Tuesday, January 6, 2015


Written in memory of Xavier Engle who drowned November 30, 2014 kayaking near Seattle.

"In his passing there has gone out of my life an association that has detracted nothing, and added much that was rich and fine."  - Julius Stone, 1910.

Xavier Engle was the brightest of lights. His face seemed most relaxed under a broad grin which he wore for hours at a time. During the moments when his face assumed a more pensive posture, his grin was only seconds away, a natural reflex of his face that the smallest of sparks could ignite. His grin could not be extinguished; in the darkest of hours, surrounded by dour expressions his grin was steadfast, buoyed by boundless optimism. Xavier's optimism, just like his grin, was unassailable. Quietly and humbly, he went big in all facets of his life. 

"Xavi" was a gifted and natural paddler who's technique emanated calm and composure even in the most ferocious rapids. During his short paddling career he tackled the hardest rivers in North America - including multiple descents of the Middle Kings and Grand Canyon of the Stikine (only known springtime descent). He was an expedition paddler at heart; tough, humble, and careful. He holds the record of most vertical feet descended in a kayak in one day - racking up a boggling 11,900 feet and 105 miles of class V paddling after completing 7 North Fork Payette laps in one day. He paddled all over the world including Siberia, Africa, South America, and New Zealand. 

Many paddlers of Xavier's caliber are one-dimensional, kayaking at such a high level can push many facets of life aside. Not "Xavi". A world traveler fluent in two languages he graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in cellular biochemistry, and was in his third year of medical school at the time of his death. Unassuming and humble, Xavier juggled med school, a four year relationship, and kayaking with the same poise and skill that carried him through huge rapids. While the rest of us struggled balancing careers, relationships, and kayaking, Xavier did it all with his typical grin. He was just as excited explaining his passion for medicine as he was talking about his latest adventure on the river. He was a rubric cube of energy, excited and inspired by every facet of life. Ten years younger than me, he was an inspiration; a paragon of optimism, energy, and joy. 

I met Xavier in the spring of 2010 just before the snow-melt, when he was an Emerging Infectious Disease Fellow for the CDC in Fort Collins. Kayaking is ephemeral in the Rocky Mountains and a dependable partner is gold. It took us two weeks to become close friends. Nearly every day, as the Poudre awoke from its winter dormancy, we paddled. Every day the river was higher and the rapids we'd run the day before that much harder. 10 years older than Xavier I'd often express hesitation, which he would acknowledge grinning broadly, his infectious optimism replacing fear with inspiration. 

The snowbanks were deep in the high country and the water kept rising. We starting walking some of the harder rapids, but kept pushing ourselves to run the "lower narrows", a long rapid choked with rocks and holes. The day the river peaked it was cloudy and overcast. I was camping with some friends and Xavier showed up early so he could kayak before work. The Lower Narrows was ferocious, a liquid freight train of brown water exploding in a every direction. As we scouted, cars began to pull over to watch, adding to our trepidation. We climbed in our boats; mine a look of grim determination, Xavier grinning broadly, and rode the freight train to the bottom.

That summer I was determined to run the Middle Kings in California, something I'd dreamed about for years. Xavier wanted to go before the words left my mouth. All summer we kept pushing each other; trail runs, paddling loaded boats, practicing rolls in class III, all to beat of our war cry "Middle Kings Training!" 

Finally, in late July, we were there. Xavier broke his paddle 1 mile into the 13 mile hike to the river. We offered our breakdown paddles but Xavier refused, choosing instead to paddle one of the most difficult runs in the world with his breakdown paddle which had no feather. It's was akin to skiing Denali on an old pair of skinny skis. "Xavi's" infamous smile might have disappeared for a few seconds, but it was back before anyone noticed as he shrugged off the setback and continued towards Bishop Pass. 

 Photo by Nate Klema

The Middle Kings was as difficult as we had hoped, and pushed us to our limits. Late on the second day we reached the "waterfall gorge" - a famous part of the run. I was shattered but worried I'd be filled with regret if I portaged. Would I ever make it back? Xavier shouldered his boat quietly and, unaccompanied, started walking - a decision I envied when I blew my line in the first rapid. "Xavi" was bold but never reckless. Paddling for him was as it should be, a personal challenge free of hubris or ego. 

Xavier moved away after that summer and I saw him the next spring, in Anchorage, as I was preparing for a climbing trip to the Alaska Range. A selfless friend, Xavier loaned us his car for errands and did anything he could to help us prepare. 

Later that summer we paddled the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone in Wyoming. Any allusion I'd had about being a mentor was soon shattered as I wondered if I could keep up. Xavier had taken any expedition boating tutalage I'd offered and never looked back. That summer he was on an expedition boating binge that I could only dream of - Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone, Devils Postpile, Middle Kings. Not only was he younger and stronger, he also liked a little a bit of a disadvantage, paddling the Clark's Fork with ridiculously heavy boat packed with full jars of mayonnaise, mustard, and lunch meat he'd obtained from a rafting company in Idaho. When I pointed out how his packing could have been more strategic, "Xavi" just smiled and quipped about how it helped him "train."  

When we reached "Upper Deliberation Corner" - the most difficult rapid on the run - I could only see the hazards, and not the path through. "Xavi", brimming with optimism and wearing his ever present smile joined me as we held ropes for the first in our group to give it a shot. We were the last two to go and as we took a final look I kept pointing out the problems with each of the moves, scared and fearful. "Xavi" was relaxed and brimming with excitement. His optimism and joy were contagious, I rose to the challenge and once again "Xavi" followed me as I paddled into the maelstrom. I've been unable to muster the courage to run it since.  

My last kayaking trip with Xavier was the next summer, when we ran the Clarks Fork for a second time at high water. "Xavi" was starting med school that fall and the first night the three of us (Xavier, Rolf Kelly, and I) sat around the fire talking about life. Xavier told Rolf and I (both over 9 years his senior) about his dreams and aspirations in medicine. When the two of us had been his age we'd cared about little else than paddling and like circling vultures we probed and prodded for any sign of doubt or dread about the sacrifice that lay ahead of him. "Xavi", eternally optimistic, wouldn't take the bait. His determination and dedication to medicine was unshakeable. He'd often call after starting med school, just as excited about his studies as he was about his next adventure. 

The previous summer Xavier had learned how to fish with a hand line tied around a water bottle but with limited success. Like all things, it wasn't long before he was proficient. On the second day it was raining when we got to camp. "Xavi" spent the afternoon fishing in the rain, happily out-fishing Oliver "Trout Slayer" Deshler. We feasted on trout that night, sipped whiskey and enjoyed the comfort of close friends in one of the most spectacular places on earth. Living large, Xavier style.

 Water Bottle Fishing in the Rain

Thank you Xavier, for sharing some of the richest moments of my life.  You were an inspiration to all who knew you and it was an honor to call you a friend. May I be reminded of your incredible energy and love of life every day. The ripple of your short life spread far, may it continue to spread. May the memory of your life inspire us to boldly tackle audacious challenges, sacrifice selflessly, and do it all wearing a good-natured grin. "Xavi", you will never be forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Oliver,
    A beautiful tribute to a wonderful person.
    Be well my friend....