A Paddler’s Ode to His Dear Friend Alan Panebaker

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Panebaker on his beloved Westwater…

This water sport I love has given me so much, but it also has tested me in ways I could never have fathomed. Kayaking demands endurance, perseverance, and induces loss, pain, and injuries. With a three-decade long career, I am working towards mental healing as well as figuring out how to live in a haggard body with back injuries and multiple shoulder surgeries.

Watch video here:

I heard a song by Atmosphere a few years back and immediately welled up due to what and who it reminded me of. It has been a long time since one of my best paddling buddies drowned in the Northeast; his birthday would have been three weeks ago. He was the wittiest person, a great human being, and the most engaging conversationalist I had ever known. Long drives went by in a blink of an eye. We would drive over the pass to a creek and four hours from home to our destination, it would go by so quickly due to the quality of engaging conversation.

His biting wit shut me down so many times that I would feel angry, he was too funny and all too spot on most of the time. His talent at pinpointing others’ issues, calling out my inadequacies and problems quickly was unnatural. Unlike most everyone I know he didn’t pull punches but cut you deep verbally. He just gave it always, on the river and off it. I appreciated his honesty and it actually helped me become more humble, self-aware person. His jabs helped me recognize my own shitty behavior at times, helped me own who I was and strive to be a better person.

I miss you Alan; and this video was a hard one to edit up. Sorting through all these old mini DV tapes was a chore but I got to visit with you some more and savored that.

Now I have lost four close river friends, including Alan Panebaker, Sam Grafton, Dugan Flanders and Max Sullivan (aka Chunderboy, while paragliding in Aspen). Damon Miller, Adam Barron, Josh Morrison, Xavier Engle and many more that I didn’t know as closely and shared strokes with are also gone. More souls than I would like to admit have moved on from this world before they reached a ripe old age.

Each loss still stings but Alan’s stands out the most. He was my boating partner for many summers in my prime charging years. We thought we were invincible. Still, I can’t stay away from the sport that feeds my passion for life. I will always regret not making it to your funeral, since I was broke as hell and going through a tough time. No excuses, I should have made the trip from Seattle to Colorado.

Backing off a notch

Sometimes I look at my beautiful wife and two-year-old son and think, ‘What the fuck is wrong with me, why can’t I stop putting myself at risk? Why can’t I stop paddling hard whitewater?’

I have certainly backed off a few notches, first when I got married and then further when Finn was born. But always the draw is real; difficult whitewater whispers in my ear. I don’t feel like myself if I am not testing the limits. The muscle memory that is engrained in my brain, the challenge, the endorphins and the way my brain has been hardwired over the last 30 years of kayaking and canoeing whitewater.

I need it, it is the healthiest drug in the world I feel, but the side effects of losing friends are real and disastrous. I am a lifelong addict. Sometimes I reflect on choosing to blow off friendships and relationships since I got in a canoe when I was 11 years old, always picking this activity over almost everything and everyone in my life.  People have given up on me because of my obsession and I don’t blame them.  I am 41 now, an older boater, obsessed and hooked on a young man’s sport…

This video edit was a catharsis that I didn’t want to share with the public; I sat on it for the past two years. In the end I felt like we need to recognize how great a person my whitewater brother was. I miss you buddy, we had a great four summers of touring Colorado together and I will remember each day vividly.

Panebaker
Intern Job #113: sanding down PBR cans so they look like “river beers” to hand out at the tradeshow.

Sometimes, I just dream of the good old days raging on some Subaru-supplied shuttle vehicle plastered in stickers. Driving the tires off of these vehicle and destroying roof racks each summer. We did the Grand Canyon together in 2007, I haven’t been back since. I just spoke with your brother today Alan, Eric, and we miss you dearly. So does the rest of your Colorado, New Hampshire, Vermont river tribes and the crew at American Whitewater. Rest easy Little Al…you were the most unique intern we ever had at Paddler mag and turned into my paddling partner that crushed every river we touched.

Eric and I will get back to the GC for you one day, share the river that we also saw together for the first time.

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