When asked where he lived, Sam Fowlkes didn’t give a street address.
“I live on the Tuckaseigee River, at Double Drop Rapid,” he said. “I’m about halfway down the section that is most popular for paddling. The nearest town is Dillsboro.”
Fowlkes moved to Jackson County in 1972 to attend Western Carolina University and the water has kept him here ever since, especially the river in his back yard.
“I probably know more about the Tuck than anyone on earth,” he said.
Fowlkes’ legend has grown in paddling circles, from earning a Red Cross water safety certification at age 16 in 1969 to serving on the American Canoe Association Board of Directors from 2004-2015.
“Celebrating a Paddlesports Legend – Sam Fowlkes” says the cover of the November issue “Paddle” magazine, the official publication of the ACA.
Fowlkes’ involvement with the ACA began in 1977 when he certified as an ACA whitewater kayak instructor while working at Nantahala Outdoor Center as a guide and instructor.
“I was already a college educator, and my paddling skills from racing and guiding were peaking, so the instructor certification seemed like a natural fit,” he said. “This year is my 40th anniversary of being continuously certified as an ACA whitewater canoe instructor. That’s a milestone that, to my knowledge, no one else has met.”
In the paddling world, few, if any, resumes compare to Fowlkes’.
He became an American Red Cross Water Safety Instructor at age 16 in 1969 and an ACA-certified whitewater kayak instructor in 1977 and whitewater canoe Instructor in 1978. He holds a wilderness EMT certification. He has served on the ACA board of directors, given numerous presentations at conferences, published articles on paddling and whitewater safety and has been recognized for service by the Boy Scouts, earning a Silver Beaver award in 1997.
The list of honors and accomplishments takes up a whole page of the magazine.
As an instructor, he can’t estimate the lives he has touched, but one incident sticks out in his mind.
“One of the most serious situations was when I was teaching a level four open canoe instructor course I had a student capsize his canoe and get his foot entrapped on a log that was in the center of the river that you could not see,” he said. “He went into a head-down, a fully compromised airway pin. Ninety percent of the people who get in that situation don’t make it.”
Fowlkes was in a canoe nearby and able to do a boat-based rescue, he said.
“When your head goes underwater, to hold your breath for more than a minute is unlikely,” he said. “We had to pull this rescue off in a minute.”
The student Fowlkes rescued now operates two summer camps in Brevard and has seven kids of his own.
“It would have been pretty tragic if he hadn’t made it,” he said.
Fowlkes has been providing professional level training for colleges, universities, agencies, outfitters, summer camps and clubs for 30 years.
“Around 2000 the Boy Scouts of America asked the ACA to help rewrite the canoeing merit badge book,” he said. “I was fortunate to be asked to be part of the rewrite team and wrote two chapters.”
They found the Tuckaseigee to be perfect for the publication and the Boy Scouts took the illustrative photos using Troop 914 scouts Fowlkes had trained as model paddlers. The BSA/ACA safety video “Reading the Rhythms of Rivers and Rapids” was primarily filmed on the Tuck as well. Fowlkes’ scouting nickname is “Whitewater Sam.”
Currently, Fowlkes continues to serve as an adjunct professor at WCU. He has been schooling students in water-based sports education at the college for the past 20 years. He also teaches a canoeing course for the Physical Education department.
“Where I live on the Tuckaseigee is an ideal venue for teaching,” he said. “I’m really known for the swiftwater rescue aspect. In the spring and summer I conduct generally weekend courses April through July.”
Fowlkes, 67, has no thoughts of retirement.
“I’ll keep going as long as I am physically able,” he said. “I enjoy teaching. I’m still having an impact.”