Paddling gives so much to us, sometimes it is hard to recognize the flip side: that it can take away everything. After receiving the recent news that the Pacific Northwest paddling community had lost one of its brightest young chargers on February 10, I was in disbelief. Every boating community has moments like this, and it is never easy. Hugging the mother of your friend while she sobs on your shoulder, knowing she will have to live without her son, is the worst feeling. Period. No amount of words, hugs, and stories replaces a human being.
When I first met Sam I was in my late-20s paddling prime, having just relocated to the Northwest for work. Sam was 16 and a very serious student of everything whitewater. He was working at Outdoor Adventure Center on the Skykomish River, going to every roll class at their pool sessions, and racking up time on local rivers. At a Fourth of July celebration soon after my arrival in Washington, we talked about traveling internationally for boating and he struck me as inquisitive and engaging.
Sharing some of his first laps down Robe Canyon of the Stilliguamish were moments to cherish. He stayed inquisitive, soaking up every bit of advice about entering rapids, and engaged with the deep green and lush canyon snaking through trees covered in moss. This is how I choose to remember Sam. With a laser focus in his eye -- the kind that guides the most committed paddlers. Over the next 10 years, that focus lead him around the world, stepping up to rivers I had never dreamed about in my prime. Sam began working as a volunteer firefighter-EMT to help others while earning money to go live his dreams. Watching this teenager grow into a man was something that everyone in the Index and Seattle boating communities witnessed.
We had lunch together on Thursday, February 8. He stopped by the Werner Paddles office in Monroe, Wash., and picked me up for some Middle Eastern food. We had talked through a variety of subjects. I noticed how his humble style had become more honed with confidence over the 10 years since we first met. His worldly travels made him an understanding person that was a joy to be around -- learning lessons and developing into the sort of man the generation above him had hoped that he would become. The friendship he extended to the paddling community, and to those he didn't even know yet, was one offered easily. When I worked on a new guidebook to Washington and Oregon that featured some big-water photos of Sam, he was more than excited to pen the description of Eagle Falls, that he knew so well. By that point though, Sam the Man needed to push beyond his home run of the Skykomish, having developed the big-water skills and calm demeanor that the international kayaking expeditions demand. His paddling isn’t what I think of first, however. It’s his grin, and his ability to throw a hilarious little jab when it was needed most, that will stick with me forever.
We carry a piece of him down the river inside our hearts each time I see the mountains surrounding the rivers he loved.
And this Saturday, nearly 150 of us carried a piece of Sam down that river, gathering near Index to mourn, heal, celebrate and paddle the Skykomish River in his honor. See all of Mike Hagadorn’s photos from the Sam Grafton Memorial Paddle on the Sky, hosted at the River House in Index, Wash. Check back for updated information about his upcoming memorial and memorial fund, and read more about the lasting impact Grafton had on the paddling world.
The Skykomish River in full-flood hosts some of the most substantial whitewater to ever be run in the United States. With a beautiful ambivalence it courses through the heart of the North Cascades, the pumping life blood of the valley Sam called home. I never opted to paddle it, but Sammy Boy always convinced me. When snapping on our sprayskirts, we heard the lightning crack of boulders smashing together, and the thundering roar of the water moving them. With a pounding heart I followed Sam into the fray. Through 15-foot crashing waves I tried to keep him in sight, my guide, my brother. Through the crux of it all I flipped. I could feel the water roil around me, until I managed to roll up, frantically searching the oceanic river for Sam. With each wave I crashed through I became more wide-eyed, more nervous…. But then, through the tumult, there he was; hand raised in the air, my beacon in the chaos, and my heart would steady.
Sam, you were more than a paddling partner and friend, you were my inspiration. I can’t believe you’re gone, buddy. I cherish the times we had together, and feel honored to have been your friend. My love for you will guide my life.
