|O'Connor hangs out with
"Jambo" at her home in Montpelier, Vermont.
Cameron O’Connor’s first time putting
on a backpack was a sign of things to come. At age
16, she was on her first day of a NOLS Winter Ski course.
O’Connor couldn’t even lift her pack.
“For the first two days, I had to have someone
help me put the backpack on,” she recalls. “Then
I would get on my skis and just plop down in the snow,
pinned under this pack, face down. I didn’t think
I would make it.”
But by the third day, O’Connor says she was
cruising. Not only was she able to lift her pack, she
was out in front leading the course.
This steely determination would define O’Connor
in the years to come. Never afraid to take on heavy
challenges, she would rise to become one of the brightest
stars in whitewater paddling during the 1980s. In 1984,
American Whitewater magazine would call her “a
meteor streaking across the firmament of kayaking.”
Raised in the suburbs of New York City, O’Connor’s
life for many years was more about couture than gnarly
Class V rapids. She earned a bachelor’s degree
from Evergreen State College, received her master’s
from Middlebury in French literature, and then moved
to France. In between, she also added a NOLS North
Cascades Mountaineering course to the mix.
But as the youngest daughter in a family with two
big brothers, O’Connor just seemed made for tougher
things. She left France and moved to the Pacific Northwest,
where she joined the Washington Kayak Club. The rest,
as they say, is history.
“I saw all these kayakers when I moved West,” O’Connor
says. “And I became totally enamored by kayaking.
The first thing I did was buy a car. Then I got a kayak.”
O’Connor’s single-minded focus had her
tackling Class V rapids just months after she began
the sport. In 1983, she organized the first women’s
kayaking expedition in South America, bagging a first
decent of Chile’s Rio Puelo. She also joined
the pro whitewater rodeo circuit, winning three rodeos
in 1983 and beating out her male competitors. She completed
a run of the Payette’s North Fork at 1700 cubic
feet per second (cfs) and did numerous exploratory
runs in British Columbia and Chile.
|This photo of Cameron O'Connor
diving into British Columbia's Callahan Creek was
published in the November 1984 issue of American
In the 1980s, O’Connor was in the spotlight—breaking
records and tackling rivers that sent her lurching
into monster holes. She attempted one rapid, called
the Wall Drop, that sent her catapulting in waves over
12,000 cfs (that’s a lot of water). She was found
later upside down in her boat, still clutching her
Now, at 51, she looks back on these crazy days on
the water. “I wasn’t competitive about
it… I was just trying to keep up with the boys,” O’Connor
says. “Women would come up to me and say I was
an inspiration. I would say ‘that’s great
because any girl can do it.’”
The ambitious paddler didn’t like being in the
spotlight and ducked out of it eventually. Today, O’Connor
still pursues outdoor activities, but there are no
rivers near where she lives in Vermont—at least
not the kind of rivers she became used to paddling.
But she still pages through the many articles published
about her. “It’s like reading about someone
else,” she says. “I think ‘wow, that
- Kerry Brophy