One of the best and brightest young U.S. paddlers died in a kayaking accident near Seattle on Sunday.
Twenty-seven-year-old Xavier Engle of Anchorage -- a graduate of West High School and Dartmouth College -- was living in the Seattle area while enrolled in the WWAMI Regional Medical Education Program at the University of Washington, which trains physicians for the Northwest. Engle had already completed a fellowship at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and become a cancer researcher during his undergraduate years at Dartmouth.
But what he was best known for in Alaska, and among paddlers, was his whitewater boating skill. Engle spent summers as a raft guide, was one of the stars in the 2010 film "New Horizon: An All-Alaskan Whitewater Film," and he paddled for a time as a sponsored athlete for Fluid Kayaks.
Engle drowned after an accident on the Stillaguamish River. Details remain sketchy. KOMO News in Seattle reported he was padding in the river's Robe Canyon with two friends when he apparently overturned and came out of his boat.
"He was located by friends several minutes after he went under, but they were unable to bring him to shore or resuscitate him,'' the station reported. The Seattle Times reported that his body was recovered Monday.
American Whitewater calls the Stillaguamish a Class V "creek run with a big-water feel.''
"Considered one of North America's classic whitewater runs, and the Class V standard for boaters in Western Washington, the run starts with 5 1/2 miles of class I/II before slamming into a 3-mile canyon of class IV, V, and V+ rapids,'' says the organization's website.
Engle, who honed his paddling skills on the Kenai Peninsula's Six Mile Creek with its Class V whitewater, was familiar with paddling in such conditions.
He lived life by the motto that headlined the story he wrote for the front page of The '09 Grapevine at Dartmouth in June 2011: "Work Hard, Play Harder.''
"Few people I have ever met in my lifetime had as much charisma or good energy as Xav emitted,'' said friend Tim Johnson, another noted Alaska kayaker who's significantly older than Engle. "I met Xav a long time ago, before he was old enough to drive. I would pick him up at his house almost every week to go white-water kayaking down the local rivers and creeks here around Anchorage.
"We were good paddling buddies, good skiing buddies, went on incredibly epic adventures together here in Alaska, filmed a kayaking movie together, and spent a large amount of time hanging out around campfires playing instruments and pondering the next adventure. Xavier and I pondered the idea of starting a new white-water festival in Alaska on Six Mile Creek back in 2007, which finally happened a little after Xav left the state (to pursue his medical education) and is now the Six Mile Creek Whitewater & Bluegrass Festival."
Friends were flooding his Facebook page with tributes on Monday. Not only was Engle well-known in Anchorage, but so was his mother, Pam Engle, a longtime physician's assistant at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center.
Engle credited her with helping get him started on the path toward becoming a doctor.
"So the truth is, a big part of me never wanted to go to college,'' he wrote in that June edition of the Dartmouth Grapevine. "My senior year of high school, I was all set on taking at least a year off to go wander and explore rivers and mountains all over the world. Fortunately for me, my mom convinced me to at least apply to schools. I lucked out and got into Dartmouth, was stoked to have the chance to go to a school where I could pursue both my outdoor passions and academic goals, and the rest was history.''
Along with his mother, Engle left behind companion Kaitlyn Kennedy.
NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Engle's age as 24.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing