Paddling Bhutan's whitewater
In the 18th century, unrepentant Buddhist criminals were manacled, shoved into canvas body bags, and heaved off the balcony of Trongsa dzong, a monastery in central Bhutan. If the deviants survived their plunge down the 3,000-foot black bedrock cliffs to a river called Mangde Chhu, they'd done their penance and were deemed reformed. The cliff-fall is an appropriate metaphor for kayaking that river, according to Don Fowler, a former Nantahala Outdoor Center client from Virginia. "I'd get to the bottom of a rapid and say, 'Thank you, Lord,'" recalls Fowler, who has also kayaked in Nepal and Honduras. "I felt like one of those criminals on just about every river."
OUTFITTER: Nantahala Outdoor Center; 888-662-1662; www.nocweb.com
DATES: November 12-21, 2000
Class IV-V Mo Chhu and Puna Tsang Chhu are also steep, punishing, and survived by NOC kayakers partly by the grace of God. The three rivers, which clients paddle in an eight-day period, flow from frigid glacial headwaters at 20,000 feet, gaining speed as they roar through boulder fields toward Bhutan's tropical southern plains. Bees' nests and golden langurs speckle the sheer canyon walls above the upper seven-mile section of the Mangde Chhu. Rhododendron and magnolia forests flank the five miles of the northern Mo Chhu. Rice paddies and deserted orange groves—left by some of the 100,000 Nepalese Hindus who fled ethnic persecution in the early 1990s—grow beside the lower Puna Tsang Chhu and its runnable ten miles.
Below Bailey Bridge on the Puna Tsang Chhu, David Alardice, the guide who pioneered all three river routes in 1997, will point out a hole that even the hubristic should avoid. The cottage-sized hydraulic can "clean nostrils out with the efficiency of a Rug Doctor," he says—with the conviction of someone who's prayed for a second chance.
NEXT TIME, TRY:
Sea-kayaking northwestern Greenland
OUTFITTER: Whitney & Smith; 403-678-3052; www.legendaryex.com
DATES: August 19-September 2, 2000
Preparing to sea-kayak northwestern Greenland is a study in extreme gear. Client must-haves: one pair of knee-high wool-lined Cabela's boots for portaging over the pack ice in Inglefield Fjord; a full-body survival suit to insulate against the 31-degree-Fahrenheit water. Guide must-haves: .44 Magnum for scaring away yellow-tusked rogue walrus and marauding polar bears; ice ax, ice screws, and climbing rope to negotiate frozen beaches. But most often, the ocean and scenery are startlingly serene ... and the hand cannon stays in the Pelican box. The 24-hour sun warms the permafrost enough to bring blueberries into bloom. At the heads of some fjords, pink quartzite walls soar 4,000 feet overhead. And if tempestuous catabatic winds blow, the itinerary allows plenty of time to wait them out in four-season tents.
OR, DO IT YOURSELF...
Kayaking California's Kern River
WHEN TO GO: May-July
When expert boaters finish paddling the headwaters of the Kern in south-central California, they take out where commercial trips put in. The reason: After two days of hiking and four days kayaking 55 milesof secluded Class V whitewater, ten miles of Class IV froth just isn't as appealing as a square meal.
The headwaters are remote and are best run without piggish rafts. Which means that bivy sacks and lots of PowerBars must be stowed in the ends of large-volume creek boats that are then either carried 20 miles over the flanks of 14,494-foot Mount Whitney or packed in by mules over 40 miles of trail to the starting point at Junction Meadows. There the snow-fed Kern flows as steeply as a creek, dropping 200 feet per mile on average, and as powerfully as a river—about 1,500 cubic feet per second is an ideal flow. Since the steep canyon walls and the dense pines often make it difficult to track downriver progress, boaters must rely on topo maps and altimeters to locate the one unrunnable section, a 60-foot cascade. At the bottom of the run, just below the takeout at Johnsondale Bridge, a large road sign directed at riverside picnickers serves as an apt warning to prospective paddlers: "Do not swim. 185 people dead since 1978." For more information, contact the Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School in northern California at 530-462-4772 or www.otterbar.com.
KAYAKING BHUTAN: GOT WHAT IT TAKES?
Strength/endurance: Prepare for the contortions of technical kayaking with yoga. The extended triangle, lotus, and eagle crunch are especially helpful because they simulate rolling and bracing.
Mental Fitness: Even if the whitewater doesn't scare you, the fact that the nearest advanced medical facility is at least a two-hour walk, four-hour bus ride, and two-hour plane flight away should.
Environmental Challenges: To minimize icy rolls in glacial runoff at 7,000 feet, practice at home on rivers one skill level higher than you'll be running in Bhutan—this means Class V—and get comfortable paddling in gloves and a dry suit.
Skills: Ask yourself, as NOC instructor Bill Hester will ask you, "How do I catch that one-boat eddy in the middle of this Class IV rapid? Do I use a dufekt or a dynamic bow-draw?" In other words, you need skills to handle all types of Class IV rapids: technical creeks, powerful big water, and fast-flowing rivers.
PADDLERS' READING LIST:
For Inspiration: Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, by Wallace Stegner. The account of John Wesley Powell's pioneering run of the Colorado River is more dramatic than Powell's own journal—as well as being more comprehensive and accurate.
For Practical Know-How: Kayak: The Animated Manual of Intermediate and Advanced Whitewater Technique, by William Nealy. A must-have.
To Scare Yourself Silly: Awhirl in the Land of Perverse Fun, by David Quammen, Outside, June 1998, A rollicking tale of spooky misadventure and sphagnum moss above Hellfire Rapid on New Zealand's South Island.