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Summer 2007 Issue
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By Brian Eustis, NOLS Grad

NOLS instructor Nate Ostis running the goods.
Photo: Nate Garr

On a map, the river looks eerily like the more famous Colorado River of the Grand Canyon. But we were in the Western Sichuan Province of China, and unlike the Colorado, dams weren’t holding back the rage of this whitewater…yet. The Yalong Jiang River was still a stunning aquamarine, a color rarely seen so far from its glacial source. Mileage, gradient and water volume all led us to believe that our first descent into this veritable whitewater gold mine could double as a rallying cry for the nascent Chinese environmental movement. It’s amazing how utterly wrong we were.

Over the years there have been multiple aborted attempts to descend the 155-mile Yalong Jiang, a major tributary of the Yangtze River. But after several years of planning on our part, schedules, karma and a desire to paddle a world-class river prior to its damming finally aligned. We would tackle it at it’s lowest flow of the year, January.

The expedition consisted of an experienced kayak guide, a NOLS instructor, a college professor, a professional mountain biker, a grad student, a high-tech manager, a real estate agent, a cement sculptor and a bartender. The only thing the nine of us had in common was a deep love for rivers, class V whitewater experience, and a desire to see the world from our kayaks.

Local children in Yajiang, China.
Photo: Nate Garr

After we left the States on Christmas Day 2005, our journey took us from Portland, Oregon through San Francisco, Beijing, Chengdu, Kanding, and finally to our put-in at Yajiang, a small city built onto a narrow ribbon of land alongside the Yalong Jiang before it spills into a triple gorge for nearly 160 miles. After six major stops, several thousand miles and multiple days spent traveling remote roads on a truck, we finally arrived at the Yalong Jiang River on January 1, 2006 and were itching to explore.

Our put-in on New Year’s was memorable. It was an auspicious start as 30-40 locals came to the waters edge to wish us well. They set off thousands of firecrackers as soon as we pushed off from the bank, our kayaks packed with only 10 days worth of food and supplies for this self-supported expedition. A few of us rolled our kayaks to applause and more explosions from the crowd. With clear skies that day, minor whitewater and a lunch stop at a fantastic Tibetan monastery, our expedition was off to a great start.

We were settling into a groove and started to think things would be pretty good for the rest of the trip. The close of the first day found us camped on top of the first significant rapid of the run, Panda Booties, which we named for the panda-faced Chinese house slippers our NOLS instructor Nate Ostis chose to wear as his camp shoes. Nervous energy coupled with thoughts of running early morning class V water made for a difficult night sleep. Our saving grace was that one of our team members scouted what lay immediately downstream of Panda Booties and he reported several hundred yards of class III whitewater. Boy, were we in for a surprise.

Trip leader Travis Winn.
Photo: Nate Garr

Morning found us in our boats and ready for Panda Booties, the first class V rapid of many. All nine members of the expedition ran successful lines, which gave us confidence as we peeled out into the next section of “class III” water. However, immediately after entering the rapid and getting into the main flow of the river, I crested some disturbingly large waves for what was supposed to be only class III. The following 200 yards were a non-stop onslaught of narrowly avoided monster holes while large standing waves continuously rained down from above. We soon learned our land scout had looked down river and, with no real scale to judge size, thought the river actually looked like low water, class III, when in fact it was big water, class IV-V. Leading the pack and narrowly avoiding several angry-looking river features, I eddied out in hopes of being able to help if anyone was forced to swim out of their boat. I watched as several of my closest friends navigated the treacherous obstacles and one by one regrouped in the eddy. A count of heads quickly revealed we had all made it. We promised to spend time that evening discussing how to avoid recklessly plowing into class V water again, good use of our camp time to be sure. We barely survived the “class III” whitewater of the Yalong Jiang and it was only the first glimpse of what was to come.

