When I relocated from Virginia almost a decade ago, one of the main factors in my decision was that I wanted to be closer to a reliable, dam-released river so that I could continue to feed my paddling obsession year-round. I ended up settling in Mentone Alabama about an hour and a half from the Ocoee River in Tennessee. It wasn’t long before I met one of the Ocoee’s most famous sons, Jeff West. One day, a mutual friend pointed out Jeff while he was playing in Hell Hole in his Perception Lucid (a boat that never looked quite as good with anyone else paddling it!). Later we were introduced at the take-out and Jeff’s smile and easygoing attitude made an immediate impression on me and our paths crossed frequently over the decade that followed.
Over the years I can’t think of a single time when Jeff and I actually made plans to paddle together. We ended up on the river together plenty of times as groups of mutual friends would merge or as we would stop to talk and catch up with each other. Jeff was always willing to take the time to talk and we would trade stories about whatever paddling adventures we had each had recently. I don’t think Jeff realized the inspiration that I drew from those talks or how much I looked up to him in many ways. Perhaps he did realize it, but was so comfortable in his role inspiring others that he never acknowledged it or used it to boost his own ego.
Jeff was atypical combination of someone with extraordinary paddling talent who devoted the majority of his days on the river to instruction. In any given year, I would guess the ratio of days Jeff spent teaching others verses paddling for his own recreation was easily 5:1, probably more. It’s a rare combination indeed considering how capable he was of running hard whitewater and how much he loved doing so. I don’t think it’s a secret that top-level paddlers often have top-level egos to go with it. Running difficult whitewater requires high levels of self confidence. The harder the moves and the greater the consequences the more confidence required in yourself and your abilities. Too often as top-level paddler’s confidence grows, so do their egos, but not with Jeff. I don’t know of anyone as capable who was so uninterested in pursuing external validation.
When he wasn’t instructing, Jeff was interested in pushing his own limits, not one-upping others, and not shopping for sponsors. It was just as true when he was doing attainments on the Ocoee as it was when he was seeing how many laps he could do on any number of class V creeks. Jeff’s interest seemed mainly in pushing himself and measuring himself against his previous personal best. I imagine it was that interest in pushing himself and testing his own limits that led him to attempt the Stikine solo. Jeff had run the Stikine previously (including a descent last year in an amazing 7 hours), I can imagine that for him, a solo descent was just the next step in pushing himself. A vision quest to combine his years of training and achievements. Had he come away unscathed we would all have been impressed, but would not have been a surprise. Instead we do not know exactly what happened. The potential for things to go wrong in such an environment is high and small problems can multiply quickly and lead to disaster. Somehow it would be slightly easier to accept his death if I knew he had broken a paddle or backband, or perhaps his skirt imploded. I like to think that it was gear failure and not just the difficulty and dangers of the whitewater paddling. Maybe that thought is more comforting to me because if it was not gear failure than the dangers of whitewater paddling can take any of my friends or me, and that isn't something any of us like to think about.
In the early days of his paddling instruction business (Ace), Jeff was working other jobs to make ends meet. As the business grew over time he was able to spend more and more of the year on the river and support himself doing so. I’m sure he knew the path to monetary wealth was not through paddling instruction. His interest and motivation was to introduce others to the sport that he loved so much. Jeff was a paddling evangelist, preaching the virtues of the river life to anyone who would listen. Sure, he had goals for his business, but he also knew he would never be monetarily rich from his chosen career path. However, for those of us who measure our wealth in days on the river, nights by the campfire, and laughter shared with friends… Jeff was one of the richest men I’ve known. We should all hope to have a life as rich. Rest in peace Jeff, you will be missed.
Until Next Time...