“To have them react as though he was someone who was really, really close to them was totally unexpected,” said West’s sister, Pam Mayer. “He had this effect on everybody. This was not just his family members. Some of these sentiments came from people he met over a weekend.”
West’s insatiable thirst for adventure led him to open Ace Funyaks & Kayaking School in Ocoee. For 15 years he taught students through individual instruction. According to friends, his teaching approach garnered him “multiple generations of loyal students and the respect and admiration of accomplished paddler’s worldwide.”
Thrill seekers in the Ocoee region respected West for his incredible athleticism and his encyclospedic knowledge of the Ocoee. West was dubbed “Superman” for his uncanny ability to be at the right place, at the right time, to pull paddlers out of dangerous situations.
West, 42, died kayaking the Stikine River in British Columbia on Sept. 10. He once wrote in a Jackson Kayak blog post, “The end result of a Stikine trip is usually black and white. You either succeed or you are lucky to survive.”
Mayer was on the phone with the Canadian police when she received a phone call from her best friend in Kentucky. Her friend wanted to know what was going on with Mayer’s younger brother, Jeff.
“I almost fainted,” Mayer said. “I asked her how she knew. Someone had posted it on Facebook just like that.”
An almost immediate response came from West’s friends. People from around the world began sending their condolences, respects, tributes and memories of West. These people not only knew West as the designer of the Perception Lucid kayak and kayak writer, but also as a genuine person.
“Anytime we met a kayaker we would ask if they knew Jeff West and they would say ‘yeah,’ and that was pretty cool,” Mayer said. “We knew he had fame and we knew he had articles published in magazines and he had awards ... but there are a lot of people who are famous for their skills in kayaking.”
She added, “He was remembered for other things, not just that. He was remembered because he was a caring person.”
Mayer knows firsthand the type of person her brother was. Every weekend he would drive two hours to spend time with his mother, Barbara. According to friends, he spent as many days possible taking her to lunch at Julia’s in Dawsonville, Ga. The two would go on walks alongside the Amnicola River and play thousands of games of their own version of “Go Fish.”
“The thing that was so touching was that the restaurant staff [Julia’s] did not realize he was a great kayaker,” Mayer said. “They only knew him as the son who came every week to take care of mama so I would have a break. They still found him to be a wonderful person.”
When the staff of Julia’s heard the news, they came out of the restaurant to hug West’s mother who was sitting in a car.
Mayer was not surprised by the appreciation of her brother’s character so much as how far-reaching his effect on others had been. Friends and family said Jeff never bragged or spoke of his accomplishments beyond general conversation.
“His friends wanted to do a memorial run that very weekend [after West’s death] and I believe his close friends in the area did,” Mayer said.
A bond began to develop between West’s family and his friends.
“I was in conversation with the people he worked with from the start and it was like we became one family,” Mayer said. “From the third or fourth day of talking with them, we decided family and friends should celebrate one and the same.”
They settled on a memorial service to he held Oct. 13, noon, at the Ocoee Whitewater Center Pavilion. A Memorial River Run will take place at 3 p.m. starting at Dam #2 on the Ocoee.
Life has been a whirlwind of planning, remembering and applying for permits by Mayer and West’s friends. Mayer said she has talked to National Forest Service authorities to have the event approved for so many people.
“We found all the official people very helpful and glad to work with us,” Mayer said. “Most all of them knew Jeff personally and are part of the celebration. The guys in Canada have been real nice, as well.”
Mayer is uncertain how many people will turn up for the river run. She anticipates there will be a lot of people as West’s friends are passing the information out via word of mouth and social media sites. Volunteers will manage traffic flow and the parking lots.
Friends, family members and well-wishers may stay following the river run to celebrate West’s large life at Cascade Outdoors on Highway 64 at 6 p.m.