Daredevil braves Sunset Falls with kayak

By Chris Hendrickson

At first glance, he seems an unlikely daredevil. But give him a river and a boat, and Index resident Rob McKibbin is unstoppable.

McKibbin has run some of the most challenging whitewater in Snohomish and King counties, and is one of the few kayakers to have successfully navigated the notoriously formidable Sunset Falls. Located on the south fork of the Skykomish River near Index, Sunset Falls is considered a Class VI rapid, which is as dangerous as it gets. According to river advocacy group American Whitewater, Class VI rapids “have almost never been attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. The consequences of errors are very severe and rescue may be impossible.”

McKibbin hasn’t just run Sunset Falls once; he’s done it three times. 

Those who live near Sunset Falls are familiar with the breathtaking force of the water as it cascades down a granite chute that extends around 275 feet in length. The precarious 104-foot vertical drop produces an energetic amount of spray as the river rhythmically beats its way to the pool below.

Prior to his first run in 2008, McKibbin had been eyeing the falls with halting curiosity.

He was familiar with the area because there was a recreational access point at the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife Trap and Haul at that time, located adjacent to the falls on the north side of the river. He had never really thought about running it, he said, until one day while he was hiking in the area with some friends. They tossed around the idea of attempting to run the bottom 20 or 30 yards, but even that seemed like a death wish.

Later on, McKibbin decided he wanted to go for it, and not just the bottom 20 or 30 yards; he wanted to run it from the top. It was just one of those random ideas, he said.  

“I wasn’t even on the river. I was shopping at a QFC or something and I was in the produce section,” McKibbin said. “The idea just came to me for no reason.”

It was a few more months before it all came together. He had a construction job, and was building a house near Sunset Falls. As he rode past the waterway every day on his way to work, the self-professed “river rat” felt more and more compelled to try it. So one day on his lunch break, he did.

“I ran the drop and then went back to work,” McKibbin said. “I was about a half-hour late.”  

He was the second person ever to run Sunset Falls –the feat was first accomplished in 1926 by daredevil Al Faussett, who performed the stunt in a 32-foot canoe called the Skykomish Queen. McKibbin was the first ever to do it in a kayak.

After McKibbin braved the chaotic descent in 2008, a couple of other local kayakers followed suit. And then, in 2012, he decided to give it another go. But this time the amount of water pouring through the chute was much more significant — estimated at roughly 7,500 cubic feet per second (CFS) — which affected his ability to have good positioning as he went down.

“The first time I went down, I spun around, so I was going down backwards for part of it,” McKibbin said. “So I had no idea where I was going.”

He wasn’t particularly happy with the run, so he climbed back up to the top and did it again.

“The second time I really rushed it, and there’s this wave you have to kind of get up and over and I actually flipped over,” McKibbin said.

In addition to running Class VI rapids like Sunset Falls and Class V Log Choke Falls on the Tye River, McKibbin has earned numerous honors, including winning first place in the Robe Canyon Race, an extreme Class V whitewater racing event that takes place on the Stillaguamish. Later, he added second, third and fourth place to his list of Robe Race wins. He’s twice taken second in downriver races during the Wenatchee River Festival, and has prevailed at Professor Paddle and numerous other kayaking “rodeos,” meant to showcase technical maneuvers.

In a rodeo, riders demonstrate their skills on the water oftentimes using “playboats,” which are shorter than typical creek boats and used primarily for tricks.

He’s kayaked all over the Pacific Northwest and beyond, and has been featured in Canoe & Kayak Magazine. He’s faced challenging rapids, but Sunset Falls was the most intense, he said.

“There’s other stuff that’s pretty scary also, but Sunset Falls would be the pinnacle,” McKibbin said.

He was 43 when he first ran Sunset Falls in 2008. Not bad for someone who didn’t start kayaking until he was 33 years old.

Originally from Chicago, McKibbin moved to Washington in 1993 to be closer to his family. He first lived in Bellevue and then moved to Monroe, where he became intrigued by the river.

“When I first moved out here, I lived in Monroe and I’d commute out to Bellevue,” McKibbin said. “Crossing over the Snohomish River on 522 got me very interested in getting on the river, so I first got into rafting and that led to kayaking.”

He took some classes at Wave Trek — now the Outdoor Adventure Center — a whitewater rafting company near Index owned by Chris Jonason, at the time. He ended up going to work for Jonason, after a change in his employment status inspired him to spend his summer on the river. According to McKibbin, he became a “Wave Slave,” tasked with everything from scrubbing toilets to repairing boats — anything to get him more time in a kayak.

He edged closer to the river in other ways too. He moved from Monroe to Gold Bar, and eventually settled in Index, where he’s lived for around 10 years.

In the mid-2000s, Wave Trek operations were taken over by the Corson family; Bill, his wife, Karen, and their children, Blair, Jared, Justin and Jessica. They relocated the business on Avenue A in Index and began running rafting and kayaking expeditions from the old Index Tavern and its surrounding riverside property. Prior to that, the Corsons operated their Outdoor Adventure Center in Redmond, and were well-known for their expertise in outdoor recreation and working with youth.

Bill and Blair were the first father-son team to go through guide training with Orion Expeditions, Bill said.

The multifaceted adventure company offers both family-friendly and whitewater river rafting, kayak instruction, rescue and safety training, guide training, private instruction, standup paddle boarding, inflatable kayaking, sea kayaking and more.

McKibbin stayed on after the Corsons took over, and works for them as a safety kayaker, riding alongside rafting excursions to ensure the safety of their clients. Oftentimes, he’ll push out ahead, scouting out the river in search of hazards. He also teaches and occasionally acts as a private guide.

“Rob McKibbin has been a steadfast supporter, great safety guide, instructor, mentor for new boaters, friend and the best emcee we have had at any event,” Bill Corson said.

McKibbin has earned himself an excellent reputation on the water.  

Lake Forest Park resident Lora Cox owns property near Index, and enjoys spending time on the Skykomish River. Her experiences with McKibbin have been vastly positive, she said.

“I appreciate having Rob on the water with me. When I was kayaking more actively several years ago, he assisted in a refresher class I took. His excellent skills in his boat and quiet demeanor were a great comfort to me,” Cox said. “I could relax and focus on whatever task the teacher had for us students when Rob was around.”  

As a safety guide, he has a special knack, she added.

“It’s difficult to describe the sense of safety and security that he imparts,” Cox said.

When asked what he loves the most about kayaking, McKibbin has a hard time pinpointing one specific thing. He happens to be good at it, he said, which allows him to truly feel alive and at ease on the water. Some people love to sing, some people love to dance, some people love to play guitar, McKibbin said. He happens to love hucking down intense Class VI waterways like Sunset Falls.

“It’s just a great feeling,” McKibbin said. “For whatever reason, the water does that for some of us.”

For more information on Outdoor Adventures, visit www.outdooradventure


Photos by Chris Hendrickson McKibbin is naturally at ease even in the most challenging of waters. Boulder Drop, located on the Skykomish River near Index, is considered a Class IV rapid or higher, depending on how much water is running through it


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