Jim Snyder’s head, sporting a helmet and diving goggles, quietly emerges from the crystal-clear water of the Cheat River. Next come his hands, each strapped to a ping pong-sized paddle. His boat stays just under the surface, its svelte shape distorted by boils of water rising from the depths.
At first glance, he appears as some sort of bizarre river creature until a grin stretches ear-to-ear. He catches an eddy, drifts his way upstream, spins his boat into the current, and, raising his arms to the sky, returns to the blue realm from whence he came.
Snyder’s breathtaking dance with the mighty Cheat is known among river folk as squirt boating. There are progressively niche-ier versions of most adventure sports, each level embedded within the next like some sort of radical Russian nesting doll. Now, imagine the most specialized version of whitewater paddling. If you look way out beyond it to the furthest fringe, you’ll find squirt boating—and Jim Snyder.
Modern squirt boating’s origins trace back to the early 1980s, when clever C1 canoe racers in D.C. started squirting—leaning back, submerging their sterns, and shooting forward—to sneak gates on slalom courses. Kayakers soon picked up the move, finding holes and rapids where they could get their crafts to go perpendicular to the water and spin around.
According to Snyder, Friendsville, Maryland-based kayaker Jess Whittemore was the first paddler to consistently get his boat to go completely vertical and fall back on an eddy line. “Jesse didn’t stop with head-high squirts, he founded a lot of great techniques that are used today by thousands of people,” Snyder says. Some of those moves have entertaining names: splats, meltdowns, and blasting holes. “He was pushing the limits of everything everywhere that he could.”
Snyder, an ex-raft guide who lives in Albright, is in his 46th year as sole proprietor of RivrStyx, where he’s a master craftsman of elegant wooden paddles. He’s also a predominant squirt boat designer who’s been crafting boats with various shapes and materials for over 30 years. His paddles and boats are in use around the globe and his wait list is long, so don’t get any ideas.
Although Snyder doesn’t like to take credit for much, he does have one claim to fame—he was the first paddler to do a cartwheel in a kayak on flat water. Snyder’s famous move took place near Albright on the calm pools above the Cheat Canyon. “That was a big turning point in the sport,” he says.
Snyder soon started designing boats specifically for squirting. Sleek profiles, high-density materials, and custom bumps to fit over knees and feet were employed to sink the crafts further underwater. “There were a couple years where all we were doing was chest-deep moves; nobody in the big boats could do much yet,” Snyder says. “It took another level of progression before people started actually going underwater.”
Magical Mystery Tour
That progression happened in the mid-80s with the advent of the mystery move—a intentional plunge into a current that pulls the squirt boater deep and keeps them underwater for as long as the current or their lungs permit. To accomplish this, paddlers look for dynamic areas on a river where underwater features create a large downstream current flowing against an upstream eddy. “We’re basically trying to play on the interface between the opposing currents,” Snyder says. “We call it roaming the Realm.”
Being voluntarily sucked underwater and held in stasis doesn’t appeal to most, so what’s the draw? For Snyder, it’s all about what he calls the appetite. “Look at it as three-dimensional puzzle solving,” Snyder says. “Even if the currents are only dropping two inches, it’s enough to power you into a really deep mystery.”
Progressive squirt boat designs in the late 80s enabled 10-second mystery moves. With an insatiable appetite to go deeper, Snyder and his crew started finding new venues, like Fascination Alley on the Cheat River and Halls of Karma on the New, that were powerful enough for long mysteries.
Although Snyder has whirled his way through 25-second drops, top-tier squirt boaters have recorded mystery moves up to a minute and four seconds. “It’s a little scary when you’re going that long because you’re trying to be cool and calm, you’re also not sure that the physics are going to bring you back out,” he says. “You have to do something to get back out from those really deep realms, which uses energy, oxygen, and time.”
Collectively, mystery move aficionados are endearingly referred to as zombies. Snyder offers up several reasons why, the most head-turning being hypoxia: when a region of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply.
During a long and deep mystery move, the brain becomes starved of oxygen, resulting in what Snyder describes as a trance-like state where thoughts and movements slow down. “You don’t really feel like talking to anybody and just want to go get the next mystery,” he says.
Coupled with pressure, things start to get a little weird. “It messes with your mind because it gets real dark and the goggles squeeze into your face,” he says. “Your boat compresses on your legs, and you really don’t know where you’re going, you’re like a leaf in a storm. By the time you get out of your boat, you can’t walk very well, you kind of stumble around all bleary eyed.”
