Mike Patterson has parlayed his love of life on the river into a spot on the national kayaking team.
The Erwin resident qualified in April for the upcoming world championships in the rollicking freestyle competition. He’s spending long summer days on the road and in the water out west to get ready.
Patterson, 31, bought his first kayak about a dozen years ago and started building a lifestyle around it.
“I kind of stumbled into kayaking,” he said recently from Colorado. “I lived in a van traveling around. There was nothing more fun than running the rivers and waterfalls.”
The Memphis native eventually settled into a house in Erwin, near the Nolichucky River, with his wife Melanie and began to get more serious about training.
“About five years ago I got pretty heavy into trying to compete,” said Patterson. “It’s the basis of all my life decisions now. It’s why I moved to Erwin, why I do the kind of work I do. I do handyman stuff in the fall, winter and spring to make ends meet. In the summer I get paid by my kayak company.”
That would be Pyranha Kayaks, a British company that has its U.S. headquarters in Asheville, N.C.
Patterson and two companions are traveling around the west for Pyranha this summer. They spent the last of May in Colorado and had an itinerary that will take them through Idaho, Washington, Oregon and then British Columbia.
“We compete on weekends at freestyle competitions, and during the week we’re out on the rivers or visiting Pyranha dealers,” said Patterson. “There’s not much money to be made, but it’s a great job.”
He doesn’t expect to be home again until the first or second week of August. That will give him about a month to fine-tune for the International Canoe Federation Freestyle World Championships in Bryson City, N.C., from Sept. 2-8.
More than 300 competitors from 20 countries will be represented there on the Nantahala River. It’s the first time the U.S. has hosted the ICF event, which is held every two years, usually somewhere in Europe.
Patterson is one of five members of the U.S. freestyle team, having earned a spot at the nationals in Bryson City in late April.
Freestyle kayaking is a discipline that involves performing a variety of moves, or tricks, on a stationary river feature. Patterson compares it to a snowboard halfpipe on water.
“The boats are made specifically for it,” he said. “We do tricks based on difficulty, and when we compete it’s a one-minute ride. It’s like we’re on an ocean wave that forms on the river but doesn’t go anywhere.”
A sample of Patterson’s skills at Big Rock on the Nolichucky can be seen on YouTube here.
His newest kayak is a Pyranha Jed, a sleek carbon-fiber model that is less than six feet long and weighs just 20 pounds — much smaller than the so-called “creek boats” that typically navigate the waterfalls and steep creeks. It costs about $2,500.
In Patterson’s hands, the Jed is capable of amazing acrobatics.
In competition, there are nearly 30 tricks that might be used. They run from loops, cartwheels and blunts, to more colorful names like Phonix Monkey, Space Godzilla and McNasty. Riders link the tricks in rapid succession, and there’s a scoring premium for smooth transition and getting way out of the water.
A typical day this summer has Patterson on the river by noon, and he’ll spend 4-6 hours in his boat. When he’s in serious training, he puts in two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon.
Of course, he still enjoys just running the rivers and soaking up the dramatic scenery with friends, which is how it all started.
Patterson says he’s on the water more than 250 days a year, and he has kayaked in over 25 states now. (He hasn’t been to Europe yet but hopes to get there one day soon.) His favorite stretch of water is the Linville River, in the Linville Gorge Wilderness of western North Carolina.
Kayaking at any level requires a certain amount of fearlessness, and in Patterson’s case it can get challenging in a hurry. He suffered a torn labrum that required surgery last year; the shoulder still bothers him, but he’s paddling on.
What makes a world-class kayaker?
“Lots of free time,” Patterson said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of exercise involved, but it’s never a chore for me. Everywhere we go is the most beautiful scenery, and you’re just there on the water, right in the middle of it.”
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