© 2013 Adam Johnson Chris Schwer posing in front of the second largest rapid on the Jaques-Cartier Northwest near Quebec City, Canada.

Walk the line

I remember waking up from phone call. As I gained consciousness, I realized I missed the call. I rest my head back down on the pillow. Roughly thirty seconds later a message popped up. It was from Tyler Houck. Tyler was in White Salmon, Washington—the other side of the continent from West Virginia. I just returned from White Salmon a few days ago. He knew where I was. I knew where he was. I thought, “Why is he calling me?” As I pressed play on the voicemail, it all came together. Chris was in White Salmon. I didn’t have to listen to the message—I already knew what this message was going to say.

Shortly after the message completed, I got up and went to the bathroom. All Tyler said was, “Adam, call me as soon as you get this. It’s important.” It was like my mind was trying to avoid the inevitable. Like I could outrun it or something. I went to the bathroom, came back downstairs and grabbed my phone. I remember sitting on the living room couches—furniture that Chris owned and insisted on buying for the apartment—staring at my phone. Thinking, “No, it can’t be. This is bullshit. I don’t want to make this call.”

When I got up the courage to call, Tyler didn’t answer but someone else did. That person handed the phone off to Lance Reif, a friend who I had known for several years and a former raft guide in Fayetteville. Lance told me what I already knew but didn’t want to believe: Chris was dead.

Background

Chris Schwer was a 27 year old kayaker living in Morgantown, WV. One year ago today, Chris drowned on the Green Truss section of the White Salmon river.

I remember the first time I met Chris. It was 2009 in front of an old, shady apartment I had in Morgantown. At that moment I was talking with Don Smith about getting his website up and running. Chris pulled up in his Honda Element and started chatting us up in true Schwing fashion. At that point, I had no idea who he was and got a little weirded out because he was essentially cat-calling us in front of my apartment. He explained he was new in town, and was looking for people to paddle with. Even Don, a person who was eternally skeptical, was taken aback with his friendly and inviting demeanor.

Little did I know Chris would later become my coworker, climbing partner, traveling companion, kayaker, fellow designer, roommate, and best friend. For the next three and a half years, I saw Chris five days a week. We became close. We shared experiences in and out of the office, on the rock, river, and road. We felt comfortable sharing each others trials and tribulations about work, women, and any other subject that came up. We planned (and took) paddling trips together. We let each other down and picked each other up. Chris was just breaking into the class V scene in WV. I took him under my wing, showed him the good lines and levels. I introduced him to the key players he didn’t already know. I could tell when he felt shaky. I could tell when he was crushing it. It was spectacular to see his confidence develop. Energy radiated from him—instantly infecting everyone around him. That energy is what I miss the most.

Memories

Chris Schwer plucking the happiness out of a tree--literally--during a grueling two hour portage.

Jaques Cartier Northwest:

I remember being in the middle of the Jaques Cartier national park, hiking into one of the most committing and remote runs on the east coast. We were tired, taking a short break while David Laroche scouted a line to descend into the 200’ high cliffed out canyon. I wiped the sweat pouring off my forehead. Looking up, Chris grabbed some moss off of a tree and stared at us, putting the moss on his chin like a long, green beard. He looked goofy as hell. I couldn’t have hoped to be as fired up or funny in that moment. Chris literally plucked the joy out of the air and began to wear it. That is what he did. He was good at it.

Upper Blackwater

I remember sitting in an eddy at the bottom of 100 yard dash on the Upper Blackwater, waiting for people to paddle through. Chris had only been down the Blackwater a handful of times and was visibly nervous. The river was swollen from rain. I could see he was shaky. It was something I knew—something only I would have noticed simply due to the relationship we had and our shared time on the water. We were with a legendary crew, putting on late after work on a hot June day. Immediately after he passed me, I peeled out of the eddy, charging right after him. He stopped to rest in the eddy below, and I yelled at him, “Hey Chris, follow me.” He peeled out immediately and became my doppelganger. Within a half mile, he was no longer nervous, hooting and hollering with the rest of us. He moved from being shaken to being fully in his element. One with the water. Exactly where he wanted to be.

Chris Schwer overlooking Lachine. Montreal, Canada.

French Mickey D’s

Chris had an uncanny ability to connect with people. On our May 2012 Canada trip, we stayed in Montreal where we ate late-night at a McDonalds. Quebec is a french speaking portion of Canada and neither of us spoke a lick of french. When we walked inside to fumble our way through the french menu, Chris began talking with a pleasant, middle-aged, bilingual woman at the register. Before we were done eating, this kind stranger walked from behind the register, chatted us up—twice—and gave us free coffee and muffins. In about half an hour, we went from complete strangers to getting free food at McDonalds.

…….

