In 2010, Evan Garcia ran all five drops of the Royal Gorge on the North Fork of the American in one single run— a “Royal Flush.” I have always regarded the Royal Flush as the pinnacle of kayaking. Only the best paddlers could have the skill and determination to accomplish this goal.
2010 was my first full year kayaking. I remember watching Evan Garcia’s “Slippery When Wet” every day for months. Rewinding over and over the best segment that was Evan’s Royal Flush. I tried to imagine the feeling of sending all of those drops; Heath One, Heath Two, Rattlesnake, Scotts’ Drop and Wabena, but at the time I couldn’t contemplate the feeling of running drops of that caliber. The tallest drop I had run, was twelve feet.
Seven years later, I found myself at the put in of the Royal Gorge for my first time. I was excited to be there, and excited to see the waterfalls I had watched for so long on a small screen. As we came to Heath Springs, I felt anxious to finally see the first drops of the Royal Gorge. Two perfect beautiful waterfalls in a breathtaking gorge, both taller than I had expected. After a long scout and shooting video, it’s my turn to go. I get into my boat right above the lip of Heath One. As I sit in the eddy my heart begins to pound. I take one more deep breath of air, splash my face, and peel out of the eddy toward the lip. “Try to stay calm,” I tell myself in the seconds before the drop, “lean forward and don’t take too big of a stroke.” I come off the lip with a big stroke, boofing much harder than I had planned, “wait, wait, wait…” impact.
My first thought is that I had broken my back. When I get to shore, Evan Moore, my life long best friend and the person that taught me to kayak, helped me out of my boat. I stood up and felt okay, until I reached down to grab my camera bag. As soon as I bent over an intense pain shot down my back and I couldn’t breathe or move. Evan helped me stand up and recover enough to move on, but for the rest of the run I could barely boof or bend over, and my back didn’t feel the same for months after. Over the course of the run, I still got to see the five waterfalls that made up the Royal Flush, a dream I’d had since I started my paddling career. After seeing all of these drops and getting hurt on the first and easiest of them all I thought to myself, “I can’t believe people have done this.”
A year later and I’m back at the put in. It’s Ben Coleman, Cole Moore, my best bud Evan and myself. For the whole last year all I had thought about was Scotts’ Drop and the Royal Flush. This year on the way to the put in I told Evan, “I’m going to Royal Flush.” Evan just laughed it off and said, “I know buddy, me too,” since most of the time I just like to talk a lot of crap to him.
When we paddle up to Heath Springs I am immediately taken over by a sense of fear. “Can I do this? Why would I put myself in the same spot as I got hurt last time?” I calm myself down as I often do above a big rapid by saying, “I can do this and I’m going to do this.” Once I pull out of the eddy everything leaves me. It’s only me and the waterfall. Everything starts to move in slow motion as I fall over the edge. Moments later, I’m in the pool below feeling incredible. Right as I get to shore, I pop up out of my boat and give everyone high fives. The cool thing about Heath Springs is right after the first drop there is a short pool then the second drop. Heath Two is a breathtaking sixty footer falling right into the Heath Springs Gorge. The waterfall rolls over a nice lip into a chaotic cauldron, half of the water pushes left into a bad cave while the other half is either going into a small eddy on the right or off the next twenty foot falls just below. Evan and I take a nice scout of the falls and decide both of us will run it. Ben set safety for us from the top of the drop while Cole walked around to film. Evan goes first; as I watch him paddle to the lip then quickly disappear I start to feel the butterflies in my stomach. Cole gives me the thumbs up and I paddle toward the lip. One left stroke at the lip and I’m free falling. I stare down the landing and tuck. I hit the water hard but don’t feel any pain. I roll up in the pool headed straight into the eddy. My whole body is shaking in my boat, I couldn’t believe I was below Heath Springs. The pool below Heath Two is a magical place, it’s hard to put in words what it feels like to be sitting beneath this beautiful waterfall surrounded by sheer walls. After taking some time to appreciate where we are we decide to run the next drop and get out of our boats for a bit.
After a few hours of amazing class 5 kayaking, we reach Rattlesnake Falls. Rattlesnake is about as perfect of a waterfall you can ask for. You start on river left in the eddy right at the lip of the drop and peel out facing up stream only feet away from the fifty foot plunge. Rattle snake also happens to be our campsite for the night. After a quick scout Cole and Ben start to undress and relax, while Evan and I continue to scout.
