The Perfect Line 

Becoming one with adventurer Doug Ammons

It’s Wednesday evening and Doug Ammons stands barefoot on a blue mat in a bright white dojo on Brooks Street. His feet look too small to carry his large frame but he moves swiftly, advancing toward the target—a rolled-up straw mat propped on a wooden stand. The top of the tube stands five feet above the linoleum floor.

Ammons’ right foot is two-and-a-half steps in front of his left one, and his torso stretches aggressively forward. His bearish upper body doesn’t look as muscular as it did 10 years ago, but it’s still massive. He raises the blade of the samurai sword and pauses. Clutching the scabbard of the razor-sharp 3-foot blade at eye level, he stares at the target across his left elbow. Concentrating. Done right, cutting the 3-pound sword through the target should feel nearly effortless.

The cast comes suddenly and slices the top at close to the perfect 28-degree angle. Subsequent casts follow rapidly, interrupted only by Ammons’ heavy breathing. A kariagi from below, another head-high kessa. Swoosh, swoosh. The severed pieces fall like flower petals next to the tube’s stalk and Ammons’ dark blue T-shirt stains with sweat.

The sport is a variety of Japanese sword fighting called Ishi Yama Ryu Battujutsu, and Dr. Ammons has practiced it for the last four months. It requires dexterity and technique, is built on ceremony and tradition, and is potentially deadly and aesthetically pleasing—all aspects that fascinate him. But then again, Ammons is fascinated with a plethora of subjects.

“Only the tip of the sword was used in battle,” he explains. And a single cut should be enough to end the fight. Take the kessa cast: Used on a human being it leaves a deep and deadly diagonal cut from the shoulder down to the hip. But Ammons is the first to admit that he’s not likely to ever use martial arts outside the dojo. For him, Japanese sword fighting and Kempo karate, another enthusiasm, are low-impact activities he can enjoy without worrying too much about his knee problems, his acute exhaustion or his arrhythmic heart.

Ammons, perhaps best known as a pioneer expedition kayaker, is so multifaceted and so layered in his personality that it’s hard to understand what drives him—at least on the surface. It’s not superlatives. After he paddles off a 50-foot cliff—because it’s part of the river and he knows he can do it—he doesn’t go scouting for a 60-footer. He’s not looking for sponsors and movie deals, although he’s pictured on Patagonia posters and has participated in expeditions filmed by National Geographic Explorer and ESPN. But those were never goals he strived for—only consequences of who he is as a paddler.

Over the last 20 years he’s navigated some of the fiercest rivers in the world, and some of his experiences are collected in a new self-published book titled The Laugh of the Water Nymph. Superficially, the rivers immerse him in places of extraordinary natural beauty, but beneath the keel they’re places for introspection, camaraderie and more. The connection between kayaking and sword cutting might be opaque, but Ammons strives toward a common goal through the practice of both.

From his office on Higgins Avenue, Ammons edits and publishes two international scientific journals about experimental psychology. The field is basically a tossed salad of research on human behavior. As explained by Ammons it includes “learning of skilled movements, perception, religious effects, rehabilitation from injuries or aneurysms, cross-cultural comparisons, personality—the list is really endless.”

His parents founded the family publishing venture more than 45 years ago, and his mother, Dr. Carol Ammons, remains the lead editor. One of his sisters is also an editor.

As an editor Ammons has to stay involved. Drawing on his background in statistics, math, physics, geophysics, geology, cultural history, anthropology and perception, he reads and evaluates, offers suggestions and look for holes in the logic of more than 600 manuscripts that cross his cluttered desk every year. The job requires him to communicate with scientists scattered across the globe. His office looks like a Class VI rapid rolled through it.

The floor is littered with stacks of books, disheveled journals and papers of all weights and ages. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves line every wall, holding titles such as The New Cognitive Neurosciences and a four-volume blue-spined series titled The Human Brain. Bouquets of Post-It notes sprout from most of the books, thriving in the brightly lit sanctuary.

“Science is the ultimate tool for understanding,” Ammons says, scanning the room like he’s expecting nods of affirmation from the silent volumes.

