On Sept. 19, University of Montana School of Journalism graduate Alan Panebaker drowned while kayaking on New Hampshire's swollen Pemigewasset River. He was 29 years old.
Panebaker's former classmate, Mike Greener, takes some comfort in knowing that Panebaker died doing what he loved most. "When I learned about his death, I was sad," says Greener, who's now a Bozeman Daily Chronicle photographer. "At the same time, I'm glad it ended the way it did."
Panebaker discussed the dangers of his passion in a blog post last year when commemorating the loss of another boater who died in the water. "There are no easy answers to the nagging questions surrounding mortality and the dangerous sport we do," Panebaker wrote. "Paddling difficult whitewater is about being alive. It is the most pure and true experience that I have ever known, and it has brought me more joy, pain and satisfaction than anything else."
Panebaker was kayaking with two friends in a steep gorge when his boat got wedged between two rocks, VTDigger.org reports. "When he tried to right the kayak, it flipped over...His body was submerged for an hour before it surfaced."
Panebaker covered state politics as a reporter for VTDigger.org. His editor, Anne Galloway, wrote his obituary. It took longer than it should have, she says. "I was pretty upset."
Panebaker earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from UM in 2005. He graduated from Vermont Law School last year. In July, the nonprofit conservation group American Whitewater hired him to be the organization's stewardship director in the northeast.
Galloway says the new job enabled Panebaker to professionally pursue the things that he most cared about: whitewater, law and conservation. "It was in fulfillment of that dream," she says.
While at VTDigger, Galloway says Panebaker had a knack for quickly digesting complicated issues and making them easily understandable.
As news of his death spread, elected officials in Vermont, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, expressed their condolences. "Alan always had a smile for his fellow journalists and the politicians he covered," Shumlin said. "He will be missed."