An Idaho Girl with a Kayaking Problem

Photo: Todd Wells


Simply put, Maranda Stopol loves kayaking. Her roots are that of an Idaho girl, but this 22-year-old has been spreading her wings living, kayaking and traveling through British Columbia, White Salmon, Baja, Colombia and Ecuador. Her drive for expedition paddling is fueled by fun backyard rally runs, a supportive community, and an insatiable hunger for pushing herself. (During a brief moment between her paddling trips, ski adventures, and—oh yeah—school) I caught up with this humble, yet passionate young woman about life, her trips on the Nass and Upper Stikine, and what’s next.

Photo: Hector Darby MacLellan

When did you start kayaking?
I started kayaking pretty early on. Both my parents are kayakers and I spent a lot of time—even in a crib—next to the river. My parents didn’t push my sister and I until we had an interest, but when we did, my mom took us to the pool to learn to roll. Then we did Bear Valley Creek laps, Marsh Creek, the Main Salmon, chill stuff. I liked following my mom on the river and we both had RPMs.

Did you start traveling young as well?
In the winter, my parents would pull my sister and me out of school and we’d spend a three-four months in Baja. Originally, they were chasing waves for kayaking, so I did a bit of kayaking in the ocean as well when I was younger. In high school, I raced nordic, but kayaking was always something I was really stoked on. Sometimes, it deterred from training (laughing).

Quest is an interesting school to attend. Can you tell us a little about Quest and how you decided to go to university there?
Quest is a small liberal arts and sciences university in Squamish, BC. It operates on the block plan, meaning that you take one course at a time for 3.5 weeks, during which you experience full-immersion into that specific course. My decision for university really boiled down to two options: somewhere to compete nordic skiing or somewhere that I could backcountry ski and kayak—I chose the latter. Going to school in Squamish for four years made me step up from comfy class 3/4 into class 4/5 simply because of the nature of rivers there.

Do you spend most of the year in Squamish?
For summers, I’ve spent time all over, but mostly in Idaho and BC, and recently in the Gorge as well. As much as I can, I try to paddle year round. I travel a little during winters. Last year, I went to Colombia and Ecuador, and this year, I went to Baja with my family and learned how to kite surf.

In between paddling and backcountry skiing, what are you studying?
In your second year, you design a ‘Question’, which acts as your thesis or major that directs the course of your studies for the remaining two years. My Question was “What is the future of medicinal ethnobotany?” I was originally focused on the relationship between people and plants, specifically medicinal plants; however, the more research I did, the more I learned how important rivers and watersheds are to the people-plant relationship. This led me to expand my original Question to include ethnoecology, and culminated with a thesis, which falls more under the umbrella of political ecology. My undergrad thesis is a journalistic piece on the future of industrial development in the region of Northern BC around the Stikine. For and during research, I did a bunch of paddling there.

How did you manage to pull that off?
I interviewed a lot of First Nations individuals and a lot of local people that live in that area. I also interviewed industry interests, who were mostly based in Vancouver and Victoria in order to get a range of perspectives. Once I got back to Squamish, I interviewed BC Hydro, people in government, and historians. I was fortunate enough to talk to people who had grown up in Telegraph. It’s amazing when you go somewhere and start talking to people, and all of these other extraordinary individuals emerge out of the wood work. Last summer, I submitted my proposal to Quest and left town before it was approved. It got approved (which was sweet), and the first part of it was to hike into the headwaters of the Stikine. When I started interviewing people, it was amazing how much more willing a lot of individuals were to speak with me because I had done that. They would say, “A lot of people interview us, but no one has done what you did.” I did the paddling trips because I wanted to, but also because I felt it was important to see that area, and hiking and kayaking was the cheapest and most environmentally friendly way to do so. You definitely get into the frontier mindset. You really feel like you’re out there, and then you have that realization that First Nations people have been on that land for thousands of years. I was definitely not the first person there, even though sometimes it felt like that.

So, you hiked into and kayaked the headwaters of the legendary Stikine. More details please…
I did the trip with Hector Darby MacLellan. He wanted to do a source-to-sea Stikine. I didn’t do a lot of research, but the beta was that it would be a 40 km hike in, which we planned to do in four days (10 km/day). It ended up being 70 km before we could paddle. We had planned on paddling the nearly 280 km out in six days, but the levels were dropping and so in order to get Hector to the gorge with good levels for the Canyon, we paddled it all in three. It’s mostly very flat water, but there’s one rapid that’s a super fun class 4. We didn’t really stop. We’d take floating snack breaks, and on the last day paddled over 100 km. It was raining that day and really cold. I was super happy to see the bridge.

You also paddled the Nass last summer, another gem of the Sacred Headwaters. How did you make that happen?
After the Stikine, I chilled for a week, which was much needed. I went to Telegraph, stayed with a local woman, and interviewed a bunch of people. As non-plans go, I saw Jordy and Arie, and at 9:30 at night, one said to the other “Let’s put on the Nass tomorrow.” The Nass was on my radar, but I hadn’t figured how to get on it yet, so I asked if I could come. They agreed, but said, “Can you keep up?” I said I would try. I scrounged for food. There were a few guys leaving and heading south that gave me some—I figured I’d just make it happen. For the Stikine, I had lighter, much more calculated and all dehydrated food. For the Nass, my load was substantially heavier.

