In a Van Down by the River Warm days are beginning to grace us along the Front Range of Colorado and with that comes my annual yearning to get back on the water in my whitewater kayak. Although I have kayaked and owned my van for many years, two years ago I made deliberate choices about both that have had significant positive impacts in my life. I decided that I would stop wavering on the sidelines of more serious kayaking and would finally apply myself to become an advanced boater. There were many things I did towards improving my kayaking throughout 2009, and I simultaneously chose to get my 1985 VW Vanagon Westfalia in proper working order so that I would have a kick-ass support vehicle for my adventures.

So in February of 2009, I embarked on my most ambitious mechanical project to date- a complete engine removal and swap for the old Vanagon. There was obviously the financial risk of plunking a few thousand dollars down into a 25 year old van, but even more so, there was the fear of the unknown. I likened the whole process to a human heart transplant. Surely without a heart, a person will cease to be. And without an engine, a vehicle will cease to be. It was certainly ambitious, but it wasn’t as if I were replacing a human heart with another human heart. It was more like I was replacing it with a bionic heart. My van was becoming like Steve Austin. Not only could I rebuild it, but I had new technology, so I could build it better than it was. Better… stronger… Faster…

Apart from prep’ing the 7300 mile, 2003 Zetec engine during a few evenings, it only took two weekends and the evenings in between to rip out the old heart and put in a new one. Granted, I had nice a warm garage and the help of another Bostig convert, but I was astounded that I was able to enact such a dramatic transformation so quickly. I thoroughly documented the whole experience in a series of blog posts and YouTube videos which have attracted tons of Vanagon fanatics who are also considering taking the plunge.

Soon after I completed the engine conversion, I was heading up into the mountains in pursuit of snow and water every chance I got. Whether it was a chilly night at Loveland ski hill, kayaking and camping along the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, or battling the snowy roads towards a desert raft trip, I soon discovered that my Vanagon would be joining me on all my exploits. As the spring and summer progressed, I followed through on my promise to kayak the Class IV stretch of the Arkansas River called the Numbers and promptly thereafter loaded up the van and headed east all the way to the Ottawa River in Canada where I learned kayaking from the very best in the business, EJ himself. A quick trip down to Cape May, NJ to see the family and then it was back to Colorado. Wheh, what a summer! But there was more for the van in 2009. I gathered up friends and motored over 12 hours straight through the night (even as hallucination-induced Ronald McDonald heads hovered over the Utah roadside) to Zion National Park for a long Thanksgiving weekend. Apart from the freezing mornings under the shadow of the Watchman and the spectacular scenery in the canyon, one of my favorite nerdy memories was when I submitted trouble-tickets to Jim from Bostig on pirated WiFi and then re-flashed the ECU of the van while not moving it from its hunkered down camp spot so that I could reinitiate alternator voltage regulation.

My 2010 kayaking season picked up right where 2009 left off. The 70 days of whitewater kayaking from the previous year gave way to to 82 days on the water that were kicked off in earnest with an incredible Memorial Weekend road trip to Glenwood Springs. Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves on record-high water on the Poudre River near Fort Collins as the rain poured and the river swelled all weekend. Our only respite from the incessant moisture was under the van’s awning and in its cozy interior that we packed 8 people into at a time! The kayaking season turned out to be one for the story books, and I excitedly chased water every single weekend and most weeknights throughout the state in search of one more perfect wave. The transformation I made to the van was apparent almost immediately, but the transformation in my kayaking and the confidence I have gained in both over the past two years is hard to state.

So like I said, 2011 is upon us and I am itching to get back out on the water! This year, I fully expect to kayak more than 100 days which will mean a lot cruising around in the van throughout Colorado. One of my hopes is to complete a route that I’m calling the Great-8 that follow rivers from Glenwood to Aspen to Marble to Telluride to Durango to Salida to Buena Vista to Steamboat Springs and finally to Fort Collins! I think it is the perfect Colorado whitewater road trip, but it remains to be seen whether it can be done in 9 days! Until then, wish me luck and if you see a bunch of kayaks on van down by the river, stop by to say Hi…

-Pat Brown, Boulder, CO