A charmed confluence in Carbondale
CARBONDALE ” They were an unlikely pair: Staunch competitors from rival countries who formed a bond through a shared love of rivers.
Years after they competed against each other at canoeing world championships in the early 1950s in Europe, both were living in the western United States chasing whitewater and the American dream.
Roger Paris, the former French world champion, clearly remembers the day in 1964 when his dear friend, Walter Kirschbaum, the late German cham-pion, called from tiny Carbondale ” then a quaint ranching community in southwest Colorado ” and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Kirshbaum had visited Roger and his wife, Jack-ie, in California in 1963 and told them of the kayak-ing program he had taken charge of at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a small, private college prep academy.
For the summer of 1964, Kirschbaum was look-ing for an assistant to help him build boats and instruct energetic young paddlers in the area’s local rivers ” and thought of Paris first.
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“It was only a summer session, just a few months,” said Paris, now 78, from his home on the Crystal, across from Avalanche Creek about 12 miles outside Carbondale. “That one summer turned into 16 years.”
Or 43 years, considering Paris ” despite travel-ing throughout the world while teaching kayaking ” still calls the Roaring Fork Valley home.
That short summer stint, during which Paris proudly boasts he built 10 boats, turned into a full–time job. The famed instructor looks back fondly on those carefree years.
“I taught French classes, coached the ski team, built boats and was taking kids on the rivers teach-ing kayaking and rolling,” he said. “I was always busy. With the ski team, I coached slalom, downhill and cross-country. Jackie taught, too. We both loved it.”
Both Paris’ and Kirschbaum’s collective devo-tion to paddling rubbed off on their young pupils, many of whom became renowned kayakers them-selves. From the beginning, the trio set the bar high.
In 1965, CRMS hosted the first Crystal River Races ” an event that drew experienced paddlers as far away as the Northeast.
“In the East, there were quite a few schools with [ kayaking] programs,” Paris said. ” The West was just starting.”
Not that a lack of competitive experience was a disadvantage for the local paddlers.
“We were usually the best,” Paris said, when asked how his students performed at those early competitions.
Paris received his U.S. citizenship in 1962, and competed for the U.S. until 1968, retiring that year after winning a national slalom championship. The following year, Kirschbaum drowned in his bathtub ” a tough pill to swallow for all those who were inspired by the legendary German pad-dler.
Paris built on the legacy of his friend. He expanded the popularity of the sport with his sig-nature summer camps, and also coached the Unit-ed States’ national team at the 1972 Olympics and the 1973 World Championships.
All the while, he remained the fixture of CRMS’ competitive program, coaching the school’s team until 1980.
“In those days [the 1970s], I was pretty well known,” Paris said. “I was traveling a lot, going to Europe in the summer to teach camps and coach. It was good for me, and good for the school.
“Now,” he joked, “not as many people know who I am.”
He later became an assistant professor and head of the outdoors program at Colorado Moun-tain College. He still is on the board at CRMS, and remains casually involved with the school’s kayaking program.
And even at 78, his love for rivers hasn’t been quelled.
He is currently recovering from a broken leg, but hopes to be back on the river soon, possibly next month.
“Occasionally I’ll go with the [CRMS] kids, but I’ll usually go with my own kids,” he said. “It’s a beautiful river. We have some of the best rivers in the world right here.”
Nate Peterson’s e- mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org