His voice is calm and comforting, and you can almost see him craft his sentences. He uses his intellect not in a threatening way, but shares his experience and knowledge with authority. His accomplishments in sports and science both are the result of analytical thinking, rigorous practice and stubborn determination, and his verbal skills reflect those characteristics. Ask him a simple question and he’s guaranteed to slide off topic, but the journey is interesting and there’s usually an illuminating point at the tail end of the monologue.

Ammons, who turns 48 March 14, grew up in Missoula on Keith Avenue, a couple of blocks away from the campus where his father taught psychology. Dr. Robert Ammons took his seven kids hiking and exploring all over the region. During the warmer months they paddled in folding canvas kayaks.

The children worked together on long-term science projects administered by their father, who taught them to have open and investigative minds.

Many projects required exploration of the outdoors, but the kids didn’t have to leave the house to pursue knowledge. One of the rooms in Ammons’ home was affectionately called the catacombs—a tiny pathway through the clutter gave access to scientific journals from multifarious fields: literature, radio gear and music. For one project, the 11-year-old Ammons counted sunspots and carefully scribbled his findings in a journal.

“It was pretty much expected that we all got Ph.D.s,” Ammons says. Four Ammons kids did, and of those who didn’t, two hold multiple masters degrees and another is a medical doctor.

Ammons practically grew up on campus and was considered a “university brat,” a common nickname for studious academic offspring.

In six-and-a-half years at UM he finished undergraduate degrees in mathematics, physics and psychology.

He probably could have gone anywhere for his doctorate, but since he liked Missoula and wanted to learn more from his father, he stayed and completed a doctorate in experimental psychology.

Ammons followed his father’s footsteps. He also somehow made time to blaze numerous trails of his own. But wherever those trails took him, from kayaking to Ishi Yama Ryu Battujutsu, Ammons always brought his scientist’s synthesizing mind and his quest for perfection.

“I have the most wonderful wife,” he says genuinely. .

Robin Ammons, the granddaughter of a Montana homesteader, grew up in the Flathead Valley. After high school she moved to Missoula and earned a nursing degree but decided to stay in school and pursue a major in psychology. She met Doug Ammons in the classroom.

“What are you studying?” Ammons asked her. He was his dad’s teaching assistant in psychology, and Robin was taking his class.

“Psychology,” she said.

“No, you don’t. I know all the psych majors,” the university brat replied.

It may have been one of the few times Doug Ammons was wrong.

But he’d found something else that interested him, and as usual he went after it with ardor—their romance evolved into marriage in less than a year and a half.

Ammons was 24 years old, starting a family and enrolling in the doctorate program when a friend took him out kayaking, and the river pushed his life in a new and, to him, meaningful direction.

During high school Ammons had competed nationally in swimming, and he had played the classical guitar ever since he heard a Bach composition played on the nylon-stringed instrument. He says he practiced fanatically four to five hours a day until he could transcribe and play everything he heard that he liked.

“When I first started paddling I had this set of wild dreams,” he says. “That were all pure music, I mean the sounds were just music and I can’t tell you or hum to you or play it on my guitar because they were all these different voices from all the different elements and the water itself was the flow of the music. So every lean, every paddle stroke, every movement, every current thread was part of that. You know, [it] was either a melody line or some aspect of the counterpoint and I was with friends, but it wasn’t anyone specifically, it was the feeling of the friendship that I had there, just this bright, beautiful clear spring day with crystal clear water, so clear it’s almost like I’m levitating in the air.”

The dreams recurred over the course of several months. At first he woke up confused, feeling weird. Then he had an awakening: Water was a manifestation of music. “I realized that flowing water is a richer kind of music,” he says. To Ammons, playing music and running rivers are both emotional endeavors, but the water is alive. “With the kayak, you’ve got music flowing in the riverbed. You can immerse yourself in it completely and it has sound, its own power. If you can paddle down Beethoven’s Ninth, man…that’s awesome.” Doug Ammons was hooked.

Becoming an expert kayaker requires natural ability and the willingness to learn. People who excel spend every day they can practicing rolls, perfecting strokes and reaching for oneness with the element.

The chronic overachiever wasted no time paddling the quiet pools. During his first year on the river Ammons dove bow first into challenging Class V rapids in Idaho.

