By Eric Jackson
I have paddled in many places around the world, but China was still virgin territory for me. It is far away, and without a guide of some sort, getting around in Rural China is not easy as the language barrier is incredible. Reading signs is impossible, and english isn’t a second language outside of the major cities. I was in luck. Bo Tian, is a Chinese man, who moved to Canada 15 years ago, to the Ottawa River and started distributing Jackson Kayak in China with a friend from China. Colin Kemp organized it, along with organizing World Kayak Hometown Throwdowns there, through Bo, and that lead to this moment…. Red Bull China is picking their Kayak team and using the Hometown throw down, as well as our mission to run Tiger Leaping Rapids to choose their next team member. They asked for Dane, Nick, Colin, and I to come to China to train their paddlers for two days, and then help them compete in the Hometown throwdown, film a TV show, and generally do media stuff with them.
We all raised our hands immediately and said, “We are in!”. The timing was less than ideal as we had just returned from Mexico from the Alseseca Race and creek boating, and we are leaving for Uganda (today for Nick and Dane), and the 19th for me. Tight timing, and a ton of travel. We didn’t have to bring boats on the trip as Bo had a container of kayaks arrive in January and had plenty of boats for us. Nick, Dane, and I had the 2014 Rock Star m, while Colin had the Fun Runner 70 waiting for us…. but first we have to get there…
Traveling to China: Big place! The country is wide and tall, 3.7 million square miles- the 4th largest in the world… The southern part (where we went)- is further south than the Florida Keys, making it warm in February. Bejing where we landed first, is as far north as Colorado or New Jersey. Nick, Dane, and I flew from Nashville to Chicago, then got on a flight from Chicago to Beijing. That flight went straight over the top of the earth- over the Northwest Territories and almost over the North Pole and then back through Russia to China. It was a 13 hour flight. We landed in Beijing to find it cold and snowy before getting on our flight to Kunming, a city I never heard of, but now I know… it has 10 million people in it. That was a 1600 mile trip and 4 hours, southwest. It was still cold there, but not like Beijing. We spent the night there with our kayaker guide, Tom, who was leading us now. Tom spoke English, like I speak German. He spent 1 month in the USA. Our first breakfast was a clue to the food situation. Noodles, beef, no coffee…. nothing recognizable. We were going to be immersing ourselves in a new culture.
We got a taxi from the hotel to the bus-station in town. They told us there was a 5 hour wait for the bus, so we took a different one, that went 1/2 way to Chenggang, a city of 5,000 people. We road that bus, taking in the countryside, which was becoming mountainy, and rural. Honking your horn is standard, about every 30 seconds when driving. Honk at anything, or anyone, for any reason… Our bus had an air horn that was quite loud and they let it rip non-stop on the trip. We made it to a town 1/2 way to our destination and got off the bus, only to find that there were no more busses going to where we wanted. 4 of us sitting in a busy street next to the dirty bus-station, with bags, paddle bags, backpacks, etc.. as Tom disappeared looking for another way to finish our 9 hour trek to Chenggang.
We grabbed some rickshaw motorcycles and stuffed in them, bags and paddles on top, and drove to another bus station, but had no luck there either. Tom finally found us a little mini-van- really little one- and we all stuffed into that for the next 5 hour drive. Finally arriving in Chenggand, we got our hotel rooms, which are only $10/night for two people and 4 stories tall worth of rooms. the balcony was loaded with kayaking gear drying, and paddles outside. Kayakers clearly dominated this hotel at this point. The rooms were fine, but pretty ghetto, no toilet seats, etc.. but the bed was a welcome site…. 62 hours from home to the hotel.
Our agenda for the trip was-
Day 1: Teach play boating at the competition site, 1 mile downstream of hotel, then do a class 3-4 river run that afternoon with the group of about 36 paddlers.
We found that the hole was a massive, sticky, very sticky hard to play in hole that most of the paddlers were quite afraid of, and rightly so. We got 3 out of the 36 to try it that morning.
The river run was fun, and people did pretty well considering their skill levels. Most of them had good rolls, but a few didn’t. We only had about 5 swims total out of the 36 people. Dane, Nick, Colin, and I each had a group, plus a translator kayaker that spoke english, more or less. We started off the river run with a hard rapid called Guoguo falls and lead people through it… about 10 people tried it.
