This story featured in the 2012 July issue.
By Kate Stepan and Eugene Buchanan
Find the Real Fiji
While guiding rafts in Bali and other far-flung corners of the globe, Nate and Kelly Bricker saw plenty of what the U.S. river permit system was designed to prevent: overcrowding, overuse, and misuse by companies out to make a buck. When the Salt Lake City-based couple discovered a relatively untouched part of Fiji, they set out to bring tourism to the island nation in a way that would sustain its natural beauty and vibrant village culture. Rivers Fiji opened for business in 1998.
But running an American-style rafting company in a developing country is no small task. Though profits have been elusive, Rivers Fiji has been remarkably successful in protecting bird and fish habitat on Fiji's main island of Viti Levu. The company leases 12 miles of river corridor from native landowners. The arrangement keeps international timber companies at bay, sparing the river valley's old-growth mahogany trees from becoming furniture in distant executive suites. Employing more than 25 Fijians as guides, drivers, and office staff, plus dozens of equipment porters and trail workers, Rivers Fiji also contributes to water purification projects and organizes an annual village health clinic. All this while offering about 5,000 annual guests an inside look into what the South Pacific has to offer paddlers: stunning river gorges, splashy rapids, and an unrivaled warmth toward visiting foreigners.
When I visited Fiji in April, one of the raft guides, Mosese, invited me to stay in his native Nakavika village, nestled in remote misty highlands known as the "tropical Yosemite." It's the starting point for Rivers Fiji's premier trip, which consists of a village visit and an inflatable kayak tour down the nearby Wainikoroiluva River ('Luva for short). Wrapping a traditional sarong-like sulu over my board shorts, I followed Mosese past a smattering of dwellings hewn from wood and corrugated iron to the house of the village chief. Sitting on a mat of woven pandanus, I presented Chief Leo with a sevusevu, a ritual gift of kava root. The root is mixed with water for a mildly numbing, earthy brew that's shared at any Fijian gathering, casual or formal. When the bowl of murky yaqona was passed to me, I mumbled my introduction and downed it all, as is the custom. Though the concoction resembles something akin to an acid rain mud puddle, I wouldn't trade it, or that experience, for all the mini-umbrella cocktails on the island.
Two days later, I paddled the 'Luva to the coast. After a few rocky Class III drops, the run gives way to mellow Class II, and more time to ogle the steep gorge walls draped with tangles of jungle flora. Waterfalls tumbled from the volcanic cliffs while fruit bats swooped overhead. Arriving at the river mouth, tired and sunburned, I felt in tune with the island pace of life, though I didn't fully appreciate the true meaning of "Fiji time" until touching down in Los Angeles, and merging into rush hour traffic, on the way home. riversfiji.com —Kate Stepan
Facilitate a First Descent
Paddle a great river and lift someone's spirits by joining a trip with First Descents, a nonprofit founded by kayaker Brad Ludden that introduces young cancer patients to paddling and other outdoor sports. The experience can be life-changing, both for the patients and those who volunteer to take them paddling. "People can volunteer as paddlers, photographers, and medical staff and get to stay for the entire week," says First Descents' Hilary Hutcheson. This year, First Descents is looking for volunteers at programs in Bryson City, N.C., Charlemont, Mass., Outer Banks, N.C., Santa Barbara, Calif., and Hood River, Ore. To get involved, simply fill out an application form online. The cost of travel is not covered, but volunteers are fully taken care of once at the program. Photographers and paddlers at kayaking programs need to be Class III boaters or better, and all photographers need to have their own cameras. Medics need to have a minimum EMT certification. firstdescents.org — EB
Work on a Waterway
Paddle a section of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) by joining a Waterway Work Trip, a weekend outing that gets you on the water for hands-on trail maintenance. Camping is arranged near work sites, and paddling time is always built in. There's a $60 member and $75 non-member fee per person to cover food and other expenses, but you'll go to bed knowing you helped make a difference, and got to paddle one of the best water trails in the world. Paddlers need to bring their own camping and paddling gear, but everything else is covered (space is limited to six people per work trip). Upcoming projects include: erosion control at Raquette Falls Carry, near Saranac Lake, N.Y.; enhancing a portage corridor around the rapids below Pontook Dam along the Androscoggin River in Dummer, N.H.; trail improvements at Long Falls Dam Carry in Dead River Township, Maine; and installing 50 feet of bog bridging at Indian Stream Carry on Maine's Allagash Wilderness Waterway. northernforestcanoerrail.org — EB
Take a Tammy Trip
Native to Europe and brought over to the U.S. by the railroads for erosion control, tamarisk has gone hog wild on rivers throughout the West, suffocating other species, sucking up water and curtailing camping on once-pristine beaches. Control their spread, and get on a great desert river, by joining a coveted tamarisk-eradication trip. Organized sporadically by various national park and BLM agencies, these "tammy trips" attract in-the-know river-runners, and can be hard to get on. Even more coveted: trips to locate and retrieve radio-frequency collars used to track bighorn sheep. The collars drop off the sheep—usually high up a desert canyon—and the best way to recover them involves rafts, a GPS receiver, and a lot of rock-scrambling. Float, hear a beep, and start hiking. "The tammy and sheep-collar trips are pretty hard to get on, but we use volunteers for a variety of services, including camp hosts," says Kelly Kager of the Dinosaur National Monument permit office for the Yampa and Green rivers. "And I always try to get the volunteers out on a multi-day trip down the river." blm.gov — EB
Paddle Lightly in Patagonia
Raft or kayak the glacier-fed Rio Azul (Class II-V) and a host of other nearby rivers while sleeping in a straw-bale lodge powered by a mini-hydroelectric plant at La Confluencia, situated on a 700-acre swath of forest outside El Bolson, Argentina. Enjoy meals gleaned from the farm's expansive gardens and pastures while learning about bio-intensive growing practices and, if you like, pitch in to harvest your dinner salad or help bake bread from freshly ground grains grown on the property. At the end of a hard day of work or play, ease into a wood-fired spa and rest easy knowing your stay leaves literally no trace. laconfluencia.com — KS