‘Whitewater Women’ share memoir of groundbreaking trip

‘From Chicken to Eagle’

From Chicken to Eagle to Bainbridge and back.

Six of the seven authors of “From Chicken to Eagle: Seven Women Paddling Whitewater and Navigating Life,” shared their story of outdoor adventure, danger and life-changing experiences with about 70 people at the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center June 11.

The “Whitewater Women” were among the first women recognized by the outdoor industry as pro athletes for their historic 11-day traverse of a harrowing section of the Yukon River in 1979 from Chicken to Eagle, both in Alaska. The trip, led by Bainbridge resident Maradel Krummel Gale, broke barriers in extreme sports and laid the groundwork for a more equitable world in the great outdoors.

“We were just a drop, but every drop helps,” said whitewater woman Rosalyn “Roz” McKeown-Ice. “Now, whenever we see a woman climbing a mountain on TV, my husband says to me, ‘You helped make that happen.’”

In 1978, Krummer Gale was a professor of public policy at the University of Oregon when she was struck by an article in Canoe Magazine that posed the question, “Where are all the women in whitewater canoeing?”

At the time, women were rarely venturing into the outdoors on their own, Krummer Gale said. Most athletes and hobbyists were men; if a woman wanted to try an outdoor sport, she typically had to rely on her boyfriend or husband to show her the ropes, and often couldn’t find a niche in the sporting community.

The Canoe Magazine contest presented a unique opportunity, so Krummer Gale assembled a crack team — some of her graduate students, their friends and a local physician. They began rigorous training that year, doing practice capsizes, extended submersions, self-rescues, underwater drags across pools, rigging, reading rivers and more. In preparation, they packed food and shelter, but also carried bear mace, bear bells and Roman candles to deter any nosy grizzlies or black bears.

In late July of 1979, the team headed to Alaska. The trip started out strong, McKeown-Ice remembered. “We were laughing a great deal,” she said, enjoying the camaraderie.

Saro Hendrickson, who appears in the book as Sarah Hendrickson, added,“We paddled, we carried, we capsized, we scouted through rocky river gardens, we shivered and shivered, and we basked in the sun.”

But rain had provided unexpected flows on the 40-mile river — and disaster struck in the Canyon Rapids, an area of Class 4 rapids that were designated “unrunnable.” The crew was in four separate crafts — three canoes and one kayak — and one at a time, they knifed into the rapids.

“When I could hear the 100-washing-machine roar, I knew we had arrived. A wall of foam and water stood ahead that was so high, it had flooded out the banks of the river completely,” Kamala Bremer said. “As we approached, a VW Rock lay dead ahead: to the right, an eight-foot standing wave. There was nowhere to go.”

Paddling hard, two of the crafts made it through unscathed, but Hendrickson and Krummer Gale lost control and tumbled into the river. Their teammates pulled them to shore and gathered their fallen supplies, but the frigid waters had done a number on them: both were showing signs of hypothermia. The women decided to take a break for a day to help Hendrickson and Krummer Gale recover.

“In some ways, it was the best days of our lives,” Bremer said. “When we got to the end at Eagle, we talked about buying a jar of peanut butter and Wonderbread and still going. That experience was a big step in our lives.”

The canoe trip changed the course of each woman’s lives and inspired more women to become autonomous in the outdoors, but the effects were not immediate. Confidence — and new faces in the outdoor sports scene — were still on a slow drip. “At the time, we didn’t notice a change, but gradually we realized we could do things that we didn’t think we could do — and that we could trust others to use their skills,” Krummer Gale said.

Since outdoor sports have experienced a pop culture renaissance in recent years, the scene has changed remarkably, Krummer Gale observed. “There’s still a gender disparity, but not as much anymore; women’s roles in society were just beginning to open up when we did this trip. Today, more women and people of color are doing this much more,” she said.

The four women all encouraged seniors — especially women — to push themselves to try outdoor sports. Going with a good friend always helps, they noted. “This trip helped me realize that I can surround myself with women with similar energy. It showed me that there are many different ripples of social change that I could trust,” Hendrickson said.

Maradel Krummer Gale speaks during the presentation with a slide show of the adventure on the screen.

Maradel Krummer Gale speaks during the presentation with a slide show of the adventure on the screen.

Kamala Bremer talks to the group at the senior center.

Kamala Bremer talks to the group at the senior center.