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Active Nature Blog

Smoke that Thunders: The Mighty Zambezi River

3/26/2014 by Jason Beakes

Active Nature launches 2014 with an epic story from the Mighty Zambezi River...

Photo: Chantelle Melzer

"No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight." – David Livingstone

Shane Raw comment

zambiziA few weeks ago I was drifting between rapids on The Zambezi River with Johnny Snyder and Shane Raw. I looked around at our surroundings then at them and said “THIS is the most amazing place I’ve ever been”. Shane remarked that all things considered, we were likely enjoying the best day of kayaking being had anywhere on Earth. My paddling was strong and confident. I was beginning to believe that contrary to prior misgivings my tiny play boat was a suitable craft for kayaking the Zambezi at more than 80,000 cubic feet per second.

zambezi river spiritNyaminyami (also known as the Zambezi River God, or Zambezi River Spirit) is believed by the river Tonga (or Batonga) to control life on the Zambezi. The NyamiNyami is regularly depicted as a snake-like being or dragon-like creature with a snake's torso and the head of a fish.

a thrilling time in your immediate future...A few months earlier Steve Fisher told me he would be going to the Zambezi in January and suggested that I come along. I said yes without hesitation. For years I've had a strong desire to paddle the legendary Zambezi River. Like every whitewater kayaker I've seen videos of kayakers and rafts being swallowed by gigantic river features and heard some of the best paddlers speak of it as one of the most "epic" places to paddle in the world. The reputation of the Zambezi River was enough to get me on a plane to fly half way around the world with a kayak. But also, for a “Muzungu” like me, travel to Sub-Saharan Africa almost always delivers radical and life enriching changes in perspective. The day after my conversation with Steve I cashed in my frequent flyer miles for a ticket to Zambia.  Three weeks later I was at Dulles Airport drinking a beer and received this message in a fortune cookie. It was as if the Universe was telling a joke that I wasn’t in on yet.

shane comment 2

A few minutes later and after good lines in more big rapids, Johnny, Shane and I arrived at the infamous Rapid #9. When world class paddlers are showing you a river they know well and their faces get serious, the joking stops, and they solemnly say “you’re going to want to scout this one”, you know you’re in for a treat. 

We scouted and then we went. I followed Johnny into the maw of the crashing curler wave that guards the rapid’s entrance. I made the tricky entry move and thought I was home free but just then a giant wave/seam thing crashed on me and blew the skirt off of my boat. My boat was ripped off of my legs by the current and I was pulled under.

What you can’t see from this photo is that there are 15-20 foot waves behind those holes that push you towards a very bad spot. If any of you are familiar with Pillow Rock rapid on the Gauley River in West Virginia, imagine the “Room of Doom”, but with 80,000 cfs instead of 2,600, and jagged fangs of basalt instead of smooth sand stone. My plan had been to paddle hard to towards the right side of the river to miss all of that but instead I got to experience swimming through the meat of one of the biggest rapids I’d ever encountered.

Two days prior Steve had been sucked down by a whirlpool a half mile downstream. He and the boys were trying to surf the famous barreling wave at rapid 11 on a surf board. Despite having the floatation of an expedition quality PFD, Steve was held under water for over a minute. He lost consciousness and water flooded into his lungs. No one was watching when Steve went under and minutes went by before anyone thought something might be wrong. Steve floated face down for about 300 feet until by sheer good fortune he washed into the last small eddy before the river necks down into a series of giant whirlpools. His head bumped against a rock and he regained consciousness. He coughed up blood and river water and laid in the shallow water until he regained the strength to pull himself onto the rocky shore.

I popped to the surface and got a breath just before a giant wave broke over me. I thought briefly of what happened to Steve downstream. I forced myself to not waste energy fighting to the surface when pushed under and focused on getting good breaths at the top of each wave. I knew that the river was going to slam me into a cliff wall in a few seconds and I mentally prepared to be held down for a very long time. I felt the river slow for a moment then whoosh, I went deep and everything was black and my ears hurt. The river was merciful though and I popped up, free of the rapid after only 20 or so seconds under water. I swam hard to an eddy about 50 feet away. After fighting through whirlpools and boils I finally got to shore.  Johnny appeared with my boat in tow but my paddle was nowhere to be found. I laughed because I had just lost a brand new carbon fiber paddle an hour after I first took a stroke with it. I got into my boat and hand paddled the next rapid which is straight shot through big waves and whirlpools. At the bottom of the rapid I did multiple spin cycles in whirlpools, flipping, and hand rolling up, getting sucked down, flipping, and hand rolling, over and over. I realized then that hand paddling the rest of the river was not something I was interested in doing that day, especially since we were pressed for time to meet up with a rafting company truck that would leave without us if we didn’t arrive on time. I decided to hike out of the gorge on the trail that rafting customers use to access the river for trips down the lower section of the Batoka Gorge. The plan was for me to wait for Johnny and Shane in the village a few miles from the river and for them to pick me up in the gear truck when they were off the river.

