Staring down a lion, falling down a waterfall and barrel rolling in a plane are all in a day’s work for three intrepid alumni
Bennett Smith ’19 can admit it now. He used to be a little afraid of water. “I was always scaring my parents by jumping off tall stuff or doing backflips on the ground, but I was never daring in water,” he says. These days, though, the water can’t be too deep or too tall for the championship kayaker who loves to go over waterfalls.
Smith is the living embodiment of “a spirit that is not afraid,” and he’s far from the only one. Whether it’s on land, in water or high in the air, Auburn grads are filled with adventure.
We caught up with Smith, hiker Jessica “Dixie” Mills ’12 and acrobatic pilot Mac Cook ’20 to talk about their thrilling
BENNETT SMITH: Extreme paddling
Its official name is a “Blunt to McNasty,” but this is really what you need to know about Bennett Smith’s signature move. “You do a cartwheel in a kayak and a front flip right after it,” he says.
Oh, and one more thing: “I don’t think anyone had ever done it off waterfall, and I nailed it last year.” Smith began kayaking around age 13, intrigued by a friend,
Davis Moers, who was doing tricks in the canoe-like paddle boat. “I thought it looked cool to go off waterfalls,” Smith says. They started posting videos of themselves doing flips in their kayaks on YouTube. Smith was also taking lessons that would eventually lead him to the U.S. freestyle kayaking team.
He has competed in three world championships, including one with a dislocated shoulder.
At the same time, he spends his weekends conquering big rapids and going down tall waterfalls.
“That’s really what went viral—the videos of me doing that,” Smith says. “I’m combining freestyle kayaking with river-running, and that seems to be what’s caught the public’s attention. It’s what I have the most fun doing.” That includes a video of him doing flips and rolls off Little River Falls in northeast Alabama that landed on Fox News in late December 2020.
It’s safer than it looks, Smith says. “A lot of people think it’s crazy, that you could land on a rock or something, but everything is very calculated,” he says.
“Before I go down, I’ve been there in the summer to swim to the bottom to make sure it’s deep enough and safe enough. People are also stationed at the bottom with ropes and safety equipment.”
Smith chose Auburn in large part because of kayaking. “I’ve been an Auburn fan my whole life—both my parents went there—but it’s also very close to some world-class whitewater,” he says. “I could go after class to Columbus, Ga., or to Lake Martin to the Tallapoosa River.”
At 24, Smith says he’s “just getting started” when it comes to kayaking. He has a coach and continues to train for the U.S. freestyle kayak team and tackle waterfalls yet to be conquered. “I’ve been compiling a list of ones that have never been done before and ticking them off,” Smith says. “I find one on Google Earth, walk miles to find it, scout it out, go back with a crew and do it.”
That’s particularly easy to do from Chattanooga, Tenn., where Smith moved after graduating in 2019 and now lives with his wife, Kathleen. He’s a sales rep for a logistics company, but he’s never far from his kayak.
“That’s really one of the main reasons I moved up here,” Smith says of Chattanooga’s proximity to kayaking waters. “It’s a pretty cool city, but I can also sneak away before lunch or after for a quick kayak session.”
‘DIXIE’ MILLS: Walking tall
And then there was the time Jessica Mills tried to fight off a mountain lion with a harmonica.
“For a minute and a half, this mountain lion and I were staring at each other,” says Mills, a 2012 graduate in biosystems engineering. “I thought, what if I can make a noise to let it know I’m not its food. I had this harmonica, so I pulled it out and blew into it. Then I thought, what if this sounds like a dying
bird or something? So, I stopped and stood there a minute, and it went away.”
Such is a day in the life of Mills, who quit her job in 2014 to hit the trail—literally. She started working on her website full time and now gives advice to hikers around the world, all the while chronicling her own hikes with blog posts, photos and videos. Mills, who grew up in and still lives in Opelika, dreamed from about age 5 of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. (Thruhiking means finishing the trail in a 12-month period; section hikers might do it over several years).
“We’d go to North Carolina on a vacation, and I remember seeing a sign saying ‘Appalachian Trail,’” Mills recalls. “I asked my mom about it, and she explained that it was what crazy people walked from Georgia to Maine. I said, ‘Wow, let’s go do that.’ She said, ‘Someday, when you grow up.’”
That day came in 2015, when Mills—given the trail name “Dixie” by those in the hiking community—hiked the 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail from March through October. “I didn’t know if I’d do another one, but within two months, the trails were calling again,” she said.
Since then, Mills has completed hiking’s “triple crown” by thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (2,650 miles in 2017) and the Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles in 2018).
But there are other hikes to walk, and Mills chronicles all her exploits, from the Camino de Santiago in Europe to the Florida Trail she started in February.
“There is something about walking somewhere that you can’t drive, knowing that the only way you can enjoy something is by walking there,” she says. “Those long hikes take me about six months. I do go slow and smell the roses. If you’re watching my videos, I want you to feel what it’s like on the trail.”
The 34-year-old walks alone and in groups. Aside from an encounter with a black bear and the aforementioned mountain lion, plus some snakes and alligators along the way, she’s remained safe. But it’s still difficult sometimes for Mills to convince people of the allure of hiking.
“A lot of people think you’ve lost your mind,” Mills says. “It’s not that people don’t want to see you chase your dreams— they’re concerned for your safety. So many people have a lot of fear about anything outside of their comfort zone, and they kind of put that on other people.
“But I’m very happy and fulfilled now,” she adds. “You can’t listen to the naysayers.”
MAC COOK: Out of the box
Twenty to 30 degrees nose up or down. Sixty degrees of roll or pitch.
That’s “the box” Mac Cook says private pilots are contained in, unless they take it upon themselves to learn more. “When you’re getting your license and learning how to fly, those are your constraints,” he says. “Anything outside of that is considered aerobatics. They don’t teach you that. It’s not a
required learning experience, but when you do, you begin to see what the plane can do.”
Cook has known for a while what an airplane can do. He grew up in Waverly, outside of Auburn, flying with his father, who is an acrobatic pilot. The younger Cook earned his pilot’s license in high school and graduated with a degree in professional flight management from Auburn last year. He’s now a flight instructor at the Auburn airport, and he likes to get a bit more adventurous on the weekends—doing rolls and other acrobatic moves.
“I’ve always liked doing things that are a little bit more adventurous or a little bit far off for some people, I guess,” says Cook, 22. “I’ve always had that speed and thrill bug inside of me.” That’s what led him to break out of the box of being a pilot and take it a step further to do acrobatics.
“The best way I can explain it is expanding the envelope of what an airplane can do and seeing what I can do,” he says. Cook also teaches others to do just that. On a recent weekend, he took a fellow pilot out to give him “upset recover and prevention training.” “We went through a set list of maneuvers and put him in all sorts of positions he probably had never been in,” Cook says. “He had to figure out how to get out of those situations.”
When he’s flying acrobatically—usually in a Russian trainer plane owned by his father—Cook says he “doesn’t do anything too crazy.”
“It’s big, slow maneuvers, not crazy stuff you see in air shows,” he says. “We do barrel rolls and loops—things that keep the airplane flying instead of it running out of energy. I kind of know my limitations, and people I fly with know their limitations, and we tend to stick to that. We stay pretty safe.” Cook has a younger brother who is following in his and his father’s footsteps, but his older sister is “completely disinterested,” as is his mother.
“My mom doesn’t like it at all,” he says. “She doesn’t try to discourage us, but she won’t partake in the activities…not everyone has the stomach for it. That’s what makes it unique, I guess.”