Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 1.3.08

Keeping An Angry River Happy
Rafting a river to save it in China

Eric Ladd gives monks from Sadêng a river ride ANTON GRIESSBACH
Full rafting gear ANTON GRIESSBACH
Monks and rafters pose before the first descent of the Salween ANTON GRIESSBACH
Western rafters on an Eastern river ANTON GRIESSBACH
Pausing on the road to the river KRISTEN MCDONALD
Travis Winn, Kristen McDonald and Na Ming Hui KRISTEN MCDONALD
Tibetan monks check out the rafters ANTON GRIESSBACH
Prayer flags in the mountains of Tibet ANTON GRIESSBACH
Tibetan monk and dog KRISTEN MCDONALD
Schoolchildren in the town of Sadêng ANTON GRIESSBACH

Armed with the blessings of a group of Tibetan monks, the rafters launched their crafts into the rain-swollen Salween River in remote eastern Tibet. The team of 16 rafters — from the U.S., Tibet, China and Germany — led by 23-year-old UO student Travis Winn and his 18-year-old sister Carmen, was the first group of whitewater rafters to plunge into this remote river and experience its Grand Canyon style rapids. If these adventurers have their way, they won’t be the last.

The Salween River, also known as the Nujiang (Angry River) in Chinese and the Gyalmo Ngulchu in Tibetan, originates in the mountains of Tibet and flows southeast through steep and narrow gorges through China and into Thailand and Burma (also called Mynamar) until it finally empties out into the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean. NASA says the Salween is almost completely non-navigable for all but the last 75 of its 1,750 miles. Winn and his companions, including former Eugenean Kristen McDonald, discovered the river can be navigated, but only if you’re willing to shoot 15 to 20 foot rapids. Rafting the Salween, according to Winn, is “totally out of this world.”

It’s hard to believe that in this day and age, you can still be the first to explore a river or wild area. Tibetans have been living along the banks of the Salween River for thousands of years, but Winn and McDonald and their team were the first to raft its waves. Their rafting company — Last Descents River Expeditions — is the first to be licensed for multi-day rafting trips in China. It is also often the first to explore many of China’s and Tibet’s wild rivers in what rafters call a “first descent.” Unfortunately because of dam building in China, many first descents are also last descents in Asia. A last descent is the last time a river can be rafted before the natural waterway and its landscape are destroyed, in this case by hydroelectric projects. The Salween, says Winn, is the longest free-flowing river in the mainland of Southeast Asia. Winn and McDonald hope to bring the sport of whitewater rafting to China and help the people there save their rivers from destruction.


Red Tape in China

To raft a river in Tibet is to go through Chinese red tape. Tibet, known in China as the Tibetan autonomous prefecture, is populated by 6.5 million Tibetans and 7 million Chinese, and it has been occupied by China for 50 years. Winn, who speaks fluent Chinese and a little Tibetan, teamed up with Chinese businessman Na Ming Hui to bring whitewater sports to China and Tibet.

The Tibetan name for the Salween, Gyalmo Ngulchu, reflects some of the the long and turbulent history between China and Tibet. The words translate to “River of the Princess’ Tears” says McDonald, and reflect the story of a Chinese princess who was brought to Tibet to be the bride of the king, crying on her difficult journey. The river was formed of her tears, according to legend.

It’s hard to get a permit to raft a river in China, says Winn. Since rafting isn’t really a sport there yet, “there are no permits.” Difficulties with the red tape led Winn, McDonald (who also speaks Chinese), and Na Ming Hui to co-found Last Descents to facilitate getting permission for their rafting trips. Their concern for the rivers also led McDonald, who is getting her Ph.D. at UC-Berkeley in Environmental Science, and Winn to found a non-profit companion organization in the U.S. called the China Rivers Project (CRP). The CRP seeks to use river recreation to solve social and environmental problems.

To get to the Salween in the first place, once the government cleared the trip, there were other problems to solve: How do you get 16 people and their rafting gear to a river in Tibet and raft an unexplored river safely? Looking at the steep gorges and fast water, “once we put in, could we stop?” wondered Winn.


Tibetan Rapids

The place where the rafters planned to put in on the river is a hard three days drive from Lhasa on narrow muddy roads over 16,000-foot mountain passes in Land Cruisers, stopping for the occasional yak. The area is so remote that many of the people there were seeing Westerners for the first time.

The rafters planned their trip down the river using a declassified Russian topographic map from 1942 and satellite images from Google Earth. But the only way to get to know the river, its rapids and whirlpools, was to put the rafts and kayaks in and go.

After months of planning and thousands of miles of travel, the river trip seemed like it would end before it began. The river levels were dangerously high from the recent rains. While they waited in hopes the water would drop to a level safe for rafting, a Buddhist monastery in the town of Sadêng spontaneously decided to host the team.

