Every journey starts at the end. Only then do memories gradually emerge, slowly unfolding like a lotus blossom. Such was the case after our first commercial kayak descent on the Great Bend of the Yangtze River, in China’s Yunnan Province.
For those of us on the trip, there was also the bittersweet realization that the river would never again be experienced in quite the same way.
We came expecting to see 3,000-foot-deep gorges, huge rapids, and glorious sandy beaches – a Shangri-la fluttering with Tibetan prayer flags. Indeed we saw these things, but what we did not expect was to witness the great river’s death knell. Preparations for the construction of several hydroelectric dams were visible everywhere. Access roads were being blasted out of pristine hillsides. Apocalyptic dredgers ate away at the riverbed.
“Two years ago,” trip leader Willie Kern remarked, “I saw perhaps five or six dredgers along this entire 120-mile stretch of river.” On our return in January 2005, however, we counted 80 of the rusted steel monstrosities. Even more dangerous than the rapids we encountered were the steel cables anchoring each of these dredgers in the Yangtze’s swift current.
Our group of 25 consisted of world-class expedition boaters, including Kern, Dunbar Hardy, Land Heflin, Polk Deters, and Jed Weingarten, along with recreational whitewater paddlers on their trip of a lifetime. For me, an Eastern creeker, the Yangtze’s volume (more than 20,000 cfs) was jaw-dropping.
It wasn’t really a dangerous river in the classic sense, as there were few hazards and most of the Class III to IV+ rapids were pool drop. However, the boiling eddies, giant crashing waves, and length of the drops necessitated a serious gut check at every entry tongue.
Fortunately, the rapids were separated by long stretches of gently moving water that occurred where the walled-in gorges were the narrowest. Any serious rapids in these areas would have made the river unnavigable because the sheer canyon walls, rising thousands of feet, provided no escape upward in the event of an emergency.