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Crusading for whitewater safety
By Deanna Kerr • Photos by Jason Bates
Based in Lotus near the American River, kayak and swift water rescue instructor Gigi McBee has been on a campaign to keep herself and other paddlers safe on the river for over 20 years. Through commitment and hard work she has become a role model and an inspiration, making many in the kayak community safer in whitewater.
McBee has been passionate about rivers for as long as she can remember, but her fascination with whitewater kayaking began when she was 13 years old. She was living in Santiago, Chile with her ex-patriate family when she noticed a group of campers learning to roll in the Maipo River. She knew at once it was a sport she had to do. Kayaking would become the way she would always stay connected to the magic of rivers.
McBee spent the next six years trying to convince someone to teach her how to kayak, but it never worked out. Then, in her senior year of high school, she found a way to realize her ambitions. She paid for her own lessons to prepare for her first kayak trip on the Rio Claro. It was winter in Chile but in spite of the cold, she felt she had to learn to roll if she was going to survive. So, in the dead of winter she took to the neighborhood pool, and with unrelenting determination, flipped her boat upside-down repeatedly. She soon figured out how to recover by rolling upright. There was no way she was going to let the frigid temperatures stop her from paddling the Rio Claro.
“I was lucky to have the right amount of determination and athleticism to master a roll in my first lesson,” McBee said.
McBee graduated from high school in 1996 and moved to the United States shortly thereafter. As a member of the University of Oregon’s kayak program, her plan was to kayak as much as she could while earning a B.S. in geography and environmental studies.
Most kayakers in Oregon were men, and it was common for McBee to be the only woman in a group. She knew that her male counterparts could perceive her as the weak link on a team, but she had a strong desire to always be immersed in the river environment. She did everything she could to make sure she would not be left behind due to lack of skill or strength. She wanted to show that she was both a strong paddler and a valuable teammate.
Developing her skills in bigger rivers, McBee worked hard to gain as much experience as possible. She paddled the McKenzie, Santiam, North Umpqua, and Rogue rivers crisscrossing every eddy line and perfecting her paddle strokes. Just as importantly she learned how to be a great team member: she made sure she was the first person ready to go, the first person to carry her boat up a steep trail, and the first to volunteer to bring snacks.
Over time, McBee obtained a reputation for superior whitewater skills. The fact that she was a woman caused no cause for concern among male paddlers.
“I worked hard to prove I was an asset to the team,” McBee said. “I had started paddling class IV by my junior year building my skills over time.”
McBee began to travel between California and South America to run as many rivers as she could to improve her skills. Then, as her experience grew, she realized that being an exceptionally skilled paddler was no longer the end goal. In her heart she wanted to do more.
One experience in particular solidified this realization and shifted her focus from skills to safety. She was with a team on the Oyacachi river outside of Baeza, Ecuador when the unthinkable happened. A rock in the middle of a strong rapid proved troublesome for the entire group of experienced paddlers. Each kayaker hit the same rock and the current threatened to pin each of them against it, but all were able to paddle to safety.
The next day, a highly respected kayaker whom McBee wishes to keep anonymous, had an accident on that same rapid and drowned. In these tragic circumstances, McBee stepped up to help return the remains to the United States by acting as a translator.
The experience made McBee realize two things: life is short, and being a respected paddler and a good translator is not enough to save lives. If she was going to achieve her potential she had to know as much about water safety as possible. “It became my goal to make myself as safe as possible and to share that knowledge with everyone,” she said. McBee earned her first ACA certification for Whitewater Rescue Instructor in 2005.
McBee’s qualifications soon caught the attention of Dan Crandall, owner of Current Adventures based in Lotus, California. He hired her to be a kayak guide and a swift water rescue instructor in the 2000s. Despite McBee’s reputation for superior paddling skills and her certification in swift water rescue, she still had to break into the male dominated world of whitewater kayak instructors. She had to prove she was not a weak link, but in fact, a valuable asset. She never felt mistreated or discriminated against, but there was a sense that she was more expendable than her male counterparts.
“I felt I had to work harder than the men to keep my job. I didn’t want to be the one who was late. I didn’t want to be the one who couldn’t lift things,” McBee said.
McBee once again not only proved she was an asset to the staff at Current Adventures, but earned the respect and affection of the instructors and co-workers of the entire kayak community along the American River. “Hundreds and maybe even thousands of people have taken my classes,” said McBee. And some of her students became colleagues.
Dylan Nichols is one such student. He started out as one of McBee’s protégés who then turned into a kayak guide. “In a world where everyone wants to do difficult rapids right away,” said Nichols, “Gigi teaches how to progress to the next level without getting hurt.”
Leah Wilson, another co-worker and kayak instructor, puts it this way: “One of the things that makes Gigi such a great instructor is that she has excellent skills on the water and can communicate her expertise clearly, confidently, and compassionately to students of all ability levels and ages.”
McBee’s campaign to help paddlers be as safe as possible on the river has earned her a reputation few instructors achieve. Every summer new kayakers seek out McBee because of her in-depth instruction and swift water safety knowledge. Her dedication has made these paddlers safer in whitewater.