The pull was stronger than a flooded stage-five on the Chattooga. The instant Lee Timmons sat in a kayak as a young girl at Camp Illahee in Brevard, North Carolina, she was sucked in by a love of the sport. That initial lesson has bubbled over into a fist-pumping, adrenaline-soaring pursuit that sends her to get as wet as possible around the world. At 28, the native Greenvillian likes to return to the Carolinas for summer, but come fall, she will float where the river carries her to warmer waters in the Southern Hemisphere.
Into the Breach // Kayaker Lee Timmons navigates her way down the Wind River in Washington. Timmons takes on gnarly waters worldwide, including Class 5 rapids.
Summer’s flying by. >> Yes and I’ve come full circle, which is kind of cool. I’m teaching kayaking here at Camp Illahee, where I first fell in love with it.
It’s rare to advance from simple lake kayaking at camp to your level. >> Right, but because of the mountains and different rivers here, we have the option of progressing to white water. We start on the Lower Green, which is the headwater for Greenville County’s watershed, then we progress to the Tuckasegee, Nantahala, Chattooga, and then the Pigeon River and Ocoee in Tennessee.
Kayaking’s your passport. >> I just got back from four months in New Zealand. I’ve been to Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, and Patagonia. In the States, I’ve paddled all over the Southeast and out west in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Washington.
Have you recognized a common theme when meeting people? >> We all have an understanding that adversity and the outdoors are our greatest features. They constantly humble you. You’re constantly learning new things and pushing your limits. It makes you a better person. It prepares you for everything you are going to face in life.
In all of the world, what’s your favorite run? >> It’s what most people who know me would expect: The Green River Narrows. That’s my home run and where I trained for Class 4 and Class 5 rapids. That’s where I learned the best maneuvers, made the best friends. It has the best community and is close to Greenville.
Sounds like simply drifting downstream is not your style of kayaking. >> To me, it’s a full-body sport. Your legs and hips are a major part; your arms are the least-involved muscles, and you have to use your head. One of the first things I do on the river is teach folks how to read the water. It’s an introduction to hydrology. That’s your best friend on the river: your ability to read water. Be a water bender.
Have you ever competed? >> Oh, no! (laughing) I don’t have a competitive nature. I’ve only been in one kayak competition. I did it just to push myself and get to the next level.
Climbing is also a passion. >> It’s a great balance for kayaking, because it’s so methodical and very deliberate. You’re going against gravity and scouting ahead and using ropes; it’s almost very mathematical. Kayaking is rapid and intuitive. It’s water versus rock.
You’ve seen pockets of the outdoors many of us never will. Your assessment? >> The outdoors is our greatest asset, and we don’t appreciate it the way we should. I think we’re throwing it away pretty quickly. The environment is helpless, and if people don’t start to do things to preserve and protect it, it won’t be there for the next generation to enjoy.
What’s next for you? >> I don’t think about it too much. I focus on my passions and what makes me happy, what makes me feel most alive. You can’t make a plan. You should have parameters, and just go where the river takes you.