Kayakers classify rivers and individual rapids from Class I through VI. Paddlers aren’t likely to get seriously injured in Classes I-IV, but “If you mess up on a Class V river, it’s a good chance to get really hurt, or you might die,” says Peter Coyle, a kayaker who sells paddling gear at Edge of the World on Higgins Avenue.

After one gnarly run, Ammons called his wife from the emergency room, but she took the call with admirable stoicism. “If he calls from the ER it’s after the fact,” she says. “And I trust Doug is as safe as he can be.”

The dislocated shoulder slowed him down momentarily, but he was soon back on the water, navigating increasingly more treacherous rapids with his boat.

Miraculously he balanced his day job as an editor, time with his growing family and paddling. “If you really want to do something,” he says, “and you don’t have enough time, figure out how you can do some aspect of it. So I focused on the hardest, most interesting and challenging, aesthetically beautiful trips that I could [do] in the least amount of time,” he says.

He spent weekends paddling the North Fork of the Payette River in Southern Idaho, driving home Sunday night, sleeping three hours and showing up ready to edit scientific articles at eight the next morning. The best paddlers in the West became his friends, and he went on expeditions with them to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park and Alaska’s Alsek River, navigating first descents in remote parts of Nepal and running unnamed rivers in Bolivia and beyond, but he wasn’t simply chasing whitewater. He was reaching for experiences that last longer than the instant gratification offered by adrenalin-fuelled thrills.

As a scientist he knows that human endeavors are constantly evolving, and Ammons is amazed by the skills of the younger guard. What he doesn’t appreciate is what he sees as a narrow cinematic focus on the sport. To say that he’s aged to an old fart who is sour that young pups drop 98-foot waterfalls is not only too easy, but wrong.

“They [a leading extreme sports movie maker] sent a group of talented paddlers to 25 countries and made a six-minute film out of it,” he says. The result was a rapid-fire sequence of paddlers dropping big air into roaring whitewater. It leaves you gawking, but how much have you really learned about kayaking, the power of the river and the cultures they visited?” he asks rhetorically.

Ammons has paddled in seven movies, and all blend natural beauty and culture with gushing whitewater.

Roger Brown, a four-time Emmy-winning adventure cinematographer who has filmed and produced for National Geographic, ESPN, Discovery Channel and ABC, has logged dozens of first descents on expeditions with Ammons. Brown first met Ammons in 1992 while working on a National Geographic film in Wenatchee, Wash. “A lot of athletes are egomaniacs, but Doug’s not. He’s intellectually stimulating, has a great sense of humor and is always very laid-back,” Brown says.

If conflicts arose among exhausted expedition members, Ammons was the natural mediator, he says.

Those qualities were a bonus. Many of Ammons’ expedition partners were professional kayakers, but the paddling filmmaker talks highly of his friend’s Zen-like attitude in roaring whitewater. “He could cruise through things that everybody else would have to stay extremely focused on.”

“There’s a balance between being cautious and being aggressive,” Ammons says in one of the movies. “But it isn’t always clear where the balance point is.”

There’s little doubt that Ammons is a natural athlete, but how is the doctor in experimental psychology able to hang with, and in some cases, outdo professional adventure kayakers? Perhaps it’s his approach: “I open up the ego and learn from things around me.” It sounds easy, but Ammons absorbs and retains knowledge on a level that few people can match. What really sets him apart is that he studies whatever he’s trying to learn from multiple angles simultaneously. Kayaking has obvious technical aspects—use the boat and paddle to avoid obstacles and get safely down the rapids. He says he spent time honing those skills and documented his progress in a journal. Next, using his analytical mind, he studied the flow of the river until he understood how the outcome of a decision would affect future outcomes. And finally, he became one with the river. He knows it’s more powerful than him, so he never fights it. He makes the river run through him.

“Everything should really fit together, so I’m not going to pursue something to the exclusion of other stuff,” he says. “I always want to find out how it relates to the other things I do. And that comes from my parents, because that’s the way they treated life. So it was an ideal. A value.”

Ammons has spent years philosophizing about the physical, internal and external aspects of the river, and The Laugh of the Water Nymph explores some of the moods, relationships and experiences he’s had with moving water.

