Doug Ammons | Whitewater Philosophy

Published: August 2, 2010


Doug Ammons, Missoula scholar, editor and kayaker extraordinaire, recently landed on Outside magazine’s list of the 10 Greatest Adventurers Since 1900. “I'm not one for lists, since every list we could make about any subject would be driven by personal taste and arbitrary to some degree,” he says. “But it is a huge honor to be compared to Reinhold Messner (who climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks) and the others there.”  

Ammons gets credit in Outside for his solo descent of British Columbia’s Grand Canyon of the Stikine – a 60-mile stretch of Class V whitewater, in a feat that’s never been repeated.

But in his new book, Whitewater Philosophy, he suggests that “striving for the highest, hardest, most stunning new descents, ascents or feats” isn’t reason enough to do what he does. In a typically Zen fashion, the black-belted martial artist argues that adventure sports “form the modern Dao … allowing us to take part in the very powers that sculpted and shaped the world around us.”

Through a series of anecdotes and essays, Ammons explores the world of contemporary kayaking, the physiology of fear and the future of his sport. He also expresses chagrin with paddlers who don’t understand “the bond of the river” – the essential creed of helping those in need.

While the book is sure to interest paddlers of all skill levels, his ruminations about the frame of mind that helps him run Class V rivers is of interest to more mundane adventurers like myself. The skill Ammons calls “zanshin,” a fluid alertness that was cultivated by ancient Japanese sword masters, could help all of us navigate challenging water, wherever we find it.

Ammons chronicles other whitewater adventures in The Laugh of the Water Nymph and Other River Stories; both books were published by Water Nymph Press, Missoula. Visit for more information.

– Kristi Niemeyer

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