World-class kayaker Elaine Campbell spends the summer in search of rivers to conquer
It would be hard to put just one label on Elaine Campbell. Certainly, whitewater kayaker might be in the biggest boldest font, but it would be alongside downhill skier, snowboarder, cross-country skier and instructor, stand-up paddleboarder, athlete, animal-lover and co-captain of a wandering-across-America RV.
The most accurate description might be adventurer.
"I like that," says Campbell, laughing. "That's a good term, for sure."
Campbell, 38, is a world-class whitewater kayaker. She has been on the U.S. whitewater freestyle team four times since 2009 and was on the U.S. wildwater team in 2013. She once placed eighth in the world in freestyle (in which paddlers perform maneuvers and tricks while riding rapids).
She grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, as the only sports-loving girl in her neighborhood. Before playing volleyball and skiing in high school, she played street football and baseball with all the guys -- including her older brother, Mark -- and matched them trick-for-trick on her bike.
At the same time, her parents provided a crash course in the outdoors to their kids, piling them into their van for camping, hiking and skiing all over the Northeast. She recalls one summer trip to Lake George in the New York Adirondacks when they took her on a whitewater-rafting trip on the Sacandaga River when she was 10 or 11.
"I remember seeing people in kayaks and being like, 'Oh, wow, that looks really awesome.' And my brother was the same way," she says. "We both got the bug early."
Her brother fed that bug when he asked what she'd rather do with him for her 22nd birthday: learn to rock climb or whitewater kayak? She chose kayaking, and they went through a two-week class put on by the Boston Appalachian Mountain Club. She fell in love with the sport -- and one of the instructors named Jeff. He eventually became her husband.
"Kayaking pretty much changed my life," she says.
Today she and Jeff live in Readsboro, Vermont, not far from the border with Massachusetts and close to the same Deerfield River where she took those first classes 16 years ago. Though she has paddled rivers all over North America and Europe for thrills and competition, the Deerfield is by far her favorite because of its variety (everything from Class II to challenging Class V rapids) and beauty. She never gets bored. Some days, she's entranced by the bald eagles overhead. The next day, it might be a moose on the far bank.
"A river changes," she says. "It's never the same."
Five years after learning to kayak, Campbell entered her first competition, a whitewater event on the Black River in New York that empties into Lake Ontario. She came in third -- beating some veteran U.S. team members.
"It left an impression on me and felt really good," she says. "I thought it was something I could really do."
So the next year, she began to compete in earnest. She and Jeff took to the road in an RV, traveling to competitions and to test themselves on rivers across the U.S. They've done the same thing every year since. They pack up all their equipment and animals -- Brook the dog and Laya the cat -- and head out for about two months at a time.
Though she says she's a "homebody at the end of the day," rolling across the U.S., paddling and playing tourist is their shared annual adventure. Even the four-leggeds like it.
"Wherever we are, our animals are going to be happy," she says.
She competes in freestyle, wildwater (racing from Point A to Point B as fast as possible while negotiating the rocks, waves and changing currents) and squirt boat (in which competitors paddle kayaks designed to submerge). In 2013, Campbell had a big year, making both the U.S. freestyle and wildwater teams. She was eighth in the world in freestyle and fifth in squirt boating. She was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. wildwater that year and finished 28th at the world championships in Slovenia.
Though she loves competing, it's not her driving force. Just the experience of barreling down a river, reading the currents, waves and holes and picking out the best and safest lines through the rocks is intoxicating to her.
"Not to sound cliché or whatever, but really, when I'm on the water, it makes me so happy, and I feel something that I never feel, even when I'm skiing or snowboarding," she says. When she's not on a river, she's thinking about being on a river, especially during the long winter months. To her, kayaking is a mix of adrenaline, adventure and the joy of being outdoors with friends.
"It's my full obsession," she says, laughing. "I love doing it with my husband, my brother, my friends. I love showing new people, finding new rivers. It makes me feel alive. I'm happy doing everything else, but kayaking brings a different joy to my life."
This spring, Elaine and Jeff motored south for paddling in Georgia, then headed west to Texas for some flatwater kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. They moved on to California and Nevada for a couple of competitions, but the highlight was a chance to kayak the Merced River in Yosemite National Park. The river was full from snow melt, and it was special. They rode Class III rapids and took in world-class views.
"You're paddling and there's El Capitan off to the side of you, and then in front of you and back of you are all these waterfalls that are just coming off these massive rock faces," she says. "It's an incredible experience."
Campbell knows she's blessed to have a year-round job that gives her flexibility to train and travel. Several years ago at a whitewater event, she was recruited by Pau Hana Surf Supply, a California company that makes stand-up paddleboards. She became one of their sponsored athletes and competes in stand-up whitewater river events. Then, last year, she started doing customer service and technical support for the company, handling calls and emails, helping customers get repairs, find the right equipment or offering them advice. She calls it a dream job that allows her to "live the lifestyle that I love to live."
Jeff, too, has a programming job he can do from home or in the RV, even as Elaine drives. During the winter, Elaine works part-time as an instructor and in the shop at Timber Creek Cross-Country Skiing in Dover, Vermont. When the snow comes, she skis, snowboards and trains for summer. She gets her cardio on cross-country ski outings and puts in work in their basement gym. Boxing workouts on a speed bag and heavy bag are perfect for what she needs in kayaking.
"It especially helps coordination," she says. "It was sort of the one thing I found that made the transition easier for not kayaking for four months out of the year, and then getting back in the boat. Using boxing helped me a ton. It's a great all-body workout."
Once the weather warms and she can get back on the water, paddling is her training for paddling. "For me, training is just kayaking," she says. "When I say, 'It's just kayaking,' it actually makes me not stress about training and competing. So I always try to think of it as, 'I'm just going kayaking. I'm not training.'"