Rebel Rebel 

Memphis Whitewater is for thrill-junkies who like things wet and wild.

Jeff Hoff surfing a “hole” on the upper Ocoee River
in East Tennessee.
It all began as a spirit of rumbling dissent from within the ranks of the Bluff City Canoe and Kayak Club, which had, according to the malcontents, grown far too tame to accommodate them. Certain seditious types -- thrill-seeking kayakers all -- felt that they weren't getting the respect and attention they deserved. Others were upset (inexplicably, we might add) because the Bluff City Canoe and Kayak Club decided to run a recipe on their Web site. Go figure. But whatever the actual reasons for open rebellion, it was from this churning spray of rebelliousness that Memphis Whitewater, a club designed for those who have no interest in being up a "lazy river" with or without a "you know what," was born. Ask any member and he'll tell you it's excitement they crave. Well, excitement and a rather anarchic variation on water polo called boatball.

"There was a big controversy going on about roll practice over at Bluff City," says Tom Kaylor, a Bluff City defector and proud member of Memphis Whitewater. "Bluff City is mostly made up of canoeists," he says, "and they didn't really approve of roll practice because that's mostly for kayakers. Finally I was just kind of a smart-ass and said we were going to have roll practice whether it was with Bluff City or not." This feeling was clearly shared by many of Kaylor's compatriots (though many are still affiliated with Bluff City) and soon a Web site, a baseball cap, and a license plate were designed for Memphis Whitewater. Poof! A new club was born. And true to their spirit, the group has no officers or official leadership. They are bound by their baseball caps, Web site, and love of white water. Greg Cravens, a member, baseball-cap huckster, and occasional illustrator for The Memphis Flyer, quoted Douglass Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, saying, "Organization?What kind of word is that to describe this bunch?"

You've got to look at it from this perspective, says kayaker Michael Malone, who we will later learn ain't too proud to take his white-water boating wherever he can get it. "Canoers are usually into the scenic [aspects of paddling]. They are into having a good time, but they just aren't into the adrenaline of it. White-water guys, we're into the scenic too, but we're also into the agility [required to maneuver a kayak in moving water]."

"It's like riding a roller coaster," says Ramona Symonanis. "Going down the river, getting spun around. It's like a carnival ride, only you are in control of your boat."

As Malone points out, Memphians looking for a white-water experience have to be prepared to drive several hours to get it. That's where having a club comes in handy. "You've got to have a club just to get a ride," he says. And companionship can be an important thing when you are making the long hauls. But there are occasional options for the urban white-water experience.

According to diehard kayakers unafraid of the muck, there is a quarter-mile stretch on the Mississippi, just beyond a Corps of Engineers dyke, that provides some nice surfing waves. But that's just about it for local white water, unless, of course, you want to get in a drainage ditch. That's right, a drainage ditch.

"You know how they have these lakes in these nice apartment communities?" Malone asks. "Well, when it rains they overflow into a drainage ditch, and you have all this water pouring into a tiny little space and it creates a big hydraulic. When I first moved to Memphis, [I got a call about kayaking in a drainage ditch] and I met these guys in Cordova. And there we were, about six of us, with all these Styrofoam cups floating by. It's not the most ideal thing, and it's probably not the safest thing, but, you know "

"It's the radical ones who go into the drainage ditches," Symonanis says, noting that she would never do such a thing.

Memphis Whitewater has regular meetings at Garibaldi's Pizza on Walker just east of Highland. Interested parties can always check the Web site to find the date of the next gathering. The informal meetings, which are really just big beer and pizza parties, are attended by people of every age, shape, and degree of athleticism. There are toned long-distance runners knocking back brewskis with professional slobs. Seeing this range of humanity gathered together makes the idea of plunging over a waterfall in a six-foot boat seem not so intimidating. The club offers rowing classes, safety classes, and an opportunity for enthusiasts to buy, sell, and trade gear. But more importantly, it provides a support network for those who like their fun wet and wild.


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