The “Realm” is our name for where we roam.  We just go around for a little while and then come back to the real world.   And the Lure is strong. “Just one more good one” , and “One more like that” ARE good enough reasons to get frazzled to the point where you’re not sure what day of the week it is ~ or care.

This is about what little I know of the realm and what zombies have to deal with in that busy world. I wanted it to be a good read for people who’ve never heard of mystery moves- but also for dems who doesum.   So-  for those who haven’t heard, “Mystery Moves”  are when you use a surfboard-thin “squirt boat” to pry under a river’s surface and fly around underwater for a while. Practitioners are sometimes called zombies because they go in druid-like circles all day pursuing bubbles and become entranced by sparkly water and metalflake- and they don’t walk so well because their feet have been cramped in a boat hardly bigger than a ballerina slipper. Mystery moves are done inside whirlpools or seams in the river and it’s kind of like riding a leaf in a tornado just for the fun of it. You can fly as long as you can hold your breath. It’s a superpower.


People have been getting dips in the river like this for a long time. The modern mystery is pretty much done in ‘arenas’ that have names-  like the “Subway” or the “Undertaker”.    And it is most often done entering “the slab” (of current) bow first near the top (upstream end) of an eddyline or seam.

Mysteries that are popular now are mostly done at the top of an eddy- coming out from behind a rock or the beginning of a seam where two slabs converge.  I first experienced these kind of mysteries back in the fall of 1981 in a miniscule sit-on-top boat I designed named the Slake. I was running the upper Gauley and at the bottom of Lost Paddle rapid there’s a strong eddyline where boaters used to get enders where they could stand their boat straight up on end.  I tried it in the Slake but got pulled under instead~ and then did a rocketing bow first exit (now called a Black Attack).  I wasn’t sure what was up with that-  it was at the very dawn of squirt boating.  So- I called them “Unders” instead of enders.

But the first underwater roaming in a squirt boat was done by Jessie Whittemore when he pioneered “subbing out” of holes and “melt downs” into them- both kind of scary rides-  even nowdays! That would have been around 1983/ 1984 and he was getting his helmet completely underwater . Subbing out is an exit to a “Blast” ~~another Whittemore innovation- for kayak at least. Blasting is surfing a hole-  most often a slide type hole of any size- straight on so your stern is submerged under the foam pile-  like everyone does nowdays. But- back in the last millennium there was a time when people only sat sideways in holes like that- very different…  And that was in 4 meter long boats.  Previous era.

But Jessie’s boats were a bit long for mysteries as they are done now. That took an evolution of shorter boats. I pursued designing shorter squirt boats as a means to flatwater cartwheels. But once I’d designed the Baby Arc in Jan. 1983 that goal was a given and flatwater cartwheels became easy.  New issues were on the horizon- like comfort and footbumps.   But-  the footbumpless  Baby Arc was the first squirt boat to get today’s standard mysteries- and that was mostly with my brother Jeff as the captain.  And he got big ones too!

The mystery was first developed as a modified, low-angle cartwheel-  first you capture the bow underwater- then the stern- just like a cartwheel. We rarely got our head under.  It stayed that way for a couple years before we really started roaming to any degree.  This is when Jessie was subbing out and melting down.  So – we were sampling mysteries on our Grand Canyon trip of 1983 but not really roaming until  1986 or so. The mystery was named by Thom Powell in 1985 when I had been telling him about this new move I was trying and we finally got to boat together on the Clackamas and he said, ” So why don’t you show me this new ‘mystery move’ you’ve been talking about?”.   It’s well-named because we don’t know how it works; we just know how we do it.

The next big evolutionary milestone of the mystery was the Schnelle Shred years.  This was a period of many years when Jeff Schnelle was basically the unequalled forerunner of today’s zombies.  Jeff would mostly work at Twisted Sister on the lower Gauley and the Halls of Karma on the New River- classic spots. And, like today’s standards for experts, he would routinely go for more than 20 seconds and alwaaaaays came up flat (patiently)- never pointy (carping for breath). And he was always real humble about it-  just like today’s zombies. My brother Jeff could go big and a few others could go big-  but not like a machine. And he was a handpaddle guy-  this was back when they were a minority.  So- technically Jeff Schnelle is the grandfather of where the sport is today. No brag- just fact.

On my end- I began perfecting my craft as a sandbagger- only doing my best work when no one was around to see it.  I really was one of the best once.  I coulda bin a contenda!  I kept the design wheel turning and evolved better knee and toe bumps- allowing lower chops and I also introduced better hydrodynamic science to the wing-like aspects of squirt boats. Someday I might discuss that design evolution but this isn’t the time.

Most readers are familiar with the modern history of the sport-  the evolution of the World Mystery Championships and the strong clans of zombies that have developed in the Southeast, DC area, Virginia and West Virginia, New England, Great Britain, Canada, Japan, the Pacific Northwest, Wyoming- oh yeah and Reno.  Now we even have listing over 200 arenas around the world.

The Big Picture

Mysteries are most often done in ‘arenas’. These are seams or creases in the structure of the currents- often caused by an eddy behind a rock. There is usually a local history and science regarding the spots.  The specific realm will sometimes have named areas like the ‘parking lot’, ‘area 51’, ‘bad neighborhood’, or ‘ green room’ ~ sometimes where the waiting is easy. Most places are best suited to specific strategies-  although they are also commonly sampled ‘regular” (spinning with the direction of the whirlpools) or “backcut” (where you spin opposite to the flow of the whirlpool).  And you can travel or stall in the realm. One of the funny aspects of mysteries is that if you can’t see the bottom of the river you often don’t know if you are traveling or stalling. You just can’t tell- so you can’t worry about it!

