How a California kayaker found far more than unexpected paddling in St. Louis, Missouri, and joined one man’s quest for a whitewater park that almost was.
Herm Smith was one-third salty, one-third showy, and one-third plain-out loud. I met him, appropriately enough, on the banks of a river. He strode up to me with his knotty legs and arms jutting out from faded swim trunks and a snazzy rescue-vest. Wearing a toothy smile under receding wisps of white hair, he thrust out his hand.
“You got a roll?” he asked, probing my ability to right my kayak should I flip.
“Yeah.” I nodded, hoping this would prove true when the time came.
“You can help me then,” he declared, and thus we were introduced.
Soon I was plying the muddy waters of the Meramec River with Herm and his latest trainee, Paul. Herm shouted at Paul the whole day through, “Keep your edge up!” And that was the mantra I came to know him by. Herm was an old-school Missouri paddler who started out in aluminum canoes, logging first descents in the Ozarks. But now it was summer in Missouri, and take-what-you-can-get season had officially set in. Only the slightest of standing waves lifted off the corner of a willowy gravel bar, but Herm jumped on that little rise like it was the best whitewater in the state (at times it actually was). He surfed his kayak back and forth in lazy strides while beaming at Paul and me in the eddy. I shook my head and laughed. This is what it had come to.
Two days before, I arrived to a hot, heavy August I might have described like a summer in the South—if I’d ever been there. Coming from the arid West, my home for twenty-five years, it felt like I was driving into the tropics, not a gray-skied St. Louis. I’d given up six years of raft guiding and reluctantly left my college town of Davis, in the Central Valley, two hours from twenty Sierra Nevada whitewater runs. Knowing I’d soon contend with the topographically challenged Midwest, where rocky creeks might be found, but not big river rafting, I’d spent my last season in California learning to kayak Class III water, determined not to let the sport escape me. Now I had reported for grad school, with the blue torpedo I was still learning to paddle strapped to the roof of my truck. I had vaguely heard there was real whitewater, south of the city, in the Ozarks, somewhere.
The previous evening at a meet-and-greet party, filled with get- to-know-you-chit-chat and intellectual sound bytes, someone pointed out the window and asked me what was that thing on my truck.
“A whitewater kayak,” I explained.
“A kayak?” A wide-smiling guy approached from across the room. “I’m learning to kayak.” Paul explained he was six months arrived from Chicago with a new hobby following a new job. “I’m meeting an instructor tomorrow at a play spot, a half hour south.”
A play spot. Half an hour. Incredulously, I was in.
I first encountered Missouri in terms of contrast. Coming from California, the land of “perfect” weather, it began with the climate. Midwestern muggy meant humid and hot, versus dry and very hot back home. Then there was the foliage. Summer in California is dusty and brown, but in Missouri, it’s damp and lush. The green hills south of St. Louis descended into limestone-faced bottomlands. Unlike California rivers which typically flow cold and clear from the bottom of dams, the Meramec River came down warm and brown.
The play spot was just a series of S-turns and one surf-able wave, a hundred yards upstream from a highway bridge, with a rusty buoy tasked to divert logs bobbing in front of a pylon. This so-called rapid was just downstream from Fishpot Creek, an urban irrigation ditch that spit out foam like an ear infection waiting to happen—Herm boasted it as a rain-fed run for urban creek-boaters. And to ice this urinal cake, the Meramec’s banks were riprap and asphalt, mixed with poison ivy and soppy black mud. If picturesque was a gross overstatement, less than ideal couldn’t begin to describe it. Yet we spent three hours there. We ferried, we surfed, we rolled—two thou- sand miles from home, I luckily still had it. I probed Herm for beta, and he said the only thing running, within eight hour’s drive, was the Class III Chain of Rocks. On the Mississippi River.
The only features white on the Muddy Mississippi for 99.99% of its 2,300 mile length are winter ice flows, inland gulls, and freshly painted barges—except for one river-wide section, ten miles north of downtown St. Louis. Historically, the Chain of Rocks was infamous for its slate ledges that ran ships aground during low flows. In the 1950s the Army Corps of Engineers dug a shipping canal ten miles around the obstructing bedrock, built a low-head dam across the Chain, threw in a bridge, some intake towers, and called it a day, ten years after they started. On the Illinois side, the dam was dynamited and large boulders were dropped, creating a deep-water, wave-train of Grand Canyon proportions called the Trolls. Just inside the Missouri state boundary, below an intact section of the dam, lurks an unrunnable recirculation called Oil Can, named for an oil drum that rolled in one day and didn’t roll out, for months. And near the Missouri shore, there are a series of stair-stepping drops that, depending on water level, offer three to thirty holes and waves for your free- styling delights. Here I learned to playboat: a surreal half-mile-wide section of river, in sight of two sixty-year-old Gothic Revival intake towers, a steel-and-rivet tinker-toy bridge, the sleek Interstate 270 causeway, and the distant shimmers of the St. Louis Arch.
