Thomas Neilson

Age: 24 | Vitals: 6’2”, 200 lbs. | Years Paddling Whitewater: 8 | Current Residence: Burlington, Vermont


I grew up in Arrowsic, Maine, a town of roughly 500 on an island sandwiched between the Kennebec and Sasanoa rivers on the coast. As a kid I spent my time sailing with my dad, trying to ride my bike off the tallest ledges I could find, and fantasizing about whitewater kayaking while paddling a sea kayak.

I got my start as a teenager after looking for something exciting to do. I’d heard from some fishermen at the boatyard where I worked that there was a tidal rapid on the Sheepscot River that folks would surf in kayaks, so I borrowed some old whitewater boats and went to check it out with a couple of friends.

The next year I went to Colorado College, eventually graduating with a degree in Geology. During my time in Colorado, I kept boating but never felt like I was making any significant progress. So after I graduated I decided I needed to put some more effort into paddling and started working as a wilderness trip leader and kayak instructor. After three solid months of paddling every day, all I could think about was kayaking more, and I started to really get into creeking. That was the tipping point for me.

Once I discovered that I could paddle off waterfalls and into remote gorges in my kayak, I couldn’t stop. I flew to Chile to spend a month kayaking with four of my best friends from college. I started working at paddle shops and planning around snowmelt and rainy seasons. When I took a job working for a college study-abroad program on sailboats in the Caribbean and South Pacific, I tried to schedule my three-month contracts around the boating season. When my girlfriend decided to go to grad school in Portland, Oregon, one of the ways she convinced me to leave Maine was to talk about the kayaking out there.

Thomas Neilson, Blister Gear Review
Thomas Neilson, Big Fluffy, Opal Creek, Oregon. (Photo: Dave Hoffman)

I spent a full year in Oregon teaching whitewater and coastal kayaking and paddling almost every day off I had. Eventually, I started to feel like maybe I should try something else for a little while, and I ended up in grad school in Burlington, Vermont, studying land use and erosion in large river basins. Luckily for me, there is really good boating here, too.

Over the past three years I have gone from spending almost all of my river time in a playboat to becoming a dedicated creek-boater. I love steep, technical whitewater, long continuous boulder gardens, and deep, committing gorges.

My top six favorite rivers, in order, are: (1) Gulf Hagas, Maine, (2) the West Branch of the Penobscot, Maine, (3) the Rio Nevado, Chile, (4) the Big Branch, Vermont, (5) tie between the Little White Salmon, Washington, and Salmon River Gorge, Oregon. I still make it out in my playboat to spots like LaChine and Habitat 67 in Montreal, but it is almost always to or from a creek.


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