Friday, February 24, 2017

Biggest Class 3 in the World? Siang River, Arunachal Pradesh, India

Biggest Class 3 in the World? Siang River, Arunachal Pradesh, India

Colin Aitken looking microscopic on the Siang River, himilayas India, Chris Baer, huge river whitewater kayak
Colin Aitken looking microscopic on the Siang River

The small jet was making its final approach into Katmandu International Airport. I knew we were close to the ground with wing flaps wide open and the slight feel of falling, but I still couldn’t see the ground. It wasn’t until we were less than hundred feet off the tarmac that I could see through the smog. While collecting my baggage, I was overrun by some of my worst fears of traveling in huge cities: rudeness, pollution, trash everywhere, horns constantly honking, and haggling for everything. After an hour of haggling at the airport, I found transportation to a dingy hotel, with non-locking doors, a cold shower, and plenty of rodent roommates. Fortunately it was just for a night, and I was able to fly out the next day, this time landing in Guwahati and somewhat more reasonable international chaos.

just a random intersection in India , chaotic motor cycles road india, Chris Baer
just a random intersection in India

The Assam region isn’t part of most people’s mental map of India. Its location and indigenous culture create a beautiful landscape reminding me more of Northern Myanmar than the hustle and bustle of Delhi. Colin Aitken and I had a few mutual acquaintances and were both looking for an opportunity to explore via kayak. We shook hands for the first time in a bus station in eastern India, exchanged pleasantries, and bought tickets to make our way to Pasighat. The bus ride was overnight, close to 16 hours of bouncing through the far Indian wild (east). The view out of the bus window of the countryside was of beautiful, distant rolling hills that fed into the Himalayas. Occasionally the bus would come to a stop and all of the occupants would file out and into what I could only describe as an Indian truck stop. I still can't believe I didn't get food poisoning during this leg of the trip.

kayaks loaded, not ready for 16 hours of bus travel, traveling with kayaks on busses in india painted bus india bus stop kayak zet whitewater himalayas, Chris Baer
kayaks loaded, not ready for 16 hours of bus travel

Arriving in the small, jump-off town of Pasighat meant that the chaotic pace of the big city was behind us. While sipping Assam tea we chatted with locals about the logistical challenge of getting our boats to the town of Tuting. Our local advice had us arranging a two day, jarring jeep ride north to the border town. It was seven hours up the watershed to the midway point and the mountain town of Yingkiong. There we chatted with yet more drivers about getting our equipment further up the drainage. With our limited local language skills, we attempted to schedule for a driver to meet us at our hotel the following morning. Seven in the morning came early as we waited outside our prayer flag-adorned hotel. We watched a handful of taxis and tuk-tuks rallying by, but to where? We started asking questions and determined that we ought to catch a taxi to destination unknown… hopefully where the jeep was awaiting. The microscopic taxi, with our two multi-day laden kayaks on top, bounced and bottomed out on our way to a partially completed bridge. Here, the driver gave us the international hand signal of, “Get out and walk across the bridge.”

Colin Aitken waiting outside our luxury amenities for transportation that would never arrive, Arunachal pradesh, Siang river prayer flags block street himalayas Chris Baer
Colin Aitken waiting outside our luxury amenities for transportation that would never arrive

Colin, damn that bridge is sketchy, bridge wire broken fog river Arunachal Pradesh india himalayas, kayaking kayak cold morning Chris Baer
Colin, damn that bridge is sketchy

It may have been that I hadn’t had my morning allotment of caffeine yet, but the bridge was sketchy and I wasn’t really feeling it. I’m pretty sure it was erected mostly with driftwood and bailing wire. There were missing boards everywhere, and it swayed with the lightest breeze. To top it off, the early morning fog was thick and you couldn’t tell how long, or for that matter how high up, the bridge was. Then I had the unnerving thought that I alone might be the heaviest thing that the bridge had transported in quite some time, not to mention I was shouldering my loaded down creek boat.

We scurried across the bridge and walked up the steep embankment on the other side to see a myriad of loaded down jeeps. Their drivers were attaching bags and pots onto the roofs of the vehicles. We were quickly greeted and given another hand signal, “Tie your boats down, we are about to go!” Still unsure if this was exactly the ride we had paid for, but not caring so long as we had a ride, we helped tie our kayaks to the roof and crammed ourselves inside with seven other passengers. We bounced another seven hours up the valley. Arriving in Tuting late in the afternoon on December 30th, Colin and I were exhausted from the travel and wanted to enjoy the labor of our work. We decided to spend New Year’s Eve in Tuting, which allowed me to capture some photo/video clips and explore the uniquely located mountain town. January 1st, we awoke to a partly cloudy sky, and we wandered down to the massive blue-green river. The hike in gave us a good vantage of the first rapid, it looked like it was going to be big. Trying to get comfortable in massive volume water, I paddled out to the main current and felt what seemed like ocean waves coming at me from every angle.