My first day on the Chain, Herm pointed out Oil Can, the primary hazard that makes a solid combat roll and Class III skills essential—two things I had only recently acquired. Viewed from above, the river dropped away and sent up frequent spits of froth into the misty air. As Herm led the way to Rookies, a beginner hole on the right bank, I followed tentatively. I made sure to give Oil Can a wide berth, keeping a sharp paddle angle away from it and a weary eye on it.
“Have there been any accidents?” I asked.
Herm nodded. “A kayaker drowned.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“He got tangled in a rope,” said Herm. He paddled away from me.
“His own rope?” I asked. But Herm didn’t answer, so I paddled after him, downriver.
Herm had burned some bridges, I learned during the following year. Wait. Back up. Herm had fire-bombed some bridges. Herm at one time had been an integral member of the Missouri Whitewater Association, a St. Louis-based kayaking club whose winter and spring destination was the St. Francis River, ninety miles into the Ozarks. In the eighties, Herm and some fellow kayakers proposed building a pump-around whitewater park—essentially a self-contained river—in the metro region. They made progress during the nineties. Herm visited whitewater parks in France for “research.” The team scouted locations, drafted a business plan, and even procured a site from the power company, just south of the city—until the ’93 floods came and wiped it off the map. Literally. Now, fifteen years later, Herm was the only one left. He had splintered off into his own non- profit organization, StreamTeach, Inc. While Herm was still pushing for a whitewater park, he was now doing it without the help of any other kayaker in St. Louis. That is, until I came along. A fact that slightly concerned me, once I became aware of it.
A month after I met him, Herm invited me on a four-day kayaking trip to the Southeast. This part of America was unexplored territory to me. Though I had reservations about hours upon hours in a minivan with a man more than twice my age, I eagerly accepted.
The Midwest introduced me to several new attitudes toward kayaking. If the first was paddle whatever you can get, the second, ironically, concerned driving. From Davis, our average drive to dozens of quality Class III to V rivers was two and a half hours. We complained about occasional eight-hour drives to the Rogue in Oregon, the Smith or Slammin’ Salmon in far Northern California, or the Kaweah or Kern down south. Our backyard rivers were the South and North Forks of the American in California gold country—we even complained about the hour drive to get there. In essence, we were—I was—spoiled with whitewater. In St. Louis, with Colorado fourteen hours to the west and West Virginia eleven to the east, I eventually came to adore the measly seven and a half hour afternoon jaunt down to Tennessee. Local paddlers liked to say that St. Louis was the center of the whitewater world; it’s just eight-plus hours in all directions. The whole southeast was a weekend destination to Missouri kayakers.
Herm’s plan was to leave Thursday afternoon, camp somewhere in the Smokies, drop into Charlotte for opening week of the U.S. National Whitewater Center—the first pump-around course in America—then head west for two days of paddling on the famous Ocoee River. The trip was not without incident.
For every driving hour, Herm kept the radio tuned to either NPR, or to break that up, his Japanese vocabulary CDs. As we konichiwa-ed our way across Kentucky, I first witnessed Herm’s obliviousness. An ambulance, with lights blazing, zoomed up behind us on the Inter- state, and Herm dutifully got out of the way. Only to move swiftly back in behind the ambulance once it passed, to prevent losing his place in the fast lane. In the process he cut off a worried, now angrily yelling man, with his emergency blinkers on, who was chasing the ambulance.
That night we camped in a church parking lot in the backwoods of the northern Smokies. Well, I “camped.” On a picnic table. Herm slept in his van. “Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission,” Herm said, as we pulled into a gravel lot behind some pine trees. I stared off into the woods as the crickets chirped. When I laid down to sleep, I couldn’t stop thinking about the film Deliverance.
Herm attempted a U-turn on the Interstate, forgetting it was a divided highway. I pointed this out in a shocked blurt. We ended up with the van idling on the median strip, Herm shaking his head in disbelief, and me clutching the armrests like they were life preservers.
The Whitewater Center, though unfinished and filled with mud- died storm water that ran off the yet-to-be-landscaped banks, was impressive. It was a man-made river, with four channels, dozens of rapids, and giant pumps that discharged 1,200 CFS, a sizable 9,000 gallons per second. Herm had speculated for much of our drive about the energy needed to move so much water. He had requested a private tour with the manager. After being led around the facility, Herm received an answer about their power rate. He blurted, “That’s highway robbery! You guys are getting swindled. In St. Louis we can do it for half.” The manager held back a frown, politely walked us to the put-in, and our conversation went no further.
Later that day, on the mountain highway to the Ocoee, Herm decided we should switch drivers on a blind turn. He pulled onto the shoulder and slid over inside the van. I had to run around to the driver’s side, a solid twelve inches between the car and white line, and time the traffic.