The monks there welcomed the rafters and invited them in to prayer sessions and for games of tug-o-war. “While they were praying for rain, we where praying for sunshine,” laughs Winn. Winn, who’s getting ready to graduate UO’s Clark Honors College, had to make what he called, “the hardest decision of my life,” when it came time to decide whether to try the river. After a test run on one of the Salween’s tributaries and with blessings from the monks written on their rafting gear, the rafters decided to go for it.

They were rewarded right away with “three and half miles of nonstop Class III plus whitewater — you could just sit in the middle and have fun,” says Winn.

“It was classic,” he says, “Grand Canyon rapids followed by fast water.” The rafts sped along at seven to eight miles per hour through narrow canyons and high granite peaks. The rafters experienced miles and miles of “roller-coaster rapids.” They saw “small villages, high up,” says Winn.

The villagers “had never seen a white person, let along a crazy contraption called a raft,” says McDonald. The rafters wore bright colored dry suits, life jackets and helmets, which along with their safety orange and yellow crafts, made them look even stranger.

“Tibetans believe rivers are a sacred place, a place of spirits, not of humans,” says McDonald. “They thought we were crazy,” she says. “A woman saw the boats and ran screaming away.”

At one point the rafters met an elderly Tibetan man who had never left the Salween Canyon. He walks the banks of the river each day with his herd of yaks, carrying an umbrella to protect him from the sun. The Tibetan member of the team, Chongdak, an avid rafter since 2002, served as translator between the team and the people they met. “It wasn’t a culture clash,” says McDonald, “we had wonderful interactions.”

The scenery was “amazing,” she says. The rafters, when they weren’t negotiating the whitewater, saw Tibetan eagles, hawks and the blue sheep that are the prey of the snow leopard, according to McDonald. They saw the tracks of Tibetan black bears as well as their scat.

“What makes us driven to these really remote places is not conquering but feeling like we are doing something for the first time,” she says.

The rafters encountered huge, 20-foot ocean sized “Waimea waves” as they continued down the river, but got through safely. Sometimes the canyon walls were so high, the only way to scout the rapids was by sending the kayakers on ahead through the class IV rapids. Chongdak and Na Ming Hui flipped in their raft on the last day of the trip, but in the end, all the rafters emerged unscathed, and exhilarated, even if a little wet.


Dam Building

Having discovered a river that rivals America’s best rafting rivers in its rapids and its pristine wilderness, McDonald and Winn now want to stop that river from being dammed, inundating the flora and fauna as well as the homes of the people who love there.

“As foreigners, it’s not appropriate or productive for us to go in and say, ‘Don’t build a dam,'” says Winn. “One thing we can do is bring people to see these places.”

He is excited not only about bringing Westerners in to experience these rivers, but more importantly showing the Chinese the wonders of their own country: “Rivers have potential for bringing rural and urban Chinese together. I know it can happen — it’s just in the details.”

Many of China’s rivers are endangered by hydroelectric projects. Perhaps the best known is the Three Gorges Dam that forced the relocation of more than a million people, and the waters are covering unknown amounts of natural and cultural heritage and even causing earthquakes. Problems from the dam project such as toxic algae and landslides are making the news in China and abroad. It was recently revealed that while the U.S. largely stayed out of that project, Canada provided major support.

The hydroelectric project planned for the Salween involves 13 dams on the section of the river that flows through China’s Yunan Province, says McDonald, who is researching and writing about this project for her doctoral dissertation. The Salween project is supposedly larger than the Three Gorges Dam.

The project is currently on hold, but the rafters floated by the construction of at least one hydroelectric project on the river during their trip. McDonald compares the “development at all costs” mentality that can be found in China to a charging elephant: “It’s really hard to slow it down.”

So even as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao put the project on hold in 2004 until a better assessment of the impacts of the dams can be done, the International Rivers Network says that China Huadian Corporation and the Yunan provincial government are still at work on a scaled back version of the project.

If the project is finished, it would move about 50,000 people, most of them from ethnic minority hill tribes. It would also endanger the area’s biodiversity from fish to birds.

A portion of the Salween runs through a UNESCO designated “World Heritage Site “called Three Parallel Rivers. UNESCO calls the site an “epicenter of Chinese biodiversity.” UNESCO warned the Chinese government that if the dam construction continues, the area will be added to the “List of World Heritage in Danger.”

China has recently switched to a system of environmental reviews, similar to that used here in the U.S. This means that environmental assessments should be available to the public, unless there are “state secrets” involved, says McDonald. Because the Salween is a “transboundary river,” it may be harder to get copies of the reviews done on the four dams already underway.

McDonald, who grew up in Oregon rafting rivers with her parents, says that unless the dams are stopped, “the river heritage of China is going to disappear.”

