The Rivers He Knows

Jonathan Blum ’06 built his entire life around his love of white-water kayaking.

Balanced precariously in his orange kayak on the lip of a 70-foot waterfall, Jonathan Blum ’06 was feeling confident. Three of his friends had safely made it down to the pool below. But as he accelerated down the Chilean torrent and landed in the white water, his head and wrist smacked the kayak’s hard plastic deck. When he surfaced, blood was streaming from his nose and his left wrist wasn’t working. Both were broken.

Jonathan Blum ’06, riding a waterfall in his signature orange kayak
Jonathan Blum ’06 rides a waterfall in his orange kayak.

Jonathan grew up in Eugene, Ore., and first paddled a river on his father’s lap at the age of 3. He began working as a white-water rafting guide in high school, continued through college, and guided internationally. But in 2009, at the end of a five-month paddling journey through Peru, Chile, and Argentina, he experienced a new vulnerability at the bottom of the Salto del Nilahue waterfall. “You’re not as invincible as you thought you were,” he told himself while recovering from surgery on his shattered radial bone. “You know working and playing in the river day in and day out is not necessarily sustainable. So, what else do you want to do?”

He had majored in business and communication studies at Puget Sound and interviewed with business consulting firms before graduating, but quickly realized that what he calls “normal employment” wasn’t for him. “It just seemed like a mismatch for my passion—for being outside, having a flexible schedule, and having time to do things I love,” he says.

But after that disastrous nosedive in Chile, he realized that while living his dreams was important, he needed something that would provide him with a steady income and lower risk for injury. He also wanted to contribute to society in a meaningful way. As a white-water guide, he had been trained as an EMT and enjoyed it, so he decided to become a registered nurse. He bought a fixer-upper in the nicest neighborhood of The Dalles, Ore., and started classes at Columbia Gorge Community College, which allowed him to be close to the rivers he knew. Jonathan earned his nursing degree in 2011 and began a career in community health, working at a migrant farmworker clinic in Hood River, Ore. Two years later, he moved to Seattle to get critical care experience at a larger hospital.

“Behind it all was a drive to have a lifestyle that supported the things that I really love doing, like being outside,” he explained. “Nursing offers a unique scheduling opportunity where you can work three days a week and still be full-time.”

He stacked his nursing shifts to work six days straight and have eight days off. After finishing an overnight shift on the sixth day, he would grab his bags and head to Sea-Tac Airport for an overnight flight to his next adventure. He would sleep on the plane, spend a week kayaking and visiting friends, and catch a flight home to land just in time for his first shift back.

Eight years after devising this plan, Jonathan is still a world traveler and kayaker. This winter, he went to New Zealand, Peru, Hawai`i, and Mexico. He works part time in critical care at a small hospital in The Gorge, Ore., and guides during the summers.

Meanwhile, Jonathan has remained involved with Puget Sound. He traveled with the PacRim 2014–15 cohort as the health care coordinator. (In his time off, of course, he paddled all over Asia.) He has also kept in touch with the kayak club, which he created when he was a junior. It began as a white-water kayak instruction club that met twice weekly to practice skills in the pool. Now club members regularly compete in white-water kayaking races and practice their skills on local rivers. Once or twice each spring, some of the students head out to the White Salmon River, near where Jonathan lives, to paddle with the club’s longtime mentor.

“It’s been really amazing,” he says. “It’s like this seed that we planted in 2005 has grown and now, 14 years later, I’m taking a group of 10 students down intermediate kayaking runs and they’re telling me how the kayaking experience at Puget Sound has been one of the most important things they have done in college. That really gets me excited.”


By Anneli Fogt
Photos courtesy of Jonathan Blum ’06
Published April 30, 2019