The Canoe Guru, Eli Helbert, is a 3rd generation canoeist who spends his freetime canoeing into the most pristine and spectacular valleys of the world. Eli has taken top honours at two World Championships, a World Cup and a World Extreme Race as well as numerous National and Regional Canoeing Titles. Eli is also the first OC1 paddler to take part in the Unsponsored Q&A series. It is a great honour to have Eli take part in the Unsponsored 2012 Q&A series.
Tell us a little a bit about your accomplishments in the canoeing/kayaking world.
I won my first World Championship title in whitewater freestyle rodeo in 1999. I defended this title in 2001. I won the World Extreme Race in Tavascan, Spain that same year. I also won the World Cup of Whitewater Freestyle in 2006. I have won numerous US National titles in Open Canoe Slalom and Whitewater Freestyle Rodeo over the past 15 years. I now really enjoy canoeing with my 9 year old daughter, Sage. We will be competing for the US National Open Canoe Jr./Sr. Slalom Title in October.
I have numerous first descents for an Open Canoe around the World. I am very proud to have been the first canoe to paddle the Ravens Fork in North Carolina and the Little White Salmon in Washington State. This February, I participated in the first Open Canoe descent of the Big Banana Section of the Rio Alseseca in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. I am embarrassed to say that I have forgotten the name of a first OC descent I made in the Dolomiten Range of Italy. I should ask Robson to remind me of this…
I am very proud to be on the cover of “The Canoe Movie” canoeing La Gloria Falls on the Rio D’Oro in Mexico (14 Metres). I have appeared in at least seven other paddling films.
When and how did you first start paddling?
I first canoed at Camp Shenandoah, a Boy Scout Camp in Virginia. I was 8 years old at the time (1984). We were really just paddling around having water fights, but I loved it. That summer, my father started working at Shenandoah River Outfitters, a canoe livery in Virginia. We started paddling every weekend and bought a canoe at the end of the summer. We kept paddling through the winter and slowly improved our skills. When I was 13 or 14, my father became a raft guide with “Mountain Streams” on the Cheat River Canyon in West Virginia. I was hired to help hand out and wash wetsuits when they were returned. It wasn’t a glamourous job, but I was hanging out at the rafting company anyhow. I moved up in the world the next spring, when I was hired to paddle in with the first rafting trip of the day to a rapid known as “Big Nasty”. I watched rafts flip, laughed, and gathered up the paddles to return to the customers. I stayed at “Big Nasty” until the final trip of the day came through and then I paddled the rest of the river with that trip. I still view this as the best job I had in my youth.
When I was 17, I received an exemption from the state of West Virginia and was able to be employed as a raft guide. In 1994 I enrolled at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. At Warren Wilson, I started slalom racing and started paddling with a great group of friends that I still love paddling with today. With them, I started running the creek runs around Asheville, and I was ready to participate in the first Green Race back in 1996. I paddled a C-1 that first year. Leland Davis, the race organizer was significantly faster than I was, so the following year I decided to take a Mohawk Viper 11 Open Canoe. Frankie Hubbard, the designer of the Viper (and numerous other great canoes) hiked in to watch this race and passed the word that I should come visit him at Savage Designs. When I did, he gave me his new prototype Savage Skeeter to paddle and then encouraged me to join him in a few rodeos that next Fall. I have a competitive nature and was enjoying playboating with my college buddies so decided I wanted to push this sport. I moved down to Rock Island that winter after graduating college and began training for the US Team. The training paid off because I earned the right to compete in New Zealand for the World Championship. I was fortunate to win the World Championship that year because when I returned to the US I found that Savage had gone out of business. Fortunately I was able to join Colin Broadway and his company, Mobile Adventure. When he decided to retire from paddlesports, I transferred over to Pyranha and then eventually Esquif Canoes and Big Dogs Kayaks.
What is your current location?
I live with my wife Megan, and our two kids, Sage and Quinn, just outside of Asheville, NC. I run a canoe instructional and guiding service, TheCanoeGuru.com, that allows me to travel around the World sharing my love of canoeing. In the past 2 years I have been able to instruct whitewater canoeing in Switzerland, Mexico, the Yukon, Alaska, NC, TN and WV. In addition to my own business, I am an instructor trainer for the ACA as well as a lead instructor for WMI of NOLS.
What scares you the most?
Injuring my knees and being forced to SUP or Bellyak. Although I think those are both fun activities, I would hate to have to stop canoeing.
What was your biggest hurdle in canoeing/kayaking when you started out – finding people to paddle with, nailing the third end, lack of rivers etc?
I find it ironic that I became a playboater. I remember watching in awe as the Snyder brothers on the Cheat Canyon surfed in “Recyclotron”, but I didn’t seriously play in hydraulics until I was in my early 20’s. I still consider myself to be a conservative paddler, although I have been developing my skills for almost 30 years.
What has kept you in the sport?
I love the whitewater community. I feel more at peace with myself on the water than anywhere else on Earth. I also love paddling with my friends all over the World.
Who is your biggest source of inspiration within the paddling world (and why)?
Frankie Hubbard (now deceased) was my biggest source of inspiration. He lived life doing what he loved and didn’t worry about what others thought. He was an amazing paddler and individual. He read the river and understood how to take advantage of the most miniscule currents. He never looked like he was paddling hard, but he could make very difficult moves appear easy. He enjoyed relaxing in natural hot springs around the world in his freetime. I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to travel and paddle with him.
Marc Scriver and David “Psycho” Simpson would be close runners up as my most influential mentors. Psycho was my adolescent hero. I will never forget being at Gauley Festival in the early 1990’s watching “Green Summer” over and over on the big screen so I could see Psycho canoe Gorilla and Sunshine on the Green River Narrows. I still remember thinking, “that guy is crazy…I would never do that”!
I really respect Marc Scriver because he is the best canoeist I know. A former World Champion, Marc is amazingly fluid as a playboater and equally skilled running steep creeks and rivers. He is a very humble, soft-spoken guy that is happy to help new paddlers develop the skills to enjoy their time on the water. I have never seen him when he did not have a smile on his face.
Given the choice where would want to paddle?
I live in Asheville, NC for a reason. I love being able to paddle great creeks and have great playboating all within an hour (or 10 minutes) of my house. That being said, I would love to paddle in Japan and Thailand someday.
What do you consider to be the biggest accomplishment in the world of canoeing/kayaking to date?
I am still in awe of Nolen Whitesell’s open canoe descent of the Niagara Gorge.
How do you get yourself in “the zone” before a competition run or when running a challenging piece of water?
I try to smile and relax. When I can get a good song in my head, I typically perform better as well. It is typically the waiting around before the competition (or running the big drop) that I find to be the most difficult.
What kit are you currently using?
Thanks for profiling me!
Many thanks Eli!