Friday, January 30, 2015

Kayak Spelunking? Xe Bang Fai River, Laos

Lao's subterranean beauty
Caves and rivers go together like orange juice and toothpaste…or so I thought. After years of paddling, “cave” has transformed into a heinous curse word. The idea of purposely putting on a river section that disappears for 12 kilometers seemed ignorant at best, but still very intriguing.

Our team from left to right, Chris Baer, Marlon Butler, Isaac Tracey, Miri Miyazaki, Ryan Butler, Lincoln Taylor, and Kieran

Our team had, yet again grown in number (Lincoln Taylor, Ryan Butler, Isaac Tracey, Miri Miyazaki, Marlon Butler, Kieran, and myself) and now contained a wide variety of participants, some with limited whitewater experience. Unfortunately, our team’s whitewater knowledge was not my first concern; the beta for the river section we were about to attempt was outstandingly insufficient.

Here is the translated beta I received;
1. Xe Bang Fai cave is at X point on the map.
2. A couple of trips have gone through the cave.
3. There are rapids leading to the cave that need to be portaged.
4. You should camp in the mouth of the cave.
5. There is a BIG “Swiss Cheese Falls” in the cave.
6. It should only take two full days.

“Vague” would be a kind description for this beta. We didn’t even have the name of the town closest to the put in or the take out. Adding apprehension to the mission, in the middle of nowhere, past midnight, one of the vehicles digested its serpentine belt while trying to set shuttle to an unknown destination. (The van was left on the side of the “road” for the duration of the trip.)

Due to the unexpected shuttle situation we were left sleeping in lackluster accommodations. The bed had two blankets over it to help conceal protruding springs, bed bugs, and I didn’t want to know what else!

The team constructed a new game plan: river or nothing! We piled two vehicles worth of equipment and people into an extended cab pickup truck and hit the road. Tracey and I were precariously balanced on top of the stacked boats teetering above the truck cab.

Xe Bang Fai River, Laos, Who thought paddling threw a 12 Kilometer long cave was a good idea? from Chris Baer on Vimeo.

Where is the put in?

Ryan Butler, looking into another siphon filled rapid

The road we were traveling on consisted of the finest rust-colored dust; when you stepped on the surface, your foot actually descended a solid half-inch into the dust. By the time we first stopped for directions, Isaac and I had acquired a new maroon skin tone. Another hour on the road and it started to parallel the river. I was getting excited now that we finally had found the river with a floatable flow. All of the sudden, I saw water flying through the sky! A second later, I heard a dull thud. After some investigation, my redneck assumption was confirmed. They still fish by dynamite in this region!

We stopped the truck just outside of “dynamite village” and made access to the river. The plan was to try to make it an unknown distance to the mouth of the cave by evening.

Isaac digging for a boof

The pace started strong, we made progress down the gently flowing river bed interspaced with class 2 rapids. Then a couple good class 3 rapids and an interesting class 4 appeared. Most of the larger rapids were created by limestone rock configurations, forming the relatively deep and concise lines with occasional nasty undercuts and sieves.

duckie disaster

In one of these rapids the skill set of our team came under question. The rapid was a basic class 3 ferry, but one of the boats didn’t make it. The craft went careening down a sluice that I didn’t want to explore. During the botched maneuver a paddle was sent downstream on its own and disappeared under a rock. It took longer for the paddle to reappear than I can hold my breath for. The river was quickly proving its nature and made it clear that our team should ponder the severity of a mishap. A quick meeting was held; a couple paddlers decided to walk a few of the more sieve-infested rapids. Hand signals and a few white water basics were reiterated.

Late in the afternoon with Isaac and myself leading the pack, we made our way down to the entrance of the cave. Discovering no beach or camp at the mouth of the cave, we turned around and attained half a mile upstream to a large sandy cove on river right.

setting sun at camp, warming up with a fire and noodles

Camping on the sandy beach was enjoyable with a fire and the classic menu of ramen noodles and odd canned meet. Along with stories, we passed around a small bottle of moonshine that Lincoln was able to barter from the local wildlife rangers.

starry night at camp

The following morning, we arose with the sun. While stoking the fire, we warmed up and refueled with Nescafe, jam, and bread. We evaluated who had which headlamps and attached them to our helmets. Our team also discussed cave protocol: sandwiching some of the less experienced paddlers in the middle of the pack and being really careful.

Entering into the cave involved a portage over a river-wide sieve. It felt absolutely disturbing to walk over a fatal river feature within eye sight of the total darkness we intended to paddle into.

standing on a sieve, looking at the tiny entrance to a massive cave system

The entrance into the cave is stunning, with a massive limestone wall diverting the river underground. As my eyes started to adjust to the darkness, I made the initial move under an ominous overhang. The river reopened gently on the other side, allowing a final glimpse of light as we entered a partially collapsed room. The room was massive, easily over a hundred feet tall and wide, and it quickly leads you deeper into the dark abyss with a class 2 rapid.

“It’s dark, really dark!”

I had one of the better headlamps, and I still couldn’t see. The gigantic rooms were filled with mist. Paddling with headlamps in the mist was like driving in dense fog, you can turn the high beams on but you can’t see any further.

The first rapid we approached deep inside the cave sounded terrifying! The roar of the water was echoing off the ceiling and walls. I was full-on scared and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. One by one the headlights lined up and descended into the pool below.

We continued on into the darkness running interspaced class 2-3 rapids blind. Catching unfamiliar last chance eddies in the dark does not happen. Each attempt to scout a rapid before running it was unsuccessful. I started to wonder when the rumored “mandatory portage” of “Swiss Cheese Falls” was going to appear.

One of the countless reflective cave features

Pushing on, our team occasionally spotted reflective surfaces. We would paddle closer and create a semi-circle around massive shimmering stalactites. At other times there would be a slight breeze bringing bugs and bats. It is absolutely amazing to look up and watch bats zip back and forth as they collect their meals.

stalactite mania!

After a few hours a light glow appeared in the distance: were we nearing the end? Where was Swiss Cheese Falls? The sun managed to reflect and bounce half a mile into the cave, illuminating bright blue water, ceiling and walls draped in a light green moss, and stalactites dangling everywhere. The team took time to bask in the beauty of the cave and celebrate a truly new experience for everyone.

the exit, almost as stunning as the entrance

Miri hiking out of the cave

We paddled away from the cave, a mile later, a local fisherman waved us over for a chat. The exit logistics were easier than anyone could have imagined. Scooter transport was arranged and an hour later we piled back onto the truck, headed to town.

Isaac and I tending the stack

Feel free to contact me for reliable beta on the Xe Bang Fai River, as well as applying for a permit with Green Discovery… and don’t forget to bring solid vehicles!

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