Thursday, December 25, 2014

All That Glitters Is Not Gold, Nam Lik and Nam Siam

All That Glitters Is Not Gold, Nam Lik and Nam Siam

Cultural day outside of Vang Vieng
International exploratory kayaking is exactly what it’s cracked up to be… difficult. Usually it starts as speculation, “Have you seen the gradient in Asia?” Then hours of probing topographical maps ensue. This usually creates a scratch pad full of river and village names that are impossible to pronounce. Subsequently, comes more inquiry, zooming all the way into Google maps, and hypothesizing if that blur of white in the riverbed is paddleable. Assumption are made, air flights are booked, and usually nothing else, because it’s all going to change once you get on the ground. Once leaving the airport, there are countless days traveling in all modes of transportation; usually on a loud, overcrowded vehicle, covered in dust, on very steep and jarring “road”. This only allows sufficient access to start ascertaining enough of the local dialect to make peace offerings. Physical scouting is the near culmination of the experience, fumbling through dense vegetation, and over inhospitable terrain. All of this is done while creating new alliances made through fringe connections. You will eat odd local delicacies that will certainly have you running for the toilet, or bush, soon. Financially, it’s completed on a shoestring budget, where sleeping next to the river deep in a canyon is the ultimate accommodation.

Isaac catching a vertical aspect of a Golden Buddha statue

Nam Lik: A Quick Afternoon First Descent?

Lao had already produced a spectacular piece of whitewater, and anticipation of more had gotten the better of us. The group had grown, and we were now a party of six; Lincoln Taylor, Ryan Butler, Isaac Tracey, Miri Miyazaki, Marlon Butler, and myself. Armed with marginal beta, we took a stab at yet another first descent section. The Nam Lik, now known as the Nam Siphon, had appropriate gradient as far as our two dollar map could indicate; 50-80 feet per mile for 4-5 miles. The map also clearly showed that the river ran amidst some towering limestone features. Passing over the supposed take out bridge, the water flow looked low, but suitable for a first descent.

Driving to the put in, the anticipation grew. The road was gaining massive amounts of gradient as it switched back and forth. Cresting a tall ridge, we were able to finally look down towards the river. I was in awe; huge 2,000 foot spires of limestone rock shot up beside the river.  It created a gravity-defying sensation. The walls were too tall for their own good, and consisted of mostly exposed rock with every crevice or micro plateau heaving with foliage. The valley floor was obscured by the impenetrable dark green rainforest which didn’t even allow a glimpse of the whitewater below. I was sold, even if the whitewater turned out to be class three, the ability to spend time in this beautiful drainage would be worth it.

Unpacking the truck at the put in for Nam Lik

All that Glitters is Not Gold, Nam Siam and Nam Lik from Chris Baer on Vimeo.

A few more switchbacks and we passed a gate and official signage, where the road improved substantially. I was instantaneously concerned about the next “improvement.” One of the ploys used against developing countries throughout the world is a promise of new and unsustainable infrastructure. Improved roads in many locations are not put in for farmers and their cattle, but to allow access for much larger vehicles (bulldozers and dump trucks). Mining, deforestation, and hydropower companies are usually the first to exploit these diverse and naturally rich, yet ignorant populations.

The plight in our location was the ever present Chinese dam. The power is actually wired out of Lao over the border into China. Once again, we would be putting the boats in at a deforested location; and the outflow of a small hydro scheme. Luckily, the hydro station was relatively quiet when we arrived. There were no guards or employees milling around, and we took this opportunity to quickly grab our boats out of the truck and prep for the river.

Chris Baer "wheelchairing" over an early portage

It’s miraculous how Mother Nature holds her ground against the continual onslaught of human “improvement.” On water, we traveled only a few hundred yards and the dense jungle resumed its beauty, concealing the devastation behind us. It was gorgeous with huge native trees interlocking with each other to bar any outside influence. Even the whitewater was looking worthy. Before the dam existed, nature had allowed undisturbed floods and dry seasons to cut deep pools, and the occasional four foot boof. Everything was coming together, and it looked as if the river would deliver a spectacular first descent.

Isaac paddling a fun yet sieve infested line

As we worked downstream, the water split around an island where half the crew had to portage up and over a downed tree. Then there was another tree in the water. This tree was atop a pile of rocks that were siphoning the main flow of the river. Luckily, it was a quick portage through dense bamboo and over razor sharp limestone rock. After the quick scramble, we were greeted with a marginal section of whitewater that concluded in yet another portage. This exercise involved us climbing a two story siphon of limestone. It was savage to be able to look down through 20 feet of swiss cheese rock and see the river ever so diligently cutting its way through the rock.

Chris Baer, the only clean ledge

After half a dozen portages, the crew was starting to separate. I was getting concerned because a missed step or an awkward exit from a craft would easily put someone in the water. At his point, the water was consistently siphoning out, and was rarely visible on the surface. “Sketchy” would be a gentle term for the situation. Yet the team pushed on while the river pushed back; it was unrelenting. Upon clearing one massive siphon, all you could do was raise your brow to see the next, more imposing latticework of rock and vegetation.

As the team slaved its way through the maze, we soon became less and less of a team. We were all over the place; some two stories up on huge limestone ridges, others had worked to the shoreline and were battling through the dense jungle vegetation, yet others were wading and ducking under and through some of the siphons. There was no longer any support; it was everyone for themselves.