Of course there were times when another side of Herm shined through. Our next stop was Thunder Rock Public Campground, where we joined two lifelong best friends from St. Louis. Steve, a jolly-tempered dentist, and Dan, a tall, quick-witted cabinetmaker. They, like me, were relatively new to kayaking and met Herm on the banks of the St. Francis the previous spring. He’d invited them down to tackle the more difficult Ocoee River. Good friends are often made over beers, but Herm warned us to be discreet since alcohol was not allowed at the camp. A warning we promptly forgot. A few hours into our evening festivities, a flashlight to my can got our attention.
“What do you got there,” said the Ranger.
Being the only guy in the group younger than forty, I reached for my wallet and pulled out my ID. “A Bud Light, sir,” I said. “But it’s okay. I’m of age.”
The ranger glanced at me incredulously, like he caught me doing a hundred in a school zone and I said it was fine ’cause I was in a hurry. He tightened the grip on his flashlight, put his hand on his hip. “This here’s a dry county, and we can do one of two things. One, you can pull out all the beer in this campsite, right here, right now, and pour it out. Or two, I can throw you in the county jail, and you can go before the federal magistrate come Monday.”
I was already pouring my beer out, as if to say, no need to continue with option two, officer, we’ll take option one. Steve and Dan were pouring their beers out as well. The whole time, Herm sat in his folding chair, plastic cup of red wine in hand, grinning like an infant. The rest of us made a valiant, dramatic show of pouring out a twelve pack and hiding the rest in our cars.
The next day, Herm deftly led us down the busy, continuous Ocoee. Despite his age, his withered, sun-worn biceps pulled him through the rapids ably. Watching him dodge holes and eddy hop, it was clear he knew the river. While Herm navigated the rapid with ease, Steve flipped in the second hole at Double Suck. It took him twenty yards and ten roll attempts before he finally came back up.
“Doing fish counts, Dr. Flytooth?” shouted Herm. “How many are down there?”
After several years of drought and low flows, the rains came in October to the Missouri Ozarks. By then, our kayaking group was set—a bit unorthodox compared to my college paddling friends in Davis—a retired University of Missouri–Saint Louis professor, a cabinetmaker, a dentist nicknamed Doc Flytooth (a dentally-inspired variation of his Dutch surname), and a graduate student. Our week- ends often began with Friday paddling, since we all could get away. My introduction to the St. Francis was interesting to say the least. The river was filled with kayakers—far more than I had ex- pected. Everyone seemed to know each other. And nobody was that friendly. At least to us. Herm said curt hellos when we arrived at the low water D-Bridge that marked the take-out. I figured it was a diverse scene, like California. People coming from all points, only distantly knowing each other. I had no idea everyone knew everyone else, everyone was a member of the MWA, and the people I thought Herm didn’t know were old acquaintances who purposefully ignored him. Meanwhile, the Saint, from a whitewater perspective, turned out to be more than I could have hoped for.
The Ozarks are old. Geologically, they were formed almost 1.5 billion years ago, and they’ve eroded much longer than their middle- aged cousins, the 500 million-year-old Appalachians. Contrast that with the Sierra Nevadas, my old paddling-ground, which are only twenty million years young. At 14,000 feet, if the Sierras are sharp, screaming adolescents, then the thousand-foot “mountains” of Missouri are weathered-down old men. The most popular section of the Saint was Tieman Shut-ins, a two-mile stretch through a fifty-foot tall granite gorge that was endearingly cute, yet still packed a Class III wallop by the name of Cat’s Paw. The rapid regularly caused swims and upset occasional aluminum canoes, which were no longer steered by whitewater pioneers but chuckling, beer-fueled yahoos. The rapid was so named because with five, round, paw-shaped rocks arranged across the channel, one could easily see where the claws might come out. And they frequently did. At most flows the run begins river right, and then either jogs far left for the tricky cross- river Z-route, or continues straight over a series of quick cuts and drops through a diagonal, boulder-choked chute. For every paddler, their backdoor river often provides a nemesis rapid, and for many a Missouri paddler, Cat’s Paw was it. I was fortunate it wasn’t mine. I’d paid my dues on Troublemaker rapid on the South Fork American, a beefy S-turn just upstream from Sutter’s Mill where gold was discovered in 1848. I’d flipped more ways than I thought possible in that rapid, and in many respects Cat’s Paw was a smaller, Missouri version of that.
A few weeks later Herm explained his new vision to me. The pump-around whitewater park would go forward, but the location had changed. We were standing in the take-out parking lot on the Mis- souri side of the Mississippi, a blighted flattop of potholed asphalt known for broken glass and break-ins. Herm grinned and nodded at a wide, shallow lake lined by reeds and bordered by the city water treatment facility.
“We’re going to do it right here,” said Herm. “Dig out the lake. Build up from there. Don’t let anyone know,” Herm continued confidentially. “It’s a secret.”
I glanced around the site. The location was brilliant. The Riverview Drive neighborhood at the northern edge of the city was notoriously depressed. But in recent years the nonprofit Trailnet had landscaped the riverbank and established biking and walking trails. Citywide, the various districts of St. Louis were being renewed. Some called it gentrification—the white families would move back in and force out the black families. But Herm, a sociologist, saw the whitewater park’s future presence differently.
