17 June 2012
During the 1970s and 80s, I was an avid whitewater kayaker. I lived in the southern Arizona desert ~ a condition which impeded my pursuit of an aquatic adrenaline rush, not to mention slowed the development of my skills and experience. But being a member of the kayakers club at the University of Arizona helped, as did being good friends with a woman who herself had was an enthusiastic whitewater rafter. During several memorable summers I kayaked the Sea of Cortez, the Salt and Gila Rivers in Arizona, the Eagle River in Alaska, the San Juan River in Utah, the Yampa River in Colorado/Utah, and lesser rivers in South Carolina, New Jersey, and Oregon. Many more western rivers beckoned, most especially the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, but life took a different turn and my kayaking days were put on hold.
I still dream of rivers I've run, and rivers I'd like to run. On a multi-day trip, nature's riparian rhythm takes hold ~ rising with the dawn to birdsong, eating and breaking camp, easing into the current, and feeling yourself become one with the flow. You might drift through a stretch of easy water, or you might become aware of the subsonic rumble of imminent rapids ~ or simply realize that downstream the river seems to disappear from view. Either is a clue to pull out and walk down along the shore to visually scout what lies ahead, and decide how you want to navigate it. Or even if you want to navigate it ~ some passages are too formidable, and a portage is called for. It's important to be realistic about your skill level, and to understand the visual clues which the current is giving you. It's also important to do some research beforehand, to have a reliable river map and river-running friends whose judgment you trust, to be properly equipped, and to have a safety backup plan when things go south. And they will go south sooner or later.
Quiet drifting or manic paddling through a chaos of whitewater, it's all magic. I treasure every trip in memory, and the Grand Canyon still awaits.
If you'd like a vicarious experience, try renting the movie The River Wild. Several excellent actors make the best of a mundane thriller plot, but the real star of the film is the river itself. (In reality, the film was shot on several rivers in Montana and Oregon.) The scenery and cinematography are fine ~ one nice touch is that (as in real life training) you experience milder rapids early in the film, and are lulled into thinking "Gee, this is not so bad" ~ only to discover that each successive set of rapids is more intense and challenging, until the final rapids, at which point you think "No way".
I was reminded of all this when I came across the photo above (click to enlarge) ~ a waterfalls on the Yangtze River in China. Whitewater is rated as Class I through Class VI, with Class I being flatwater and Class Six being unrunnable by even the most skilled paddler. How do you think the Yangtze River falls should be rated?