The take out of the run was another big rapid with a huge fold into a major hole. I decided not to run it as the chances of making it through without going in the hole (I am still nursing a hurt shoulder from Mexico) was only about 75% I figured for me, and about 20% for the Chinese guys. Dane went and had a good first run… then 5 Chinese guys went and every one of them went straight into the hole one way or another, and 2 got lucky and flushed out magically it seemed. Dane did a second run with Nick and this time he didn’t make it over the big breaking wave and fell back into the pocket hole and surfed for a good minute or more, with plenty of cartwheels and loops before eventually pulling his skirt and swimming out.
Day 2: on our Agenda it said, “Group to Demonstrate the running of “Tiger Leaping Rapids” for TV and reporters. Sounded good enough until we got there and realized that this series of 4 rapids were un-run by anyone to date, except for the first rapid of the 4 that Ben Marr ran, and Rush Sturgis didn’t on that trip… They didn’t run the next three… Just saying that our eyebrows went up when we saw them, and the reporters were asking us, “Can you go now, so we have good light?” before we even scouted them. Nick, Dane, Colin, and I scouted the rapids and decided that we would give them the first descent story they wanted on the 3rd and 4th rapids. The first one had been run already, the 2nd one was stupid… not big, just stupid as 75% of the water went under a house sized boulder and it was a huge boil protecting the way out. We all found a line and a way to run it, and considered it, but decided that even with good safety, the risk/reward factor was way off. Rapid 3 and 4 looked like more than enough excitement for both us and the reporters. It did take us about 2 hours to scout the 4 rapids and decide what we were doing. Nick, Dane, and I decided to run 3 and 4 and were ready to go.
We dressed and made our way to the water- which was over, under, and around nothing but house sized boulders. The way into the water was either a seal launch with a very sketchy perching spot, or a climb down a slick rock to a sketchy smaller seal launch in. Dane and Nick had the first spot tied up so I went to the bottom one and barely made it without sliding in trying to get my skirt on. I forgot my GoPro case that morning and the only way to get any footage of me (other than the 20 video cameras and TV cameras, and helicopters filming) would be for Nick or Dane to follow me down the rapid. I asked to go first and both Nick and Dane looked at me like “hey, are you going to claim the only first descent if you go first…” “no, of course not”… hmm… sorry boys, you missed out on a first descent… just kidding… we all peeled out together, we all ran it first. I peeled out after the helicopter was overhead, and dropped into the tongue and ran past the big seams, boils, and three big holes- just missing the meat of them, as Dane followed behind me and Nick got swallowed by the second hole and then pin balled down the rest of it to the eddy. We all had good runs, Nick hit the second hole on purpose and was amazed at how much bigger it was compared to what it looked like from 100 feet up at the road. We were about to do the 4th rapid, which was only 50 yards below the eddy we were in when we get a whistle and see that 4 chinese guys, two with Red Bull Helmets, are going to try it now. hmm… I heard somebody say something like, “You go and show us the dangers” or something like that, as in, maybe they will go if they like what they see when we go. Suddenly we are safety boating in our Rock Stars, above the biggest rapid yet and more than a little stressed that these guys are planning on running it. The first guy, “Leo” drops straight into the first pour over and gets destroyed and swims and mystery moves through the seams, and out the bottom, his boat goes left and he goes right. I pull him to shore on the right, yelling “Kick!” as we didn’t have much margin for error and Dane got his boat out just in time on the left of the river. Within two minutes the next guy and the next guy goes, all getting destroyed by the holes, but holding on and eventually making it to the bottom and rolling up. They were so fired up. OK, now we know what is up… we stage up for the 4th rapid, a high gradient, big water flume into a huge left to right slanted wave/hole/hole that crunches up against a mansion sized boulder. From our scouting it looked like there was a space next to the boulder where we could fit through, but hard to say, exactly. Dane and Nick climbed up on a rock to scout and I stayed in the water. Dane went first and drove over a big reactionary wave to the rock and blew right through the bottom hole. Nick went second and I went third and each of us nailed the line- getting inches from the rock going about 20 miles/hour through the bottom hole that was blown out from the reactionary off of the rock. We ran safety for the 4 Chinese guys who ran it, and this time, no swims! 3 of them got stuck in the big hole, but it type writed them to the rock and they flushed through. One guy missed the eddy and ran the next drop blind but made it. Whew! Stressful! They put way too much trust in our safety abilities… They are the same people that sent 5 dogs down a rapid in two rafts tied on top of each other and 2 dogs lived so they tried it… Sent 5 guys down the same rapid and 3 of them lived and they wrote it up as a successful run. Mentality is quite different.