St. Louis had fallen far from its days as the great crossroads of America, the Gateway to the West, the center of culture and sport that it was during the 1904 World’s Fair and Olympics. A city that in the early 1900s was the place to be—meet me in St. Louie—was now a city where the majority of whites had left—meet me in the suburbs. While several upper-class, wealthy outposts remained, now it was primarily the poor, some middle-class stragglers, and students (myself included) living within city limits in century-old brick buildings and navigating one of the highest crime rates in the country.
Herm had a grand vision—critics might call it naive or over-ambitious, but no one could call it small. The whitewater park would help the Riverview area, a predominantly black neighborhood, achieve urban renewal. The local alderman, an African-American woman and lifelong resident, was supportive. While those Herm spoke to weren’t familiar with the sport, they were optimistic about the prospects. Herm believed the summer staff needed to run a white- water park—the guides, the concessionaires, the grounds staff—could provide a hundred jobs for young people and help keep them out of trouble. Herm had reached out to local YMCAs, suggesting their urban learn-to-swim programs could funnel these youth, particularly African Americans, into the exciting jobs at a local white- water park. The park made sense. The closest whitewater rafting was at least eight hours away in three directions. And residents regularly stopped us when unloading our boats to ask where they might try such a thing. Herm just had to get StreamTeach rolling again, but once-supportive local paddlers now wanted nothing to do with him.
Meanwhile, the uber-social Doc Fly and I had been meeting these local paddlers at the Saint. When Herm wasn’t around, my impressions were different. Most were friendly and outgoing. While Herm spent his time paddling the Chain—one year logging nearly two hundred days—I was more inclined to paddle several miles through Ozark pine forest with new friends. On Fridays, Doc Fly and I increasingly turned south. At the D-Bridge take-out, a group would pleasantly assemble, a shuttle would cobble together, and then off down the river we’d go. Occasionally Herm’s name came up. It seemed my being known as California Mike only slightly eclipsed the dirty rumor I paddled with Herm Smith. The stories ensued. Herm turned on the paddlers that worked on the original whitewater park. Herm spent people’s hard-earned donations to take vacations to whitewater parks all over the world. Herm is self-centered and will ask for a shuttle ride, but not give one. Herm is conceited and will walk naked around the take-out. And perhaps, most startling of all, Herm was responsible for the death of an inexperienced paddler, having taken him out on the Chain and letting him end up in Oil Can. In fact, after an MWA potluck and film festival, my first event with the group, Doc Fly confessed that a particularly vocal woman pulled him aside after learning he kayaked with Herm. The woman hissed, “People don’t paddle with Herm Smith. People die with Herm Smith.”
I didn’t know what to make of these claims. Herm was eccentric. He could be self-centered, sure. Typically he only paddled when he chose the day and time. He had an intense, lecture-like persona, but he was an academic. His professional accomplishments included the paper, “Does Shedding One’s Clothes Imply Shedding One’s Culture? A Cross-Cultural Test of Nudism Claims,” for which Herm performed the role of naked, fly-on-the-wall sociologist at European nude beaches. Midway through his career, he’d reinvented himself as a Japanese specialist. Then he became a self-taught expert on Affect Control Theory, which argues that people’s expectant minds dictate their response to experiences and stimuli and not vice versa. Herm’s curriculum vitae included dozens of publications and was a solid fourteen pages to my two.
His wife Mary liked to say he lacked diplomacy, which was a diplomatic way of saying Herm could be difficult. But in our discussions he didn’t just talk. He seemed genuinely interested in my stories about Western whitewater and the river research I had done after college in another career before I moved to St. Louis for a writing degree. True, I had fleetingly seen Herm naked when he changed on the side of his van. But fresh from California, that freewheeling state of post-paddling skinny-dipping and relaxed modesty, it didn’t bother me. By the time the rumors came out, I had been in St. Louis for over a year and become fully immersed in the StreamTeach organization.
At times I wished I hadn’t fallen in with Herm. I didn’t want to be known as a Hermite, a name that floated around the MWA for Herm’s beginner paddling partners he groomed through his junior college rolling class. For years after his break from the MWA, Herm had been bringing newbies to the Saint. Paul took the class. Doc Fly and Dan met Herm one day on the Saint when he stopped to chat. On reflection they realized he’d been paddling alone, at the rear periphery of a large group. Though the three of us learned to paddle before we met Herm, they, like me, were unwitting Hermites as well.
