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An Ode to Chan Zwanzig

Many moons ago, at the beginning of the era where kayaking seemed to be exploding in popularity and some idealistic lads and lasses thought that they might be able to make a living paddling rivers, I went to the Kern Fest; an annual river festival in Kernville, which was The Rendezvous Spot for the surprising number of river lovers in SoCal, and for a week in the spring, also a magnet for people from all over the country who came to paddle the wide array of runs the Kern area offered, from steep and super beautiful creeking to the big pushy water of the Kern itself when it was flush with snowmelt.  Like all river festivals there was a rodeo, a downriver race, a slalom, lots of group paddle events, and of course lots of beer drinking and socializing.  At the center of the festival was an upstart kayak brand called Wave Sport, and at the center of Wave Sport was Chan Zwanzig. 

Chan had been a longtime paddler in Colorado and as every paddler knew in the ‘80’s, you could pretty much paddle any boat you wanted as long as it was a Perception Dancer.  Perception had been an early innovator (one of the first to transition from fragile fiberglass to the relatively far more durable plastic) but the Dancer’s popularity may have got them a bit stuck, it was popular because it had been a bit better than the boats before it, but it really was a terrible boat; too long, too pointy, no rocker , and not very safe.  Chan went all in on kayaking and decided to shake up the industry:  he created his own brand called Wave Sport (no small feat; kayak molds and the machinery to make them are famously expensive) and made super short boats, super angular and slicey boats, and flat bottomed boats.  He and Corran Addison (another great kayaker and outsized personality determined to blow up the stodgy industry with his Riot Kayaks) were changing the game. 

A bit staid by today’s standards, but edgy back then. Note the painful foot room of the XXX on the bottom right.

Chan was also the first to recognize the value of having not just random promotional athletes be paid to paddle his boats, but also to have them be an actual team.  They were the best paddlers and the koolest kids, and they were driving around in Wavesport logo-adorned RV’s to the various river festivals, dam releases, and simply going to areas with rivers that were running; indeed, they were the first professional kayakers.  And if they were the team, Chan was the coach; I remember very vividly Chan gathering his troops for a meeting in the Kernville city park and excoriating them:   “I don’t want you doing any steep creekin!  That’s where people get killed, and if you get killed it’s bad for my business! So paddle big water and take bad swims if you have problems, but don’t get killed!”

As it turns out, I had a bit of a business issue with Chan that needed sorting out.  In the process of making the Patagonia paddling shoes I had been working with Mekan Boot in Salt Lake, and coincidentally a couple of his employees had actually been working on their own shoes.  I can’t remember the details, but one of those guys “sold” a design to Chan and there was some question as to whom had the rights to the design and concept.  I had made a very loose arrangement to meet with Chan at the Kern Fest, and that night at the party we did indeed meet.   I thought was prepared for it, but even after watching him yell at his team earlier in the day I was still a bit taken aback; he barked hard and fast at me nonstop, chasing me around the room as I tried in vain to keep him more than a couple of inches away from me in actual social distancing.  Ultimately I think that Chan’s frenetic energy did result in Wavesport paddling shoes that Mekan did make, but they didn’t last long.  He was perhaps too busy making and selling boats and almost singlehandedly changing the face of kayaking from simply running rivers into a rock-n-roll lifestyle.

Though he made a big deal about being one of the few kayak company owners who was more focused on great boats than profiteering, he sold Wavesport to Confluence, which had already bought the other two “big” brands of Perception and Dagger.  Like a lot of brand purchases, it was kind of the beginning of the end; the corporate structure didn’t keep the team intact and couldn’t maintain the personality and while they introduced a few new boats – notably the versatile Diesel – it ultimately dried up in the US to the point where Confluence decided to make it a Euro-only brand.   In classic Chan style, he was quoted as saying something to the effect of “yeah, I got a coupla million dollars out of it, but those assholes drove it into the ground.”  Fortunately one of his protégé’s, Eric Jackson, took some of the Wavesport model with him and started Jackson kayaks, which helped maintain the lighthearted and fun nature of plastic boats and rivers.

Fast forward a few years, and I was out in Steamboat on a paddling trip with Ashley and I bumped into a guy I knew who was going west to paddle the Yampa river’s Cross Mountain Gorge; a short section of fairly stompin’ whitewater during spring runoff.  We were on our way back to Salt Lake anyway and Ash graciously suggested that I paddle with him and she’d pick me up at the takeout, which worked out great.  It turned out that the other person who joined us was indeed the iconic Chan Zwanzig, who at least feigned that he remembered me from our footwear discussion years prior.  In the meantime he’d put out a good effort at creating the numerous whitewater play parks in Colorado and had mellowed a bit, and of course turned out to be a great partner, paddling solidly and keeping a good eye on his pards.  Today years later I can still hear his loud staccato voice over the roar of Osterizer rapid opining about the line and his raspy laugh as he described what would happen if you happened to find yourself in the bottom of that meaty hole. 

I found out a coupla weeks ago on the Bear River that Chan Zwanzig died in late July after a battle with cancer; he was 71, but was no doubt only goin’ on 41.  Thanks to Chan for keeping and making kayaking honest and fun when it needed it. 

Here’s a tribute by former Paddling Magazine editor and author Eugene Buchanan, who knew Chan well.

One Comment

  1. Dave Robbins Dave Robbins

    Always gain an insight from your blogs. Thanks for sharing this.

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