Western Fires Hit Home for Paddlers: Case Study: Sam Drevo


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World-class kayaker Sam Drevo had all records of his paddling exploits, from slides to medals, go up in flames.

Gone in a flash. That sums up the sentiments of Sam Drevo, owner of eNRG Kayaking, a paddling school and outfitter located on the Willamette River in Oregon City, Oregon, and whose home — and all its belongings — on the nearby North Santiam river was wiped out in the blaze.

Oregon and California are having their worst wildfire seasons on record, causing devastation, loss of life and public health threats from smoke. In Oregon, says American Whitewater director of Wild & Scenic Rivers and Public Lands Policy Dave Moryc, the worst of the most recent fires occurred in the watersheds of some of the region’s highest valued rivers, including the McKenzie, Molalla and North Santiam — all designated as national Wild and Scenic Rivers. It’s the latter, the North Santiam, that hit home for Drevo, a globe-trotting, world-class kayaker who had all records of his paddling exploits, from slides to medals, go up in flames? Read on in this PaddlingLife special for his tragic tale (and GoFundMe page for support):

PL: Catch us up on the recovery

Drevo: “The last few weeks have been a blur. I escaped the smoke for a week out at the coast, and then spent two weeks doing contamination control and bank stabilization and erosion control on the banks of the North Santiam, where four out of nine houses burned down on my mom’s street, including my mom’s. I did found remnants from my prior life sifting through the rubble — a piece of my World Bronze medal, the National Geographic TOGA award, the Green Giant award, and Mojo’s (my favorite dog’s) ashes…

Oregon fires
A map of the fires on the North Santiam

PL: Damn…Where were you when the fire swept through? 

Drevo: “We had just finished a five-day Gold Medal Surf and Slalom Kids camp on the Deschutes River in Bend. We had Tyler Westfall coaching, with Bert Hinkley’s local crew for gates, and our final session was on the North Santiam right below Big Cliff Dam — which 12 hours later would be completely torched.

NRG had two raft trips on Labor Day, and I helped run shuttle, including a free one for some Bend paddlers running the Niagara section just below our training gates. I’ve lived with my mom for the last six years in Gates and got home at 4:30 p.m. Tyler and I were considering our next day or two and unwinding after the amazing camp we just completed and watching the ski darken. It was dry, hot and the weather was calling for strong east winds.

Oregon fire, Drevo
Shoring up the banks after the blaze swept through…

PL: Then it got bad quick?

Drevo:  I didn’t know enough to appreciate the severity of the issue, but the Opal Creek fire was over 15 miles away (two ridges) and the incident command was posted up at the Gates School about a mile from our house. There were close to 200 fire officials camping nearby. I signed up for the emergency alerts at about 5 p.m. that day and decided we’d wake up early, pack up and head back towards our shop in Oregon City. By 9:30 pm, the Breitenbush community went from L2 evacto L3-Go Now; that tone woke Tyler, my mom and me up.

We discussed packing up, because the north side of the North Santiam was supposed to go L2 (be ready) at noon on Sept. 8. Tyler and I decided to visit incident command to see if there were any updates; when he walked outside the clearcut a half-mile from my mom’s house was engulfed in flames. The winds were swirling at 30-40 mph, and it got scary quick. Realizing there was fire to the north and south, we raced to get the dog, a few things and get out.

Driving through the geologic constriction towards the closest bridge over the river we saw a massive orange/red glow over the Gates school. This was about 9:55 p.m. We stopped at the fire station and were told to drive out of the area immediately. So we drove down to our shop in Mill City and spoke with Eric Munroe, telling him he had to go.

There were multiple powerline fires, the wind speeds were clocked at 106 mph on the ridges that night, and much of our little city of Gates burned to the ground — including Northwest River Guides’ historic property on Highway 22 and Gates Hill Rd. and our highway shop and duplex. The fire burned out of control.

PL: So glad you all got out safe. What all did you lose?

Drevo:I lost a huge list of gear…my Motorcycle, commissary kit, dry boxes, coolers, camping gear, a bunch of paddles, drysuits and more. But all that stuff is replaceable. We all lost all of our most valuable personal possessions, including all my 35mm slide photography from the 1990s and early 2000s.

I had three massive Tupperware boxes of select images, as well as six slide carousels of different presentations. It was all from first descents in Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Hawaii and more, as well as trips and wildlife photography from Norway, Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Germany, Austria, Costa Rica, New Zealand. It’s truly gutting.

I also lost all my awards, including my Olympic Festival/National Championship and World Championship medals; all my production BETA masters from IMAX films to NBC sports broadcast work; my Mom’s loom and all her textiles; and all our art and carpets from our world travels. That and so much more was all gone in a flash. I could keep going, but it’s depressing…

Oregon fire, Drevo
Charred scenes from the aftermath…

Note: To help Drevo and his mom recover, visit his GoFundMe page here


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