I challenge myself to think independently while paddling. I have walked away from rivers when the conditions didn’t seem right. A flow too high. A start too late on a winter day. A river that became overgrown with willows once we turned a corner. Often walking away meant with a boat on my shoulder, hiking out. When I began kayaking in the winter of a high water year, I was slow and methodical, logging day after day on Class II stretches before graduating to the Class III Gorge and Chili Bar runs, knowing my frequent swims were necessary notches on my paddle. So, when I met Herm, I didn’t fall blindly in line. I watched him closely to see if his paddling matched his talk. From what I saw, it did. With the exception of Oil Can, the rivers I paddled with Herm—the Chain, the Saint, the Ocoee—were relatively safe and free from major hazards. Herm seemed not only capable but amply qualified and typically cautious. Sure, his step—or stroke—had slowed with age. He compensated by taking conservative lines and starting his moves early—lessons all paddlers learn are often necessary.
I began to wonder about all the rumors. Were there elements of truth? Were they exaggerations from conflicts of personality? Nothing I’d seen led me to make the same harsh judgments that people were offering to me. I became determined not to judge Herm based on others’—even a growing majority’s—opinions. They say we can’t pick our family, but we can pick our friends. But that doesn’t always hold true. Herm was my friend, for better or worse, I decided. Even if I did stop mentioning it at the Saint.
In whitewater, I’d come face-to-face with the power of group think. River skills are bequeathed by veterans. It becomes hazy where facts end and opinions begin. Take undercuts, where current passes beneath rocks through tight constrictions that can trap bodies and drown paddlers—these are facts. The danger is never disputed. But is a rapid Class IV or Class V because of the undercut? These classifications are heatedly debated. Since paddlers rely on each other to keep an eye out, aid when in trouble, and pass on information—it takes two shuttle cars to tango—groups eventually come to some negotiated agreement about the more subjective elements. In Missouri, Cat’s Paw is one of the hardest rapids regularly paddled, and thus, it’s often described as Class IV. Put the rapid in California or the Southeast and it wouldn’t warrant more than a III. In Idaho it’s a II—if boaters even bothered.
The result is a herd mentality in whitewater sports, where solo river days are seldom. But this mentality is paradoxical. The herd is roughly defined by expectations of individualism and self-reliance, like keeping oneself safe and not expecting too much from other paddlers. But at the same time, the herd demands one not deviate too far from collective considerations for how one’s actions are interwoven with everyone else. The most different paddlers of all are often forcefully shunned. They can be reckless lone wolves or those who feed so intensely off attention that they diminish the cohesiveness of the group or, worse, place it at risk. Thus, the typical collection of successful kayakers and raft guides, whether by nature or choice, fall into a moderate middle between these two extremes. And from those who spoke loudest against Herm, the complaints ranged so widely along that spectrum, they seemed to suggest Herm was at both extremes at the same time.
Herm’s renewed efforts to get the whitewater park flowing were many. He corresponded with the Mayor’s office, the Parks Department, and the Water Commissioner. He updated business plans and cost-benefit analyses. When he had enough to say, he drafted a newsletter so StreamTeach could reach out to past supporters and engage new contacts. He asked me to edit the first issue. I looked it over. It was informative, with facts and figures and estimates. But it was plagued by bitter resentments and patronizing declarations stemming from ten years of setbacks and infighting. Local kayakers just don’t see the big picture. . . . StreamTeach representatives are the experts. . . we’re the ones who have traveled to whitewater parks all over the world to amass the knowledge and expertise . . . local kayakers don’t understand economics . . . a park needs paying customers and raft traffic, not just kayaks. It was clear that Herm felt betrayed by the area paddlers who no longer believed he could deliver the white-water park he long ago promised. So who will you believe? Stream- Teach or shortsighted kayakers who want a park for themselves, but can’t pay for it? It bulged with emotion and sweated historic subtext. It was Herm. It was human. I ripped it apart.
I gutted the draft and rewrote the newsletter from scratch. I retained the basic premise and content, but lost everything else. When I handed it over, I worried I had gone too far. But Herm’s positive response surprised me. Later, after he asked me to be the official editor for StreamTeach, which, while fairly symbolic, was still flattering, he said, “The thing I like best is that you edit my voice out. You don’t have the history I do.”
That showed Herm’s true understanding of the situation. Even if his awareness didn’t translate to moderation. For me it was a great writing experience, which was why I came to St. Louis in the first place. Herm sent me drafts and I had free reign to eliminate his voice, to turn the tortured, misunderstood visionary into the pragmatic professor spearheading a striving organization. That’s what it was behind the scenes. Just on the surface, there was so much flotsam.
That winter, my second in St. Louis, I finally understood what being a Missouri kayaker was all about. A simple, physiographic effect I little understood made summer whitewater near impossible. Deciduous trees. See, California grows evergreens like pines and junipers because in a dry climate that makes ecological sense. In the lush, subtropical Missouri summer, all the leaves take all the water from our rocky rivers and creeks. Late fall, leaves fluttered to the ground, and the trees became bare sticks that gouged the sky, their thirst quenched for another year. Give the ground a few rains to saturate, and, come November, runoff would fill the Saint for the winter paddling season. And winters in the Midwest are cold.