trail not trail diagram

Around 7:00 pm Johnny Snyder arrived at the Faulty Towers Guest House to check in on Steve and see what plans were hatching for the evening. As dinner options were being discussed Steve started asking Johnny and Shane questions about my whereabouts. Johnny was like, “dude, I showed him where the trail was and told him to hike out, find Bob’s house and meet us back here”.  As the conversation progressed Steve started to realize that a miscommunication about the location of the trail and the plan must have occurred and that I might have entered the Nsongwe River gorge which locals know is a haven for crocodiles, black mambas, cobras, and leopards. Steve leapt to his feet and said something like. “WTF bru! It’s almost dark and Jason is probably laying in the bottom of the Nsongwe gorge with a leg chewed off by a fucking croc!” He then telephoned Soldier, one of the porters who lives in Nsongwe village and asked him to go to the muzungu named Bob’s house to see if I was there. Then Steve started filling a backpack with Red Bull, water, food, and head lamps to launch a mission to find me if I wasn’t located in the village.

Bob Meyer is an American who was part of the Sobek rafting expedition that first explored the Zambezi River in the early 1980s. He married a local, Bridget, and they live with a large extended family just outside Nsongwe Village. Read more about them and the village here.

Around 3 pm I limped into a cluster of huts that I hoped was Bob and Bridget’s family compound. I must have made an interesting spectacle, wearing kayaking gear, covered in dirt and sweat and limping from a punctured foot. I approached a group of young men and asked if they knew a muzungu named Bob and if they could take me to his house. Thankfully I was in the right place. A few minutes later I was sitting in Bob’s house with a cool glass of water, becoming fast friends with a legendary character. You see, in the whitewater paddling world it’s just a normal day when a stranger arrives on your doorstep in paddling gear, covered in mud and sweat, after being lost in the Zambian bush for the better part of an 110 degree afternoon.

Soldier turned up at Bob’s and with Steve’s help we persuaded a reluctant cab driver to leave a bar and drive me back to Livingstone on the rutted, unlit dirt roads. I finally got back to the guest house at 9 pm where Steve was waiting with meat pies and beers. And with that my first full day in Zambia came to an end.

Thanks to the efforts of local fishermen and porters I got all of my lost equipment back and our little crew enjoyed incredible paddling for the rest of the trip. The mighty Zambezi continued to humble our little band of brothers from time to time but we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. To keep your edge you sometimes need to pick fights you might lose and toy with forces that scare you.

The journey home from Zambia to Maryland took two days which provided me ample time to reflect on lessons learned and moments, sights, and experiences I’ll never forget.

Photo: Chantelle Melzer

The Zambezi River is a place where wandering 100 feet off a path used by pampered tourists from Paris and New York City can put you in a place that hasn’t changed in millennia and where help isn’t coming. Geodes and semiprecious stones litter the river’s edge, baboons prowl the trails that lead to Victoria Falls, and crocodiles and monitor lizards slip into the river as you paddle by.   It was a privilege to walk amongst rhinos and to witness a family of elephants come down to the river’s edge to drink while flocks of sacred ibis flew overhead. I’m even grateful to have explored the Nsongwe Gorge despite the fact that I was miserable for most of the time I was doing it. Not a single local knows anyone who’s ever been in that place and I will to go there again someday, but with water, food, and friends.

Some of us might have left Zambia with our confidence shaken. That’s a good thing. Real confidence needs to be challenged not protected. I experienced beauty, courage and true friendship on the Zambezi and it’s from those things that true confidence flows.

A special thanks to Fawlty Towers Guest House in Livingstone for housing our group of hooligans. Definitely look them up if you’re in the Victoria Falls area. This is where you want to end up after a day on the Zambezi.

the life

Thanks as well to Chantelle Melzer for the awesome photos. Check out more of her photography here.

Thanks James and Meagan Hitchins for braiis, benders, and the booze cruise up river. You two are the best!

Thanks Shane and Johnny for retrieving my gear before so it didn’t end up in Lake Kariba. I owe you both big.

And thanks to Steve for another big adventure. We have failed again to disprove Dave Fisher’s theory that you and I can’t be in the same place without creating an epic.

