Extreme Kayaker: Eric Southwick
UPDATE: Umgawa Adventures has now re-branded, becoming 8Adventures.Their new website is www.8Adventures.com.
Eric Southwick greets me with an open palm; a hardhat shaped as a baseball cap teetering on the top of his head and the classic garb of adventure wear with little patches of camouflage pattern for added stereotype. With an excitable voice and a friendly manner, Eric introduces himself to me and my friends who have come to experience a day of kayaking and ATVing at Umgawa Adventures in Mae Taeng.
You wouldn’t know it from his laidback manner, but Eric is a two-time World Champion and multi-medal winner in freestyle kayaking – a sport that he himself helped shape.
The day out was bound to be exciting, with ATVing in the morning, up to a peak of 1600m, followed by a 10km inflatable kayak adventure down the Mae Taeng River, hitting rapids and swirls up to class IV. Although clearly overqualified for the job, Eric has taken on leading tours around Mae Taeng with help from local talent Kriangsak Boonsom, a Thai National Kayaking Champion and naturalist, and Ekwit Chuapoon, an Asian Kayaking Champion and advanced ATV rider.
After many years travelling the globe, winning medals and working for top brands such as Red Bull, BBC and Rip Curl, Eric has recently settled in the north of Thailand, not only making use of the nation’s best white water rivers, but also locating himself in the geographical heart of adventure sports, only a few hours by a plane from some of the best kayaking locations in the world.
Coming from the American Southwest, Eric was exposed to the outdoors from a very early age. “My first time in a kayak was when I was ten years old,” he tells me as we conclude our three hour ATV adventure through the burning mountains of Mae Taeng, dust falling from his face. “My parents were keen rafters and we took a weeklong trip down the Salmon River in Idaho.”
His father taught him the basics but Eric soon surpassed even his father’s skills and quickly saw himself taking professional kayak courses at a local university at only 13 years old. By 15, he was training in the slalom kayaking development programme, aimed at finding the next Olympic champion. By 16 he was touring the US.
“I was approached by the junior Olympic slalom kayaking coach and invited to live and train with him full time in North Carolina,” Eric recalls.
After only one year of training, he made the junior US team and attended the Junior World Championship in Norway. Not to anyone’s surprise, he made silver in the Team Slalom. From there, Eric’s passion for kayaking only grew. At 18 he transitioned from the junior to the adult league and made the Olympic B-team immediately. Just missing the A-team (the top three in the country) Eric dedicated himself to training for another two years before a chance to make the cut came around again.
Being in the icy waters all year round can take its toll, and even for Eric, this became too much to bear. Slalom kayaking was also getting old school and chicaning around some poles on a calm lake was perhaps not thrilling enough. And so, following an epiphany, paddles were left dry in the shed and kayaks became homes to the spiders. For the next several years Eric pursued winter sports instead and became adept at ice climbing.
Birth of Freestyle
Yet in 1997, an old sponsor of Eric’s contacted him with an offer he couldn’t refuse. “They called me up and told me they were creating a freestyle kayaking team, and they wanted me,” Eric says, the spark reigniting in his eyes.
The thrill Eric was looking for had served itself up on a silver platter, so after dusting off his beloved kayaks, Eric dived deep into the world of extreme water sports, becoming a key player in the design, development and birth of the newest radical sport of the decade – freestyle kayaking.
Working closely with designers and other kayaking professionals to re-design the whole sport, Eric played a significant role in making the boats and equipment and pushing the tricks with all the other paddlers to help grow the sport into what it is today. Even the kayakers’ outfits were given a fresh new design ready to share with the world. Today, pretty much all standard freestyle kayaks use Eric’s original designs.
With moves inspired by snowboarding and surfing, freestyle kayaking focused on flips, cartwheels and cruising on extreme white water rivers, all of which had Eric’s very own flair injected into it.
