Rapid Transit: Careening Down NJ’s Wildest Rivers

Taking the plunge with New Jersey’s extreme canoers.

Ken Dingsor takes to the rapids of the Scudders Falls Recreation Area on the Delaware River.
Photo by Wayne Gman

On a winding forest road deep in Morris County, Ken Dingsor prepares to sneak onto private property. There’s been a flash flood, and several inches of rain have created what he guesses will be an hour-long window when the rocky India Brook will be transformed into a class IV rapid. Dingsor has been scouting the brook for six years; now is his chance.

Dingsor’s quest for whitewater has taken him to a spot where Mendham meets Randolph Township. Here the residential streets have inviting names like Shadowbrook Way and Waterfall Drive. The Randolph trail system passes near the brook, but the particular entry point Dingsor has in mind can be gained only by trespassing. A friend drops him off near the Mendham Reservoir, and he dashes through a stranger’s yard, trying to remain inconspicuous while carrying a 60-pound, 8-foot-long, turquoise polyethylene canoe. He is a bulky intruder, outfitted in a black helmet and drysuit, flotation device, water shoes and elbow pads.

Dingsor reaches the frothing brook and quickly slides his canoe into the rushing water. Steadying the craft, he steps in one leg at a time, drops to his knees and gets to work with his single-blade paddle.

The journey downstream guarantees a 40-minute, nonstop adrenaline rush. Any mistake could prove fatal. Each obstacle and narrow passage must be gauged and surmounted in what seems a nanosecond. Dingsor dodges low-hanging limbs and jutting boulders while dropping over mini-waterfalls. He weaves his way through a swirling mix of branches and logs and deftly slips past man-made obstacles like protruding pipes, floating debris—sometimes even rusted barbed wire.

“It’s the most physically and intellectually stimulating, challenging activity that I’ve come across,” says Dingsor, 28. “You have to always be planning ahead. It allows me to achieve a level of focus that nothing else allows me to do. I assume it’s the way a good musician feels when playing their instrument.”

As a sport, whitewater canoeing is in its infancy. Most early participants are former kayakers seeking a new challenge. The canoes—made from the same brightly colored polyethylene plastic as kayaks—are more durable than traditional canoes and can withstand continuous abuse from rocks and other hazards. They are also shorter, to allow tighter navigation.

Many kayakers are drawn to the whitewater canoe movement because it requires what Dingsor describes as extra “finesse.” In other words, there is less room for error and more skill involved. It is easier to tip and swamp an open canoe. A kayak rides closer to water level; the deck prevents water from sloshing in. The canoer kneels in an open craft, less secure and balanced than sitting legs outstretched in a closed kayak. The canoe paddle has only one blade; a kayak paddle is double-sided. Skilled kayakers can roll or flip over underwater—an essential survival technique in whitewater. But only a select few enthusiasts are able to master rolling in a canoe. In fact, whitewater canoes have flotation devices laced into the front and back, a precaution not usually taken with kayaks.

Dingsor’s perfect workweek would be spent in rushing water. The Morristown native lives year-round in a Trekker Trailer, a teardrop-shaped home on wheels that was customized for his 6-foot-8 frame.

When he’s not traveling the country scouting rivers, he parks his trailer home in Lambertville and uses the kitchen of his “roommate’s” one-bedroom apartment. In the off-season, Dingsor works at a fireplace and pool-maintenance company.

Whitewater is a rainy-season sport; typically spring and fall provide the best, most thunderous conditions. Just as surfers chase storm swells, paddlers chase rain.

“Most whitewater enthusiasts are also amateur meteorologists,” Dingsor explains. “When you watch the news and see those flash-flood alerts, we are sitting in our canoes.”

So far, his most prolific year was 2012, when he spent no less than 130 days on the water, including a 17-day Colorado River expedition through the Grand Canyon.

The Colorado is what paddlers call big water—a river that runs white regardless of rainfall. All the whitewater in New Jersey—even in the mighty Delaware River—is dependent on rain. To find the action, Dingsor and others use the resources of the U.S. Geological Survey, which keeps water-level gauges on most navigable rivers. They also rely on Google Maps and topographic maps from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. American Whitewater, a nonprofit that promotes river safety, maintains a state-by-state database of creeks and rivers.

Dingsor is a member of the New Jersey-and Pennsylvania-based whitewater canoeing group Fullgnarlz, which organizes events for local enthusiasts. “It was started by people just getting into whitewater who were seriously pushing their skill limits,” Dingsor says. “We coined the term fullgnarlz as the act of pushing yourself.” Their slogan, “Just Boof it,” is a twist on Nike’s “Just do it.” The founders—Pennsylvanian Tommy Hagg and a Piscataway enthusiast known as Wayne Gman—started the group in 2010 after five days together on floodwaters in the Adirondacks. Hagg was one of the first open canoers documented on video riding intense class IV and V rapids and successfully rolling his craft. Gman was an avid kayaker until Hagg inspired him to convert to whitewater canoeing. As a member of American Whitewater’s StreamTeam, Gman provides website updates on river news, like fallen trees blocking passages.

Like many who participate in extreme sports, whitewater canoers are often branded wild and reckless. Gman rejects the label. “It’s a healthy way to be, to push your boundaries and not be complacent,” he says. “People who don’t do high-risk sports judge them as reckless, but the people who do these sports are very astute on probabilities and consequences and whittle down the chances of bad things happening to a very small percent.”

Dingsor, a trained trail and survival guide, senses a spiritual element in whitewater. “You could say water is the blood of the Earth, and you can even liken rivers to being the veins. All life requires water. It’s kind of neat to be part of that and challenge yourself, where it’s just you against nature.”

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