Easy Portage: An easy portage of the Jim Bean Distillery dam on the Elkhorn in central Kentucky.

By Tom Schlichter

Sidney Stuffle didn’t have a lot of help getting started with kayaking. Like a lot of people without friends or family who take to the water, the 26-year old from Tucson, AZ, had to mostly figure it out himself.

“That’s all part of the fun, I guess,” laughs Stuffle, who after just three years in the sport is already on his second inflatable kayak. “There’s not a big kayaking community out here in Arizona, so I didn’t have anyone to warn me to avoid the rough water starting out, either. As you might imagine, the first few trips were a little hairy before I got the hang of it.”

Salt River AZ: Looking over the front of Stuffle’s 330 sport kayak down Salt River Canyon on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. This beautiful Class III run is his favorite in the Grand Canyon State.

Since then, it’s been non-stop fun for the affable outdoorsman. To get his feet wet, Stuffle explored the typical barriers to entering the kayak game. “I wanted something safe, affordable and easy to transport,” he said. “With an engineering background, I could tell the Sea Eagle line was well constructed. A little more research revealed they were also the safest, most affordable kayaks I could fit in a car. I quickly decided on the Sea Eagle 330 because it felt sturdy when I got in and could be put in a carry bag, hauled to the water and inflated in only 10 or 15 minutes.”

A serious hiker, Stuffle had often focused on pushes to the tops of mountains and high peaks. Eventually, however, he realized he’d rather float through the valleys. Perhaps that explains his favorite stretch of kayaking water.

Big South Fork: Stuffle’s paddling buddy, Warren Maddox exits one of the more relaxing riffles of Big South Fork Gorge in his Sea Eagle 330 Sport kayak. This location is the continuous ¾-gorge on the Big South Fork (1100 CFS). Lower on the river is a long class 2 canoe camping stretch with comparable scenery and excellent bass fishing that Stuffle hopes to paddle in the future.

“I really love the Salt River Canyon right here in Arizona,” he says enthusiastically. “There are 2,000 foot vertical walls on either side and you are on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation. It’s awesome terrain; secluded once you get going. It’s on some of those stretches where I actually learned to kayak.”

According to Stuffle, the Sea Eagle 330 is a ton of fun on the white water and big wave trains you’ll find over the first few miles of this stretch, known as the Mule Shoe. Inflated to 1 psi, the two-person, 11’ 2”, 26-pound inflatable “bends with the waves” to stay on top the whole time. “It actually gives you the feeling of doing ‘wheelies’ at some points. It’s an adrenalin trip for sure,” he says.

His new single-person Sea Eagle 300x Explorer, by comparison, measures 9’ 10”, weighs 30 pounds and inflates to 3.2-psi. “That one is more rigid,” explains Stuffle, “It rides lower in the water and absolutely punches through the waves and holes. It has sixteen self-bailing valves which are critical for runs that see continuous whitewater. Without those, you would be paddling a bathtub down the river after the first big hole.”

The beautiful Elwha river has recovered after two of the largest dam removal projects in United States History (see: DamNation, 2014 documentary). These shots are from the Madison Falls access where Stuffle went on to solo run the class IV+ rapid through the old dam site. “

To get the most out of either of these Sea Eagle kayaks, Stuffle cautions it is important to know which flows are safest wherever you go. Try to stay in the big waves and the main flows as much as possible, he suggests. The deepest water will help you avoid a lot of potential hazards like submerges trees, bridge pillars and large boulders. “Don’t take on more than you can handle or enjoy, either,” states Stuffle. “I start to feel pretty wet after 10 miles so I like to keep my kayak ventures less than that, but I have paddled up to 22 miles in my Sea Eagle 330.”

Earlier this year Stuffle camped on the Verde River, a class 3 – 4, Wild and Scenic River in Arizona. “It had plenty of rough passages,” noted Stuffle, “and I chose my 300 Explorer for that trip. It performed great – even though it was packed full of camping gear.”

On the beautiful Elwha River, Stuffle went on a solo run through class IV+ rapids passing though the site of a removed dam. “The 300x Explorer kayak punched every hole and breaker I went into,” he said. “The kayak would fill with water, then drain right away through the 16 self-bailing drain valves. Few people have run this rapid. I’m thrilled Sea Eagle made it possible for me.”

Stuffle also recently kayaked the Elwha, Hoh, and Queets rivers in Olympic Peninsula National Park. “It was so special to kayak through the old Elwha Dam site,” he relates. “This Class IV+ rapid really put me to the test, but the 300X Explorer Kayak was incredibly stable! I took out on the beach and carried the boat to the little Toyota Yaris I rented. What other kayak can you put in a Yaris?” he asked. Stuffle added that Alaska Airlines, Delta, and Allegiant were all really cool about the kayak, too. They let him carry it on as a normal checked bag, no questions asked. If you are taking your Sea Eagle on a flight, he suggests using two bags: one just for the kayak and one for your helmet, lifejacket, paddle and other gear.

Catching a glimpse of local wildlife can be one of the highlights of any kayak adventure and Stuffle has seen some interesting creatures in his travels. In Washington State, he came across numerous beaver and otter, then found king (chinook) salmon staging at the river mouth. Closer to home, on the Mule Shoe, Stuffle has spotted bald eagles, huge mule deer and a big male coati – a raccoon-like animal he said probably weighed over 40 pounds.

Future runs on Stuffle’s wish list include a trip downstream of Big South Fork Gorge on the Tennessee-Kentucky border that offers a 30-mile canoe camping run and some great fishing possibilities. He’d also like to kayak the Grand Canyon, but hasn’t been selected in the yearly drawing for permits.

“I’m looking forward to some family kayaking down the line, too” adds the paddling enthusiast. “My wife is pregnant and we have a young son, so I’m mostly getting out on my own these days. I can’t wait for them to come along.”

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