Charlie Walbridge is one of the towering pioneers of whitewater boating, equipment design, river advocacy, and safety education.
Raised in New York City, Charlie discovered his love of the outdoor life in annual summer camp outings and in a college outing club. After college he taught junior high for a year, but soon left the academic life to start his own company, Wildwater Designs, in 1972, selling equipment to fellow boaters. Also during the 70s, he was an active and successful slalom and whitewater racer. And up until the mid 80s, Charlie supplemented his income as a raft guide.
Over the years Charlie has worked with the American Canoe Association (ACA), American Whitewater (AW) and US Coast Guard to promote boating safety. He’s recognized worldwide as a whitewater safety expert. He’s the co-author of one of the swiftwater safety bibles, Whitewater Rescue Manual. Among his many honors was being in the first group of inductees into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame. You can see a full list of his activities and honors, as well as some great early boating stories and videos on his website.
When he closed Wildwater Designs in 1995, NRS’s Bill Parks approached him about becoming the NRS Eastern Outfitter Field Rep. Charlie has nobly filled that job ever since, but has now decided to hang it up and enjoy a much deserved retirement.
Charlie recently sat down with NRS to reminisce about his boating life.
NRS: You started canoeing in college. Were you an outdoor person prior to that?
Charlie: I’d gotten to love the outdoors in summer camp. When I got to college my roommate was a fellow who’d been a camp counselor in a canoe camp. So we started the Outing Club together. We eventually had about 50 members and it was a great outlet for us. The club now has some 500 members, and like most outdoor programs it’s now professionally run. Back then we were the program. We had a faculty advisor who knew what we were doing, but we went out and taught ourselves paddling, rock climbing and backpacking.
NRS: Sounds like things were much looser back then.
Charlie: Oh yeah. I was organizing and leading trips in camp at 15 and 16. They wouldn’t let you do that these days. Heck, back when I started raft guiding they didn’t even have clients sign waivers; they just checked you in. Whitewater is dangerous, well duh! Just deal with it.
NRS: So after you tried teaching, you found your way into starting your own business, Wildwater Designs (WD), in 1972. How did that happen?
Charlie: Well, so many of us were building our own stuff. For a sprayskirt it was like talk to so-and-so who has some neoprene, and go to a dive shop for some glue and get some shock cord from an outdoor store. It was a logical step to start helping those boaters make gear.
NRS: You started out selling make-it-yourself kit, correct?
Charlie: Yes, I had life jacket, sprayskirt, wetsuit, paddle jacket, gloves and booties kits. But it took me a while to get the instructions down. I had one customer who got real irate with me about that. So, I told her I’d give her some free kits, if she’d write instructions for me.
NRS: So did you personally design all the patterns for the kits?
Charlie: Mostly. I took an off-the-shelf jacket pattern and modified it until it worked well. For the High Float Life Jacket I got some ideas from a British jacket. A friend of mine had a good sprayskirt design. That sort of thing. And people who were buying the kits were pretty inventive and self-reliant. They figured out ways to modify them for a good fit.
NRS: But later you started manufacturing complete product, didn’t you?
Charlie: The kit business started to drop off in the late 70s, so I had to adapt. I worked with a company to manufacture wetsuits to my specifications. And I started making throw bags. A friend sent me an article from the Navy archives outlining such a device. I found a stuff sack, put some foam inside it and added rope. I took it out my front door, tossed it and said, “Wow!”
I don’t know if I did it first or Ann Dwyer at Dragonfly Designs did it first. But I had that market pretty much to myself for a while. And I bought the “Bonnie Hot Pogie” design from Bonnie Losick, and then had a fellow with a company named Log House Designs make them. His business model was to lease a sewing machine to a person working from home and they’d do piece work. From the late 70s to the mid-80s, the business went very well; I was even taking some four-day weekends.
NRS: Ha. Bill Parks talks about that period the same way. You both caught the growth of the sport on the upswing. But, Charlie, somewhere during this time you got involved in boating safety education and training. How did that come about?
Charlie: Well, in 1974 I was in a slalom race where a guy was killed. I was on the course and came on the scene, with ropes flying and people dashing about. He had gone over a small ledge, flushed out of his boat, gotten his foot caught and was held underwater. I ended up writing a report on the accident that got published. Then, in 1977, I was asked to write a report on the death of Bob Taylor, a super strong boater who got shoved under a rock on the upper Gauley. Those two reports and some other writing I’d done resulted in me being asked to be the Safety Chair for the American Canoe Association (ACA).
NRS: You were involved in the development of the rescue jacket quick-release belt and the tow tether, but you also got into swiftwater rescue training. How did that come about?
Charlie: Working with ACA and American Whitewater (AW) I was mostly writing articles and accident reports for them. Then I got involved working with various states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and Virginia) who were developing their own programs for water rescue. For example, they were having incidents where boaters were getting trapped below low-head dams. Rescuers were trying to save these people and were getting killed. This resulted in a lot of anger at boaters. I got involved working with these state agencies helping develop rescue training scenarios.
In the late 80s I developed a course I called Whitewater Self Defense that mostly involved swimming, wading and throw bag techniques. Wayne Sundmacher and his wife took the course, and he proposed teaming up to teach a more involved course. He had technical rope experience and the two of us worked pretty well together. We taught a number of classes where we tried teaching different things. Some of them worked and some didn’t. Our partnership lead to us writing the Whitewater Rescue Manual.
NRS: You’ve been involved in the boating community from the 60s until today. What are some of the changes you’ve seen, both for the good and maybe, not so good?
Charlie: That’s a long span of time. In the early years there were very few people in the boating community. Today there are lots of people enjoying the different sports. Back then there were no big kayak makers in the US, just a couple of backyard guys. When you saw someone with a whitewater boat, it was an event. I remember driving down Hwy. 81 and seeing a car with a boat on top coming from the other direction. We pulled onto the median and talked. You had to join a club or you couldn’t find people to paddle with. Now, people are moving away from clubs because the Internet has in many ways made it easy to meet other boaters and to advocate for river access. And the gear has really evolved and improved.
And the boating community, here in the East is much better received. In the early 70s it was very common to have local folks confront you with guns when you tried to access the water. An outfitter on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior, in Alabama, was burned out. Payson Kennedy, when he started Nantahala Outdoor Center, would regularly receive threatening phone calls. Fortunately you don’t see that much anymore.
NRS: Charlie, we appreciate you taking the time to reminisce about your time in the boating world. And many thanks for all the things you’ve done to make boating safer for all us; we stand on the shoulders of pioneers like yourself. Also, thanks for the great work you’ve done representing NRS over these two decades. We wish you the best in all you do in this much deserved retirement.