Buddhist monastery outside of Tuting, Arunachal Pradesh India Himalayas, kayaking  Chris Baer
Buddhist monastery outside of Tuting
Tuting, Siang River, the beginning prayer flags wind blowing huge river whitewater waves distance valley mountains arunachal pradesh india himalayas kayak Chris Baer
Tuting, Siang River, the beginning

The first day on the river produced by far the best whitewater of the section, including two utterly massive rapids. The first was caused by the delta of a tributary entering on the right forcing 100,000 cfs into a huge bedrock wall on the left. The water surged upward into a handful of fifteen-plus foot tall crashing waves. Coming over the first lead-in wave, I finally grasped how huge the rapid was. I was quickly entrenched in the pit of the wave and all I could see was water. The second enormous rapid was again caused by a tributary coming in on the right, but this time, instead of compression waves, it had scattered, house-sized boulders throughout the riverbed making a variety of features to avoid, and a couple of Himalayan-sized waves to blast over. The whitewater stayed world class throughout the entire day. With huge smiles, we pulled over on river left at about five o’clock in the evening to set up camp.

river kayaking tributarty siang river arunachal Pradesh Himalayas, kayak fire locals, Chris Baer
feeling small in India
camping side of river Arunachal Pradesh kayak himalayas Siang river Chris Baer
our kitchen, night one

Awaking on the second morning to no sun, my tarp was drenched with dew and the temperature was just shy of cold. Knitted beanie and puffy jacket on, I made a delicious breakfast of oats and Nescafe. On the water, we were greeted with more giant features and a couple of intense river directional changes. While a 90° turn of the river usually isn’t scary, when there is 100,000 cfs smashing into a cliff and creating enormous swirling whirlpools, things start to get entertaining. Mid-afternoon on day two, we passed under the sketchy Yingkiong bridge which we had crossed on foot in fog only a few days before. We continued downstream through one more splashy wave train and then eddied out on river left so we could hike up to town, where we were excited to find a filling meal and an okay bed to sleep in.

evening view from Yingkiong, india arunachal Pradesh kayak river Siang, himalayas Chris Baer
evening view from Yingkiong

The roosters were crowing as we awoke in Yingkiong on the morning of day three. The very accommodating hotel owner was already up, and quietly sang to herself in a monk-like, chanting style as she made us a hardy breakfast. The rapids were slightly subdued compared to the previous days, and we were able to cover some substantial mileage. By mid-afternoon we had stopped for a good camp location just upstream of the town of Boleng, allowing us to gather firewood and the chance to set up tarps before the sun set and the thick dew set in.

Chris Baer disheveled tired steripen kayak india himalayas Siang River tuting
Chris Baer, disheveled, exhausted, and thirsty
camoing side of river big agnes tarp kayak whitewater sand beach sun set Siang River Himalayas Arunachal Pradesh Chris Baer
camp, night three
Colin Aitken, looking small on the Siang River, kayak green river huge rock formation Arunachal pradesh India Himalayas, Siang River, Chris Baer
Colin Aitken, looking small on the Siang River

Extra-heavy dew and thick clouds awaited us on the fourth morning. We took our time getting off the beach, trying to let the obscured sun dry our sleeping bags and tarps. When it was time to get on the river, we started out strong, paddling a handful of good rapids and then some long pools, and then some more long pools until finally we hit the confluence with yet another substantial tributary, the Yamne River. We were now on multiple hundreds of thousands of cfs. Random boils and massive whirlpools would erupt out of nowhere. It felt more like the ocean than a river. We pushed on, skipping lunch and eating a quick snack while in our kayaks. We paddled and paddled. My hands and shoulders were sore and the sun was starting to set. From everything we had gathered, we shouldn’t have been too far from Pasighat, so we paddled on. By the time we got a glimpse of the Pasighat bridge, it wasn’t so much that I could make out that it was a bridge than there were levitating headlights in the distance.

colorful food at market vegetables india Arunachal Pradesh Himalayas Siang River, Chris Baer
local market

Climbing out of our kayaks after a solid eight hours of paddling was painful. We sluggishly carried them up to the bridge and hitchhiked into town. Luckily, kayakers are an extreme oddity in these parts and a few young men getting off their shift, with smiles and multiple handshakes, quickly picked us up and drove us into downtown. We eagerly, hungrily, hopped out of the truck and made our way to our favorite hole in the wall eatery. With a solid meal in us we wandered back to our local accommodations, blowing off return logistics until morning. river blue india Siang river kayak himalayas Arunachal Pradesh Siang river
adventure by Chris Baer