Lessons learned:

  • A fatality doesn’t affect just you, no matter who you are (a husband with kids or a traveling, dirt-squirrel kayaker). I think about Chris every hour of every day since his accident. I’m surrounded by his memories, and yet plagued by mine.
  • I’ve been kayaking for 18 years. I always thought I understood danger and risk. I even studied risk in college. Ever since Chris died, it has changed the way I look at the river and evaluate risk—forever. Where I once was able to evaluate a hazard—a tree, hydraulic, or siphon—in one pass, I now find myself second guessing myself. Asking “Is this really worth it?” and, perhaps more importantly, “Can I navigate this rapid flawlessly?” These questions amplify when I’m around strainers since both Don and Chris died by getting entangled by wood.
  • Choose your paddling partners wisely. If you fall into the shit, can they get you out? Do they have the skills, knowledge, and experience to do it? Are they responsive and reliable? Do they trust you with their life? And perhaps more importantly, do you trust them with your life?
  • There are three articles written this year on risk, kayaking, and death which you should read. They contain wisdom and insight from people who have thoroughly explored this subject. Take the time to read them (seriously, I’ll wait):
    1. The Risks We Take by Tree
    2. Seeking Dispersers by Mike Miller
    3. Life and Death Beyond the Edge by Adam Herzog
  • The importance of good gear cannot be overstated. Buying quality gear can literally be the difference between life and death. A broken paddle, a blown skirt, or a sinking PFD have been the cause of several near-misses and fatalities. Heck, a broken paddle even caused me to swim for the first time since I was 12 last year. If you break your paddle or your skirt blows in the middle of some heavy whitewater, you’re certainly in for far worse than you could have imagined—the worst part is knowing it could have been prevented.

What to do now

  • Keep smiling. That’s what Chris would have wanted.
  • Try to emulate the raw passion and joy that he brought to the world. It was unparalleled. Only the people that knew him could understand this.
  • Try to be even a quarter the person he was. I’m convinced the powers-that-be deemed him too good for this world and would not let him go another round. Right now he’s probably a river god in training. I’m sure he watches over us every day.
  • Be careful. Make smart decisions. Only step up if you think you can grease that river or line on your worst day. Scout for the ideal line, the marginal line, and catastrophic failure. Set safety in the bad spots. Put people you trust there. If you can’t adequately set safety, back down. That rapid and river will be there tomorrow and for all eternity.

As kayakers, we risk life and limb in the pursuit of happiness. Through these risks we forge immeasurable bonds between friends and the river. We craft experiences that we’ll remember forever. We travel. We succeed. We fail. We learn.

But at what price? When something goes horribly wrong, do the ends still justify the means?

The answer to these questions will only come from deep within you. As for me, I’m going to keep adventuring because that is what I do. It’s where I find solace, where I find answers to the complex questions that oftentimes have no concrete answer. As Mike Miller said about adventure sports in the Seeking Dispersers article:

We don’t do them in order to face fear. We do them because it is what fuels our spirit and recharges our soul. We can’t help ourselves. It’s in our genes.

All I can say is remember Chris. Hang onto his energy. Emulate his passion and never forget.

We miss you, bud.

…….

14 Comments

  1. Kevin
    Posted August 1, 2013 at 10:53 am | #

    Well written tribute to a good man.

  2. tpetty
    Posted August 1, 2013 at 11:18 am | #

    thank you AJ. A wonderful tribute, but also a wonderful reflection on both the glories and shortfalls of being human.

  3. karyn cummings
    Posted August 1, 2013 at 12:16 pm | #

    Beautiful description of Chris’s passion for life!

  4. Posted August 1, 2013 at 12:45 pm | #

    Good thoughts and a fantastic retrospect on Chris.

  5. Posted August 1, 2013 at 5:10 pm | #

    We’ll done on the article Adam.
    Chris was a great guy. I would run into him on the Yough and the Gauley and it was always nice to see him and have some eddy conversations.
    We all have our moments in kayaking though. The longer we kayak the bigger and more abundant those moments become. It’s strange how we can be so passionate about the fine line we boat on between breathing and not breathing. Lack of oxygen is always a torso’s length away, but we still can’t help ourselves. We just boat. When it comes time, we just have to move our fears and fallen friends from our minds to our hearts and live on the water. Next time I have a beer I will spill some for my homie.

  6. riley
    Posted August 1, 2013 at 8:51 pm | #

    well said boss. great guy

  7. susan
    Posted August 2, 2013 at 1:39 am | #

    Thanks Adam. Your thoughts resonate with a lot I’ve been going through with so many friends. Chris, Carl, Don, Jenna, Shannon… Moving past it all is tough. Thanks for sharing.

  8. MichaelTaylor
    Posted August 2, 2013 at 2:49 pm | #

    Chris was my childhood neighbor in indiana before they moved to ohio. I am glad to see that your keeping his Tremendous spirit alive. Just a good ole boy:) Good Day

  9. Posted August 3, 2013 at 2:38 am | #

    This is a beautifully written tribute and does an outstanding job of articulating those questions we need to be asking ourselves. Thank you for sharing it.

  10. Leigh Ann Gresham
    Posted August 2, 2014 at 9:04 am | #

    I did not know Chris, I was with my uncle, Dan Friend, when he learned of the young man’s death. He was heartbroken. This is an extremely well written and informative tribute to Chris and people who enjoy this sport.

  11. Colleen DeHart
    Posted August 2, 2014 at 3:58 pm | #

    Wonderfully written, beautiful piece. The world lost a great man.

  12. Posted August 3, 2016 at 3:31 pm | #

    Your old English teach is proud of you for writing this, AJ. Miss your face. mar dog

  13. Posted August 3, 2016 at 9:03 pm | #

    Nice writing Adam. I also thought of Chris the other day. I didn’t have the privilege of knowing him personally, but my very first morning on the job – where I would have been Chris’s coworker – was the day that the news came in. I could tell that I had just missed the opportunity to get to know someone who was full of life.
    Glad you’re out there doing your thing. And keep writing!

  14. Posted August 1, 2017 at 12:34 pm | #

    Your friends sprit clearly lives on in you and others. Thanks for the amazing article as the lessons you have learned and the keys you share will likely save others from a similar fate.

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