Paddling the Yangtze River...
View all Yangtze photos by Dunbar Hardy
Every journey starts at the end. Vastness, beauty, delirious,
head-turning stimuli of time spent somewhere remarkable and the
recurring images that we are left with. Images that are presented
gradually, like an unfolding lotus blossom, only to be fully
appreciated after being safely delivered home. Such was the case
after the first commercial kayak descent of the Great Bend of the
Yangtze River. There is an echo in the voices of those that were
there. A similar whisper of bittersweet return. A resignation that
we will never be quite the same again. It is common in the world of
kayak travel today, especially in China, that we may have also said
farewell to a friend. But no regrets. In the end, the experience
well outweighs the loss.
I speak of loss because the one thing we did not expect of our10
days on one of the last great remote stretches of river in the
world, was witnessing daily its death. We came expecting 3,000 foot
sheer gorges, huge water rapids amidst Tibetan prayer flags and
sandy beaches beyond our wildest dreams: Shangri-la. We saw these
things, indeed. But the specter of China, and its rapid expansion
into prosperity, hung over the river. Dam preparations were
everywhere. Roads were being blasted into existence out of pristine
hillsides. The daily sightings of apocalyptic dredgers stripping
away at the riverbed in a futile attempt at wealth foretold the
loss of this environment. Futile because it is said that the
average revenue of a single dredger in one year with 10 Chinese
workers rotating 24 hour shifts is a humble $1,500 (USD). All of
this comes at the expense of the river and her surroundings.
"Two years ago," well known international paddler and trip
leader Willie Kern remarked, "I saw perhaps five or six dredgers
along this entire 120 mile stretch of river." On this trip, in
January 2005, nearly 80 of these rusted steel monstrosities
revealed themselves in some of the most unlikely places. Far more
dangerous than the giant rapids we encountered were the steel
cables that ran from each dredger to hold it in place in the moving
current. A kayak would amble along when suddenly cables would begin
to dance in the water in a tango of slack and pull.
Tarkio Kayak Adventures group of 25 clients was comprised of an
unlikely mix of world-class expedition boaters like Willie Kern,
myself, Land Heflin, Polk Deters and Jed Weingarten, along with
more average souls who ply the common grounds of America's
whitewater. They came for big water (over 20,000 cfs at its lowest
flows) on this, the world's third largest river—the Yangtze.
For those more accustomed to creeks, the volume was jaw-dropping.
Certainly it was not a dangerous river in the classic sense as most
rapids were drop pool with little in the way of hazards, but the
boiling eddies, giant crashing waves and length of many drops made
for a gut check as your boat would come onto the entry tongue.
Whispers between Willie and Polk revealed to those close enough
that the river was higher than the original exploratory trip two
years before. But I could hardly imagine a few thousand extra cfs
making all that much difference in something already so huge.
The rapids were interspersed with spectacular stretches of
gently moving water that luckily came at precisely the point where
the narrowest walled-in gorges appear. It would be horrific to
imagine any serious rapids in these stretches and would, perhaps,
make the river un-navigable as the canyon walls rose thousands of
feet steeply uphill with no exit points. I reflected on some of the
original trips down here, as they encountered blind turns into
canyoned out gorges that must have been met with intense
Each night brought us relief at the most spectacular sandy
beaches one could imagine. At times they appeared to be from
another planet. Strange rock formations and caves gathered in a
playground of tent sites and vantage points to view the darkening
sky. It was during the night that the Yangtze was most beautiful.
Sepia-toned silhouettes of mountains and ridges edged along the
horizon below a dizzying display of stars and sky. The Yangtze is,
no-doubt, a night child and I stole constant glimpses of her
splendor. She never turned away. Neither did I. Each night I bid
farewell with one last look before sleep. And then another. And
another. Until I finally gave in to exhaustion.