He didn’t know the art of crafting stories but spent time reading and analyzing other people’s work. “He’s more a climber than a kayaker because of his philosophical approach,” Brown says. Climbers have time to think on the wall—there’s little time to reflect while steering through the rapids. But away from the river, Ammons tries to mold kayaking’s split-second decisions into lasting epiphanies.

Three of the book’s stories—“The Chen Cave,” “The Mayan Creation Myth and the Ballgame,” and “Agua Azul: The Games of the Mayan Gods”—weave Mayan creation myths and an adventurous expedition into the abyss of Mexican cenotes—water-filled caves of limestone on the Yucatan peninsula. Where others might get off solely on the merits of a wicked first descent of an underground river, Ammons linked the expedition’s goals to ancient Mayan lore.

After several days of scouting the hard-to-reach Class V underground river, the expedition members decided it could be done. “It’s the most absurd place to be with a kayak,” Ammons says. The first descent was dark, surreal and roaring.

Mayan creation myths tell a story about two sets of twins who loved playing an intricate ball game. The first were known as the Maize Gods, and their loud playing annoyed the Xibalban—the lords of the underworld. So the Xibalbans killed them and buried their bodies deep under the ballcourt. Unfortunately for the Xibalbans, a daughter was impregnated by one of the Maize Twins, and she escaped the underworld and gave birth to the Hero Twins. After the Hero Twins grew up, they became avid ballplayers, which made the Xibalbans furious. Soon, the Twins were summoned for a life-or-death game down below, but their skillful play kept the game scoreless. Frustrated, the Xibalbans killed the Twins anyway and ground their bones into powder, which they tossed in a river. First reincarnated as fish-men, the Twins eventually evolved into humans and went back down to settle the score. Disguised as dancers they beguiled the Xibalbans, killed them, went back to the ballcourt and revived their fathers. Traveling by canoe, another set of deities known as the Paddler Gods gave the Maize Gods a ride from the underworld to the skies.

And so during the reign of the Maya, the play between good and evil was commemorated with the ballgame, the rules of which are long lost.

Ammons found symbolism in the myths and spun it into a moral in his book:

“As strange and mysterious as this lost game was, it is also inspiring—for what greater game can there be than one where we face life and death, with only our skills to protect us against chance and the vast power of the unknown?”

“Parenting is by far the most difficult risk sport,” Ammons says, and pauses.

Doug and Robin, who is an attorney, live with their son and four daughters in a white house next door to where Doug grew up. Ammons’ kids have all kayaked, although none of them are as into it as their dad. “I don’t push them, I let them figure out what they want to do,” he says. Like his father before him, Ammons introduces them to things he finds fascinating. They cliff-jump in the river and invent games like underwater climbing. “We pretty much decided that anything you can do on land can be replicated underwater.”

Although he loves spending time with his family, his demanding lifestyle often took him away, putting pressure on his wife. From 1984 until his last major expedition in 1999, Robin Ammons was what she calls a kayak widow.

“That last trip almost put me over the edge,” she says now. Doug was gone for three weeks exploring steep rivers in northwestern Nepal, leaving her with the exhausting task of balancing five kids and law school. “He’s extremely busy, but we believe love is what’s most important—and you can put that in capitals.”

About five years ago, Ammons’ health hit what he calls rock bottom and he had to recover onshore. “There’s only so many tens of thousands of hours of sleep that you can miss and only so much stress that you can put on yourself before your body says ‘fuck you,’” he says, chuckling. “In my case it was my heart.” His arrhythmic heart can get so bad that he can’t get up and walk across the room.

“I don’t have a barrier about pushing myself, and my problem is that I can go way beyond what my body can do. You have to learn that pain is not necessarily weakness leaving the body—it may be dangerous inflicted harm and injury…that you won’t be able to recover from.”

He learned that lesson the hard way and spends less time on the river than he used to as a consequence. He began the journey of becoming one with the razor-sharp sword four months ago, and he’s already demonstrating deftness. Last week, he made two successive perfect cuts, which are nearly impossible: the sword sliced through the target, but the cut pieces remained in place.

“All the energy went into the cut and nothing went into the cut piece,” he says. “So it has no force on it at all, doesn’t even know it’s been cut. And that’s the ideal. For that single cut, that one part of the line is perfect. And in all sports, people strive for that glimpse of purity, a glimpse of perfection.”

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