I was happy that we did the Tiger Leaping Rapids, but happy it was over. We headed to the big wave next to the road and did some surfing. The idea was that we would demonstrate and teach them. Dane, Nick, Colin, and I all surfed and caught the wave 75% of the time. Zero of our group caught the wave in the sweet spot. A couple caught the river right corner but none got in the meat of it. They tried and tried, and way more were afraid to try to catch the wave than run rapids. We did our typical wave tricks- air screws, blunts, helix, etc. etc. and had a great time. It was a big day of paddling!
Food was interesting where we were to say the least. We at at a little hole in the wall restaurant for breakfast… noodles/soup. $1.50 meals. They cooked on a fire, put in a variety of pieces of Beef, of which none of those pieces looked like steak. There were arteries, fatty stuff, and some pieces of meat attached to the fat as well. The spices they put in the soup were awesome, and the flavor was really good. We all really enjoyed the flavor. Eating soup with chopsticks for breakfast was weird, however. The second day we were sitting at the little kindergarten tables with the little stools that sit 12” off the ground when a farmer lead a cow over to the entrance of the restaurant, and killed it on the spot. The drained the blood out on the sidewalk next to the restaurant (10 feet from where we were eating) and left it there why we ate. OK, so that was different.
Lunches were carry your own on the river… they were Snickers bars and water. Nothing out of the ordinary. At the take out I kept a bottle of rice wine/53% alcohol to kill the bacteria from the river. while the river looked clean and beautiful as it was only 120 miles from the glacier in Tibet, every town on the way dumps in stuff and it is not clean. China is raping their countryside and needs some serious training on being environmentally friendlily. They are not bad people, they are not educated in the matter. Think about the 50’s in the USA- clear cutting, pollution, littering, dumping, sewage, etc.. that is where China is today. They are coming out of oppression and government controlled messaging (far from out, but much better) and the government seems to want only power and to use the land to create more money. The kayakers were very open to learning and wanting to spread the word on protecting the environment and were very curious about it.
We had dinner one night at a very fancy place on top of a cliff over a big rapid. $10/person dinner that was complete with about 7 different entrees to share, rice, and good beer. The beef liver was amazing. That was our fancy dinner out the night before the competition.
The final two days were competition. We started with a Boatercross that Nick one, Colin was second, I was third and Dane was 4th in . Big open water race in our play boats (Colin had the Fun runner). I chose my starting position poorly. We ran safety for the others going, and I rescued about 3 swimmers myself. Next was a “demonstration” freestyle event in the hole. Red Bull created a starting ramp to start from. We did a demo event for the paddlers to watch us to see what we would do.
That night was a “beach party” at the sandy beach along the river near the hotel. A big pot of beef soup/noodles, lots of beer and Red Bull, and about 100 people aiming to have a good time. Different kayaker groups sang song from their region of China, did dances, etc.. with a guy on the drums. I lead the American song of Row Row Row your boat, as well as got about 50 people to do the Square Dance, much to the chagrin of Dane.
In the final day it was the freestyle competition. Again, they had us go first. Dane went, then Nick, and then me. Dane did a 360 spin down the ramp, entry move, into a flurry of ends, splitwheels, and tried loops and mcnastyies, but the hole is super hard, shallow, fast, and sticky. Nick did the same thing but stayed in the entire minute. I went and threw old school racking up technical points by staying vertical and throwing as hard and fast as I could. The scores were me- 75 points, Nick 65 points, and Dane 25 points. I guess I won my first freestyle event the season… even if it was a Hometown Throwdown in China! We ran safety for the group and the first three people did fine but then the best guy, Leo, got destroyed for at least a minute after his time was up and then swam and got recirculated a few times before coming out. The line for the start got shorter as at least 10 people pulled out of the competition. There were TV cameras and reporters everywhere. I heard that over 30 different media groups were there. I signed about 200 autographs, and took at least that many photos with people. It was crazy. We signed boats, gear, helmets, paddles, rocks, etc. etc..
Bo told us it was time to go, and begin the journey home. We checked out of the hotel and packed in a little van again, with a case of beer for the 5 hour drive to an airport in Baoshan (we had a driver, of course). We arrived early at the airport and had somebody watch our stuff while we walked to find a taxi to town to eat. We rode with an old farmer couple to town and got noodles to eat, again. It was lamb, but again, a little sketchy to say the least and we had only medium appetites. The plane took us to Kunming, where we got on another 4 hour plane to Beijing, and finally a 13 hour plane to Chicago, and then a short ride to Nashville, and a pick up by Kristine and Emily for the 90 minute ride home to Rock Island. Whew! talk about a big trip and being 14 hours off on your schedule- jet lag taken to a new level.
We are all very fired up on our trip and so glad we were able to do it.
New place- all different
First competition of the year
more new Friends
See you on the River!