MISSOULA, Mont. — When Doug Ammons stares at a river, he senses the flow of time, the movement of past through present and into the future.
Although he has been a world-class kayaker for more than 20 years, Ammons is never less than awed by a river, regardless of its whitewater rating.
"I think it's very easy for us to view rivers as things to conquer, and the more difficult the river, the greater our sense of having conquered something major or important," Ammons said recently. "And I totally reject that. The river is a gift to us. Any river is. Water is a metaphor for the flow of time, and for your place in that flow."
If you've read many paddling magazines, you know that there's not a lot of paddling writing that embodies Ammons' line of thinking.
Instead, there's plenty of self-promotion, a boatload full of hucking off ever-higher waterfalls and a river's worth of what Ammons refers to as "radical dudism."
A decade or so ago, Ammons might have simply skewered such sentiments with the sharp pen of satire. But as he's grown into middle age, he's opted for the high road.
"It's too easy to just take that sort of stuff down, so I won't do that," he said. "What I want to do is to elevate the discussion. Kayaking, or any other adventure sport for that matter, can't simply be for personal gratification. I want to learn from my experience, and take that knowledge into other aspects of my life. I want to use the profound nature of that experience to be better."
To foster just such a discussion, Ammons recently published his second book, "Whitewater Philosophy."
Don't be afraid of the title. While Ammons is, in fact, philosophical, the book is in no way an academic treatise. And it's certainly not "Nietzsche Goes Kayaking."
Instead, the book is Ammons' modest effort to take kayaking literature into the realm of literary work that accompanies other adventure sports, most notably climbing.
"The great climbing books, like Herzog's ‘Annapurna' or Harrer's ‘White Spider,' are not simply adventure stories," Ammons said. "They are journeys into the human spirit. There's nothing like that in kayaking. And I mean nothing. I'm viewing this as something of a first step, but the effort needs a lot more people to take part."
An expansive mind
Recently, a city fire marshal ordered Ammons, the editor of several scientific journals, to clean up his office.
The editing business is an Ammons family treasure — both of his parents had doctorates — and Doug's office had come to resemble a generational mind dump.
Need an obscure psychology journal? Got it. How about a textbook on work physiology? Done. Or perhaps you need all the volumes of "The Human Brain."
The office offers a look into the expansive mind of Ammons, who has his own doctorate in psychology but is also a black-belted martial artist and a formidable classical guitarist.
On the office wall are pictures of his wife Robin and their five children, but also rivers all over the world. A poster of the huge spires of the Karakoram. A Chinese man facing down a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square.
Recently a friend sent him several pictures of water, fractured by light and reflecting off stone.
"I could look at those for hours, the patterns, the moods," Ammons said.
It would have been easy enough for Ammons to make a living out of water. He accomplished nearly 50 first descents of rivers around the world, and soloed some of the hardest runs in the world.
His run down British Columbia's Grand Canyon of the Stikine is unrepeated and considered one of expedition kayaking's greatest feats.
Ammons has had numerous sponsorship offers from kayaking companies. He's been in numerous films, and won an Emmy award as a cinematographer for a film shot in Bolivia. The sports network ESPN once offered him a show based on a big-water kayaking race he'd founded.
"I know a lot of people are in it these days with a sort of ‘paid to play' attitude, but that's just not me," Ammons said. "In fact, I feel just the opposite. I want my play to infuse the rest of my life with something that might not be there otherwise. I think what's happened now with all these sponsorships is that we've trivialized the sport."
'Hucking' off falls is hot
An example from the so-called cutting edge of kayaking makes Ammons' point perfectly.
The hottest ticket on the kayaking circuit now is "hucking" off tremendously high waterfalls. A Stevensville, Mont., man, Tyler Bradt, currently holds the world record, having paddled off Washington's 186-foot Palouse Falls.
"I have to say, that's an impressive thing, but my question is, is that all there is to kayaking?" Ammons said. "These guys are throwing themselves off waterfalls and not even bothering to run the rivers they're on. What's important about that?"
Years ago, a kayaker launched off a 100-foot-plus waterfall in Oregon. The paddler, according to Ammons' book, had spent weeks and weeks scouting the falls before running it.
His resulting drop was big news in the kayaking world. Not long after, however, a man in an inner tube ran the same waterfall.
"The kayaker who ran the falls originally scoped it out for months, but the tuber just glanced at the falls, climbed aboard, and shoved off," Ammons wrote. "He made it fine, though he fell off his tube at the bottom."
That raises the question.
"What does it mean that something formidable in a kayak is easy in an inner tube?" Ammons wrote. "Why is it that a waterfall requiring cutting-edge skill and daring in a specialized kayak can be run by somebody using a tube you can buy for $10 at a gas station?"
Uncomfortable with publicity
Doug Ammons has run rivers all over the world. Some were expeditions with some of the best paddlers in the world, men who say the same about Ammons.
Some of those rivers were paddled solo. In some cases, Ammons told almost no one where he was going.
And some of those runs have never been repeated, like the Stikine.
While Ammons' exploits have been chronicled in film, he has an uncomfortable and queasy relationship with publicity.
"I understand in particular the films, because they're being done in some of the world's most incredible places and the paddling is really pretty exhilarating," he said. "But I don't go on rivers because there's going to be a film made. I guess I'd say I go in spite of it."
Ammons once turned down the chance to be featured in Outside magazine, primarily because he'd seen the magazine over-hype another story he'd taken part in.
"I don't want to be about hype," he said. "I understand why it happens, but I don't have to take part in it. I don't mind things being portrayed as adventurous and thrilling, but I do object to the notion that what I've done or what anyone else has done outdoors is somehow as important as doing something like cure malaria."
It would be easy at this point to think that Ammons is some sort of spoilsport ascetic who kayaks only as a form of paradoxical high-speed meditation.
But it's not true, at least not completely so.
"Part of what I'm doing out there is having fun, for sure," Ammons said. "I think we definitely use adventure sports as an escape from some of the pressures of regular life. And I think the river has tremendously restorative powers. My thing is that it can be both fun and profound."
Kayaking in context
Kayaking can also be important, but only in context.
For instance, Ammons recently heard a young kayaker traveling deep in the impoverished Third World say that what he'd learned among the people there was to really enjoy his own good life.
"I'm sorry, but that doesn't get it for me," he said. "Kayaking offers some of us the chance to see the world. I don't see how you could just turn away from what you find out there. That's missing what's important."
In 1995, Ammons and others did first descents on the Thule Bheri River and its tributaries in a remote area of Nepal, near its border with Tibet.
Ammons was deeply effected by the people of the region, and that connection lingered.
"For the last 15 years, any money I make from kayaking on books or talks goes to support two small schools in that region," he said. "I'm no great person for doing that, because I think anybody who experienced that would want to give something back."
And that, perhaps, is the crux of "Whitewater Philosophy."
A great kayaker is simply that. But the ability to paddle Class VI whitewater doesn't necessarily make a good person. And the person who paddles Class II on the Blackfoot is engaged in something just as meaningful.
"I think in the adventure sports we too often transfer meaning from one area of life to another," Ammons said. "You can be the greatest climber in the world and still be a selfish jerk who doesn't take care of his family and friends. Or you can be someone who learns something from the rivers and mountains, who makes relationships that matter, and who comes back a better person for having been there. I'm trying to be that person."