CRMS kayaking a veritable history lesson |

CRMS kayaking a veritable history lesson

Gina Guarascio
Carbondale correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
This old kayak, circa 1960, was built by the famous kayaker Walter Kirschbaum, a former world champion kayaker and "paddler of the century," who was one of the first coaches of the CRMS kayaking program. In the early days before boats were mass produced, the students had to make their own kayaks like this one with wood, fiberglass and canvas. (Trina Ortega photo)

CARBONDALE ” Whether it’s in a 12-foot-long craft, hand-crafted with wood, fiberglass and canvas, or a four-and-a-half-foot, electric-yellow, potato-shaped plastic boat, kayakers at Carbondale’s Colorado Rocky Mountain School have long run the rivers.

The college prep school was the first in the country to float a kayaking team, and many of the of coaches and students have made history in the sport.

CRMS will host one of Colorado’s oldest kayaking competitions, the Crystal River Races, on Saturday at the Crystal River Bridge.

“The thing that delineates CRMS (in kayaking) is the history, as you can see from our boat collection” said CRMS river program coordinator Peter Benedict as he pulls out boats from the late 1950s to the present era and lines them up on the grass. “We have examples of almost all the different kinds of boats.”

Indeed, there is an ancient relic of a kayak made of wooden slats, fiberglass and canvas that was constructed by world-famous kayaker and former CRMS coach Walter Kirschbaum.

Also among collection is a sleek white boat that looks like a torpedo, which Benedict says was the first type of plastic boat. It is easily twice as long as Benedict’s sporty new Liquid Logic “play boat.” It sits at the end of the line beyond the Prijon Hurricane and the Wave Sport Kenetic, boats that look huge by today’s standards, but just 10 years ago were the cutting edge of design.

In the late 1950s and ’60s, there were very few people who were brave enough, or knew enough, to go kayaking, according to Kirschbaum’s widow, Ruth, who resides in Glenwood Springs. Both Walter Kirschbaum and later CRMS coach Roger Paris (pronounced “Roget Pear-ree”), another world champion, came from Europe, where the sport was more popular in the early days.

For their accomplishments, Kirschbaum and Paris were named “Paddlers of the Century” by Paddler Magazine.

Kirschbaum became the first person to run the Colorado’s Cataract Canyon without portaging in 1959, and in 1960 he accomplished the same feat on the Grand Canyon. Modern-day paddlers witness his namesake on Kirschbaum rapid of the Colorado’s Gore Canyon, of which he notched the first descent in 1965, noted the magazine.

Paris’ biggest contribution to the sport was in helping others as a longtime instructor, the magazine noted, and his ability to excel in both canoeing and kayaking.

It is because of the legacy of Kirschbaum, Paris, former U.S. team and CRMS coach Bob Campbell and many others that so many CRMS students have competed in the national and international level in kayaking.

“I think some of the top paddlers in the world come from there (CRMS),” said Paris, now 78, from his home outside of Carbondale.

Paris, a Frenchman, started teaching at CRMS in 1964 with Kirschbaum. He and his wife lived on campus and taught there for 16 years. At the time, he was racing for France and Kirschbaum, for Germany.

It is unclear who actually started the kayaking program at CRMS in the late 1950s, but Kirschbaum is credited for building it up after arriving in 1962.

“There was an embryo of a kayaking program when he started,” said Ruth, a kayaker herself. “He developed it from its infantile beginnings.”

When Paris came to CRMS in 1964, he said the class constructed 10 boats. At the time, there was nowhere to buy kayaks.

“It was part of the class,” said Paris of boat-building. “The boats are very different now. They got shorter and shorter and shorter.”

“It’s like the skis. It’s easier for most people to handle a short boat. The problem is, a lot of times they don’t learn to paddle. Now, a lot of people become good just paddling in a hole.”

Paris emphasized solid paddling techniques back in the 1960s and the same is true today at CRMS as Benedict hammers the basics before students get to run rapids.

This year, the CRMS kayak team has 15 members who compete. There are about 40 students participating in the kayaking program altogether, said Benedict, who began coaching eight years ago and helped start the competitive high school kayak series.

On April 7, the CRMS girls snared four of the top five places in the junior women’s race at the Denver Flatwater Slalom.

Freshman Joan Sundeen took second, with sophomore Jessi Heitzman placing third, junior Molly Holmes fourth, and sophomore Brooke Lederer fifth in an eight-girl group; it was the first kayak race for each of them. Senior Anders Carlson placed second the junior men’s division.

The CRMS kayak squad will be in full force at the Crystal River Kayak Races this weekend, including junior kayakers Jake Sakson and Fred Norquist, the two best paddlers on the team.

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