“The first thing I was tasked with was to make industry porn,” recalls Eric, leaving me imagining dusty VHS tapes with grainy footage of Eric shooting down some white water with words like “awesome!” and “rad!” overlaid in some dated fonts. Eric quickly became the face of the new sport and freestyle kayaking became a phenomenon in the world of water sports. Interest went viral.
Obviously, Eric made the US team in 1999 and soon, through sponsorship, began travelling the world, exploring never before seen rivers and white water, risking death and arrest to complete his journeys.
While freestyle kayaking in Laos, Eric says, “The government was pretty strict on where we could go, so for a long time the ecotourism and nvironmental minister accompanied us by pickup.” But halfway into the journey there were problems and soon they saw the minister leaving, a trail of dust left by his oversized pickup.
“We were on our own, which was really relieving, but we couldn’t help but wonder why he didn’t want to continue downstream.” So, Eric and his team of eight headed off alone. “A day or so after, we were kayaking down the river when we heard masses of gunshots ricocheting in the jungle to the left of us. We didn’t have a clue what was going on but me and my team paddled away, fast! But they wouldn’t give up, it seemed to go on for miles!”
Eric and his team split up, creating distance between each other so that if one was shot, the others would still be safe from attack. By the time they passed the shootout, it was getting dark and they soon found a place to camp that was reasonably safe. A fire was lit and they all sat thinking about what the hell happened back there, no doubt grateful to still be alive.
“Then suddenly, the fire just exploded. We were all blown back and the sound was so loud – the same sound we had heard all the way down the river – and then we realised. It was the bamboo!” Turns out there was a forest fire, and bamboo, due to its structure, often explodes with a sound like gunshots.
A few more anecdotes later, an empty plate of rice and a quick change of clothes leave us ready for the river. We hop on the back of a pickup loaded with kayaks. The journey upstream to the drop off point is exciting, and we stop along the way so that Kriangsak can pick some wild figs while Eric describes his first gold.
“When I won the world championship, I had the worst flu imaginable,” he told me. “Every 45 seconds I was puking but I had to keep going.”
It was thrilling, coasting down the Mae Taeng River in our 10k inflatable kayaks. Rapids, swirls, five foot waterfalls, with several near capsizes! Not only was the journey exciting (yes, my knuckles did go a little paler than they normally are) but it was a real jungle adventure, stopping along the way to examine beehives and bamboo worms. A few show-off moves from Eric, including a most impressive cartwheel and a complete flip on still water (which is harder than it sounds), and we found ourselves mooring up to the shore, panting, but pining for more.
Mae Taeng Home
After our trip down the rapids, we chat about Thailand’s flora and fauna. “I like to share facts about the amazing things you can find in Thailand’s jungles,” Eric says. We’re at the Lahu village of Huay Kukap on the 1600m mountain top. “These jungles alone have over 1400 species of bamboo, some which grow up to 80cm a day!” he gushes.
Umgawa Adventures focuses not only on the thrills of climbing mountains on an ATV or hitting class IV rapids in a kayak, but also makes a big effort to share the knowledge of the landscape, helping people understand what Thailand’s rich nature has to offer.
“We also like to share and help the community,” Eric tells me just before heading home. “We have brought satellites for the villagers of Huay Kukap, bringing them TV and encourage them to grow coffee, which we then buy off them.”
Living here, a short flight away from Bhutan, Nepal, Laos and China, Eric is surrounded by the world’s best rivers. Life is good.
But Eric doesn’t know if it will last, and cites his desire to help preserve the area for future generations. “Asia is changing all the time,” he sighs. “Many of the rivers I have been lucky enough to kayak on are now long gone, flooded by a new dam or destroyed by companies and governments. I can’t leave; I need to get to as many as I can before they are lost forever.”
Umgawa Adventures is dedicated to sharing the wonders of Northern Thailand while also being committed to safety. They offer white water rafting, amateur and professional kayaking tours, and ATV safari adventures. Coming soon, Umgawa will be the first place in Northern Thailand to offer stand-up paddle boarding, using boards made from all natural resources and tailored for white water. All equipment is internationally certified with CE, EN and UL certifications – much of which is imported from the US directly.