim, and was swept by the current into an undercut cave. He was trapped there, in contact with Nies and others trying unsuccessfully to rescue him, for about an hour. After failing to reach Brennan with ropes and bamboo poles, Nies was finally lined into the cave to attempt a direct rescue, but by that time Brennan had gone under. His body was recovered the next day, trapped against the stone wall 5 meters under the surface.

He was 32 when he died on March 15, 2001. He left behind his father David, his mother Pat, his sister Valerie, his dog Huka and a whole hell of a lot of friends. In honor of his vision, the team that he assembled committed to carrying on at Tarkio.

On Friday night, on the Tarkio lodge porch, Polly Green, one of the top-ranked female kayakers in the world, scratched her head in response to a question and admitted that she didn’t know quite what she’d be doing now if it weren’t for this place, this legacy left behind by Brennan Guth, his vision, maybe, for an anchor of community among practitioners of a largely individualistic pursuit.

Talking about Brennan, she kept repeating that word, “vision.” It sounded, for a moment, like a cult, only without the evil.

Probably back in California, she finally answered, teaching kayaking, or bopping around the globe in her little plastic boat. The same thing, essentially, that she’s doing now. Only more alone.

Brennan Guth had just begun to throw the weight of his passion behind the project that would eventually come to bear his name when he succumbed to the cold waters of the Rio Palguin, and given the combination of rooted stasis and mobile freedom that characterized his own life, it seems only fitting that the project should be a standing wave on his hometown river.

The wave idea has been bouncing around for years in various iterations, but this most recent thrust seems to have gained momentum, spearheaded by the Missoula Whitewater Association’s Trent Baker, a boating Missoula attorney; hydrologist Paul Callahan at Land & Water Consulting, who first contacted Baker with the notion; Karl Englund with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, who helped steer $103,000 in MRA seed money toward developing the project; and the Tarkio-housed World Class Kayak Academy, which has taken the project under the sheltering wing of its 501(c)(3) non-profit status. Dr. David Guth has additionally directed the contents of the memorial whitewater fund established after his son’s death to the project’s coffers.

It’s an idea born not just of a confluence of persons and institutions, but a confluence of motives as well.

The confluences converge in the riverbed of the Clark Fork in downtown Missoula.

“Weir” is a kind word for the disassembly of rebar and rip-rap presently littering the riverbed roughly perpendicular to the bank of Caras Park, within easy view of the downstream rail of the Higgins bridge. When the city filled in the north channel of the Clark Fork to create Caras Park in the early 1960s, it had to extend a rock structure designed to shunt water towards the Orchard Homes Company’s irrigation ditch that takes off of the southern bank near the Boone and Crockett Club. Since then, however, due partly to incomplete construction, much of the structure has washed out, leaving behind the erosive and dangerous “scour hole” that presently marks the site.

As it stands, the rubble is marginally effective in its diversion function, an eyesore and a hazard to navigation, especially visible in low water conditions like those right now.

What the coalition behind the project proposes to do is clean the existing mess out of the river and replace it with a new structure of rock, secured in concrete, extending across the river to the Orchard Homes ditch, and tiered to create a variety of hydraulic holes upon which boaters sit and spin at fluctuating water levels. Strategically placed boulders downstream would create pools and eddies to break the current and form swimming holes (and easy routes for kayakers to paddle back upstream to play in the hole again).

Supporters—including the Orchard Homes Ditch Co., which stands to get free infrastructure out of the deal—lay claim to a raft of benefits including enhanced aesthetics, improved safety, expanded river access, increased oxygenation of fish habitat, riverbed stability and protection of the Garden City islands from erosion.

Those things, and economic development, too, are dangled. Colorado’s whitewater park building spree of the past decade, for instance, has been fueled in large part by economic considerations, and Golden, Colo.’s Clear Creek whitewater park is credited with attracting 45,000 users and netting $23 million for the local economy in the three years it’s been up and running.

Boulder, Colo.’s, prolific whitewater park designer Gary Lacy, of Recreation Engineering and Planning, has already completed a preliminary design for the proposed Missoula feature.

There is even talk—though it’s little more than wishful thinking at this point—of eventual similar rehabilitations of the Jacob’s Island diversion weir and others in the Clark Fork, not to mention a proposed whitewater park at the site of the soon-to-be-removed Milltown Dam.

Missoula, it’s easy to point out, is already a river-based destination, consistently ranked among the top U.S. cities for its paddling clout. The underutilized Clark Fork through downtown is just sitting there in need of repair anyway, supporters say—it’s a no-brainer. All the appropriate green lights—from the Missoula Conservation District, Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others—have been lit.

The Clark Fork Coalition, though conflicted about the idea of introducing yet more manmade structures to the already drastically modified river channel, has decided to support the project. And the city attorney’s office, though it has raised as yet unresolved liability concerns in the past, has so far made no attempt to block it.

So all that’s needed, supporters say, is about another $200,000. They plan to start raising it this week.

It’s approaching dark when Brad Ludden arrives at Tarkio with his parents to meet up with his sister Courtney, a kayaker/adventurer who doubles as Tarkio’s team manager.

Brad Ludden is a professional kayaker, a superstar sponsored by Nike, and royalty among the sport’s new school. At 22, Ludden has already founded, with advice from Guth, a non-profit called First Descents, which provides kayak-oriented “life lessons” and paddling opportunities for young adults with cancer. He’s just flown in from Vail, where he lives, and he’s headed up the next day to Kalispell, where he’s from, and he’s leaving within the week to paddle in China.

It’s not too often, Ludden says of Brennan, that you get to meet your hero and he exceeds your expectations.

Ludden hasn’t seen the Tarkio lodge since before it was completed, and he gazes in suitable awe at the latest progress in the fulfillment of Brennan’s vision for a boater utopia.

Standing with Ludden at the memorial plaque facing downstream, Doc Dave several times uses the phrase “a place to come together” to describe Brennan’s vision. That, however fuzzy, was the plan behind Tarkio, and that, however posthumously, seems to be the fundamental idea behind Brennan’s Wave.

On the face of it, the project calls for the engineering of an effective new weir for a ditch company and a dip in the river for budding Brad Luddens to practice cartwheels—noble, if narrow, goals all. But beyond that, what Brennan’s Wave supporters propose is a rehabilitation of a scarred landscape into a natural—which is to say conducive—gathering place for people who like to be around rivers, who like the things that rivers do, and who like the things they can do upon them. A place for people to come together.

Brennan would dig it, but he’d be red-faced to see his name on it, Doc Dave insists.

He lived, like he paddled, Ludden says, for “the right reasons.” Not for the cameras, not for endorsements, and not for a legacy with his name on it. Which might have something to do with why Brennan Guth ended up with all three, and everything to do with why he chose to share what he had.

One of those legacies is Tarkio itself, and the friends and family and fellow travelers who populate it. Another is a next generation of boaters like Ludden, who grew up idolizing not only Guth’s skill in the water but his “do it for the right reasons” vibe.

A third is UM’s inaugural Brennan Guth Memorial Lecture, which is bringing author and environmentalist William McKibben to town on March 14 of next year.

And now Brennan’s Wave seems well on its way to becoming yet another piece of a multi-faceted remembrance.

It might have embarrassed Brennan to hear about it—and all the kind things that people keep saying about him while he’s not here to deflect the praise—but assuredly the father, carrying on in the footsteps of the son, can’t help but be proud.

BrewGrass, a benefit for the Brennan’s Wave project sponsored by the Missoula Whitewater Association, is scheduled for Friday Sept. 5, 4–10 p.m., at Caras Park Pavilion.

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