The Skykomish Rapids are a well-known whitewater for river rafters in the Pacific Northwest.
Just east of King County, the rapids are tucked under the rugged peaks of Mount Index and Mount Persis with the banks surrounded by lush evergreens. The rapids are considered an intermediate difficulty for kayakers making their way through rushing waters for about three miles — until they reach Boulder Drop.
At Boulder Drop, the rapids reach about a class five out of six, according to Whitewater Rafting Guide, with a “technical and challenging passage.” As is the name, Boulder Drop features giant boulders to avoid, violent rapids, fast passages and reversing currents with limited breaks to catch your breath. Class five rapids are recommended for top experts only, and rescue preparations are mandatory.
It’s at this drop that a Kirkland 9-year-old, supported by his family of kayakers, attempted a brave journey in the short film “Between Two Swims.” Ivan Knight is certainly one of the youngest people to ever kayak through the dangerous rapids, his father Christian Knight said, and the film shows Ivan’s persistence through two attempts at Boulder Drop over this past year.
Ivan was comfortable riding through the class three waters that precede Boulder Drop with his family of river rafters. His father Christian got his start at Skykomish Rapids when he was 19, and then spent five years working with a small group that pioneered the now well-known rapids of the Seattle area Class V scene.
According to Knight, one of those partners was Tao Berman, who is a kayaking world champion and broke records by kayaking waterfalls.
“(Berman) and I both learned through the school of hard knocks and hard rocks,” Christian Knight said. “It was an exhilarating and terrifying way to establish ourselves in the sport. I am trying to cut a different path for my children.”
All of the Knight children started kayaking young: older sisters Eleanor Knight and Tilly Jane Knight were both 5 years old, while Ivan was 4.
In the backdrop of the spring and summer of 2020, a time where the great outdoors was one source of often isolated comfort during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ivan was preparing for his decision to try Boulder Drop. He said his main reason for trying it was because the rapids’ turns and paths looked like fun.
“The consequences of mistakes in whitewater can be so dramatic that it forces you to take it really, really slow,” he said.
Ivan and his sister Tilly Jane had just successfully kayak-rolled for the first time in a rapid, where the kayaker uses their body to flip after being capsized — while still sitting in the kayak. Those rolls are essential for a trip like Boulder Drop, where it’s safer to remain in the raft, canoe or kayak than it is to leave it.
Christian Knight compares his children’s training to the learning curve of a young violinist.
“When they knew they could flip over in whitewater and recover without having to swim, it freed them,” Christian said. “So they started experimenting — surfing waves and holes, sliding off rocks, kayaking over chutes. And that’s when their learning accelerated.”
Still, it’s stunning footage for the average person to watch a 9-year-old capsize underwater and flip back over. His father prepared three camera angles to capture everything in the whitewaters for the film, all while riding alongside Ivan.
The film shows Ivan’s first attempt at the Boulder Drop and his comeback, as well as a family with a passion for whitewater. Seeing the Knights discuss the technical feats Ivan would be required to face during his adventure show that even the eldest daughter, Eleanor, 14, already has a wealth of knowledge from a childhood paddling through treacherous waters.
Christian released a short film before on the family’s river journey through the Grand Canyon, and their daughter, then 12-year-old Eleanor, was the youngest girl at the time to successfully challenge its major rapids. That short film, called “20 Seconds in Lava,” received over 70,000 views on YouTube when released in January 2019.
That film shows Ivan’s early rolling skills and all the kids learning to battle the fears of the rapids, for the fun of the sport.
“It’s a fragile love,” Christian says in “20 Seconds in Lava. “But it’s a powerful love.”