September 2019 Update #5 Western Swing
This will be the fifth update on my journey writing Torrents As Yet Unknown: Exploring Earth’s Great River Gorges.
“Travelling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta
I just wrapped up the swing around the American west that I mentioned in the last Torrents newsletter. Many hours of fascinating conversations with some extraordinary explorers, and all were incredibly generous with their time and with details about their remarkable lives. These were hard boaters and rafters I have known of, and heard parts of their adventures, for years but had met only casually or not at all. As with my research trip around Europe, these meetings are the highlights of the project. Torrents wouldn’t be possible without this kind of cooperation – or, at least, it would not be the book I want it to be.
Even though many of us are getting long in the tooth these days, it doesn’t seem to have slowed these guys down much. Coordinating to catch as many as possible in one trip wasn’t easy.
I started with Mick Hopkinson in Jackson Hole, just back from the Salmon River and packing to leave for the (Southern Hemisphere) summer season at his kayak school in New Zealand. Mick was Mike Jones’s close paddling partner and friend, from their frightening 2-man run thru the upper gorges of the Blue Nile to Mike’s heroic (but probably preventable) death in the Karakorum (Chapters 2 & 4). Beyond fact checking, Mick provided lots of context and nuance to that remarkable story – the stuff that is best communicated face-to-face. In our very first e-mail communication, Mick summed this up concisely: “Needs more beer.”
Next, north to Montana for a fascinating day and a half with Doug Ammons. Doug is a prolific writer and thought leader, well known in the paddling magazines and with his books Laugh of the Water Nymph and Whitewater Philosophy. In 1991 he made a 3-day run through the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in British Columbia – at that time perhaps the most intense and remote whitewater known anywhere. It had been run before, in fact Doug had run it with a previous expedition. This time he did it secretly and solo, and to this day he has spoken little and published nothing about that experience. I am grateful for all he shared with me and hope I can do it justice in prose.
Still in Montana, I found Skip Horner just back from a ramble around Central Asia, and we spent the day on the deck of his beautiful home deep in the foothills, getting sunburned and comparing notes on Kashgar, Tashkent, and beyond. Skip rowed on many of Richard Bangs’ Sobek Expeditions pioneering international rafting expeditions, and he gave me insights on rafting in general (not my strong suit). In particular, he shared a wealth of detail about the first run on the Zambezi below Victoria Falls (Chapter 6). World Heritage Site; huge rapids bounded by dramatic basalt cliffs; the end of the Rhodesian war and independence from colonialism; military helicopters and minesweepers clearing the beach campsites; crocodiles; TV, National Geographic, and Hollywood. Sobek/Richard Bangs pulled off a three-ring media circus unmatched since Lowell Thomas’s Indus extravaganza (Chapter 1).
Then off to LA and Labor Day hanging out in Venice Beach with Richard Bangs, just back from Armenia and Georgia. Fifty years of river miles and memories to compare. We both grew up and began boating in the DC area. Richard went on to Grand Canyon raft guiding, mentored by Don Hatch (Chapter 1), then founded Sobek and pioneered international rafting, while I focused on hardboat racing and river running. Like Skip Horner, Richard shared a wealth of first-hand info on his Chapter 6 Zambezi extravaganza, and he also shared a lot of printed material and leads about the over-the-top Chinese descent through Tiger Leap Gorge on the Yangtze in 1986 (Chapter 7).
I finished my “LA experience” at a sidewalk café just up the avenue from the Sony Picture Studios in Ventura, for a fascinating dinner conversation with actress/producer/novelist Deborah M. Pratt. Travelling with actor LeVar Burton, who was there as the “celebrity focus” for the scripted TV coverage, they were the Hollywood contingent of Richard Bangs’s epic. To Skip’s account as veteran raft guide, and Richard’s as leader and impresario, Deborah added her viewpoint as a keen observer and professional storyteller who had never been on a whitewater river, nor in Africa, in her life.
What a privilege writing this tribute to expedition whitewater has become,