Grants Pass' kayaking king
Chris Korbulic runs Toketee Falls near the North Umpqua River.

Grants Pass High graduate Chris Korbulic has become the Rogue Valley’s most famous kayaker, for his ability to launch himself off massive waterfalls and run some of the world’s most remote rivers. Here’s a brief story about him, along with a question-and-answer covering kayaking, risk-taking, his trips to Africa and South America and his recent movie, “Kadoma.”

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

Before he could even walk, Chris Korbulic was floating on rivers.

His initial foray into the Rogue River’s wild section came before his first birthday, though his parents Mary and Paul did most of the paddling during that first trip.

It didn’t take long for young Chris to begin powering his own boats, though, and by the time he was a 16-year-old student at Grants Pass High, he was kayaking Class V rapids on the upper Rogue’s North and Middle Forks.

An interest in microbiology took him to Oregon State University, but his growing love of launching himself off massive waterfalls eventually took him away from school and onto the road as a semi-nomadic river rat.

His fame grew with the size of waterfalls he ran, from a 70-footer on Butte Creek outside Salem to an 80-footer in the Salmon River Canyon. That talent earned him a sponsorship from clothing giant Eddie Bauer and the chance to explore the world’s most remote rivers.

Korbulic entered the national spotlight for a tragic reason this past December when his friend and guide Hendri Coetzee was snatched from his kayak by a crocodile during a trip into the Congo basin.

At just 25 years old, Korbulic has come a long way since he graduated from GPHS in 2004.

His exploits have made him a household name among Rogue Valley kayakers

“One day I hope to be half as good as him,” said local 16-year-old kayaker Jon Angstadt. “Chris is a class act. He sent me a bag of gear his sponsors gave him, and I have only met him three times. Every time I met him he remembered my name and asked me how my kayaking was going.”

Korbulic, who maintains a home in Gold Hill and Chico, Calif., was in the Rogue Valley recently for the screening of “Kadoma,” a movie about Coetzee’s death and the group’s voyage into the Congo basin.

The Daily Courier spoke with Korbulic about kayaking, risk-taking, his trips to Africa and South America.

First of all, how do your parents feel about the lifestyle you’ve created? About the risks you’re taking?

My parents have grown used to it, but I don’t think they’ll ever be totally comfortable with it. They’ve gone from being a little disappointed that I left school after two years to just travel and be a bum, a gypsy, into them being really proud and really happy. They love what I’m doing now, and I couldn’t have asked for better parents.

Most people go to waterfalls to take pictures, or look at them. What could possibly make you want to launch your kayak off them?

The first real waterfall I ran was the Little Salmon River. I was 18 and it was 35-feet high. The feeling of getting in the current above a waterfall was so amazing, so novel, like nothing else I’d experienced. Because once you’re in, there’s no turning back. You can’t have any doubts. The feeling of that commitment was unlike anything and led me to just keep pushing it.

Still, it looks completely crazy. Do you guys look at it that way?

People look at waterfalls and all these young kids in kayaks and think we’re completely crazy. But for the guys who are doing waterfalls — myself included — it’s been part of an evolution through the sport. It’s where the sport is going, and it’s where their ability has taken them. It’s not a stunt. We take it very seriously.

In the film “Kadoma,” which follows your trip into Africa’s Congo basin, the (crocodile) attack on Coetzee seems to come completely out of nowhere. Was that how it actually happened?

Up to that point, it had been the best seven weeks of my life. The last day we were talking and laughing all morning. We were right in the heart of it. We’d just finished a long section of whitewater and were feeling super strong and inspired.

And then it came like a strike of lightning. Totally out of nowhere. We didn’t see anything until it was happening. Then he was gone.

Do you ever look back on that moment and think: “It could have been me?”

Yes, because we were so close. I was five feet away from him. It could have been me so easily, and that sticks with you.

It’s something I think about every day, and I still haven’t gotten used to watching the film, to seeing (Hendri) on screen.

You’ve become almost more known lately for expedition kayaking — for taking long trips into Africa and South America, through rivers few people have ever explored. How has that evolution come?

I love learning about the world, that’s been a big reason for the trips. The idea of the trip into Africa was not only to feature our kayak expedition, but also to bring awareness of the fresh-water crisis in Central Africa. There are moments of high action and rapids, but in being on a river — the veins of the planet — there are always people. That’s a big part of the story we want to bring back.

Have there been moments on these trips when you thought: “Wow, I’m a really long way from Oregon?”

There was a camp we made on the Nile River in Uganda where, for that moment, I felt totally at the mercy of the environment. There was a hippo right there, a crocodile right there. There was the huge river and on each side of it 100 miles of jungle, followed by savanna beyond that. In those moments, you feel pretty small.

In “Kadoma,” there’s a couple of scenes when you guys are running some absolutely massive rapids near a village in Africa, and there’s a bunch of local people watching you. How did they react to you wanting to kayak through those really dangerous sections?

You couldn’t share many words with them, so they’d just give us a look or hand signal as if to say: "What the (heck) is going on? What are you doing? You can’t go down there." And that part is a lot of fun. Because generally people along these rivers see (the rapids) as deathtraps, as places you can’t go. So when we’d go in and paddle down, they loved it. They started running along the river and cheering us on. It was a lot of fun.

What do you want people to take from the film?

It’s definitely easy to look at this from the outside as simply: Man gets eaten by crocodile. But I hope what we’re presenting is more about Hendri’s amazing, powerful personality. That’s the story we want to share.


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