For a River Heritage Museum at Grand Canyon National Park

Kirschbaum Kayak

In the decades following Zee Grant’s pioneering 1941 kayak trip through Grand Canyon in his wood-and-canvas folding boat, fiberglass was invented, perfected, and became commonly available. By the late 1950s, paddlers around the world had begun experimenting with this new miracle material to build a better kayak. One such experimenter was Walter Kirschbaum.

Kirschbaum had been paddling since the 1930s, originally as a member of the Hitler Youth organization in his native Bavaria. After being drafted into the German Army as a young teenager, Kirschbaum was captured on the Eastern Front and held for years after the war in a Siberian work camp—an ordeal that damaged his growth, health, and emotional well-being.

Once back in Germany, he began paddling folding kayaks again and won the 1953 World Championships. He visited America to paddle and fell in love with the rivers of Colorado. He conceived the goal of running every river in the Colorado River system.

Kirschbaum began experimenting with hybrid boats—a fiberglass hull for strength with a canvas deck to keep the boat light. In each of his boats he incorporated at least one piece of found wood, adding a unique character to each craft.

In 1959 he ran Cataract Canyon on the upper Colorado River in one of his new boats. In 1960 Kirschbaum became the first person to paddle a rigid kayak through Grand Canyon, as well as the first to kayak every rapid without portage. After upsetting in Hance Rapid, “a giant’s fist, then, it seemed, dragged me out of my kayak.” He lost his paddle and tried to swim the boat ashore. He was twice sucked under by whirlpools as he drifted toward the next rapid. “Finally, I thought of the spare paddle that I always keep on my rear deck, assembled, feathered, and ready to use. I pulled it off, rode and paddled my boat ashore as it was, upside down.” With classic humility, he later admitted that, aside from a few adventures, the trip was not that difficult—that in a boat so maneuverable one could sneak around almost any obstacle.

His boat is now a part of the Grand Canyon collection.

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