In 1901, Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old schoolteacher, became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in New York in a barrel, a stunt she had hoped would solve her financial problems (it didn’t). The explanations for why one might want to throw oneself off a waterfall range from the allure of glory and the promise of wealth, to an escape from desperation.
Sometimes this kind of extreme risk-taking is attributed to a simpler, purer explanation: passion. That is how Dane Jackson, a 26-year-old national kayaking champion from Tennessee, explains his obsession with kayaking Salto del Maule, a 134-foot waterfall located in Valle de Los Condores, a volcanic region of central Chile.
“It’s been a dream of mine for five years,” Jackson said. “I think it’s just one of the most photogenic waterfalls I’ve ever seen. And it’s also quite tall.”
The record for the tallest waterfall ever run in a kayak is held by Tyler Bradt for Palouse Falls, a 189-foot waterfall in Washington. Only a handful of kayakers have ever tried their luck at running anything over 100 feet. With Salto del Maule, Jackson has now completed six waterfalls that are at least 100 feet.
Jackson first saw a photograph of Salto del Maule in 2016. He was under the impression that its location was simply too remote. A recently constructed roadway changed the calculus for Jackson, and when a Chilean friend contacted him to let him know the waterfall was running and now mere minutes from a road, he immediately made plans.
On Feb. 5, Jackson completed the first known descent of Salto del Maule. When he landed, however, he came out of his kayak, the equivalent of a yellow card in the kayaking world — not necessarily disqualifying to his claim of a first descent, but also not perfect in execution.
Jackson and his team, which included at least one other world-class kayaker who was there to spot Jackson’s descent, as well as a film crew to capture video, avoided revealing certain details to Jackson so as not to influence his decision-making process.
For example, the team didn’t conduct an official measurement of the waterfall’s height until after Jackson’s descent. Using ropes, they calculated the waterfall’s height to be, conservatively, 134 feet, making it the second-tallest waterfall ever run in a kayak.
They also didn’t tell Jackson that it might be the last month Salto del Maule would run in its current state. A major hydroelectric project just upstream is set to permanently redirect the Maule River through a different valley, turning the dam-controlled yet high-volume waterfall into a mere dribble.
Jackson has been kayaking since he was 2. His father, Eric Jackson, known as “E.J.”, is also a national kayaking champion and the founder of Jackson Kayaks, a kayak manufacturer. E.J. and his wife, Kristin, raised Dane and his sister, Emily, in an R.V., home-schooled them and spent countless days paddling rivers. Both E.J. and Dane suffer from severe hearing difficulties that require them to wear hearing aids.
“There are no disadvantages to being deaf in kayaking,” Dane said. “There’s an advantage because I can read lips from across the river, which is helpful if you’re trying to get information on something that’s coming up.”
Jackson still lives in an R.V. He spoke with the writer Andrew Bisharat last week about his Chilean adventure.
What is it like to go over a waterfall of this size?
I’ve been wanting to do this waterfall for so long that I was nervous, really scared above it, but I have been wanting to experience it for the last five years.
The view was super wild, with desert and cliffs everywhere, and more waterfalls downstream. It’s a very high-volume river, with a lot of power. More than anything, I was focused on what my kayak was doing. The first 10 to 20 feet are the most important and decide your outcome. The goal is to get your kayak as vertical as possible, because that’s the safest and softest way to land.
I got pretty splashed in the face and it was a white-out, but I had enough feeling that I was in control. I felt a little bit of, “O.K., I’m still falling!” And it was still another half-second before I hit.
How hard was the impact?
I was planning to have potentially one of the biggest hits of my life, but for whatever reason, I had a super soft hit. Barely felt it.
Why did you come out of your kayak?
It happened pretty fast, but when I hit, the skirt of my kayak came off, and the boat filled up with water, and I went super deep. That’s not always the end of the world, and a lot of times you can stay in your boat and be fine. But this time, the boat just got pulled away from me.
What does this descent mean knowing that this waterfall may no longer exist soon?
To know that this drop might be gone very soon, it’s really unfortunate. It’s an incredible waterfall. And I don’t see the point of putting it elsewhere. I know there is someone else out there who would want to experience this waterfall. Knowing that this was potentially the only chance that someone will get to kayak it, it’s a little sad.
You’ve been dreaming about doing this for five years. You traveled all this way, spent countless hours and lots of money getting yourself here. And in the end, the whole thing lasted roughly three seconds. Was it worth it?
When it comes to dropping waterfalls, there’s a lot of risks that go into what amounts to just a few seconds of experience. When it comes to getting hurt, you have to accept that this is just something you want to be doing. So for me, I was willing to accept any risk because it was a drop that I wanted to experience, and it was worth every second.