Nearly every day of his life Jason Beakes wakes up in his picturesque Maryland home, feeds his daughter breakfast, packs his truck, and drives 20 minutes to a giant waterfall to launch himself off the top of it. It’s not your average day job. But Jason, now in his early forties, is actually one of the best extreme kayakers in the world, and Great Falls, one of the most intense whitewater rapids on the planet, just so happens to be on his doorstep.
But why, you may wonder, would anyone choose to hurtle down a 70-foot stack of raging waterfalls on a daily basis? For almost 30 years, Jason has done just that, and even through hard times and tragedy, he has persevered. To outsiders, it may seem like a destructive impulse, but Jason is proof that it’s not always adrenaline or a death wish that motivates a man down a mountain of water. It can be quite the opposite. The clues are scattered through the story of his life.
Jason was born just 15 miles away from Great Falls in Bethesda, Maryland, and was swimming before he could walk. At ten-years-old he attended the nearby Valley Mill Camp – famous for producing paddling talent – and an instructor there plonked him in a kayak for the very first time. “The feeling — that I’ll never forget — that really attracted me to it was that I was in control of the boat,” remembers Jason. “My parents were there on the dock but they couldn’t put a hand on the boat. This was a way I could be my own boss.”
The Evolution of a World-Class Kayaker
He shot through the ranks and his instructors identified him as a true talent with Olympic potential. Although he preferred the freestyle side of the sport, Jason competed – because he was good at it – and soon realised these skills could set him on the path he really desired. After eight years on the US Kayak Team, he broke free. “Getting into expeditions, running waterfalls, and racing on hard whitewater was a way of finding my way back to that passion of being in a wild place,” he says. “Places that very few people get to go.”
Extreme kayaking took Jason all over the world – from Germany to Tibet – and through his experiences he began to gain little insights into the essence of the sport. “Big water and the rivers that contain it tend to be some of the most beautiful places you can visit,” he says. “There’s a purity of experience to be found [in extreme kayaking]. You assess the line of the rapid, determine if you have the skill to do it, and then do it. The feeling when you succeed and get to the bottom is one of the greatest things you can experience.”
Jason developed a mindfulness that allowed him to take on more and more extreme stretches of whitewater. “I’ve had a number of very clear experiences where I was able to distinguish the difference between my authentic inner voice and the fear-induced chatter,” he says. “Finding the moments when you have that clear line to your intuition is, even if it leads to pulling the plug on something that you really want to do, so worthwhile. That inner communication is one of the greatest gifts of the sport.”
Giving Back To The Local Community
These days Jason gives that gift back to the Great Falls area through his kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding school Active Nature, which he runs with his wife Patricia. The concept of the training is not just physical; it focuses on how being on the water can improve your life. And it’s for everyone.
“The Potomac River really is an amazing underappreciated resource,” says Jason, “and the reason that it has been a hub for decades of high-level kayaking is that it flows you around. Unlike most rivers near a big metropolitan area, this river is still wild. It’s not dammed, it’s free-flowing, and if you’re dedicated to the sport you can paddle all year long… It’s almost a miracle, if you believe in such things, that this place hasn’t been inundated by reservoirs for hydroelectric projects or cut down into subdivisions. The quality and beauty of the environment here is almost incomparable to anything in the world within three days of travel from a major metropolitan area. And yet this is right in the middle of one.”
With another of his projects, The Great Falls Race, Jason showcases the sport by bringing kayakers from all over the world to his home to enjoy the water. Tragically, it was during preparation for this race in 2013 that Jason lost a friend, Shannon Christy, at the falls. Her death was a huge loss for the entire kayaking community, and it is hard to even imagine how traumatising it must have been for Jason himself, who was part of the difficult rescue. They cancelled the race that year, and today Jason and many of his friends wear helmets that say, ‘You are beautiful,’ in Shannon’s memory.
That tragedy, coupled with a senseless knife attack against Jason in his own home – during an open-door festival the Beakes were hosting for the paddling community – marked a dark time for the athlete. One that may, many would assume, keep Jason out of the difficult whitewater for good. But that is not the end of his story.
Attempting To Run Hurricane-Flooded Rapids
Today, Jason Beakes is a tiny speck above giant shelves of cascading whitewater. He is about to kayak over the top of Great Falls, and seeing how tiny he is in comparison to the epic rapid below him has suddenly made my knees go a little weak. The recent hurricane Joaquin has flooded the rapids to high levels, and today they are so challenging only a handful of kayakers in the world can run them.
“Great Falls is spectacular and scary because it’s a giant river falling off waterfalls,” Jason had told us earlier. “When you paddle towards the beginning of the falls, you see this half-mile wide horizon line and there’s this mist billowing up and you hear it thundering and that’s one of the things that makes it special, but also scary.”
A line of spectators have gathered on a wooden lookout nearby and are staring in silence. “Are you nervous?” I ask the guy next to me with binoculars. “No, no,” he replies quickly, not caring to avert his eyes from the water. “It’s Jason Beakes.”
Later, as we walk through the car park people come up and shake Jason’s hand, and kids huddle around him asking questions. The whole thing is so casual and friendly I momentarily forget what just went down on the river.
But today, like countless other times in his life, Jason Beakes has made history – a roll in an unexpected place, a new line through the chaos. Every time Jason enters the water here, despite the fact he has spent his life kayaking, he learns something new. And it’s that – not thrills, or kicks, or shots at glory – which keeps him coming back day in, day out, after nearly thirty years.
“I feel that paddling big white water, committing to white water, you become part of the experience,” reflects Jason. “You’re not running the rapid per se, you are becoming part of the rapid, and that feeling becomes so distinct when you’re sitting at the bottom and you’ve done it, and maybe your buddies are there setting safety and they’re part of it, too. It’s just an electric feeling… You become fluid. You literally learn to be like water.”