Hometown Thrillseaker Survives Grand Inga Falls on Congo River
By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer
There were early signs when he was growing up in Forks of Salmon, that Rush Sturges would do stuff as crazy as what he does. Stuff like kayaking through the gnarliest rapids and waterfalls all over the world. And making movies of it.
His teachers and classmates at Forks School remember that as soon as he learned to write, he started writing adventure stories in spiral bound notebooks. But the stories never seemed to end. When he’d get near the end of a notebook, he’d write a cliff-hanger and start a new notebook.
By age 10, Sturges was learning to kayak. That’s less of a surprise. His parents own and operate Otter Bar Lodge, a well-known kayak school just downriver from Forks. In his teens, he started filming and editing videos at the school’s week-long kayaking retreats, which he would then sell to that week’s clients.
In 2003, he won the Junior World Championships of freestyle kayaking in Austria and has represented the U.S. at freestyle kayaking world championships twice since then.
In the following years Sturges filmed, edited and starred in seven adventure videos and developed several signature moves including one called the Hail Mary. The Hail Mary involves doing a complete front flip over a waterfall.
Waterfalls loom large in serious kayaking these days. Sturges has paddled over many and he filmed a paddle-buddy Tyler Bradt paddling over Palouse Falls in Washington state. That drop—189 feet—was more than 20 feet higher than Niagara Falls and a worlds record.
Both Sturges and Bradt have injured vertebrae boating over waterfalls but it did not dissuade either of them from an even riskier venture, boating a year ago through Inga Falls on the Congo River in Africa.
The Congo is the second largest river in the world and Inga Falls is arguably the largest in the world. No one survived previous attempts to run it but Steve Fisher, a South African kayaker of international reputation, invited Sturges, Bradt and Benny Marr, a Canadian, to join him in the attempt. Also, make a movie titled, CONGO, The Grand Inga Project while they were at it.
Another world-class kayak adventurer who would have been invited was fellow South African Hendrik Coetzee, but he’d been snatched by a crocodile a year earlier in another Congo river, the Lukuga.
Sturges was home on Salmon River between his own adventures last week and showed the movie at MKWC in Orleans in a special showing for 30-40 friends and neighbors. It was gripping and the crowd could have filled several spiral notebooks of their own if they hadn’t been literally perched on the edges of their seats for the whole 81 minutes.
The story builds with the history of the river and Congo itself, a country that was once colonized and exploited ruthlessly by the king of Belgium. It is merciless in its historical review, an era as blood thirsty as the arrival of White miners in Northern California.
Sturges, the other three boaters and their support team began by working out on the White Nile River, supposedly a bush-league version of Inga Falls, but itself incredibly hazardous.
All four build rapport and experience but also express doubts between trainings; they are as good as kayakers get but no one has ever accomplished this run before. It is the Mt. Everest of rivers. The British explorer
Henry Stanley tried to run the falls and his lead guide was swept away by the rapids. That’s the Stanley who, in late 1800s, famously said, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.”
A modern day French crew was doing better until they all disappeared in the rapids.
From the warm-ups, Sturges and the others traveled to Kinshasa, Congo’s capital. It is a huge city, jammed with hustlers and refugees from civil wars. Through it all, their van, multi-colored kayaks tied on the roof, tried to navigate through swarming city traffic.
Finally their liaison-fixers greased enough bureaucrat palms to get all the required permits for the boaters and their helicopter escort. They began on the long rapids that climax in the falls. It is the real Congo River, a torrent that runs all year around at nearly 300 times the winter flow of the Klamath.
The footage is stark. There are waves a staggering 40 feet high and there are whirlpools that could swallow a Greyhound Bus. The boaters had tiny portable GoPro video cameras glued to their helmets and their boats so when one kayaker was swallowed by one of the whirlpools and held down for a minute, the footage is palpable.
They succeeded, of course, but they reflected afterwards if it was tribute to their courage and skill or evidence of their insanity. The video is for sale online and there is a 4-minute trailer available at http://ingaproject.com/. Most trailers capture the most exciting footage and the film itself is a disappointment. In this case, to capture most the excitement would take nearly all of the 81 minutes.
Back on the river, Sturges visited old friends, kayaked on the Salmon which has some serious cliff-hangers of its own and reveled in the greatest pleasure of adventure travelers—just plain being home.
He also was heartened by the local campaigns to remove the dams on the Klamath. Parts of the Congo river are diverted for massive hydroelectric dams but, because the river runs the same all year around, there is no need for reservoirs.
Sturges said most the major rivers he kayaks are threatened by large scale hydroelectric projects, especially in the developing areas of South America, Asia and Africa.
He said, “Some of my favorite rivers, such as the White Nile, I have literally watched go underwater and transform into reservoirs. The Congo is no exception with a hydro project in the works that would be the largest on the planet, nearly double the infamous Three-Gorges Dam in China. The reality of the dams is that they are a short-term solution to a much bigger problem.”
Even while he enjoyed a stretch at home on Salmon River. Rush Sturges was already planning his next adventure and film, probably on a river in Mexico.
The signs for Rush Sturges’ wanderlust were already there beyond the spiral notebooks when he was young. Sue Terence, one of his teachers years ago at Forks School, remembers escorting him and a classmate down to a swimming hole in the gorge.
When they arrived, two young cowboys were posturing on the bluff across the river, to impress their girlfriends. It was a 25 foot drop into a deep pool, a favorite for local kids. The young cowboys were stalling to work up their courage to jump, as they flexed their well developed muscles.
Without hesitation, Rush, who was then barely eight years old, dived into river and swam across to the bluff. He scampered up the rock face, then raced past the cowboys and vaulted into space and down into the water below. No stall. No flex. Just jumped.
Sue Terence said she applauded and so did the girlfriends. She didn’t mention if the young cowboys were as enthused.