Evan makes a quick decision and gets in his boat and fires it right off. I decided I would take a bit longer of a scout. As I sit there staring at Rattlesnake I start to feel tired and slow. Evan turns toward me and says, “Hurry up and run this thing or you’re not going to want to anymore.” I decided he was right as I had started to yawn. As I push myself into the eddy my stomach starts to turn and tighten up. I look down stream and see Ben sitting on the rocks yelling, “Johnny you’re going to love this thing!” as he’s jumped up and down. I look over at Evan who has the camera and he gives me a thumbs up. I charge out of the eddy and pivot downstream right on the lip; half way down I tuck up, then I hit the water and blast out upright, immediately celebrating. I walk up to Evan and the boys to get some high fives and start relaxing at camp.
Lying in bed that night all I remember thinking is that I’m halfway to a Royal Flush, that I can do it. I stayed up late thinking about the entrance to Scotts’ Drop. In the morning we pack up early and get on the water. It feels like only five minutes of paddling and there it is, the scariest thing I have ever seen, Scotts’ Drop. You catch an eddy right at the lip to either scout or portage. Only ten steps from your boat and can see the two cascades and all of its glory. When I first look at it I can’t help but laugh. I realize that running the first three waterfalls doesn’t put you at halfway to a royal flush, it doesn’t even put you a quarter of a way. Scotts’ Drop isn’t in the same category as the first three drops, it’s on a level of its own. A phrase WIll Pruitt once said stuck in my mind the whole time, “If you want to run Scotts’ you have to be willing to go to war.” After a long scout I look over at Evan, who hasn’t said one word to me the whole time we’ve been scouting, and say, “Well dude, I think I’m gonna run it.” He looked back at me with a smile, “Well **** yeah!” We head back to the top and sort out a plan for safety and filming. Evan is going to go first while I film from the ridge and Ben and Cole set safety at the bottom. While Evan goes and gets in his boat I do everything I can not to throw up. Evan whistles and starts paddling at the lip. He comes off the first drop with the biggest boof I’ve ever seen and goes charging into the second drop. He comes down the ramp, through the hole and flying off the kicker, styling the set. I sit at the top staring at the falls waiting for Evan to get the camera from me. When he gets there I ask him how it was, “It’s a lot gnarlier than it looks.” “Well dude it looks pretty gnarly.” Evan gives me a hug and tells me I’ve got this. I walk up to the top, the whole time thinking “I don’t have to do this, why am I doing this, can I do this?” I pick my boat up and starting emptying the water out, “I can still walk, I don’t have to run it.” I set my boat down on shore and slowly get in, “It’s not too late.” Once I hit the water, a sense of confidence came over me. “I’m going to do this, I can do this.” At that moment every ounce of fear left my body. I couldn’t feel anything. I remember looking down stream splashing my face aggressively and leaving the eddy. I clearly remember the first four strokes out of the eddy, then everything goes black. The next thing I know I’m free falling off the lip, thinking this is exactly where I want to be.
But when I hit the bottom I am thrown end over end immediately. I am forced back on the back deck of my boat, I miss a roll and miss another. Finally I’m upright. I look over my right shoulder and realize I am backwards right at the lip of the second drop. My mind goes black again, I don’t remember actually making the turn or running the slide down through the hole and off the kicker. My next memory is hitting the water at the bottom and flipping. When I roll up I was so full of adrenaline I couldn’t speak. I paddled strait over to Cole, who was setting safety, and got out of my boat and stepped on land. As I gave Cole a hug, it set in that I had just run Scotts’ Drop. I started to celebrate and yell at Evan who was standing up on the ridge.
The sense of relief is quickly gone when you realize Wabena, a seventy foot monster, is waiting just a mile downstream. Standing at the lip with Evan, so close to my biggest goal of completing the Royal Flush; I didn’t feel like I had it in me to run another big drop. That must have shown, because Evan looked at me and said, “Are you gonna run this?” I remember thinking and laughing as I responded, “If I were to lose my boat right now somehow, I would jump in and swim this thing.” He just laughed and said, “I’m going.” Evan comes smoothly over the lip and has a perfect line. He surfaces upright at the bottom and celebrates. As I sit alone at the lip waiting for someone to come get the camera, I can’t help but sit back, look up and take in the moment.
It took more than I thought I had to get into my boat above Wabena. My body didn’t have anything left in it, my mind was too tired to really function anymore, but something in me knew that I had to do this. When I got to the pool right above the falls I felt light and clear minded, different from the rest of the drops on the run. I came rolling over the lip fully aware, throwing my paddling and tucking up. I hit the bottom and surfaced up right with my hands in the air. My whole body buzzing with energy. I float strait over to Evan and give him the biggest hug.
After Wabena we paddled all the way to the take out. The next day I was back in school surrounded by no one that even knew what the Royal Flush is. My classmates ask me how my weekend was and I tell them that I went kayaking and ran some fun rapids.
Never in my life did I think that I would ever complete the Royal Flush, it was my biggest dream. But the best part about it was doing it with my best friend right there with me. That trip down the Royal Gorge is one of my biggest accomplishments and one of my favorite memories.