Select Page

When I heard that Galen Volckhausen was paddling kayaks over 80-foot waterfalls, it brought back a decade-old memory, and it made me smile.
Galen was a classmate of my daughter at the Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School, and one day I navigated my Subaru through an inch of slushy snow to drop her off at school. I was somewhat surprised to see two bicycles riding up — one ridden by the seven-year-old Galen, the other by his dad, Jim. The kid was covered with snow, his nose was running and the 2-mile ride from their house had been a tough one. When it was time to go inside, Galen pleaded with his dad to let him stay out on the bike. Spending the day on a bike, regardless of the miserable conditions, sure beat sitting in school.
After his stint at the Montessori school, Galen tried a number of other educational venues, but not until this year did he feel truly at home. As a student at the West Virginia-based New River Academy, the now 17 year-old Volckhausen spends enough time in school to meet the requirements, and the rest honing his skills as an elite-level white-water kayaker, doing his best to do right by his sponsors and secure a few more.
Galen’s parents — Jim Volckhausen and Claire Forest — are both down-to-earth types, and Galen says, “We never even had a television until I was 13.” Jim and Claire ran a CSA farm, Jim was connected to the Outdoor Education program at Cornell, and Galen was born with a thrill-seeker gene that showed up early. I recall seeing him in a cast one winter, and Jim told me, “Snowboarding mishap.” In the summer, another cast was due to a mountain bike crash, another to a skateboard wreck. I asked Galen how many broken bones he has had, and he said, “Let’s see… I think six.” He nodded and invoked the wisdom acquired in his 17 years, and added, “I learned that landing in water seems to have affected my rate of breakage.”
That makes sense, I guess, but the idea of landing in water at the bottom of an 80-foot waterfall seems a bit outside my personal comfort zone. Galen offers, “I just heard an interview with a pro kayaker who said, ‘I question myself every time I snap on my face shield, and there’s something wrong if you don’t do that.’” He added, “I agree with him, but we have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen.” He shares his belief that the risk is a calculated one, adding, “If I can’t run my line, I’m not going to do it.”
Looking at the photos and videos of Galen and his friends does bring to mind all manner of potential trouble, but if you stop and think about it, two teenagers running into one another at full speed on a football field is no less risky.
The New River Academy attracts two different types of kayakers, Galen says. “Half of them want to kayak now, then grow up and get a job, and the other half want to do whatever it takes to kayak until the day they die.” Guessing which group Galen is a part of did not take any great insight, and he is already starting to find ways to build his life around the sport. “I’ll be working for Wilderness Tours this summer, videotaping rafting trips,” he says, “and I’m starting to do some writing for a publication that does updates on festivals and competitions.”
Galen’s travel resume is already impressive, and he is grateful for the opportunity to run rapids in several parts of the U.S. and in Chile. He is presently sponsored by Jackson Kayaks, Cheri Bundi and Shred Ready Helmets, and his name is on the roster of the Airborn Athletics Kayak Team. He feels grateful to his sponsors, and says, “I did work very hard to get to where my life is centered around kayaking, and I feel that I’m the most free I’ve ever been.” He says, “I’m very fortunate,” and thanks his mom and dad for their support as he chases bigger drops and bigger dreams.

By Steve Lawrence