Eric Bartl, a kayaker chasing the thrill

Eric Bartl on the river in his kayak. Photo by Sarah Ruhlen, WCU student.

Eric Bartl on the river in his kayak. Photo by Sarah Ruhlen, WCU student.

The story was updated Nov. 20 for clarifications (in italics). 

Eric Bartl, 22, is a junior at Western Carolina University who has been kayaking since he was a kid and now loves chasing the white water thrill.

His parents were both very active and pushed him to do the same. He grew up in Ohio and all over the place because they traveled a lot.

“I was hiking the Grand Canyon at age 7,” Bartl said. “I tried a lot of things, but what I liked most was being in the water.”

He said his parents have always been supportive of him and pushed him to paddle. “When I started running more waterfalls that were bigger, my mom became a bit more hesitant, but she still supported me,” Bartl said.

He went to New River Academy, a private high school specifically designed for kayakers. As Bartl explained, the school was based out of West Virginia but it was mobile – with their two 15 passenger vans they traveled all over the east cost including Ontario and Quebec. They also went to other countries like Chile in the winter time. And he kayaked a lot, and competed a lot.

After high school, Bartl took a year off to decide what his next move would be.

“I was convinced I was not going to college,” Bartl said. All he wanted to do was paddle for the rest of his life and find a job where he could do that.

During this year he participated in a similar program to his high school experience called Patagonia Study Abroad Bartl realized there were classes he was interested in for which he could go to college. He spent six months paddling in Chile and got interested in geohydrology.

Bartl racing on the river. Photo by Sarah Ruhlen.

Bartl racing on the river. Photo by Sarah Ruhlen.

“It’s about water and how it flows. I’m learning about environmental work and protecting rivers right now,” Bartl said.

For him, as he said,Western Carolina was a perfect match.

“Western North Carolina is like a mecca for white water kayakers,” Bartl said adding that he loves that he is able to go to school and go paddling four days a week.

He explained that WNC has many options for different rivers with different difficulties all within a short drive.

Fellow kayaker and WCU sophomore, Michael Ferraro agreed.

“The southeast in general is great for kayaking. The general public may not be aware, but once you get into kayaking you realize there are few places like this,” Ferraro added.

As Ferraro explained it was the mountains that created steep creeks with fast whitewater that make this area great.

“There are rivers around here for everyone. You can develop your skills and become a really great kayaker without ever leaving the state,” Ferraro said.

See Eric Bartl in action.

Bartl said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about kayaking he loves so much but he said he believes it’s the thrill of it all that keeps bringing him back.

“It’s the adrenalin. We’re all addicted to the trill. There is nothing like being at the lip of the waterfall and feeling yourself go into free fall,” Bartl explained.

Ferraro said, “What I enjoy most about kayaking is the places it takes you.”

He said being in a boat going down a river, he is able to go to gorges and other places he really enjoys that would be inaccessible or very difficult to get to by foot.

“Kayaking gives you the chance to experience nature in its truest sense,” Ferraro said.

Bartl has had the opportunity to experience paddling in all kinds of places but he said his favorite place for now is Pucon, Chile.

“This area has probably 30 waterfalls to run. It was a great place to run and progress my skills,” he said. “It sticks out in my mind the most because that was when I first started to learn to run waterfalls.”

Kayakers say “running waterfalls” to describe a course in a river they complete with a waterfall of some kind in the course.

Although Bartl loves kayaking, he is very much aware of the risks that are involved every time he gets in the water.

On a trip to Chile, just after he turned 18, Bartl experienced a run that put the risks into perspective. He and his team were running a 60-foot waterfall. It was a 30-foot slide that let to a 30-foot waterfall.

The river was gray from a volcano that had just erupted. A local said the river was sick and they could be seriously hurt from running it. “People always say that though and its up to us to determine if we really think the risk is too high,” Bartl said.

At the base of the waterfall there was a cave the kayakers had to avoid.

“I went off the waterfall and when I got to the bottom, my boat and I were sucked into the cave. I was underwater for 20 seconds,” Bartl said. He was not sure how it happened but he was able to climb out of the cave. Bartl said there were hand holds perfectly placed for him to be able to climb out of the cave.

His boat did not come out of the cave for another hour.

After this event he took a two-year break from running waterfalls and as he added “stuck to different disciplines within the sport like freestyle kayaking and slalom.” (He did not stop kayaking all together as we said previously ) He said like in any sport, when you have an accident it scares you and shakes you up. But it was not enough to keep him away from the river too long.

Bartl competing in local competition, Green Race. Photo by Annie Bartl.

Bartl competing in local competition, Green Race. Photo by Annie Bartl.

Bartl has not slowed down with competitions and fun days on the river. He recently competed in North Carolina’s annual Green River narrow race and finished in the top ten.

Both, Bartl and Ferraro, said they enjoy being apart of the community of kayakers in this area.

“The community is comprised of all different skill levels. Its pretty tight knit. It’s a small community and everyone supports each other in developing their skills,” Ferraro said.

Bartl said he loves talking about this sport and he gets all kinds of responses from people about his kayaking.

“A lot of people say “Oh I paddle too,” but they don’t realize until I show them videos or pictures what it is I actually do,” Bartl added.

Ferraro thinks everyone should give kayaking a try. He said kayaking isn’t just for thrill seekers and that there are lots of different water sports to get invoked with and it doesn’t just have to be kayaking.

Bartl encourages anyone who wants to get into kayaking to take it slow and find a good group of experienced people to paddle with. He also said take advantage of everything this area has and the trips and classes Western Carolina offers.