Shawn Malone knows that whitewater canoeing has its risks. He has lost friends in drowning accidents. He has participated in body searches. Once, while pinned against a rock, Malone made peace with God and accepted his own death, which, at the time, he believed was inevitable.
But Malone doesn't fixate on those things — quite the opposite, in fact.
"Paddling is my life. It's my church. It's my fellowship," he says.
Born and raised in Chattanooga, Malone discovered whitewater paddling at age 24.
"I think I saw it on a Subaru commercial or something and thought, 'I want to do that!'" says Malone, now 43.
After Malone procured his first whitewater kayak, he spent every weekend on the water.
In 2009, during a run on the Tellico River, Malone saw these two old guys in little bitty canoes. He asked one of the men if he could try to roll it, and the man obliged.
"So I got in and rolled it perfectly three times," Malone says.
The man in the canoe turned out to be Michael "Louie" Lewis, the namesake of Ain't Louie Fest, a famous celebration of the whitewater canoe subculture that attracts boaters from across the continent to Lenoir City, Tennessee.
After Malone rolled Lewis' canoe, he says that Lewis — famous for being both gruff and generous — asked him, "What the hell are you doing in that boat? Why do you want to be just another damn kayaker? If I gave you a canoe, would you paddle it?"
"Well, sure," Malone replied.
The men exchanged information. That following Tuesday, Lewis called Malone and told him, "Come pick up your boat."
Whitewater canoeing, also called open boating, is different than whitewater kayaking in a number of ways. In a canoe, Malone says, the paddler sits on a saddle, about 8 inches above the water. In a kayak, he or she sits in the cockpit, chest-level with the water.
Unlike a kayak, a canoe cannot wear a spray skirt. Instead it is fitted with airbags, which prevent the boat from sinking when it inevitably takes on water. And, unlike the kayak's double-bladed paddle, the canoe's paddle has just one blade. A single blade, Malone says, can put one at a disadvantage. It forces the paddler to act much faster, using his or her body as leverage to avoid rolling.
Initially, Malone says he was attracted to the canoe because he thought it would be safer.
"You rarely hear about open boaters being pinned," says Malone, who had wanted to dial back his extreme sporting following the birth of his son River in 2006.
"Well, that backfired," Malone says. Whitewater canoeing added a new challenge to his sport and consequently added to its thrill.
"Canoeing is more difficult and requires the paddler to focus more on reading water and using the currents to your advantage rather than plowing down the river in a skirted kayak. I was able to run familiar class IV-V creeks and rivers and increase the difficulty rather than the danger," Malone says.
Before long, Malone and his new canoe were cartwheeling off 14-foot waterfalls. Malone quickly became well-known among whitewater canoers, which comprise a small but close-knit community, bolstered by events like Ain't Louie Fest.
One year at ALF, Malone met a man named Jim Coffey, a fellow whitewater canoeist who, in 2014, paddled his canoe over a 60-foot waterfall and claimed the world record of highest waterfall run in an open boat. Coffey had seen videos of Malone's own whitewater stunts and the men became fast friends.
Coffey, Malone learned, had founded a program called Whitewater Healing that leads children with autism on whitewater adventures throughout North America. In 2015, Malone volunteered to guide one of these adventures on the Nantahala River. There, Malone met a 10-year-old boy named Will.
Will was nonverbal and communicated with sign language. He was the most challenged child in the group, Malone says. Throughout the day, Will would get uncomfortable and start to scream. Finally, Malone told him, "If you want to scream, scream. You want to swim, let's swim. You don't want to paddle, you don't have to!"
After Malone and the group rafted the river, Malone asked Will if he'd like to go through the rapids again — this time, in Malone's canoe. Will signed "yes."
"So I took him through the meat of the rapids so that he really got the experience. When we finished, his father came over and thanked me and said, 'I rarely get to see Will smile.' He told Will to tell me 'thank you.' I fully expected a sign, but [Will] looked up at me and said, 'Thank you,'" Malone remembers.
Whitewater "levels the playing field," Malone says. "It doesn't matter what you're doing in your daily life, when you get on the river, everybody is the same."
That day on the Nantahala, Malone and his group paddled only class II and III rapids. He saves the more dangerous whitewater runs for himself.
"Rivers have ratings for a reason," says Malone, who is CPR-certified and well-versed in rope skills to aid in rescues. Still, even the most prepared boater can get into trouble, as Malone learned four years ago while paddling Brush Creek in Dunlap, Tennessee.
He had just paddled over an 8-foot waterfall and his canoe had taken on some water. Intending to empty it, Malone tried to jump from the boat to a large rock near the pool's edge. But he slipped and fell back into the rapids, where the fast-moving river pinned his body against the rock. He was neck-deep in whitewater, standing on his tiptoes. Water surged over his shoulders. He looked upstream for his friends, but he knew they couldn't reach him.
His legs started to buckle.
"I had already made my peace," Malone says.
And then, he was sucked under. His body tumbled in the current, banging against and beneath rocks. He was slammed into a log jam and then sucked deeper, beneath more rocks before, miraculously, he was spit to the surface.
"I went home and gave my wife a big old hug. I came out of it feeling more alive than ever," Malone says.
Among whitewater boaters, he says, it is tradition for a paddler to rename a rapid where he or she experienced a major problem. Malone named his rapid "Grace of God."
When Malone is not on the water himself, these days, he is helping facilitate adventures for others. Last spring, he and his wife Dana opened Scenic City Safari Shuttles & Outfitter, a full-service canoe, kayak and SUP rental and shuttle service. Be on the lookout for the Malones’ animal-printed yellow school bus topped with an assortment of watercrafts, Shawn Malone says he sometimes cruises around town in the bus, music blaring, to pique people’s interest.
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