On Friday, August 2nd, we lost Josh Lowry, a kayaking legend. I make that claim because writing about notable whitewater personalities is my job, and Josh’s story produced perhaps the best profile I’ve ever written. But my professional opinion doesn’t meaningfully identify Josh as a legend, his life’s actions took care of that.
This past winter, I spent a week with Josh at his rafting company in Futaleufu, Chile. His staff of guides, all three of them, had found their way to Josh and his world of idealistic simplicity through various means, but looking back, it was a whitewater pilgrimage for them all. Working for Josh wasn’t a job as much as an apprenticeship in the art of river gypsy, under the master. These young boatmen had no delusions of squirreling away money through guiding. They were there to paddle, to integrate into the relaxed pace of rural Chile, practice their Spanish, sleep in the backyard and eat raspberries off the bush for breakfast—to be Lowry-ites. On days off, they’d go kayaking with their esteemed boss, still one of the guys (but also THE guy) at 61-years young. Their loyalty towards Josh spoke volumes.
When a young traveler stopped by the office wanting a raft trip but having no money to pay for one, Josh took him down his beloved Futaleufu anyway. He simply asked for some help around the property, and called it a trade. He showed the young man how to dig an efficient irrigation trench for a new garden plot. Later, we all transported posts to Josh’s undeveloped riverside property. We placed those posts in a barn that Josh had built with beams acquired in another trade, for his retired ambulance shuttle rig. He’d procured the ambulance, somehow, from a band of true Patagonian gypsies.
This was the flow of Josh Lowry’s life, always seeking a symbiotic solution through his ascetic existence, in harmony with the seasons, in tune with the river. “I am a minimalist, both in life and paddling,” he once told me. With that, I couldn’t help chuckling at the recollection of our West Clear Creek trip, and Josh’s ancient Noah Jeti kayak with stripped seat bolts, his thread-bare wetsuit, his leaky paddling jacket. My wife, Lisa, and I wore drysuits, and even we were cold. Not surprisingly, Josh was always the first to get the fire going at camp. That trip was so epic, hard, and beautiful, so perfect, that I’ll never go back. Yet it was just one small adventure in Josh Lowry’s ledger of “trips of a lifetime.”
He was the first to run Mexico’s classic Agua Azul and Chile’s renowned Baker. His Chilean road trips of 1994 (with John Foss and Clay Wright) and 1995 (with Arnd Schaeftlein, Bernd Sommer, Manu Arnu, Olli Grau, and Dave Kashinski) included many other exploratories in lands that were unknown to the whitewater world, the stuff of dreams. There were also countless trips down Grand Canyon, many summers on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and adventurous jungle romps in southern Mexico. His whitewater Opus was the Rio Pascua. The river has only attracted a couple expeditions since Lowry’s 1999 descent because it is logistically difficult, full of terrifying rapids and grueling portages, and located in remotest Patagonia—Lowry country.
One might think that a nomad like Josh would lack in personal contact, but his voice, his laugh, his looks—his presence—was not easily forgotten. In the little town of Futaleufu, he was an institution. Show up and ask anybody in town, pantomime if you didn’t know Spanish, and you would find Josh before long.
When Josh fell off a 50-foot cliff to the rocky bed of the Deschutes River, I can only suppose he was scouting the line through Benham Falls below, transfixed by the intricacy and randomness of tumbling water. That made sense to Josh.
In response to questions I posed for his profile (Kayak Session #35), Josh offered his philosophy on paddling technique. On the surface it was an appraisal of paddling style, but Josh was well aware that his answers ran deeper than that. His approach to paddling mimicked his approach to life, and it was an honorable course worth emulating. “I just place my paddle vertically in the river to feel the water, and hold it there without paddling, with short bursts of pushing or pulling to control angle. I feel that going slower than the current gives me a feeling of timelessness, a chance to look around, scouting, on the run.”