Simply put, the squirt boat world is small—small enough to fit under a 40-foot by 60-foot tent. In a recent poll, Snyder tallied 200 active squirt boaters globally, which, as a percentage of the world population, is 2.6 x 10-6. “There’s no money it for anybody,” Snyder says with a chuckle.
Most of the zombies know one another and regularly travel to get deep with each other. In 2019, Snyder completed his 27th trip to a gathering on the Toyokawa River in Japan. The International Canoe Federation (ICF) hosts the Freestyle World Championship each year, featuring a squirt boating competition as a subset of its larger competitions. The Mystery World Championships is the prime gathering for the U.S. scene. The winner chooses the next year’s venue; the 2020 Worlds are slated for Maine.
The epicenter of Snyder’s universe is Fascination Alley, a magical spot on the Cheat Narrows where a river-wide barricade of boulders constricts the river as it flows into a deep, Olympic-sized pool. When flows are low in peak summer, the Alley’s clear waters take on a gorgeous hue. “You can see every fish that’s down there, see every rock,” Snyder says. “It’s truly an amazing experience, it’s like being in a fishbowl.”
The Endless Dance
Rose Wall is a semi-local squirt boater and close friend of Snyder’s. Hailing from Michigan, Wall started kayaking eight years ago while attending college in Baltimore. Now, Wall pays the bills as an engineer for a robotics company half the year. The other half is spent in—and under—water, pursuing her paddling passion in West Virginia, the Grand Canyon, and Chile.
Wall is the current women’s squirt boating world champion. She won gold after bagging two 17-second mystery moves on the Sort River in Spain at the 2019 ICF Freestyle World Championship. Wall’s longest mystery move clocks in at 40 seconds and took place in Gemini, a deep mystery venue on Oregon’s Willamette River. While others have stayed down longer, few possess the athletic prowess and grace she exhibits when entranced by the flow.
Underwater video footage by local photographer Gabe DeWitt shows Wall effortlessly spinning her boat like a corkscrew, her arms and hands slicing through the current with the surgical precision and intention of an interpretive dancer. “It’s one of the only times in life that I’m totally present in what I’m doing,” Wall says. “It’s sensory overload. You’re using your whole body and can feel where the currents are on your skin. The sunbeams filter through the water, all the bubbles are reflecting the light, it’s really entrancing.”
At its core, a mystery move is an interpretive dance. To go deep and stay there, a squirt boater must be able to read and interpret the complex fluid dynamics of moving water. Whirling currents, eddies, eddy fences, and spiraling strings of bubbles offer elements through which an individual may enact this ephemeral pas de deux—their partner, of course, being the relentless flow of water.
Behind the Shots
Gabe DeWitt, a Morgantown-based photographer and artist, quickly became renowned for his cutting-edge squirt boating photography following a 2016 assignment for Nature Conservancy Magazine and has been obsessed with the Realm ever since. So, how does he get those shots?
“Every time I go underwater it’s like a game. How long can I stay down? How long do I get to play this time? I can currently stay down a little over two minutes if I’m not stressing my muscles. I slowly exhale underwater to keep my heartrate down. I count prime numbers to distract my conscious mind.”
“I’m a climber and love to climb around on rocks underwater. I stabilize myself in the current and control the camera with one hand by bracing it against my shoulder. There are secondary and tertiary flows in the current that can you lock you in place. It’s like being Superman in this obstacle course gauntlet with people flying by.”
“It’s beautiful how dramatic the lighting is, there’s a lot of dynamic light and juxtaposition with the surface and flow of the water. Light diminishes rapidly once it hits water; blue is the only wavelength that makes it down. You have to do a lot of work in postproduction to rebalance the light.”
“I used a GoPro at first but invested in an Outex underwater camera housing that allowed me one-handed use of my DSLR camera. A good pair of low-profile free-diving googles treated with anti-fogging solution is crucial. I have a wetsuit with weights for when I really wanna sink. I wear river sandals as a foot entrapment is ever-present on my mind.”
Check out DeWitt’s work: www.wv-art.com
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors. He’s spent countless hours swimming at Fascination Alley, but has not yet worked up the courage nor the lung capacity to strap himself into a squirt boat.