I cold-weather paddled in the California mountains. I have fond and not-so-fond memories of snowflakes falling across the bows of rafts, of dragging rolled boats across snow toward put-ins, of icicles hanging from riverside cliffs, and of hiking out on frozen railroad tracks in twenty degree darkness. But those were exceptions. Occasional mountain runs during early spring. In Missouri, kayaking in the mid-thirties with brain freeze from rolls and frozen feet like ice blocks in the bow of my boat, hopping around on rocks during quick breaks, and watching steam rise out through my Gore-Tex dry top (finally to see it work!) were days to look forward to. Because at least there was water. And to say no to a day of paddling might mean no paddling for who knows how long.
The death at Oil Can continued to nag at me. Throughout that second winter, I heard the story from several parties. Though it had happened over two decades before, in 1983, people described it like the previous season. No one told it the same. Some blamed Herm. Others didn’t. Some said Charlie was inexperienced. Others said the opposite. Some said Herm never should have taken Charlie to the Chain. Others contended he went of his own volition. Over the years since, I’ve tried to sort the facts from the many versions I encountered, from Herm’s wife Mary, and from Herm’s accident report provided to American Whitewater. The consensus was Charlie could roll his kayak, and he had paddled for over a year on the Saint and a few rivers in the Southeast. He had been to the Chain before with Herm.
Paddlers of the time knew Oil Can was to be respected. But the customary return route involved a risky ferry just below the feature’s boil line, an agitated zone separating downstream current from water rushing upstream to fill the hole below the dam. Perhaps they underestimated the power of the rapid, or overestimated their abilities to avoid it—maybe both. With a strong recirculation like Oil Can, once a boat crosses the boil line, it is almost inevitable it will be sucked into the hole. And that’s exactly what happened. As Herm led the ferry, he heard shouting and looked back to see Charlie caught in the recirculation zone where water came crashing down from above and rushed upward from below. A dangerous spot, where forces chaotically counteract one another, and where escape becomes difficult if not impossible. Distracted, Herm was pulled into Oil Can.
Herm tried to surf, but all he could do to keep from flipping was brace his blade against the churning water. He began to tire. Having heard one could stand on submerged rocks, Herm wet-exited. He perched on his toes just in front of the curtain of water. Charlie was ten feet away, and the men’s boats surged between them. Herm had been told the hole was weaker toward the river right side, but the currents were slowly pulling them left toward the steeper, more violent part of the hole. Herm decided to move left to talk to Charlie about a plan for escape. Pushing his boat forward, Herm encouraged Charlie to grasp it for stability. When Charlie reached out, he lost his footing, slipped, and went under. He came back up gasping for breath. Herm beckoned Charlie to follow him right, but Charlie hesitated, fully consumed with maintaining his precarious foothold on the rocks below. Herm suggested they dive under the hydraulic to escape. He tried twice, but each time he failed and resurfaced in the hole. Their strength weakening, both men were slowly being dragged toward the thundering left side of the hole. Herm persisted in urging Charlie to move, but he only responded, things don’t look good.
They were sucked under the curtain. Charlie’s boat sunk down and was spit back up. Paddles hurled through the air. The surge of water knocked Herm below the surface. He emerged, grasping the cockpit rim of his boat.
From below, Herm felt a rope slither around his legs. He dove down to unravel it, and then tried to stuff the throw bag into his kayak. Both boats caught the curtain and were shoved down and then flung upward. Herm plunged under. This time he resurfaced by Charlie’s boat. Herm’s boat was spit next to Charlie. He said he was getting tangled in the rope, and Herm offered his knife. Charlie instead dove down to work free. When he finally came back up, he looked shaken and exhausted. Charlie never spoke again.
Dusk was settling now. Herm could see fishermen and walkers along the Illinois shore, half a mile away. Herm’s warmup pants were being dragged from his legs. He struggled to keep his head above water. Charlie was pulled under again. When he resurfaced, he floated on his back passively. His limp body was pulled swiftly into the violent curtain. Charlie flipped over and over and over, recycling three times in the powerful hole. On the third recirculation, Herm could see the rope entangled on his body.
He’s not going to make it, Herm realized.
Herm focused on his own survival, his energy dwindling. He crab-walked to the right, slipping and sinking under several times. Five feet from the edge of the hole, he popped free. Too exhausted to swim, Herm drifted slowly toward the St. Louis Water Treatment Plant where he called the police. A coast guard boat later found Charlie’s body floating in an eddy, tightly wrapped in the safety line.
It was a tragic story that spoke volumes about the inherent risks of kayaking. Recirculating holes, whether from natural features or man-made dams, have the power to stop a log, boat, or paddler and hold them for as long as the river sees fit. Meanwhile, ropes are some of the most dangerous items to ever touch water. The story sounded like a horrible accident. One which might have been avoided had Charlie or Herm been more aware that day. But in all my days on the river with Herm, I had never seen him lackadaisical toward hazards. Herm always seemed to know where they were. Sure, he had some questionable lines at times. Herm was a good kayaker, not the greatest who ever paddled. But he always seemed intimately aware of where everyone was. He liked the attention. He was a cheeser. He’d slide into a play spot and surf back and forth, do 360s while beaming proudly at the others. While some found his antics showy, it never bothered me. It was just Herm being Herm. And when it was your turn to paddle into the wave, he’d shout every word of encouragement he could think of. Just like he may have inwardly encouraged himself. For Herm the excitement of whitewater was a two-way river.