The hike in was 30 km, which we did in two days, and we paddled out in three. The last day was over 100 km because we were running out of food. The last night, I literally split my dehydrated pad thai mix and saved half because it was the only food I had left other than the oatmeal I ate in the morning. We had 20-30 km of whitewater, and then a ton of flatwater until the Bell Irving river comes in. The bottom 20 km is the biggest volume I’ve ever paddled in. I was warned about the boils, one in particular, and was really nervous about that, especially because I was tired. It ended up being fine with no substantial features and everything you needed to miss was really miss-able.

Wow, what did you do after that adventure?
After the Nass I drove to nearest place with cell service, called my mom, sat in a cafe, and ate and ate and ate.

What’s next?
Right now, I’m on my way to go into a backcountry hut for week for class. It’s mind blowing—I feel so fortunate and stoked that Quest is where I decided to go to school. I have three months until I graduate and then I will probably live out of my big blue truck, cruise back to Idaho, maybe go to Cali, and then move to White Salmon. I want to train and kayak a lot this summer in order to be really mentally and physically prepared for an all women’s descent I’m putting together of the Klinaklini river. I’ll figure out what I want to do in terms of work, but for now I’m avoiding getting a long-term job.

Buck Creek. Photo: Todd Wells

So other than an all-women descent of the Klinaklini, what other future goals do you have?
I really want to do more expedition paddling and put together women’s trips when possible—there are so many amazing female paddlers out there! I would also love to learn how to paraglide. I’ve been saving up to make that happen and this summer, it might be my graduation present to myself. With all of this in mind, I do my best to be mindful that the things I do have a really big carbon footprint. Being aware of the environmental issues we’re facing and trying to minimize my impact where I can is so important, especially with the current political situation.

Speaking of amazing female paddlers, whitewater kayaking, especially extreme whitewater kayaking, seems to be a male-dominated sport. How has this attitude affected, or not affected, your paddling?
When I first learned to kayak, my little world of kayaking was not the normal ‘male-dominated’ field. I spent my summers and weekends following my mom and her friends (the majority being ladies) down rivers. It wasn’t until my last years of high school when I would spend my free periods watching Bombflow episodes, that the allure of ‘getting rad’ and venturing beyond the class III-IV zone flooded my consciousness. As it was almost only ever boys that I saw in these videos, I decided it was time to ditch my mom, go find some guys, and adopt ‘their’ mentality about class V.

What actually ended up happening was that I kept paddling the same rivers for the most part, but with an increasingly male demographic. As I had originally hoped, my mindset toward paddling changed, but I didn’t really think of myself as any different in terms of who I was paddling with.

Today, my main paddling partner is a guy and I don’t paddle with him based on his gender but rather because he’s someone I enjoy spending time with and trust. I try to surround myself with people on the river where I’m seen as an equal, and the gender disparity is not something that dominates the experience. That being said, I have been in many experiences where male dominance is very real and overpowering. In these circumstances it can be easy to use being a girl as an excuse to not run something or portage slower; however, I try to be conscious of my own attitude because I know that’s the only thing I can control.

Photo: Erik Boomer

What advice would you give a young girl who wanted to push the limits and be like you?
In kayaking and the greater extreme sports community, ‘masculine’ characteristics tend to inform and define “limit pushing” and “good kayaking.” I value my femininity and it’s part of my kayaking, but there is much more that defines me as a paddler. I believe that being successful in kayaking is about being stoked on any river. When it comes to progressing as a paddler it’s not about pushing the limits, but about pushing your limits.

As the only girl in many situations, I often put pressure on myself to ‘send it’ in order to prove myself; however, I think it’s so important to be aware of why I choose to paddle or not paddle something, and to always do it for myself and not for the men, or women, or a camera around me. At the end of the day, it’s really about having fun and exploring new places with other people, regardless of gender, and I hope the decisions I, and others, make reflect that.

I think the best advice I could give is not necessarily specific to just women. Ironically, it’s something that my mom always told me: always treat others with humility and respect. I think by building mutual respect, women have more success empowering themselves and others by integrating rather than separating from men in the sport.

Stawamas River. Photo: Daniel Klein

Any life mottos or last words?
Growing up nordic skiing competitively, I learned that it’s really important to take care of your body to then be able to push your body as much as you want or can. Eating healthy and sleep (which I definitely don’t get enough of) are both part of that. For me, it’s also essential to find ways to use my brain. It’s easy to get into the “just go kayaking and have fun” mentality and there’s definitely a place for that, but I love and find it valuable to challenge my brain—it needs exercise, too—so I do mind puzzles or come up with projects.

Being out in the mountains a lot, I’m always observing what’s going on around me. The best advice anyone gave me is to look one or two steps ahead. Try to know what will happen before it happens. Look at weather, terrain, group, etc. Be observant. And have fun! But in super unfortunate situations, I’ve found that being bummed doesn’t really help at all. In the most uncomfortable places, you have to find laughter. I feel really grateful to be surrounded by people who laugh—it’s such a great attribute. When things get a little more challenging, the characteristics of being positive and patient are essential. Being patient is something I’m working on right now. Y’know, this isn’t where I thought I’d be when I finished school. In a way, I’m a little more lost than when I started, but I think that’s valuable. It will all work out, it always does.

Photo: Erik Boomer