by Tony Malikowski
On Saturday, Jan. 13 , the upstate New York whitewater kayaking community suffered a monumental loss. Dennis Squires – expert kayaker, river vagabond, guidebook author – died while kayaking the Waikaia River, a steep Class V river on New Zealand’s South Island.
Dennis, a Catskill native, died while paddling whitewater in a remote canyon in mountainous terrain, in the environment that shaped the last two decades of his life. He was arguably the foremost expert on New York whitewater, and certainly paddled more obscure runs in the state than any other paddler. His two volume guidebook, New York Exposed: The Whitewater State, is the whitewater bible.
He was in New Zealand on the trip of a lifetime; paddling with a Japanese kayaker with limited English skills whom he’d met only a short time earlier.
Dennis made a mistake while running a rocky section of rapids that the local paddlers often portage, and was pinned underwater in his kayak beneath the root ball of a massive tree that blocked most of the current. In spite of its size (40 inches in diameter), this tree was hidden from view from upstream, at least from the limited vantage point of a person sitting in a kayak. According to one of Dennis’ friends, who flew back to New Zealand to help with rescue efforts, the tree was a hazard that could have been spotted from shore.
At the time of the accident his Japanese partner was downstream, having successfully run a line that avoided the tree. He didn’t see Dennis pin, all he saw was Dennis’s paddle as it washed downstream. He searched the area but found no sign of Dennis or his boat, and paddled out of the gorge for help.
Many Kiwis volunteered their time and energy in a rescue effort for two days, but after heavy rain the rising water forced them to call off the search. When the water dropped, the volunteers resumed the search and on Wednesday, Jan. 17, they found Dennis’ body after cutting the tree and moving it slightly with a winch. He was still in his boat.
Dennis’ ashes are back in New York, and will be scattered in the waters he loved. There will be a memorial service in May at the Balsam Shade Resort in Greenville.
As I write these words I’m still in shock. It feels surreal, and has felt surreal ever since I typed the words “Dennis Squires” and “New Zealand” into a Google Australia search box to set up an email alert. It was hard on us, both friends and family, to be so far away from the scene. Each day as I read the articles I hoped that this was just another episode in the longrunning serial drama of “Dennis’ Excellent Adventures,” tales which usually ended with Dennis dragging his boat out of the woods alone, through the snow, with a broken bone, in the dark.
This time he didn’t give us a happy ending, and left us only with a few bittersweet consolations. None of us had to witness his last desperate moments on this Earth, and I’m sure he would have wanted it that way. And while it’s an overused cliché, Dennis died doing what he loved best, and for that we should be at peace.
The press corps did well but they didn’t know Dennis, and if you read their articles you might have gotten a wrong impression. Not surprising, Dennis defied simple description.
The articles gave his age as 48 or 49, but let’s set the record straight. Dennis was 48 at the time of his death, with the body of a 30 year-old and the playful mind of an exuberant 16 year-old boy.
The articles gave his name as Dennis Alan Squires, but I doubt if more than a handful of his river friends knew his middle name. When we told stories about Dennis to each other we didn’t even need to mention his last name.
The articles mentioned that Dennis was a self-proclaimed “whitewater outlaw,” which might sound like he was just another Gen-X extreme sport junkie, just another obnoxious blow-your-own-horn adrenaline addict. This just wasn’t the case. Dennis called himself a whitewater outlaw in his guidebooks and on his website, but to my knowledge he never said “Hi, I’m Dennis the Whitewater Outlaw” out loud in public. He lived as an outlaw in the sense that he questioned authority and went against the flow when necessary. He had the courage and stubbornness to live a life outside of the norm.
Dennis loved to paddle; he lived to paddle. He didn’t have a “real job” or a wife and kids. Instead, he married the river and made friends in bushel baskets. He drove cast-off cars, wore cast-off clothes and used cast-off equipment. His paddles were a joke; wooden clubs held together by duct tape, epoxy and happy thoughts. If he didn’t have a boat, he borrowed one; if he didn’t have a place to sleep, he slept on the ground; and he didn’t mind sleeping in the rain, as long as he was close enough to the creek to catch the runoff before it went away. He constantly relied on the kindness of strangers and friends, but reciprocated by being the best friend you could ever want to have.
Dennis was a living caricature. His goofy expressions, his scraggly beard, his matted hair, his smelly paddling gear – all were unforgettable. He left an impression. He had the time to talk to anyone. He was kind and gentle, and yet loud and boisterous. He lived life fully, and sometimes got on your nerves, but he never meant any harm. He was Dennis, take him or leave him. We all have reasons to miss him, from the mundane (who’s going to help me move?) to the spiritual (how will I ever listen to heavy rain on the roof or walk alongside a swollen creek without thinking about Dennis?)
Goodbye Dennis. We’ll miss you and yet we’ll smile.
Tony Malikowski lives in North Creek with his wife and three children, where he enjoys cross-country ski racing, whitewater kayaking, bicycling, hiking, cartooning and writing. This article was originally published in the February 2007 issue of Adirondack Sports & Fitness.
The following links are to discussions about Dennis at the Northeast Paddlers Message Board:
January 14, 2007 – Dennis Squires Missing
January 17, 2007 – Dennis Squires