Fave Waves: AW's Mark Singleton

The country's leading whitewater advocacy chief on dams, surfing outriggers and stand-up paddling the Nantahala

Mark Singleton is the executive director of American Whitewater, a national non-profit founded in 1954 with the mission to conserve and restore America's whitewater resources and enhance opportunities to enjoy them safely. Its membership is composed of a broad array of organizations representing a diversity of individual whitewater enthusiasts, river conservationists, and more than a hundred local paddling clubs across the U.S. We caught up with him to ask how he got involved in paddling, and what keeps him excited about the sport.

Where did you grow up, and how did you fall in love with kayaking?
My first memory of being in a boat was as an elementary school student. At that time my family lived in Hawaii, it was a dugout outrigger canoe. We were members of the Honolulu YWCA (because they had cheap beach access and showers). The Y had a paddling and surf club with outrigger canoes. Small kids, like myself, would accompany the men into the surf and when the outrigger pearled, and then capsized, we were the ones sent to dive for the bailers (cut out plastic Clorox jugs). I remember very clearly the first time I was in one of those outriggers when it surfed the face of a wave, the hull accelerated, popped to the surface, and started planning while making a loud humming sound—I was hooked!

Mark Singleton paddling the Cheoah

How has your paddling evolved since then?
Later, when my folks moved to the East Coast, I started paddling my dad’s aluminum Grumman canoe. When I trashed the Grumman during a high-water trip on the Yough (still a sensitive family topic) it was time to switch to kayak. That was back in the late 70s and since then I've paddled lots of different kayaks.

Most recently, I've started paddling stand-up boards on the local class II runs. I now live in western North Carolina, where we have good access to summer flows on rivers like the Nantahala. Stand-up paddling has added depth to my paddling by making easy rivers fun and challenging. When I go paddle something like the Cheoah, I take my kayak. Anything that requires body armor is a little out of my league these days.

What are your greatest accomplishments in the industry?
Dam removals are a big deal right now. In October 2011, American Whitewater celebrated the culmination of our efforts to see Washington state’s White Salmon River flow freely again after being held back by Condit Dam for 100 years. Back in 1999, American Whitewater was one of the original signatories to a settlement agreement to remove Condit, and has been a key stakeholder in the effort to restore the White Salmon.

Last September, American Whitewater joined with others from around the world to celebrate the beginning of the historic restoration of the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams will be removed over the next 2-3 years, representing the nation’s tallest dam removal to date. The majority of the Elwha is within Olympic National Park and wilderness, making it a prime opportunity for true restoration of the river and its surrounding ecosystem.

Dillsboro Dam on the Tuckaseegee River in North Carolina was removed two years ago and it's amazing to see how quickly the river has recovered at the dam site. When you look at it now you can't even tell that a dam once stood there. That removal was very contentious in the community where I live and the county spent over half a million dollars fighting that removal. Now, everyone thinks it was the right thing to take it down. It just goes to show how hard change can be and why these projects take decades.

The removal of the Dillsboro dam freed up another river

Why is it your favorite place to paddle—and why?
Over the years I've had many favorite destinations. Back in the early 80s I spent a lot of time on the Gauley. In those years you could do overnight trips and camp just about anywhere in the canyon—before outfitters purchased many of the prime locations for access and camping. Those trips were always a hoot. I still enjoy getting on the Gauley because it has such a great story behind it, and of course AW puts on the Gauley Fest.

Now, I like to sneak away for multi-day river trips, no cell phone, no internet, no problems! This past summer I was able to get away on the Selway in Idaho with some other AW staff. In other years I've tried to do some kind of family multi-day trip in the Southwest. My favorite days are with my kids, seeing them gain an appreciation for rivers is deeply satisfying.

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