Baboon Photo: Chantelle Melzer


We've Been Busy, 2013 Highlights

May 15, 2013 by Jason Beakes

We've been busy...

Thanks to the support of an amazing team of partners, friends, family, and the paddle sports community, Active Nature, which was a dream this time last year, is now a growing, successful reality! Please visit our website to learn more about what we do and please like and share our Facebook page. We really appreciate your support!

Here are some highlights from our first few months in operation:


  • FIRST DESCENTS:  The Active Nature Team is stoked to be hosting a First Descents Camp in August. First Descents is an amazing organization that offers support to young people who are battling cancer. First Descents camps give people who need it most a connection to nature, a great community, and life itself. Our team is honored to be a part of such a worthy mission.

  • US/CHINA SPORTS DIPLOMACY THROUGH PADDLING:  In January, Active Nature submitted a proposal to the US State Department's Sports United Program  to conduct a sports diplomacy initiative with China. Our aim is to bring American and Chinese young people together during trips to both the US and China in order to work together to become paddling instructors and in the process, foster an appreciation and understanding of each other's cultures. It is well known that China's rivers are under great stress from hydropower development and pollution. It is our belief that helping to grow the base of Chinese paddling enthusiasts will be a small but important step in encouraging people in China to see the recreational, aesthetic, and cultural value in their natural resources. We'll keep you updated throughout the summer with new plans for this initiative.

  • FITNESS FOR MILITARY FAMILIES/PARTNERSHIP WITH TEAM RIVER RUNNER:  In April, Active Nature partnered with Team River Runner to introduce more than 50 kids to paddling at the Military Child Health Fair at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. We were also glad to raise $540.00 for Team River Runner at our screening of Steve Fisher's movie 'Congo, The Grand Inga Project'.

The entire Active Nature Team strives to be their best in every endeavor of paddling!


  • STAND UP PADDLE BOARD: Active Nature partner and instructor Patricia Beakes and I became the first SUP instructors in the DC region to receive the ASI instructor certification from the World Stand Up Paddleboard Association. We were fortunate to take our courses with Dan Gavere and Harmony Dawn in Coco Beach Florida. Their course is by far the best paddle sports instructor certification course I have taken and I highly recommend it to any stand up paddler who wants to be a great instructor.

  • KAYAKING: Last weekend AN partner Dom Correa and AN Board Chairman Chuck Thornton received their ACA Levels 3 and 4 Whitewater Certifications from Instructor trainer Dave Kessmann. Good work guys!



Congratulations go to Active Nature coach, Bryan Kirk, for earning the highest total score and a spot on the US Team at the US Freestyle Kayak trials. Bryan will be teaching freestyle clinics here on the Potomac and on the Gauley this fall. Dates will be on our website and Facebook page soon.
2013 US Freestyle Kayak Team Trials Training on L. Gauley from Bryan Kirk on Vimeo.


I've been enjoying training and racing in both Kayak and SUP recently. I was happy to win the Top Yough Race in April, placed 2nd in The Washington Canoe Club's Kumu'ohu SUP Race, and 5th in the 12'6 class on the Graveyard course at the Carolina Cup-– my first race in the open ocean. That was tough! And this week, I'm looking forward to competing in the SUP race at the Dominion River Rock in Richmond, VA.
Carolina Cup Recap

We send out best wishes to AN instructors Scott and Dana Mann who will be competing at the US Slalom Trials in western Maryland this weekend.


  • In our preseason Active Nature helped more than 70 customers experience paddling and we're just getting started!

  • Our weekly slalom clinics have been getting rave reviews and it's been great seeing the improvement in our students.

"This is legit slalom for river running because this guy has seen some serious water and he wants us to understand what we can do to prepare for it using his experience." - Nikki Usher

  • This weekend we are launching our River Days, a series of fun, accessible events designed to grow SUP participation.

  • In two weeks we are launching new intermediate courses in both SUP and Kayaking and a free community race series!


There are so many people to thank for getting us this far, but special thanks to our sponsors and suppliers, Dagger Kayaks, Bomber Gear, and SUPATX for your generous support! Your industry leading products help us give our customers a great experience on the water.


Follow Up - Grand Inga Premiere with Steve Fisher

April 18, 2013 by Lis Yates

Active Nature sprung to life Thursday night with the DC area premier of CONGO - The Grand Inga Project, the first of what will hopefully be many film screenings. Steve Fisher, whose flight had been delayed, was supposed to arrive earlier that afternoon but got to the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse just minutes before he ran down to the stage in front of a well-packed house following the first screening. Among the topics of the night, he lept into an impassioned speech about the importance of video to adventure sports.