The following days led us into impossibly deep canyons that seemed to stretch to infinity above our heads. However, very little time was spent looking up, as the whitewater was continuously thundering around every bend and over horizon lines. Our ability to paddle as we read the water was replaced by the necessity for scouting. Get out of your boat, look at what lay downstream, get back in your boat, paddle large volume drops, repeat. Our first of many portages was also one of the most visually stunning I have encountered. The entire river roared over a 20-foot river-wide ledge. Large slabs of rock lined the banks and the locals had placed 15- and 20-foot high red and pink prayer flags around the drop. Flapping prayer flags, crystal blue sky, aquamarine whitewater and several hundred yards of slogging our heavy boats around the waterfall made for a memorable first portage.

One of the other surprises along the Yalong Jiang was the cold. Nighttime temperatures routinely flirted with the freezing level and it would take several hours before direct sunlight penetrated the gorge to start warming the air at river level. In fact, one morning I noticed my paddle shaft and blade had a full sheath of ice on it. Looking around, everyone had icicles on their helmets and ice on their boats and PFDs. Fortunately, every day was sunny, bright and cloudless. Rain or snow could have proved disastrous for our crew.

When I was originally contacted about kayaking this stretch of river, we expected it to be uninhabited due to its remoteness and steep canyon walls. However, nearly every day we saw small homesteads, villages and local herders. On our fifth day, we noticed a small village a few hundred feet up from the rivers edge. Deciding to enjoy a cultural exchange rather than sleep outdoors another night, half of our party hiked to the village to introduce themselves. They were met with open arms and offers of food, shelter and warmth. Eventually, the rest of us hiked to the village and we spent the evening “talking,” singing, entertaining and sampling the local food.

Utilizing our leader’s excellent language skills, we also tried to get a better picture as to the effect the dams would have on the area and its inhabitants. Interestingly, the majority of the villagers felt the dam would be beneficial for them, creating jobs, energy, cash and a connection to the outside world. Even though they would most likely be flooded out of their current village, most felt that was just the price to pay for the opportunities the dam would provide.

A chanting monk blesses the journey by writing inscriptions on the kayaks.
Photo: Nate Garr

After the party had ended and we retired to sleep, I awoke with a disturbing pain and nausea in my stomach. Hoping it would pass, I lay back and tried not to think of the food I had eaten. We were staying on the second floor of a stone house, and I was forced out onto the stone patio and was sick for the remainder of the night, continuously throwing up into the livestock cage below. Morning came early and painfully. With no choice, I put on my gear and managed to paddle 20 miles or so. At that point, we had arrived at the entrance of what our maps showed was the last and most significant 30 miles of the expedition. Overall, the group was in good spirits, but the difficult whitewater, cold and portaging had taken its toll on me physically. I had been unable to eat all day and was happy to call it an early night to recover my strength.

Interestingly enough, we chose to camp across from a newly created access road to one of the proposed dam sites. A team of Chinese scientists and geologists were living across the river in a permanent camp, researching and conducting feasibility studies for hydropower. In the morning, after a second night of being wretchedly sick, I made the decision to evac myself. Travis spoke with the scientists and for $50 they agreed to drive me to the closest town of Muli. After traveling so far and being so close to the takeout it was a heart wrenching decision, but to this day I know it was the correct one. More pressing was the inherent danger to the group and myself. I had been paddling with most of the expedition members for years before this trip and the thought of putting them into more danger should they try to rescue me made the decision to pull out a necessary one.

A Buddhist stupa at 12,000 feet.
Photo: Nate Garr

Arriving in Muli, I slept for two days. On the third day, the crew rolled into town looking amazingly more haggard than when I left. The final two days on the river had proven to be both physically and mentally demanding. The final 14-hour push to reach the takeout left most of the paddlers exhausted, sick or both. And although the expedition didn’t get nearly as much fanfare upon its return as it did at the put-in, I was ecstatic to see everyone return safely. Even though our first descent of the Yalong Jiang was met with indifference in China, our own flights back to the U.S. were spent telling stories and reliving the numerous adventures that have since grown to legend in our minds.

Over a year has passed since our exploration of the Yalong Jiang, and since then the first dam has come online and begun to fill. The village we used as our takeout is now underwater and the Chinese government has scheduled completion of three other dams within the next two years. Reports from our trip leader indicate that in this area of China, the local people are still eagerly anticipating each dam and the idea of keeping rivers in their natural state has yet to take hold in any meaningful way. Ours was the first, and last, descent of this dramatic, wild river.

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