Best of America

What It’s Like to Kayak Over a Waterfall

There's a lot to keep track of in the four seconds it takes to fall seven stories, as one nursing student learned—on purpose.


“Riding a kayak over a waterfall isn’t just a matter of flinging yourself off a cliff, but there’s a moment when that’s exactly what you’re doing. Just before you get to the lip of the falls, all you see is the horizon line, quivering at the edge of a big empty space. It’s like those ancient maps that show parts of the world getting swallowed up by the ocean. I had reached the end of the earth. The whole world just dropped away, and I felt very small. And then I really had to pay attention because I was falling facedown into a speck of water seven stories below me.

“I snuggled into the kayak. I was sitting cross-legged with my knees hooked under the sides. You have to tuck your body in right before you land, altering the direction of the kayak slightly so it will hit the water at the right angle. But if you tuck in too soon, you’ll lose your grip on the kayak—like flipping over the handlebars on a bike.

“It takes such a long time to fall. I counted one, two, three, four. I felt a little sick to my stomach, but I couldn’t take a breath, because I was falling so fast.

“I tucked in and set my angle for landing. I went from hurtling down inside a curtain of falling water to being enveloped by the white water, to bobbing on the surface of a pillowy white pool. My touchdown was actually very soft, like landing in bubbles. I was exhilarated when I finished, then totally exhausted for the next two days. It was a completely satisfying experience. I might do it again someday. Just walk out one afternoon and do it.”

Glissmeyer is a nursing student at Columbia George Community College in The Dalles, Oregon.

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