Talking about an arena requires a three dimensional description. The river often has different shapes of currents deep inside compared to what is apparent from the surface. The geometry of your drop must fit into the shapes of the river to some degree.  Often you are looking for a ‘soft’ or ‘sweet’ spot that lets you in easily and begins your trip to deeper currents.

The heart of the river is called the ‘jet stream’ and it is cushioned into position by deep pillows of currents bouncing off all the rocks lining the river bottom.  When you drop into a deep mystery you go below the jet stream into the pillow land and can often be traveling fast and far but have the feeling of being stalled in dead calm water. Sometimes when you are introducing yourself to the jetstream there is a huge impact to warp speed that feels like torment. And you can feel crushed by getting caught in a pinch of currents underwater and yet when you return to the surface you find you haven’t even travelled five feet downstream.  But when it goes well-  you feel like a kid running  between velvet curtains that are squeezing you like a curious monster’s fingers.

The goal of top zombies is to be able to fully exploit a given arena. That would include fully embedding in the jet stream-  or going to hiding spots where you can play a game of patience with your breath- holding. For that you need a perfect flying machine and attitude.  It often takes years to get your boat custom sized perfectly. And you have to be cool under pressure- but keep moving as well.   Spinning the boat is a common coping technique as it is a form of momentum.


There is no one way to do a mystery at any one spot.  You can basically go ‘regular’  or ‘backcut’. One of the cool mysterious aspects of backcut mysteries is that they go very easily although you are spinning in opposition to all the local currents.  If the whirlpool is spinning clockwise- you can effortlessly spin counterclockwise inside it.

The basic principle is that you are becoming a wing at moments when the side of your boat is having a brief encounter with a piece of slab.  You tip the boat down a bit and it acts like a wing to fly you underwater.  The spinning and downwinging provides the energy you need to counter the modest buoyancy the boat has and hold it under. When you get deep- the boat crushes a bit and is less floaty- so it stays under easier.

But at another level- you are really just fitting through the geometry of the river.  You come in with a little forward speed and try to find the exact sweet spot where the river will tug you a bit if you are receptive.  Then your forward momentum changes to spinning momentum and as you fly through the realm your spinning is how you successfully encounter new hits on any available slab.  If something hits you and you spin into it- you can use the spin momentum to downwing and perpetuate the trance.  By spinning you cut the attacking slab with the ends of your boat and nullify its power over you. If you were to stop spinning chances are high that you will have an encounter where you get pushed sideways by a chunk of slab and then your wing stalls out and the ride is over.

Most of the top zombies use handpaddles most of the time now.  That is because they provide two working surfaces at all times where a regular paddle only offers one.  And the main idea is to stay centered and balanced on the wing (your boat)-  the corners will try to slip up from under you and head up. And if you lose your appetite for downtime chances are good you will let a little corner of your boat up- just for a moment- ( called “flinching”).  But that’s enough to make your boat head back to the surface.    So- you have to be tenacious and patient.

Ultimately when you become familiar with an arena you start to know the feeling of your favorite drop by heart.  And you naturally start to find ways to be efficient with that feeling and preserve energy during the drop-  saving it for precious roaming time amidst the bubbles.  Sometimes you encounter these long ropes or tendrils of bubbles and then possibly burst through them like a football zombie- shattering them in all directions.  Sometimes you can get to places where the water acts like jelly- the bubbles just hold still for a moment or two right in front of you- like there’s no up or down in the world. Sometimes in the autumn beautiful leaves will join you in an ephemeral dance. Still- you keep patiently spinning and endure the distractions.

Sometimes your ride is dependent on your intent- you go here and there as if you have a plan. Sometimes you just sign up for the ride because you know how to get in- and you just want to see how things are down there and try to deal with whatever happens.  Anything can happen anytime though and one of the hallmarks of mysteries is that you often don’t know if you are stalled or traveling- or both. There are just no rules. So you have different criteria for success- mostly dependent on your comfort level.  If you start to go below 8’ deep and are feeling the crush- or some violence- and aren’t comfortable with it- you let an edge up and feather your way back up to shallower water.  And when you reach your comfort level-  sometimes called “striking range”- where you know you can get to the surface in a few seconds~  you can ease up your ascent and hang out a while longer. Or maybe you are comfortable with the crush and just grit your teeth a bit and squint your eyes- and the next thing you know you are bumping rocks on the bottom of the river-  often a very gentle section of the realm.


What’s cool about mysteries is that they provide a personal evolution for your spirit. The Realm is a forge where your spirit gets hammered into better shape. Your attitude gets refined.  You have to be bold but not aggressive, and receptive while being suggestive.  Often paddlers will hit emotional horizons that mark their evolution. In the beginning you might have to deal with your fear of being trapped underwater in a tiny tiny boat in very powerful currents.  You may find your fears are an inefficient indulgence.   Later you might have to evolve past being too aggressive and ambitious and stop trying to bull your way through the china closet.   Fear or ambitions don’t get you there.   A sense of belonging will.

But many zombies get lost in the satisfaction horizon- where they couldn’t want anything to go better-  and so they can’t.   That’s a cool way to be.  And if you are really breaking your leash you might find the awesomeness horizon beyond that where you are fully in touch with your inner awesominity-  and can’t imagine how you could be awesomer- or the arena could be awesomer.  But it’s possible.   The main trick is ~~when you get to that point where you are thinking , ”This is unbelievable!”-  don’t think that.       Just believe….

Ultimately to master the sport means to become a perfect student-  ready to learn at any moment. Your equipment becomes a medium and you learn about yourself and the arena. You marvel in the realm. You become seduced and revel in your ‘sub’conscious abilities.  For moments you become part of something much more magical than you can imagine.   You fly.