Remembering a river forerunner |

Remembering a river forerunner

Dennis Webb
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Ruth Kirschbaum holds a picture of her late ex-husband, Walter Kirschbaum, kayaking. Walt Kirschbaum was a kayaking pioneer and a mentor to accomplished kayaker Fletcher Anderson, who had also lived in Glenwood Springs. (Kara K. Pearson/Post Independent)

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” When Walter Kirschbaum proposed a slalom whitewater course in Glenwood Springs around 1960, “he was laughed out of town,” says his former wife, Ruth.

Today, no one’s laughing about the whitewater park being planned in town, in an era when similar attractions are being built across Colorado.

At the same time, few remember Walter, a pioneer and visionary of the sport who lived in the Roaring Fork Valley and later died an untimely death while living in New Mexico. Walter recorded numerous first descents on the Colorado River and its tributaries; his feats included paddling the Grand Canyon without portaging.

Ruth would love to see Walter somehow memorialized at Glenwood’s proposed whitewater park, perhaps by naming the park after him and his protege, Fletcher Anderson, another highly accomplished kayaker who once lived in Glenwood.

Ruth continues to live in Glenwood to this day, after moving here in 1967. She was a kayaker like her husband. But they contended with turbulence in their lives far beyond that provided by thrashing waves. The two grew up in Germany during World War II.

Ruth’s mother died during an air raid when Ruth wasn’t home.

“Everything was destroyed. I had to walk home for miles and miles and found no house, no mother,” she recalled.

Walter was drafted into the German army as a teen and captured in Czechoslovakia by the Americans, who handed him over to the Russians. Ruth said the Russians treated Walter and other prisoners well.

“You know, humanity is everywhere. The Russians are just as humane as anybody,” Ruth said.

Walter and Ruth met in 1949. He had begun kayaking earlier with a local club in Bavaria, at the age of 14, and got involved with it again after recovering physically and emotionally from the war. He began winning races in 1950 and by 1953 had become world champion.

In 1955, he was invited to Colorado ” to Salida’s legendary FIBark 26-mile Downriver Race, and placed second. While in Salida, Kirschbaum found the mighty Arkansas River to be exhilarating, and decided he wanted to spend more time exploring America’s whitewater than racing. He and Ruth emigrated in 1957, drawing stares for flying into the United States with carry-on luggage including a cockpit for a folding kayak and two collapsible paddles.

Walter was an early staff member at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. Besides teaching foreign languages, he also introduced students to kayaking.

He also set out trying to paddle all the whitewater within the Colorado River drainage. “He finally did so by the fall of 1965,” Anderson wrote in a 1982 letter to the National Park Service, when the agency was about to receive the kayak Walter used in his 1960 Grand Canyon trip.

Walter’s adventures led to him being the first person to run places such as Gore Canyon, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Cross Mountain Canyon on the Yampa River. He completed the first descent of Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River without portaging.

Walter died by falling into a bathtub and drowning, bringing an ironic end to the life of this intrepid river runner.

Ruth and Walter were divorced before his death. Today, she keeps busy teaching English composition at Colorado Mountain College, reading, swimming and walking. She continues to have keen memories of Walter and her early kayaking days, when few others shared the rivers with them.

“I used to say when we saw a car with a kayak on top we knew who was in the car. That definitely is not the case anymore,” she said.

She said she relied on Walter heavily when she took to the rivers, and wasn’t as daring as he was. Some of her memories instead are of anxiously waiting for him to return safely from his own trips. When he went down the Grand, their first son was still an infant.

“I was distracted enough by a small baby but of course I was worried,” she said.

The Kirschbaums had four sons. One of them, Fred, still lives in the area; the others are in Denver and Wyoming.

Ruth remembers once sitting with her sons in the desert near Cisco, Utah, when Walter had decided to go down Westwater Canyon.

“The river was running high. He was late. And I kept staring at where he would have come out. I thought, when do I go to call for help, but fortunately he made it.”

Times have changed a lot for kayaking since the days when Walter prowled the waters in his long boats with primitive fiberglass hulls and canvas decking. Many of those who today easily navigate waves in short, highly maneuverable plastic kayaks may never have heard of Walter Kirschbaum.

Ann Hopkinson ” the former wife of Anderson, who died in a plane crash in 2005 ” said she didn’t think Walter did any self-promotion.

“I don’t think he was flamboyant as far as talking it up or anything. I think he was pretty unknown, except people who knew him personally,” she said.

Anderson also pioneered some stretches of rivers ” sometimes while accompanied by Walter ” and was a national champion kayaker.

In his writings and in other ways, Anderson worked to make sure Walter’s accomplishments received their due. In turn, Hopkinson appreciates Ruth Kirschbaum’s desire to see both men memorialized at Glenwood’s whitewater park.

“That would mean a huge amount to me personally, I know that,” she said. “I think it would be awesome. I think they deserve a lot of respect. Both of them did a lot for the sport.”

Joe Mollica, who has headed up the task force pushing for the whitewater park, said the big challenge right now is raising enough money to allow it to be built. As a result, he said, park supporters are trying to sell naming rights to the facility. However, he said they also are open to finding ways to honor people such as Walter Kirschbaum, perhaps through means such as putting up benches with their names on them.

No matter how well Walter Kirschbaum is remembered, Ruth is happy to know how instrumental he was in the development of the activity he so loved.

“Whitewater kayaking was in its infancy, and he was able to inspire people to take up the sport,” she said.

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