I was over it.

At this point, it would have been all too easy for someone to miss a step and end up with a massive laceration on the sharp limestone rock, or worse, slip and end up in one of the countless siphons. In order to rebuild the team, I let out a loud, “WHOOP!” and a couple others responded. Another “whoop” and the Marco Polo game commenced. Slowly, with a few sporadic curses between “whoops”, the team reconvened on the corner of a rice paddy. It was time to reevaluate our game plan. With everyone face to face, it was much easier to grasp the logistics. The facts were simple. During the two hours “on water”, we had covered just over a mile. The sun was going to set in another hour or two, and we had perhaps four more miles of unexplored river to cover until our presumed exit location…it was time to bail on the mission.

An old lesson was remembered from Mexico in 2008: dusk was upon us as we stood on the edge of a cliffed out hillside, and on the brink of a 20 foot cascade. The good news, freshly cut banana trees. If the farmers can hike out of here with kilos of bananas on their shoulders, the team realized there had to be a way for us to get out. The rice paddy that we were now standing in (in Lao) must also have a path out of it. A quick walk led Marlon to a tiny structure, where inside was the local farmer. Thankfully, Marlon’s Laotian proved to be more than adequate to chat with the local farmer. After a quick conversation, an exit strategy was ascertained. There was an overgrown trail that would lead us the mile and a half back up to the truck. As we hiked upstream through dense jungle, it felt almost forgiving, as at the very least we weren’t going to slip and end up under a rock.

Sometimes everything lines up, and it still doesn’t work. The Nam Lik is a blatant no go!

Plain of Jars
Isaac in the bottom of a bomb crater,Plain of Jars

Nam Siam

Earlier this trip, Lincoln and I completed an absolutely amazing trip on the Nam Ngiap. One of the major tributaries to the Nam Ngiap is the Nam Siam. As we passed it a week earlier, the water ran dark green in opposition to our mudslide ridden chocolate brown of the Nam Ngiap. After the trip, and returning to civilization, one of the first things on my mind was what did the gradient on the lower Nam Siam look like and what was the access? Studying topographical maps, Google Earth, and everything else I could get my hands on, it looked as if we could establish access by crossing a bridge near the confluence of the Nam Ngiap and Nam Siam. We would cross the Nam Ngiap and head upstream along the Nam Siam to an even smaller village. Upon arrival at the tiny village, we would be high in the drainage and I estimated that we would be just past the last major tributary.

We were in for a reality check.

We are in Lao, and nothing is easy. Upon reaching the confluence bridge there was a gate, and it was being well patrolled by some military and other government employees. There is a dam being built on the Nam Siam and access through the job site would prove to be difficult. The employees of the dam were already augmenting the local culture, and were definitely connoisseurs of our previous “dining” establishment. Adding to the difficulty, was the manager stumbling into our access debate on the whiskey side of intoxicated. Conversation continued and again the locals thought we would surely kill ourselves by going down the river. After twenty minutes, the manager was slowly coming to terms with our request. His counter offer included some money for his evening at the “dining” establishment, and that we “hire” a few of the men from the local military to escort us up the river, guaranteeing our safety.

Lao's navy, or just a lousy navy?
working out logistics with out hired guard

The plan was for two vehicles, loaded with four kayaks, a double ducky, a mom, young baby, and three soldiers to head up the river as far as possible to “look” at the river. Technically we were just there to look, we still hadn’t worked out permission to paddle yet. Quickly, the road degraded and the van started to bottom out. Eventually, we called the van off, but not until the van’s rear differential left a four inch deep five foot long streak in the dense clay. Halting the van wasn’t due to dragging the drive train, it was that we were high centered and the wheels wouldn’t reach the ground. The hired military escort became useful as we pushed, pulled, and cursed the van back to more appropriate terrain.

Ryan Butler on the Nam Siam

Repacking all of the gear and people into and onto the now overburdened truck, we recommenced the journey up the continually degrading path. At this point, we were only intermittently being passed by scooters heading up to the small village. We slowly covered four miles when our armed company relayed the fact that we were about to leave their jurisdiction and that we needed to stop. A quick conversation with the guards (who were keen to watch us paddle) granted us permission to put on the river as long as we exited above the dam structure. They were fine with us paddling; they just didn’t want to be found in contempt of the manager.

Ryan Butler, Nam Siam

Traditionally, the logistics are by far the hardest part of the river section. The whitewater is a mix of steep class four bedrock and meandering beautiful jungle scenery. This section would be a spectacular “class five” rafting section, with small boats and good guides. Unfortunately, it is about to disappear. The dam is well under construction and this gorgeous section of whitewater will be lost for generations.

Isaac, Nam Siam

Upcoming paddlers should entertain the possibility of entering this drainage through the top. I have no idea what kind of work it would take to access the upper village, but once there, ascertaining access to the river would have to be easier than trying to bypass the dam.

Chris Baer, Nam Siam

It’s painful to go to these stunning locations only to see the jungle clear cut and huge earth moving machines redistributing the landscape for a short term export. The world is globalizing, and with doing so, it’s imperative that we help save the culture of those we impact. Not learning from the past is the greatest way to duplicate it.

another adventure brought to you by Chris Baer

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