Paddling Fast and Furious: Whitewater Kayaking

Adventure Issue 83 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Lim Wei Yang

Water is the essence of life.Primarily agricultural and landlocked, Nepal’s mountain
waters nourish the crop fields and assure the country’s sustenance. For generations, rivers have been the lifelines of Nepal’s economic growth, more recently in some brand new ways...

As they neared another whirlpool of torrential whitewater, I watched intently, crossing my fingers tightly in worrying anticipation. Water brings life but can so easily reclaim it. Plunging stern first into the raging torrents, they deftly avoided natural obstacles with forceful but measured strokes. Sweeping past gaping holes and sidestepping massive boulders, I was watching a graceful dance with the river gods, where a wrong move could spell a watery grave for brave kayakers.

An arresting red-colored blur flips up amongst the churning rapids of the lower stretch of the Bhote Kosi. As the frothy white rapids relent into the turquoise calm of the swirling eddy, an elongated shimmering shape emerges. The watercraft glides across the water surface and turns towards where it had appeared. The guide, Chandra Ale, raised his paddle, one blade pointing to the sky and the other to the ground, in the shape of the Roman numeral, one. “All clear—Go ahead,” the lead kayaker signals to the others in the group.

Whitewater kayaking is gaining interest amongst both locals and tourists in Nepal. Already a veteran in many outdoors adventure sports and vastly experienced in whitewater rafting, Chandra is also a part of the emerging group of enthusiasts who are enjoying the wet and wild life on the rivers of Nepal as a kayaker. As a tourist activity, kayaking has often been overshadowed by rafting. Even amongst locals, kayaking is possibly the neglected child of the whitewater sports family. For these professional kayakers, the sport is a fun way to make a living. But they hope to see it grow into a mainstay of tourism, where a heightened buzz of life can be added to the rivers.

Often seen accompanying commercial whitewater rafting trips, kayakers play an
important role as safety guides. The versatility of kayaks makes it an asset to whitewater sports’ safety. Whitewater kayaking is primarily an individual water sport, however. There are many models of today’s kayaks. The whitewater variants are made of hardy plastic. They can withstand collisions, are lightweight and the absence of metallic parts make exposed paddlers less prone to lightning strikes, a considerable threat in open waters.

Whitewater kayaking encompasses a diverse range of competition forms and purposes. The most straightforward, but no less challenging, is river-running, in which whitewater rafting is the competitive version. Done at a leisurely pace, it is like a water-based tour. Short half or one-day runs are the norm, where seasoned paddlers test their skills in the challenging rapids or quicker-flowing parts of the river. Multi-day expenditures mix the run of the
rapids with good old fashioned hand-driven paddling to push the kayak on through calmer waters, as they cruise the river’s course. The whole adventure has come a long ways since the first descent. The pioneer expedition for river kayaking in Nepal took place in 1973 on the Dudh Kosi. Note, too, that expedition kayaks usually have more hull space to hold gear for long trips and overnight camping.

The main difference between rafting and kayaking is the absolute control of a sole paddler in the kayak, versus a group in the raft, and the kayakers singular mastery of technique. Kayaking puts a paddler in direct control of his watercraft so the onus is on the individual to safely carry through. Skill and competence is also vital. Perhaps in rafting, much depends on the river guide and bare basics are sufficient for participation in the group.

For kayaking, especially in rapids however, the paddler has to be well-trained to tackle the tough course alone. Due to the independent nature of the sport, paddlers have to be extremely acquainted with the rigors of maneuvering through whitewater and capable of self-help techniques. Although the kayak’s compact frame makes it an ideal candidate for zipping past obstacles, this attribute is also a double-edged sword. The thin body of the creek kayak that is typically used for river running also makes the paddler susceptible to trauma injuries.

Kayaking is seldom done near the river’s source. High in the headwaters, surface
runoff funnels into constricted channels. High fluvial velocity follows as the water forces its way down-slope, pulled by gravity through a narrow stream channel. Kayaking becomes almost impossible with the numerous boulders that usually block the way. Yet, even the lower stretches of a river may be little safer. Danger lurks everywhere and is not always dependant on the size or speed of the river.

Still water runs deep, and as counter-intuitive as that cliché may be, the water
actually gushes through much faster downstream. The calm river surface is a deceptive contrast to the volatile water flow at the channel’s depth. It takes a bit of physics to explain the mechanics of fluid flow, but the conclusion equates to a powerful surge of river water underneath all that topside calm. As flow volume surges, so does the river’s force. With a jet-like pace, a rushing river is a splendid avenue to experience the adrenaline pumping thrill of whitewater kayaking. But just as it can thrill, it can also kill.

According to Chandra Ale, an accredited swift water rescue trainer, about four years ago there was a case of ‘body entrapment’ resulting in the unfortunate death of a safety kayaker on the Kali Gandaki River. Based on his experience, almost 50% of the casualties he has witnessed in kayaking are cases of body entrapment. The overwhelming pressure, as a result of the fast current, pins paddlers under large debris or rocks thus creating an underwater death trap. Cuts and bruises are the less serious, but more typical superficial injuries.

Serious practice is thus ‘a must’ for all paddlers, be they novices or experienced enthusiasts. Specialized clinics, usually about four days in duration, are organized to impart paddling skills, basic kayaking maneuvers, recognizing whitewater features and learning safety techniques. Clinics are usually held in calm waters or even in swimming pools before progressing to the more turbulent but thrilling waters. A well-fitting lifejacket and helmet and a generous sense of adventure is also a must. The kayaking clinics usually conducted on the Seti or Sun Kosi rivers. The best times to kayak Himalayan rivers are from October to December after the monsoon flow has eased off.

Besides river-running, enthusiasts who have achieved mastery, can move on to two other complex forms of the sport. ‘Slalom’ is a technical form of kayaking and appears in the Olympic Games. Competitors race through the river while negotiating a series of tight gates. Slalom kayaks weigh around two kilograms, considerably lighter than creek kayaks, and have streamlined shapes to allow for ease of maneuver when clearing the gates. In exchange for lighter weight, however, the body of the craft is made of carbon fiber which can be fairly brittle. ‘Rodeo’, also known as ‘Freestyle’, is an acrobatic form of kayaking with many stunts performed in one spot of the river. These include surfing, spinning, and bouncing off the waves. Rodeo kayaks are stockier and more compact. Their size allows the kayak to leverage upon the waves to lift off the surface and carry out stunts. For all around safety, however, only creek kayaks are recommended.

The challenge is not just avoiding what Nature throws in a kayaker’s way. The sport is also a personal test—to go beyond controlling the watercraft and to be at ease in Nature’s elements. Your life might just depend on it. Whitewater kayaking has a degree of risk to it, but it is also this same aspect that adds to the exhilaration.

Nepal has whitewater kayaking opportunities to suit enthusiasts of every skill level, novice to professional. With three main river systems, the Kosi, Gandaki and Karnali, flowing through all parts of the country and dozens of major tributaries crisscrossing laterally, kayaking is also a rewarding tour along the lifelines of the country. Read the whitewaters, feel the pulse of the river, plunge in with a fearless heart and go with the flow.