Tuesday, February 5, 2008

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World champion kayaker counts Kelso complex among toughest challenges

Sunday, February 3, 2008 2:21 PM PST

By Amy Fischer / afischer@tdn.com

Rehabilitating an apartment complex nicknamed "Felony Flats" isn't for the faint of heart -- and that's why Corvallis resident Jesse Coombs was the perfect man for the job.

The owner of Kelso's 1240 N. Pacific Ave. apartments is a professional kayaker who's conquered raging rapids in North and South America and Europe that were previously thought to be un-runnable.

Coombs, 37, a paddler on the Jackson Factory Team, is renowned among the extreme sports community for his achievements. He's been in magazines such as Men's Fitness, Kayak Magazine and National Geographic Adventure Magazine, and he's a featured paddler on oregonkayaking.net and jacksonkayak.com. Look for a story about him in the upcoming April issue of Men's Health.

Given his resume, it may come as a surprise that Coombs, who graduated from Rutgers University in New Jersey and earned a master's in business administration at Oregon State University, began kayaking only 10 years ago. But since then, he's made countless class V/VI first descents in his kayak over 80-foot-plus waterfalls, canyons, gorges and rivers.

"I haven't really felt fear," Coombs said Tuesday. "That has never really been a huge factor for me, and that is why I think I've been able to do some of those things.. I have a rule about what I'll run and what I won't run, and it basically comes down to my fun factor versus my concern factor.

"I just pay attention to what looks like fun to me," said Coombs, who is single (and looking, he added). "I try not to run things because there's a camera on me or because I have to."

He and a buddy, Ben Stookesberry, made a 2,200 foot-per-mile descent on the Santa Domingo River in Chiapas, Mexico, where they encountered waterfalls, jungles and the Guatemalan border patrol. They traveled by boat, burro and foot deep into the province of Sao Paulo, Brazil to make first descents down mountain slides and waterfalls. In Columbia, they braved the threat of cocaine traffickers, Leftist Guerillas and Paramilitary troops known for kidnapping people for ransom.

Earlier this winter, Coombs went kayaking in Newfoundland and British Columbia. In March, he's heading back to South America to kayak in Brasilia, where the San Fransisco River drops 9,000 feet between its headwaters and the sea.

Why does he do it?

"It puts a smile on my face," Coombs said. "I could find a challenge in many things, but not always in something I love."

In April and May, Coombs and Stookesberry will take a 40-city film tour promoting their documentary "Hotel Charley: The Lost World." (Hotel Charley stands for "hard core" in military speak, Coombs explains.) The kayaking adventure film, the third in the Hotel Charley series produced by Stookesberry's and Coombs' company, Clear H2O Films, documents the pair's exploration into the forbidding terrain and whitewater of Mexico, South and Central America and Asia.

Success as a kayaker, film producer and investor weren't enough for Coombs. He's making a social impact as well by starting a nonprofit corporation in his name to steer kids away from illegal drugs. The Jesse Coombs Foundation introduces children and teens to outdoor sports, showing them that "the greatest excitements in life are achieved without drugs."

In addition to kayaking, Coombs' skills include skiing, snowboarding, mountaineering, mountain biking, navigation and four-wheel driving. He's versatile, he said, not because he's extraordinarily gifted in all those areas, but because he's extremely focused.

"It's not because I'm the greatest athlete out there or the greatest scholar out there," Coombs said. "I'm just pretty good at applying myself."

To learn more about Coombs, visit his Web site at www.jessecoombs.com.