Wave of emotion 

Missoula's new kayak park finally paddles forward

Jason Shreder hasn't yet found the strength to visit the stretch of the Gauley River in West Virginia where Max Lentz, his former kayaking student, died in October 2007 at the age of 17. Shreder had coached Lentz for years through the Zoo Town Surfers—a local youth kayak club—and watched him grow into a courageous and competent athlete.

Shreder says Lentz brought a certain energy and humor to the club that hasn't been there since. But it's Lentz's personal quirks that Shreder really misses, especially his habit of being consistently late for club activities.

"It's funny, a lot of the things that kind of drive you nuts about people you care about, you realize when they're gone that you actually miss a lot of those things," Shreder says. "Everybody in the group we have now, they're all on time. You kind of miss that. You're like, 'I miss Max showing up late with a big smile on his face and his kayak gear hanging out all over the back of his truck.'"

Looking back on those years, Shreder chokes up. It's still hard to hit the water without the memory of Lentz bringing him close to tears, he says. But lately those emotions have also come up during monthly meetings with the Max Wave initiative, a committee under the umbrella of the Brennan's Wave board.

click to enlarge Missoula kayak instructor Jason Shreder is among those working to design and construct a second kayak park on the Clark Fork River. The Max Wave would serve as a memorial to Max Lentz, a former student of Shreder’s who died in a kayak accident in West Virginia in 2007. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Missoula kayak instructor Jason Shreder is among those working to design and construct a second kayak park on the Clark Fork River. The Max Wave would serve as a memorial to Max Lentz, a former student of Shreder’s who died in a kayak accident in West Virginia in 2007.

Rumors of a new kayak park have persisted in Missoula for more than two years, but the grassroots initiative has made little headway until now. The Max Wave officially formed in January to design, raise funds for and construct a second wave on the Clark Fork River as a memorial to Lentz. Those with the group have been fundraising for months—selling T-shirts, handing out stickers and hosting kayak video premieres. They've focused their intentions on the Flynn-Lowney Diversion weir near the Osprey stadium. And on June 29, the day before the U.S. Freestyle Kayak Team Trials begin on Brennan's Wave, the Max Wave will formally announce its efforts during an event at First Interstate Bank, the Max Wave's primary sponsor.

"When it's all said and done," Shreder says, "hopefully it will be a place where we can go and feel that energy of Brennan and Max and kind of carry on—a place for us to remember the people we care about and what they brought to this world."

Those with the Max Wave say their efforts are about more than just honoring a lost friend. Leah McBreairty, president of the Max Wave, joined the initiative last fall and never knew Lentz personally. For her, the project offers a chance to stimulate the local economy and broaden Missoula's recreational opportunities—and her claims have precedent.

"If Brennan's Wave weren't already there, it would be a monumental task," McBreairty says. "But because Brennan's Wave is already there, people already know what it is. They know people are getting use out of it. They know that when people come to visit Missoula, they take a picture of it and take it home to wherever they live. That is such a gem for downtown Missoula and for the community at large."

For further proof of the potential economic stimulus, K.B. Brown, a Max Wave committee member and owner of the Strongwater kayak shop, points to the U.S. Team Trials that start June 30. Nearly 200 athletes from across the country will descend on Missoula, spending money at local businesses when they aren't competing. It's one of the biggest national events in kayaking, Brown says, and the trials could set the stage for international competitions in the future, provided the Max Wave is successful.

"We'd like to see the wave done by 2015," Brown says. "We're trying to do a really good job with [the U.S. Team Trials] and potentially the opportunity we have is to host the World Championships here in 2015 on the Max Wave."

That goal is still a long ways off. The Max Wave needs approval from a score of offices and agencies, including the city, the county and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The group is currently in the "build the brand" stage of the project, says Sue Larew, vice president of First Interstate Bank and head of fundraising for the Max Wave. She estimates it will be another year before she enters "major fundraising mode," hitting up foundations and applying for conservation-based grants.

"Probably 80 percent of the money that comes from this will be donors, people writing checks to us," Larew says.

Despite the logistics, no one with the Max Wave anticipates any real friction over the proposal. Larew says a successful Max Wave campaign could make Missoula a model for other river communities when it comes to enhancement projects, and Brown believes nine out of 10 people in Missoula "are going to say it's a no-brainer."

"Tourism is what's going to make Missoula the spot, and the Max plays into that," Brown says. "It's the future. Especially if we can bring big events like the World Championships for kayaking, that puts Missoula on a world map. All of a sudden you're bringing 400 athletes from 56 countries to town...It makes Missoula a whitewater destination."

Still, it's hard to ignore how bittersweet the initiative's work is for some. Lentz's parents, John and Sally, are both active on the committee. Others knew Lentz as a fellow kayaker, a club member or a close friend. The wave may, as Brown says, play a critical role in Missoula's economic future. But for Shreder, there's an even greater reason to one day ride the Max Wave.

"This project's not about me or benefiting my business," he says. "To me it's about seeing it through to the end. If I got zero credit for this project I'd be fine with that, as long as I know in my heart that I did everything I could to make it happen, especially for Max's family. That would mean the most to me."

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