But at the same time, a part of me realized only Herm knew the full story from that day. Herm was the only one with Charlie. Herm wrote the accident report. While it seemed honest and detailed, key pieces were missing, such as how Charlie ended up in the hole to begin with. And there was an aspect of Herm’s personality that was far from forthcoming.
Herm’s last day on the Saint came in my second spring in Missouri. We began on Class II-III Stouts Creek, six miles above the confluence with the Saint Francis. The rain dumped the night before. When we paddled into the Saint, the brown, gushing water looked less like the river we knew and more like violently boiling coffee with grounds swapped for sticks and logs. At 2,000 CFS—each cubic foot like a basketball tumbling by—the flow was four times what we normally paddled.
At Cat’s Paw, Herm led the way, Doc Fly followed, and I ran third. Herm dropped into the giant hole at the bottom of the main chute and flipped. The orange underside of his kayak lifted full out of the water. The boat never rolled up. Just under the surface, Herm was struggling and twisting. His paddle swept from his hands. He wet-exited and clutched the side of his kayak in swift current. Doc Fly also flipped, but he hit his combat roll, and was getting his bearings. I shivered and clutched my paddle as I plunged into the hole. I held my angle through the pile and flushed out the other side. I made a beeline for Herm. He was struggling to drag the boat through the current toward the bank. He wasn’t getting anywhere fast. Realizing this, Herm cast off his boat, which floated downriver before being pushed into an eddy by Doc Fly.
Herm swore and huffed as he swam. He grabbed the back loop on my boat, and I towed him to shore. As he stepped onto the rocks, his legs shivered. He slipped and fell. I realized that Herm had only worn swimming trunks and a thin paddling top. Meanwhile the air temp was cool and the water was below fifty degrees. I was sweating from my wetsuit and many layers I had opted to wear after following the lead of the others that cold morning. I asked Herm what happened.
“I . . . uh. I hit some . . . so-so-something,” he slurred. Herm was shivering uncontrollably. The river behind us was churning. It was a frothing mess of brown water with almost every rock completely covered. The likelihood that he hit something in the main channel was practically nil. Using my tow rope, I retrieved Herm’s kayak, while he rested and re-warmed with the others on the bank. Afterward we cautiously paddled out, portaging the old dam breach, the final major rapid. I again asked Herm what happened in the parking lot. He said he got pinned up against something. He refused to go any further. It made me realize that with Herm you never could be sure you were getting the full story.
Herm didn’t make it back to the Saint that season. He said he was working hard on StreamTeach and couldn’t get away. As summer arrived, I got out to Chain every few weeks, and we’d paddle there. But I was seeing less and less of Herm. One day in October, Herm asked me for the first of two favors. He’d gotten an idea from a recent swim across the Hudson River to raise awareness for water quality in New York.
At sixty-four years old—clad in flippers, climbing helmet, webbed gloves, neoprene wetsuit, and paddling top—Herm stomped across the Illinois shore, just downstream from the Trolls, and waded into the water.
Herm swam out into the Mississippi.
The river was high that fall after spring and summer floods. I paddled my kayak just upstream of him, keeping one eye on Herm’s labored breaths and the other eye on approaching logs and woody debris.
Every hundred feet, Herm would tread water, glance around, and ask, “How are we doing?”
Worried the sixty-degree water temp might eventually become a factor, I encouraged him to keep a strong cross-current angle toward the right bank. With the Arch glistening in the background, with the Chain of Rocks rapids he had called home for three decades just up-stream, Herm made it across alright. In forty minutes. We reviewed the photos Doc Fly had shot from the bridge, and celebrated with beers in the Missouri take-out lot, where soon Herm’s whitewater park might rise.
That was the last day I saw Herm in the water. The following January, Herm called me for the second favor.
“I was wondering if you would take over the newsletter for the foreseeable future,” he said, business first, as always. “I’ve gotten some pretty bad medical news.”
I listened closely.
“I have a pretty aggressive form of cancer in my liver. Fairly advanced.”
I was stunned. This man swam across the great Mississippi River only months before without getting a scratch.
“I’m going to fight it, and I think I can beat it. But the chemo is going to make me pretty weak for a while, so I’m going to need to delegate some responsibility with StreamTeach.”
“Of course,” I said immediately.
My memories of Herm from that day forward are vivid and fleeting. I can still see the mental snapshots of how quickly his condition deteriorated. I dropped off some work one day at his home. He had returned from a chemo session. He looked depleted, sitting in a darkened room, with his head hung low, a downtrodden look pulling his face. Mary took the package. I said a hello, to which he replied with a slow, small wave.