I was two pitches high on the Great Northern Slab [overlooking Index], rappelling down the route. Alone and exhausted after a long day of rope-soloing, I was looking forward to dinner and beer. As I pulled on my lifeline to the ground following the first of three raps down, the rope got stuck, though I could not see where or how. It was above a corner and out of sight. I weighed my options. I had one rope end and pondered how I might ascend to retrieve the stuck end. With limited gear I realized my options were few. As the time passed the sun dropped beyond the high cirque of [Mount] Persis. With a call to Beth (my wife), I alerted her to my predicament. She knew just who to call. Sam Grafton arrived not long later, having turned around while headed out to work. Sam climbed the lower two pitches with the grace and ease of a seasoned climber. When he reached my position, his jovial good-natured laugh and smile made light of my situation. Soon after retrieving the stuck end, Sam and I shared the last few rays of light on GNS. He was late for work that evening, performing an impromptu rescue without favor or reward. His memory will forever be exalted in the minds of those who knew him not just for what he was on the river, but also who he was off the river.
The stoke in this photo is so real!! That's exactly what @sampgrafton brought to the table every time, on and off the river. When I heard about Sams passing my heart hurt, for his family, friends, whitewater community and everyone that met Sam along his journey here on earth. Here's a little testament to Sams character: About two years ago I had a very serious hand injury that laid me up for about 5 months and a full recovery was super questionable. As soon as I got out of the hospital from surgery Sam was calling me and asking when he could stop by and deliver a care package and just see how I'm doing. Sam indeed stopped by and brought that stoke along with his through the roof positivity and optimism. Sam would continue to call me through my entire recovery and include me in all of his paddling plans that spring/summer. A common phone call that spring would usually consist of something like this: "Young Wes, I just scouted this super marginal waterfall in the north cascades that has your name all over it, heal up and let's go tag this beast." I am beyond thankful that I met Sam in this life and had some incredible experiences with! Even though everyone is deeply saddened at this time, I know in my heart that something positive will come out of this tragedy. We are not exactly sure what that is at the moment but through faith, stoke and love I'm sure we will find it. Miss you buddy!
Almost a week has passed and I am still at a loss for words. Sam you were one of the most genuine humans I have ever had the chance to know. Your love for the outdoors, exploration, and kayaking was unmatched but the love you had for your friends was what always impressed me the most. Seeing all the incredible words everyone has had about you has been amazing to see. Makes me feel even luckier than I already felt to call you one of my good friends. This is definitely not a goodbye buddy. Dial in the lines on those dream rivers you are charging right now for when the rest of the boys get there with you. Charge on SPG ❤️
We are all so sad to hear about the passing of @sampgrafton . It has been a very tough few weeks for the kayaking community, and this one hits home for the Northwest. In the end, we remember people not for the rapids they ran (though Sam had some ridiculous descents to his name) but rather for their character and the way they made us feel. One of my last conversations with Sam was about risk management and how we both felt the need for easing off on some of the really hard stuff. We both acknowledged that we knew the inherent risks in kayaking, but ultimately just wanted to focus on the fun stuff vs the really painful and high risk stuff. We concluded that it was just too fun to step back completely, but that balance was the answer. Sam was ballsy, but he had a good head on his shoulders and had grown to become skilled and experienced. Truly one of the best. Nonetheless, even with all the experience and skill the risk is real for any of us out there, and bad things can happen. I'm just incredibly sorry and sad that it happened to you Sam. For many of us, Kayaking becomes a genuine love, an addiction and a sense of fulfillment and purpose that is difficult to define. I know Sam shared this love, but it doesn't make it any easier when one of our tribe passes on. In the end, I just want to say I enjoyed the time we spent on and off the water. You were positive, kind, and thoughtful. My heart goes out to your family and loved ones during this difficult time. You're the man Sam! Much ❤️💪🏻🌊 :// Donate to Sams Memorial here: GoFundMe.com/Sam-Grafton-Memorial-Fund 📸 @johnjwebster
Find out more on the Seattle-area fundraiser for Grafton, Feb. 24 at the SeaGnar Film Fest.
Grafton’s highlights in C&K over the years:
-- 2014 Interview with ‘Whitewater’s Comeback Kid’
-- Running the biggest whitewater in the Lower 48.
-- Self-rescue in a Class V rapid
-- Sam Grafton Goes Big.