Montana State University

studentlivin'@msu: Rollin' on the river

September 27, 2005 -- by Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Matt Wilson is a world-class kayaker who makes his livelihood plying rivers around the globe. MSU photo by Erin Raley.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Bozeman -Matt Wilson dives, rolls and flows with the same grace as the water upon which he makes his living.

Wilson, a senior Spanish major at Montana State University, is a world-class kayaker who rides waves about 300 days a year. To do that the 27-year-old native of Park City, Utah flips hemispheres. Like ocean surfers, kayakers are always on a quest to find the best whitewater, the endless summer's best wave.

For several months in the year, Wilson paddles near Bozeman, where he runs a kayak school and youth program. Now that it is fall, the Spanish major has gone south as is his usual custom, this year on an MSU exchange at the Universidad de Veracruz in Mexico where the nearby La Antigua river is big and fast. And that's how Wilson likes it.

"The huge thing about kayaking is it's a great way to travel and see things that most people don't get to see," Wilson said. For example, a few years back Wilson kayaked in Peru, where he spent "weeks and days" living out of his kayak on remote rivers except when he got out to hike through isolated Incan ruins. Last winter was spent in Chile, where he helps guide on the Futaleufu River. He's also traveled to Russia and Nepal in search of first descents and great rivers to run.

If kayaking inspires a fluid life, it befits the medium. As Wilson explains it, a river is a vibrant thing, elegant and shifting, that can incite passion in the most beginning paddler. That's what happened to him while he was ski racing in high school and his father introduced him to kayaking.

"I think the energy of the river, which is a dynamic, moving environment, attracted me compared to skiing," Wilson said. "The river is always moving and you're moving, too. I liked that."

When Wilson's ski-racing days were over, he began working as a river raft guide in Idaho. Soon Wilson was competing in kayaking as a sponsored paddler in what was then a brave new extreme world. He spent several years as a river rat, attending colleges in Oregon and Idaho. But Bozeman had been on his mind since he was 16 and first visited the town.

"It was beautiful and the rivers were running. I thought this has to be one of the best places to go to college."

He added that MSU is probably one of only a handful of colleges and universities where students can combine a passion for kayaking with a good education.

Since Wilson moved to the Gallatin Valley in 1999, he and some friends from Park City, who also live in the area, have become pioneers of a new and evolving breed of river athletes. They formed the New Riders of the Perfect Wave. The group mines the rivers, backwater creeks and even waterfalls in Montana for new riding adventures.

Wilson's exploits and abilities received worldwide exposure when he was one of the paddlers featured in the kayaking films "NURPU," a film of wild first descents around the world, and "Valhalla," voted best kayaking film in Paddler magazine.

When not in constant motion, Wilson and Russ Fry and Nick Turner, fellow local world-class kayakers, found time to co-author "Montana Surf," the complete kayaking guidebook to the state of Montana. The book inspired the name of Wilson's business, Montana Surf Kayak School, which he owns with local paddler Brian Fletcher, a graduate of MSU.

The school is important, Wilson said, because it teaches safety to people new to the sport. This is particularly essential to him because he lost a close friend to injuries sustained in a river accident in Idaho and Wilson has served on local river search and rescues. The school's progressive approach to increasing skills while maintaining safety is emphasized in the Wave Train, a local team for young kayakers that Wilson helps coach. And if the kids have as much energy as the Gallatin River in June, Wilson said he loves introducing them to his beloved sport. The school also guides a growing number of kayakers from throughout the country.

"I don't know if this (work) will make us rich, but it allows me to be here in the summer and gives me money to travel (to rivers worldwide) in the winter," Wilson said. And that's compelling, he said, because "the rivers are always running, and it is always summer somewhere."

Contact: Carol Schmidt (406) 994-1966