Winn and McDonald plan to continue to “actually take people there and get the message across,” she says. They are eager to bring people from government officials to the media and show them what McDonald calls, “The transformative power of being in a wild place for eight days.”

The fact that that wild place has what McDonald calls “big and bouncy” rapids and “huge waves” doesn’t hurt either for these environmentalists and adventure-seekers who want to persuade the people from Eugene to China to save their rivers.     

To experience rafting in the wilds of Tibet and China in the Year of the Rat, go to for a list of upcoming trips. Or contact Travis Winn at For more information on saving the rivers of China and Tibet go to



2008: A Year of Living Dangerously
Outdoor pursuits at the cusp of apocalypse

“Four More Years.” We may be seeing this slogan on bumper stickers a lot in 2008, more due to celestial calendars and futurist paranoia than presidential campaigns. That’s because, by nearly every measurement, 2012 will be momentous. NASA data suggests the poles may reverse (sooner than later). The ancient Mayans predicted the return of Quetzalcoatl, their god of destiny. Some geologists believe oil extractions will peak and 2012 will inaugurate a “dark age” of frequent blackouts and brownouts. And Christian evangelists believe the Second Coming is near (or nearish).

 Epicocity videographer Brian Eustis runs a waterfall in Papua New Guinea as villagers look on. MATT FIELDS JOHNSON
Trip Jennings runs 100+foot Metlako Falls in the Columbia River Gorge COURTESY OF EPICOCITY

Eager as we are for the apocalypse (see: Y2k; see: 9/11), the hype may inevitably lead to new forms of risk-taking: thrills, chills and apocalypse tourism. The idea is: See and do now what you probably won’t be able to see and do in four years (at least not fast and cheap). For example, visit polar bears in their natural habitat, climb Mount Kilimanjaro’s glaciers or raft wild rivers in Tibet. But there are ways to accomplish such feats without speeding up these area’s destruction (see cover story).

Enter Trip Jennings, a local thrill-seeker and co-owner of the Epicocity Project, an outdoor media company bent on protecting natural areas, who has a personal goal to run what he calls the “Triple Crown” of Oregon waterfalls (Metlako on Eagle Creek and Koosah and Sahalie on the McKenzie River) in a kayak. He’s scored the first two but has yet to attempt Sahalie. Getting slightly philosophical, Jennings describes his plummet down 101-foot tall Metlako as “incredibly liberating,” saying he “felt more free than any other time [he could] remember.” But it is his international exploits that led National Geographic Adventure (NGA) magazine to name him a 2008 Adventurer of the Year for his team’s first descent down the Pandi River on remote New Britain Island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Jennings has said (in an interview posted on NGA’s website) that the goal in traveling to these fragile areas for “exploration and adventure” is to “motivate westerners to reduce [their] footprint wherever possible.” Basically: skip the five-star resorts and pack light.

When asked to offer his advice for those explorers who have the urge to experience a part of the planet that, for lack of better words, are due for damnation, he was quick to note that Oregonians are “incredibly lucky” with the “lifetimes of adventures here in Oregon.” But even those adventures won’t be the same after “all the trees we’ll cut by 2012,” Jennings says. For close-to-home jaunts, Jennings points to the Rogue, Illinois and Salmon river watersheds. While you’re at it, you could also hike the Pacific Crest Trail and climb Oregon’s volcanoes, he says. (Because who knows when those are going to blow.) Internationally, it seems that rafting or kayaking rivers that are due for hydroelectric dams is your best bet, and Jennings suggests the While Nile (Uganda), the Futaleufu (Chile) and “any freeflowing rivers” in China. But that’s assuming you can still reach these areas in the first place.

As oil prices continue to climb and carbon-offsetting your sky miles fails to curb the root problem of consumption, intrepid explorers are increasingly powering these adventures with their own two feet. For 2008, Jennings is planning a speaking tour and kayaking trip across the U.S. How will he get around? By bike, of course. — Chuck Adams



Here are some other dangerous (and snarky) pursuits to consider:

Drive to the coast on logging roads Best to take a dirt bike on this trek, as many roads are now gated, and will require maneuverability. Just bring a map and compass, as half the fun is trying not to initiate a statewide search-and-rescue operation.

Practice disaster tourism When disaster strikes — a Cascade volcano blows its top, for instance — it is very important you are on the scene, ready to take dramatic, print-ready digital images. Bring a hard hat, as rocks thrown at you by disaster victims may be a hazard.

Going on vacation next November If you’re a believer of the 2012 hype, then you’ve got plenty of doomsday candidates willing to make your hypothesis a reality. Take Mitt Romney or Rudy Guiliani, for example. Absentee ballots are a gamble with worse odds than Russian roulette. Best to be at your home address and vote in November — in person.