Other times he seemed to be doing better. I came to the hospital one day to review some documents. He insisted the chemo was working. The cancer was regressing. Those good days in March led me to believe that Herm, like the tenacious paddler he was, would beat the cancer.
I was driving back from the Saint with Doc Fly when Paul called. In a tearful voice, he explained Herm had been moved to a hospice. A few hours later we saw him. It was hard to believe how quickly he had turned. He had been thin for weeks, but that night, in the hospital bed—with machines buzzing and lights blinking, with morphine coursing through him, with IVs snaking in and out of him—he was so thin that his lips receded into his mouth, becoming only thin red lines.
He struggled to make eye contact. His words slurred like I had never heard. So much worse than the day on the river when I feared he was going hypothermic. Herm spoke laboriously with Paul about their Cardinals-Cubs rivalry. We talked about the newsletter and what needed to be done to make the whitewater park a reality. True to form, he devoted several minutes to a rambling troubleshoot for the website, referencing HTML code language and a toll-free helpline. And finally, through choppy gasps, he talked about how the Saint, the coming weekend, would be at a perfect beginner level for Paul.
Paul and I sat there with him in his final night, and Herm, ever the guide that he was, slowly and painfully talked us through our upcoming run that weekend, telling us the best spots to eddy out, the best vantages to scout from, the best line for Paul to take on each rapid. In our final moments together, he led us down the river one last time.
Herm died later that night.
For years, Herm dismissed symptoms of cancer as acid reflux. He hid the fact from everyone that on the rare occasions he flipped his kayak—something he avoided at all costs—he would vomit into the river. Mary told me this at the funeral. I’d had no idea. His symptoms, long misattributed, had surely affected him that day he’d flipped at Cat’s Paw and not rolled up.
In Herm’s final days, the remaining members of StreamTeach—his widow Mary, a local couple who sat on the board of directors, the engineer, the architect, and myself—promised to do our best to make the park a reality. For a while, it seemed like it might happen. Donations were given in Herm’s honor. Meetings were held between our engineer and various St. Louis city representatives. Then a conflict developed with the site. The lake was managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation. What seemed like a minor sticking point—the relocation of one shallow, seldom-used lake in their urban fishing program to an adjacent part of the property—became a deal-breaker. They required any loss of floodplain storage be compensated on-site, which simply wasn’t possible in the space allotted. Inwardly, we all felt it was the loss of Herm that doomed the project.
A year and a half after Herm passed away, StreamTeach dissolved. The remaining funds were donated to the St. Louis chapter of Team River Runner, which provides whitewater experiences to veterans of the U.S. Armed Services.
Herm will be remembered by Missouri kayakers for his larger than life—often polarizing—personality. For his first descents in aluminum canoes on many of the whitewater runs in the state, of which there are not many, but there are some good ones. Following his death, an online tribute unfolded on the MWA forum, where area paddlers expressed condolences, even while acknowledging the differences they’d had with Herm.
I can’t say I knew the man best. I can’t say I knew him fully. But I came to know him well. And I liked him. For all his faults—some were certainly real, some were certainly embellished—Herm was simply a person. Yes, he under-dressed for the Saint one day and swam. He kept to himself the serious pain he felt each time he flipped. Maybe Herm never told the whole story about being stuck in Oil Can with Charlie. Though he never said it outright, during Charlie’s chaotic final moments, it was likely Herm’s rope that came loose and suffocated his friend. But it was still an accident. From his cautiousness on the river during the time I paddled with him, I know Herm bore the pain of that day.
Herm Smith was an old man who swam across the Mississippi River. He believed if he could, lots of people would. In that way he might get recognition for StreamTeach and river restoration and, sure, himself. It was Herm who would shout from eddies, “Watch your edge!” while Paul’s head would spin, his edge would drop, and then he’d flip. It was Herm that kept Doc Fly grinning after his fish counts. Herm, who drank baby eight-ounce Coronas after paddling and yet still offered to share. Herm, who sheepishly froze in place when I caught him dancing in his seat to techno music during a shuttle ride—only to restart his gyrations with a self-conscious grin. And it was Herm’s voice that was with us on the river the weekend after he died, a trip that fittingly saw a helter-skelter but hazard-free swim after a surprise flip on an eddy line.
“Keep your edge up!”
We always try.
Among Herm Smith and those who knew him, there were no good guys, there were no bad guys. Just paddlers being people in Missouri.
Mike Bezemek is an avid outdoor adventurer, with a dozen years of experience in whitewater rafting and kayaking, mountain biking, backpacking, mountaineering, and skiing—as both a commercial guide and a weekend warrior. He teaches creative writing and composition at Washington University in St. Louis, where he’s served as Editor-in-Chief of Arch Literary Journal. His work is published or forthcoming in Canoe & Kayak Magazine, Hobart: Another Literary Journal, St. Louis Magazine, and American Whitewater, among other places.
© Mike Bezemek