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Alumni Outdoor Pioneers

Cameron O'Connor
O'Connor hangs out with "Jambo" at her home in Montpelier, Vermont.

Cameron O’Connor
“Paddler Extraordinaire”

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.

Cameron O'Connor
This photo of Cameron O'Connor diving into British Columbia's Callahan Creek was published in the November 1984 issue of American Whitewater magazine.

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 paddle.

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 was fun…’”

- Kerry Brophy

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