“We don’t build giant stadiums for kayaking.” Fisher explained that films like this and the plethora of paddling videos online ARE the venue for these adventure sports to not just be enjoyed by virtual spectators, but they are where many paddlers of tomorrow get their first taste, and they’re an educational resource for paddlers and non-paddlers alike. Through film you can tell the sweeping story of a historic first, portray the struggle of a race, show the commitment and beauty of a massive drop or string together a compilation of total carnage in a way that can’t be experienced from standing on a river bank. But like the explorers who went before, Steve and his team have left behind a record of their part of the journey upon which the next team to brave the deadly waves of the Congo can build.

We may not have elaborate kayaking stadiums, but we do have the natural grandeur of Great Falls, marvelous runs for every skill level on the Potomac, a wealth of other challenging whitewater destinations in the region and a vibrant and thriving paddling community that leads Steve to call the DC area the Nation’s Whitewater Capital. Active Nature has programs to put you in touch with this natural resource in a whole new way, not from the sidelines, but down where the action and adventure are!

The night wasn’t all complex, political minefields and unbelievably massive whirlpools; several prizes were raffled off including Steve Fisher’s CORE paddle, a Contour camera like the ones used to make CONGO, and Kayaking or SUP lessons from Active Nature. Raffle proceeds benefit Team River Runner, who help provide health and healing to servicemembers, veterans and their families by getting them on the water!

If you missed CONGO in DC, visit the Fish Munga site to purchase the DVD. Also, see our original event page for links to interviews, trailers, and more. Stay tuned to the Active Nature website for future events in our area.


Why I Love To Race Kayaks!

April 8, 2013 by Jason Beakes

"Flow" is a state of mind -- achieved when athletes feel completely engaged in their performance, lose their perception of time, concentrate on the moment (without distraction or dilution), and, perform at extremely high levels.

Essentially, these are the moments in sport that we as athletes, coaches, and consultants are all striving to accomplish. Not only has the Flow state of mind been linked with outrageously positive accomplishments in sport, it is also the state of mind that has been shown to offer us meaning in our lives.

Racing kayaks down hard whitewater is one of the finest ways to achieve a flow state. Why? Because to do it well you have to achieve a "flow state" that is more than a frame of mind or an elusive theoretical construct. To race down whitewater you must physically enter and blend with the flow of a rushing river. When done well – levitating over waves and holes, shooting out of rapids propelled by the force of tons of water in motion, perceiving "the line" the way Neo perceived reality in The Matrix, kayaking transcends sport and becomes one of the most authentic experiences you can have. Only a kayaker knows the feeling and it’s awesome! With a body and mind shaped by responding to moving water the flow state follows us off of the river and into the rest of our lives. Conflicts and setbacks start to be seen as nothing more than being temporarily "off line".

My personal reasons for training hard for whitewater racing have evolved over the years. Races for me are less about proving I’m fast and more about maintaining and testing the skills and fitness that paddling class V in remote, beautiful, and dangerous rivers demands. The most dangerous things you will ever encounter in the great outdoors are middle aged men with eroded skills and strength, and delusions of possessing abilities they had at age 20. I will never be one of those guys – and yes they are almost always men. For me kayak racing is a way I can build and maintain most of the skills needed to kayak at a high level even though I have the normal responsibilities in life that preclude kayaking 8 hours a day . Because I race I don’t have to guess if I can make technical moves in my kayak under pressure, I know I can. I don’t have to guess if I have the speed and stamina to help a friend in trouble, I know I can do that too. Real confidence comes from testing your skills regularly with meaningful challenges.

People who appreciate authentic experiences and work hard to experience beautiful places tend to be beautiful, authentic people. This past weekend at the Top Yough Race in Western Maryland I was reminded of how lucky I am to be part of the whitewater community. I was moved to hear the sincere and earnest tributes to Isaac Ludwig, our departed friend who’s life the annual race commemorates. It was moving to see people doing a fun, beautiful, and difficult activity simply for the love of doing it and for the sake of enjoying each other’s company. I’m grateful to the sponsors of the Top Yough Race for being so generous even though supporting the race is not necessarily going to increase sales and market share for their brands. The owners and employees of those companies genuinely care about the paddling community because they are part of it. The global whitewater kayaking community is small not because of anything being wrong with our sport and community, but because so many things are great about it. In a modern world that favors instant gratification, phony, status driven pseudo accomplishments, and commercialism, kayakers value challenge, beauty, community, and flow. I love our sport and our community and I’m proud to be making my living introducing as many people as I can to the rewards of paddling.

image of a large group of kayakers toasting the camera