Most people can find a lot of reasons to not huck 10-story waterfalls in a tiny boat: drowning, getting injured/paralyzed/killed from landing flat at the bottom, and hitting a body of raging water at 60 mph. These are perfectly rational reasons, things that enter into our minds sometime after we stop jumping off things on our bicycles in our early teenage years and start to examine risks vs. rewards. A handful of kayakers do not understand these ideas, and retain that early-life curiosity, continuing to ask themselves, “I wonder if someone could fly off that—and live?” They find newer and bigger places to turn paddling into a vertical endeavor, and make the rest of us cringe, and then applaud.
1. 2009: Tyler Bradt, Palouse Falls, Palouse River, Washington, 189.5 feet
Tyler Bradt spent spring 2009 hucking smaller, 80- and 90-foot waterfalls in Oregon, and repeatedly visiting Palouse Falls State Park in Washington to check out 189.5-foot Palouse Falls and scout a line that he said he knew was runnable from the first time he saw it.
Bradt’s friend, paddler Rush Sturges, told National Geographic Adventure, “I told him I didn’t know if it was the best idea.” On April 21, Bradt hucked, setting a world record by 60 feet—and didn’t surface for almost seven seconds after hitting the bottom. Ben Stookesberry calculated Bradt’s time of freefall at 3.54 seconds and his speed on impact at 77 mph. Rafael Ortiz made the second descent in 2012, but was ejected from his boat at the bottom.
2. 2010: Rafael Ortiz, Big Banana Falls, Rio Alseseca, Mexico, 128.6 feet (photo, above)
In October 2012, Ortiz put together a trip on his backyard river, Mexico’s Rio Alseseca, with a team of paddlers and photographers, hiking through five miles of jungle (and drug-growing territory) to reach Big Banana Falls, which Ortiz had named after all the banana farms in the area. He said afterward, “If you land from 130 feet flat it’s like throwing yourself off a massive building and landing sitting down. This would make you paraplegic afterward — best case…It’s all about momentum and center of gravity. It’s never physics and engineering — you can’t just figure out numbers. It’s all about hypotheses. You look at it and come up with your own little theory. And just hope that it works.” Ortiz landed at the bottom with nothing more than a small cut on his left eyelid that required three stitches.
3. 2009: Pedro Oliva, Salto Belo, Mato Grosso, Brazil, 128 feet
In 2009, Pedro Oliva added 20 feet to the world record for highest kayak drop with his plunge over his native Brazil’s Salto Belo. He landed on his head, a controversial move that caused a stir in the paddling community as to the validity of the “record.” Oliva later told Canoe & Kayak that landing headfirst was his “Plan B,” and that he thought the falls could be run perfectly in the future. Teammate Ben Stookesberry told the UK’s Telegraph: “Although people have certainly perished upon hitting a pool of water from such heights, the team counted on the massive, gushing rivers of central Brazil to produce the softest water landings on earth.” Stookesberry calculated Oliva’s speed at impact at 65 mph.
4. 2013: Chris Korbulic and Pedro Oliva, Rainbow Falls, Wailuku River, Hawaii, 120 feet
If you look up Rainbow Falls, you’ll see measurements of around 80 feet. But big rains can push it to up to 120 feet, as it was when Chris Korbulic and Pedro Oliva caught it on a lucky day in February 2013 while filming for a Brazilian TV show—the night before, it was nearly dry, but thanks to a huge rain overnight, it was rolling at 1500 cfs the next morning.
5. 2008: Paul Gamache, Cascade Falls, Kettle River, British Columbia, 108 feet
On Nov. 21, 2008, Paul Gamache and Cody Howard spent a day checking out Cascade Falls, rappelling, scouting, and experimenting to determine if it was safe to run. In the end, they decided it was “marginally runnable,” and the next morning, Gamache was belayed into a holding tank above the falls and waited for five minutes for safety to be set, then dropped the line, rolling up at the bottom of the falls with even his spray skirt intact. The paddlers measured the falls at 112 feet, later measured by a geo-tech engineering firm to be 108 feet, 2 inches.
Photo of Big Banana Falls by Lucas Gilman