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 6�' 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 Cordob�s.) Finally he said, "It's time."
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.