Our Unsung Hero this month, Charlie Walbridge, may not be a household name, but in the world of whitewater safety, he is a legend. For over five decades, Walbridge has been at the forefront of efforts to promote safe and responsible boating on America’s rivers, and his contributions have helped to make whitewater paddling safer for thousands of people. According to the International Whitewater Hall of Fame, “Charlie’s work has saved countless lives and kept rivers open and accessible to those who wished to assume personal responsibility and risk. His work, although focused primarily in the U.S., is imitated and known worldwide.”
Walbridge was born in New York City and learned to hike, paddle, and love the outdoors at Camp Mowglis in New Hampshire. He first tried his hand at whitewater paddling with the Bucknell University Outing Club in Pennsylvania, and he quickly fell in love with the sport. He has paddled rivers throughout the US and Canada and made several first descents. He was an A-ranked C-1 slalom and wildwater racer in the mid-seventies and worked part-time as a river guide until the mid-eighties.
A few years later, in 1975, Charlie was competing in a slalom race when one of the competitors was killed. He was shocked that a skilled, well-equipped paddler could die in a Class II rapid. Wanting to find out what had happened, he discussed the incident with everyone he could. He later wrote an accident report which was published in the American Whitewater Journal. That report coined the term “foot entrapment” and described this danger for the first time. The result: a warning not to stand up in fast water is routinely given to all beginning whitewater paddlers and commercial rafting guests. That report sparked a life-long interest in learning from fatal accidents, near misses, serious injuries, and successful rescues in whitewater.
After attending college in Pennsylvania, he moved to western North Carolina to work as a raft guide and kayaker, and soon became involved in efforts to promote safety and education in the whitewater community. Walbridge worked a season as a guide for Nantahala Outdoor Center in NC, and eight seasons as a Cheat River Safety Boater. Before moving to WV, he lived in Suburban Philadelphia, where he ran a mail order company called Wildwater Designs.
Over the years, Walbridge has worked tirelessly to improve safety standards in the sport of whitewater paddling. During this time, he developed the HiFloat life vest and adapted the throw-line rescue bag for whitewater use. Having closed this business, he works as an independent sales rep and a consultant to outfitters, schools, organizations, government agencies, and attorneys on whitewater safety issues.
He has served as a safety instructor for the American Canoe Association (ACA), and has written numerous articles and books on the subject of whitewater safety. He has also been a driving force behind the development of safety protocols for commercial river guides and outfitters, and has helped to establish safety standards for whitewater races and events.
Walbridge’s contributions to the world of whitewater safety have not gone totally unnoticed. According to his website http://www.charliewalbridge.com/, “In 2014, [he] was awarded the ACA’s highest honor, the Legends of Paddling Award, in recognition of his lifetime of work in promoting safety and education in the sport. He has also been honored by the National Park Service for his contributions to river safety and has been recognized as one of the country’s foremost experts on the subject. Furthermore, Charlie was on the American Whitewater board of directors for 18 years and is currently an honorary director.”
Despite his many accomplishments, Walbridge remains a humble and dedicated advocate for whitewater safety. He managed the Sang Run Access Area with his wife, Sandy for 20+ years and just recently turned over the duties to a younger steward. “Jesse Shimrock will be taking over management of the Sang Run Access, continuing a long tradition of paddlers,” Walbridge commented.
“Charlie is a legend and very deserving of being nominated. We still talk all the time,” Shimrock replied when asked about Walbridge.
He also keeps an eye on other access points for the Cheat and Big Sandy Rivers. He continues to teach safety courses and mentor young paddlers and is always willing to share his knowledge and experience with others. For those who know him, Charlie Walbridge is an Unsung Hero, whose tireless efforts have helped to make whitewater paddling a safer and more responsible sport for everyone. Walbridge finished by stating, “Rivers bring great people together, and I’ve enjoyed working with them to make things better for the whitewater community.”
Written by Collen DuBose