Within some of the deepest and most remote river valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, an extraordinary scene unfolds season after season. The few souls that practice this niche discipline of whitewater kayaking are known as steep creekers. These gradient hunters gather beside campfires in small tribes while studying topographic maps, weather reports, and river gauges in search of the next elusive whitewater gem. To outsiders, this enigmatic sport draws curiosity through the one lens that allows a glimpse into this otherwise inaccessible world: whitewater photography.
Photoboating combines the high-stakes disciplines of whitewater action sports photography with kayaking in remote river settings. This unique art form represents the marriage of my two biggest passions and has but one clear-cut goal: nail the shot.
I began my career over a decade ago on the class III James River in Richmond, VA, dreaming of one day capturing images of paddlers navigating the most obscure class V whitewater runs in the Appalachians. Years later, I was given the opportunity to train under the best photoboaters in the business on the Upper Yough in Friendsville, MD, and spent three seasons honing my craft in the hopes of exploring the legendary creeks I had only read about in American Whitewater descriptions.
This training involved both physical and psychological challenges. Photoboating, it turns out, is a very lonely job. What many don’t realize is that in order to nail that perfect waterfall shot, we must stay far enough ahead of the group to be able to get into position. This means we must run the drop first, and we must run it alone. There are no safety boaters nearby to help clean up the yard sale of gear should a swim occur, and with thousands of dollars of camera gear stashed between our legs, the only option is a perfect line.
As the kayaking crew waits in an eddy above the horizon line for their opportunity to be posterized for social media and magazine covers, we photoboaters are crawling through thick mountain laurel traps, taking sharp spruce branches to the face, and awkwardly scrambling over wet rocks in order to get in position for the perfect angle and exposure—all in a matter of seconds. It is a high-pressure situation; calm nerves and a steady hand are keys to success.
Years of shooting raft trips down the Upper Youghiogheny allowed me to craft the anarchy of these moments into an instance of controlled chaos. When a locally famous guide expertly maneuvers a raft full of paying customers downstream through world-famous rapids, there is but one chance to nail that moment.
That pressure ramps up even more when trying to capture the perfect boof shot. In kayaking, boofing is the art of propelling yourself off a drop in the river with enough speed and force to keep the bow of your boat above the surface of the water upon landing. Essentially, you are making your kayak bellyflop. When done correctly, the impact of the hull creates the satisfying “boof” sound. This onomatopoeia is the signature move in whitewater kayaking, and capturing the perfect boof in mid-flight is the shot every photoboater wants to nail. Having talented kayakers for camera fodder is of great benefit, turning the boof shot into a team effort.
Many disciplines of photography, such as macro or astrophotography, require precise camera settings, patience, and preparation before heading into the field. However, I’m extremely ADHD and have a habit of acting first and thinking later. I consider photoboating to be the most ADHD-friendly discipline of photography because preparation and set-up simply don’t exist on the river, where everything happens at breakneck speeds.
It’s a shoot-on-the-fly scenario, and the continuous nature of a steep whitewater run means there’s very little time to compose not only your photos, but also yourself. The steeper the creek, the faster and harder that constant push becomes. This incessant flow tests the mind and its boundaries of safety, fear, and composure. It was in the crucible of that composure, this trial by water, that I was able to create specific photography techniques that I utilize in the field to this day.
We often say that solo boating is good for the soul. While it can be dangerous, it is a quintessentially ethereal experience to paddle whitewater alone. The gorges we frequent throughout West Virginia are Tolkienesque worlds; having the ability to capture them forms a deep connection with the river and its surrounding landscapes. It is the art of kayaking that allowed us to discover this world, and taking it all in completely alone in a class V river environment is addictive.
Above all else, photoboating is important to me because it’s a way to give back to a sport and community that has given so much to my life. I am a history buff, and photography is a documentation of those hallowed whitewater moments that try and escape us as the years flow by.
Photographers are thieves of time—we steal moments that would otherwise pass the world by as just a memory. Having the ability to capture our friends in mid-flight, in a symbiotic dance with nature, gracefully falling off rocks and careening through water, is a magical gift. Creating those images is our art, and the passion that comes with that art is what makes life wonderful. Photography has been one of the greatest gifts of my life, and I cherish every moment I’m able to spend—and capture—with my camera, my kayak, and the river.
Justin Harris owns Mountain River Media and lives in Canaan Valley with his wife Marcie. He spends his workweek photographing Ohio resorts so he can return to West Virginia to live the dirtbag kayaker and ski bum lifestyle.