Gage Forrest Laughton: From Wayby To The World

Kayaking over waterfalls and rockslides might seem adventurous, but for 12-year-old Gage Forrest Laughton, it’s just an average weekend.

For the last five years, the Wellsford youngster has delighted fans around the world with his daredevil kayak descents. “I’m determined and I just focus on the outcome,” he says. “I do get scared if it’s massive, but I try not to think about it.”

Gage was just seven when he embarked on his first paddling trip with his father Lee and sister Darcie, then 12. Both kids found the gentle lake waters ‘a bit boring’.

So Lee, a former competitive paddler and multisport athlete, introduced the children to whitewater paddling on grade one rapids in the Karangahake Gorge. “I just loved the way the boat moved on the water,” Gage recalls.

A few weeks later, Lee snapped a photo of Gage descending a grade three waterfall on a neighbour’s farm in Wayby Valley. He sent the image to a Canadian paddling magazine and the picture went viral. “Gage was a bit of a freak doing this at just seven years old,” says Lee. “People loved it!” 

“I never expected the reaction, but it felt amazing,” says Gage. “It made me really get into paddling.”

Sponsors called and gear began arriving in the post. Soon Gage was tackling bigger rapids, like the Kaituna River near Rotorua. “People wanted more, so I encouraged him to go further,” recalls Lee. 

By age nine, Gage was feeling the pressure. “We drove seven hours to a waterfall and he refused to paddle,” Lee recalls. “I felt like Homer Simpson! I told the sponsors we had to slow down. “And now I just let Gage lead. If he’s not begging to go paddling, there’s no point. Once I stopped pushing, he excelled.”

The family regularly travels around the North Island looking for backwater creeks and rivers where Gage can be recognised for the ‘first descent’, carrying gear three or four kilometres up dirt tracks to find access. 

Last year Gage became the youngest person to tackle ten-metre Tawhai Falls, near Ruapehu. “I looked at it and thought "I’m going back to the truck.’” With support from Darcie and Lee, he pushed on. “Dad and I look at the river from the shore and work out the safest route. Then I just go do it and enjoy it.”

“I know his limits and find challenges I believe he can cope with,” says Lee. “There have been times we’ve got in the water and called it off. Safety comes first.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been a few spills. “I was dragged against a rock wall on the Kaituna,” says Gage. “The adrenaline was going pretty hard.” 

Despite just finishing year seven at Wellsford Primary School, Gage has already taken multiple medals at the national secondary schools kayaking championships. Last winter, he earned further accolades when he tried archery, taking the national under-13 bow hunting title in his first season. “It was quite cool to discover a whole new sport I can do at the same time as kayaking.”

Archery, he says, is also about determination. “I need to focus inwards and stop worrying about the other kids.”

As for the future? “People ask if I want to go to the Olympics, but I don’t really think about medals. I’ve been invited to paddle the Zambezi and I’d love to go to the States.”

For now he’ll spend summer camping around the North Island in their converted farm trailer with Lee, Darcie, border collie Buddy and a well-regarded paddler visiting from the UK. “I’m looking forward to paddling with a new face and showing him around.”

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