As a young kayaker taking part in first descents on North America's roughest whitewater rivers, Charlie Munsey would occasionally pause amid the fear of paddling into the unknown and sit in awe of the majesty around him.

As a young kayaker taking part in first descents on North America's roughest whitewater rivers, Charlie Munsey would occasionally pause amid the fear of paddling into the unknown and sit in awe of the majesty around him.

And on occasion, he'd snap a few photos of the rivers, the waterfalls and his fellow kayakers with a little waterproof camera he carried.

"I was getting into places no one else could get into," recalls Munsey, 46. "I have chances to take pictures of stuff that's never been seen."

What started with a point-and-shoot camera tethered to his life jacket evolved into a career capturing digital images of some of the most wild rivers in the world and the rare breed of kayakers who challenge them.

From the towering waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest to Canada's most rugged canyons and even to the wonders of the Himalayas, Munsey and his cameras have unveiled some of the world's wildest places.

Munsey now takes his images on the road with him. On Thursday he'll bring his "Legendary Wild River Descents" slideshow to the Southern Oregon University campus in Ashland. The presentation, which is set for 7 p.m. at SOU's Meese Auditorium, is presented by SOU's Outdoor Adventure Leadership Program.

Munsey will talk about the basics of kayaking and the exploration of what is considered the Triple Crown of North American kayaking descents — Turnback Canyon on the Alsek River in western Canada and Alaska; Devil's Canyon on the Susitna River in Alaska; and the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River in British Columbia.

He will relate some of the history of kayaking, including the first descent of Turnback Canyon in 1971, accomplished solo by Walt Backadar, which Munsey considers one of his sport's greatest achievements, and explore the evolution of the sport over the past 40-some years. He'll talk about the passing of the sport's torch in the late 1970s to Rob Lesser, who toured the country selling kayaks before there was a single kayaking store in the United States, Munsey says.

Then the show will travel to the Himalayan Mountains, where Munsey was a guide and took part in several record river expeditions.

He will also tour some of the most spectacular Pacific Northwest waterfalls conquered by kayakers, including the 186.9-foot Palouse Falls in Washington, which was run by kayaker Rafa Ortiz.

The show will conclude with a trip through The Narrows in Utah's Zion National Park.

A Eugene native, Munsey brings a unique skill set to the outdoors. He's a long-time kayaker and one of just a handful to have completed the Triple Crown, but along the way he learned photography with help from Eric Evans, Munsey's high-school buddy who is the official sports photographer for the University of Oregon.

In the early days, the point-and-shoots captured images good enough to run in a Patagonia catalog, but they were rough tools for someone in churning whitewater trying to get the right angle on a fellow kayaker plunging over a 100-foot waterfall.

"I just couldn't get the settings to shoot fast enough to get good, quality images," he says.

He graduated to Nikon cameras and slide film, often shooting more than 100 rolls each time downriver to get that just-right shot. And like every field photographer, Munsey would never know if he nailed the money shot until the rolls came back from the developer.

"I spent a long time shooting film before going digital, and that's good because it makes you a better photographer," Munsey says. "You have to be more precise."

By 2002, he had become equal parts photographer and kayaker, though still shooting film.

He moved into the digital world in 2005. Like other photographers, he can check the viewing screen on the back of his camera body to see whether the shot's what he wanted.

Munsey, who now lives in the kayaking mecca of southwestern Washington, says he normally heads into an expedition knowing the types of compositions he hopes to capture, but getting to those spots is by far the hardest part of adventure photography.

When chronicling first descents, Munsey often has to be the first kayaker to run a stretch so he can set up and shoot the remaining members of the expedition.

"When you're doing that, you're inevitably scared," Munsey says. "You literally don't know what's around the corner. You could end up at a 50-foot waterfall with no way around it. It wears on your psyche."

Or Munsey goes last to capture photographs from on high. That poses challenges of its own.

"That's always the fear of swimming in canyons you can't get out of," Munsey says. "There's no one to help you, but at least if you swim, they're at the end to get you."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or Follow him at