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Taking the plunge

SUNDAY, APRIL 12, 2009

Globetrotting kayaker has 20 ‘firsts’ in the world’s scariest waters

Paddling atop a 60-foot waterfall seated in the equivalent of a glorified milk jug, Chris Korbulic’s mind calmly analyzes the speed, trajectory and technique that make kayaking over mega-waterfalls more about precision than insanity.

Korbulic envisions launching his kayak over the waterfall lip, then bear-hugging his 9-foot plastic boat as he plunges vertically at more than 45 mph.

Together they either will slip cleanly into the pool below like an Olympic diver, or they will fall flat and smash his pelvis into pick-up sticks.

“I always stop at the top of the waterfall, and I know what’s at stake,” Korbulic says. “I know that if I land right, it will be soft and wet. That’s the time you make your decision committing to landing right and not getting killed.”

Korbulic is taking these enormous plunges on three continents as an extreme kayak bum. His quest: exotic unconquered stretches of river and big water-drops no one else has survived.

He’s done it without suffering anything worse than a nose bleed.

The 22-year-old Rogue River, Ore., man is part of a small faction of extreme kayakers hop-scotching the globe to put as many firsts on their whitewater resumes as possible.

The leave no doubts. They capture these firsts on film.

Tallest falls ever boated. The biggest waves ever paddled. The most remote rivers not yet run. Unnamed falls in Chile and Brazil. Unconquered rivers in Pakistan and India. Even the tallest falls in Oregon and California.

They all have the “-est” factor that calls Korbulic away from college and regular employment to create the kayakers’ version of surfers’ “Endless Summer.”

“We’re looking for the most difficult whitewater, the most inhospitable water, in the most untouched and unseen of places,” Korbulic says. “That’s kind of what we do.”

The “we” is a close group of about 100 extreme kayakers throughout the United States, says Ben Stookesberry, a Mount Shasta, Calif., kayaker who spent most of late February and March conquering South American whitewater with Korbulic.

The 30-year-old Stookesberry is an old hat at extreme kayaking and is more than impressed with the skills and mettle of Korbulic, who is featured in Stookesberry’s soon-to-be-released kayaking film called “Hotel Charley Vol. 4: At Your Own Risk.”

“He’s extremely confident in his kayak and so confident in his paddling, like the paddle is just another appendage,” Stookesberry says. “He operates the kayak like it’s a part of him.

“Chris is one of those guys who has that water gene,” Stookesberry says.

If not water by nature, then certainly by nurture.

Chris’ parents, Mary and Paul Korbulic, are lifelong water rats. Mary Korbulic paddled the remote Wild and Scenic section of the lower Rogue while pregnant with Chris.

He continued rafting through infancy but didn’t slip into the hard-shell until he took a summer kayaking class a decade ago.

The molded high-density polyethylene plastic – the same material used to make milk jugs – became Korbulic’s golden slipper, and ever since then he’s been living his dream as if midnight will never come.

After successfully plunging off the Lower Rogue and the falls of northern California’s White Salmon River, Korbulic found himself at Oregon State University, far less interested in microbiology than becoming the first kayaker to plunge over the 70-foot-tall falls on Butte Creek outside of Salem.

That’s when Korbulic’s skills, and accompanying videos, caught the eye of Stookesberry, an elder statesman in this decidedly young man’s game.

“Guys were saying I should watch out for this kid,” Stookesberry laughs.

Instead, Stookesberry became drawn to Korbulic.

“Chris is a pretty mild-mannered guy,” Stookesberry says. “He’s sort of a rock out there on the water. I’ve seen it firsthand.”

The pair spent most of last fall in Pakistan and India. They were part of the first expedition to paddle 135 kilometers of the Manas River that snakes through parts of India and Pakistan.

The duo spent most of February and March in South America as part of an international expedition.

Over the years, Korbulic has 20 kayaking “firsts” to his name, with more than that on his horizon.

“I definitely haven’t found anything quite like kayaking, even remotely,” Korbulic says.

And it’s not accomplished with the gallons of adrenaline normally associated with extreme sports.

“For me, it’s so calculating, so thought-out that it ends up being fun and not so much about the fear and the adrenaline,” Korbulic says.

“I associate adrenaline more with surprise,” he says. “Running a huge rapid that you haven’t scouted before, now that scares me.”

The big drops, however, are more physics than frenzy.

When plunging a waterfall, the kayak and the water fall together. The water pummels the pool, dimpling the surface and aerating the water so the kayak can plunge 10 feet before hitting hard water.

“You don’t feel a big impact,” Korbulic says. “It’s more like jumping into a big pile of pillows.

“It’s definitely not like you’re hitting a brick wall,” he says.

The trick is to lean forward and hit the pool vertically. Hitting horizontally would be equivalent to a high cannonball dive onto concrete.

Korbulic consistently is so good he hasn’t damaged his family’s insurance rating.

“I punched myself in the nose once and I had to stop paddling a couple days because my back was sore,” he says. “That’s about it.”

While the big drops draw the big headlines, penetrating virgin territory is the draw that will continue to pull Korbulic to the far reaches of Earth.

“Any time you’re out on the river, especially when you’re exploring a new place, it kind of feels holy,” he says. “There’s nothing like it.”

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