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The 1996 NuJiang River Expedition Field Reports


Field Report No. 2

By White Pearl
November 8, 1996

From the Banks of the Nu River, Fugong Town, Yunnan Province, China

NuJiang Environmental River Team has now completed running the section from Gongshan Town to below Fugong Town - approximately 80 river miles, containing more than 36 classifiable rapids. Three rapids were deemed unrunnable at the continuing high water level of 30,000 c.f.s. Although clear skies should allow the river to drop, the dozens of side streams and waterfalls have maintained the water level. The Year of the River Rat could be the Nu River's ten-year high water year.

I have concluded that small river classification (2-3-4-5+, and 6 unrunnable safely without risk of injury or death) is not descriptive of this river at this water level of 30,000+ cubic feet per second. I myself am now classifying the rapids on a big river scale (1-10) of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River with Lava Falls rapid being our 10.

© J.Pyle
Ultimately, the locals will make their own classification. Actually, we have not found any Class 1-2 rapids on the Nu Jiang. An extraordinary number could be classed at 8-10, with three classed at 10+, or unrunnable without risk of injury or death. This is due to the unusual violent hydraulics.

To understand the unique structure of the rapids, Geologist Scott Young and I believe a comparison of the Nu River and Colorado River is instructive. The Grand Canyon Colorado River is a much older river with millennia of erosive years and formation of a more rounded river bottom, more strata of softer sandstone. The Nu River is a young river with sharper V bottom, with a majority of igneous and metamorphic strata. Constriction into this V bottom results in intense violent crosscurrents. Moreover, the Nu River has countless more side streams that during their monsoon seasons have created complex rocky outflows and strewn the river with massive boulders. My own research discovered that the Nu River bottom is also a major fault line of the Yunnan - Guizhou Plateau. I hope this fact is not lost on any Chinese engineer dreaming of damming this outstanding whitewater river.

For those of us who have had them, our personal confrontations with the river defy description. Phrases like "gigantic waves" and "bottomless holes" do NOT do justice to the Angry River and its demonic forces. Perhaps because the River has never seen or tasted River Rat before, HE (and the rage without pity can only be masculine, Scott says) has toyed with and taken bites out of most of the boaters. Indeed, HE has a taste for eyeglasses, at this date having eaten three pairs and poked out the eye of two pairs.

The violence of the Angry Nu River (an apt Chinese meaning of the word Nu) is matched by a puzzling difficulty of scouting the rapids. Although the road provides ease of observation, the true knowledge of the runnability of a rapid comes only at the river level WITHIN the rapid itself. This hardknocks experiential education has tested everyone, river and road team alike, the road team never being certain rafts will appear around the corner right side up. One third of the river team has had lifetime experiences aplenty on rivers, and now ALL have matched their lifetime flip and swim statistics in five days! Those who told me before the trip 'Class 5 is not a problem' are walking away with a comment of "Not Today." In fact, this realistic approach is what I am hoping the Chinese will learn from us. Up to now, they have run their rivers without regard for the death count, as a "nationalistic" quest.


© J.Pyle

Here's a blow by blow account "Cat Rat Do" Dennis Schultz, the cataraft master, told me here in Fugong:

On the third day, just the kayakers and me alone in the Monkey had run already one half day of numerous rapids worst than Lava Falls without a scout. This rapid looked like big stuff, but I figured on cheating The Hole by pulling far left. As I followed my chosen route, I saw another big hole, which suddenly disappeared, to be replaced on the right side, within two seconds, by a monumental wave. With no time to react, I was tossed and slapped overboard by this Wave from Hell, to the left side of the Monkey raft.

Hanging on the left side, I hoped to move to the side of the huge hole now in front, but the boat turned 90 degrees to the right. With no warning or mercy, I was in a most perilous position, downstream of the raft, but hoping that my body would highside the Monkey free. I was wrong again - the power and violence of the turbulence unleashed by the river flipped me AND the Monkey so that I landed on top of the upside down raft - all 215 pounds and 6 feet 5 inches of me! The Monkey had had it for the day and made for a safe eddy.

Now, this was the second flip for me, the first being a surprising but non pounding experience, for me anyway, not for my boat partner, expedition leader White Pearl. This second one only netted me a bruised thigh and ego since only Class 5 had ever flipped me before. The Third Flip was mean, underhanded, and down right nasty. I found out the Angry River was not finished with me yet.

On that next day, after I and the kayak Probe Team had run ten kilometers of five rapids, we came up to a rapid even Pizzuti and Young pulled over to scout. I could only see the top of the rapid with a huge hole covering 85% of the rapid. 5% room on the right and 15 % on the left led me to choose the left, and the upper section was a good run. BUT the river in continuing left to right piled up at a right wall and rock jetty, creating crashing side waves. As I rowed into sight of these waves, I hoped to bust through them. BUT

© J.Pyle
unbeknownst to me, a towering hydraulic washing machine on the left lurked, waiting just for the Monkey and me. It pounced on us with fury, approaching out of nowhere, and violently flipped us with one toss.

At the same moment the River seized an oar, jammed it into my side, ripped off the waist belt of my life jacket, and grabbed off my glasses and helmet. THIS was only the initial attempt of the River to murder me. As a secondary attack, the River held me down breathless for 30-40 yards, and then sucked me into its depths. This was merely a playful gesture, because THEN it got serious. It pulled me into its inky black bottom and tied my rain pants around my feet to keep me there. In a final insult, I later discovered while I celebrated my survival of the Nu River's wrath - one cavity filling had been sucked out of my tooth.

"I'm making 90% of the rapids but the other 10% are killing me. Good batting average in baseball but lousy for river running," says Dennis Schultz.

Moving along to the rest of the river team report, we all thought the Bing Zhong Luo - Gongshan thirty miles had thrashed us good, and THEN we hit the Gongshan-Fugong stretch. These eighty miles of rapids - at least five of which are off the scale - are tougher and bigger than Lava Falls ever was. You've heard Dennis Schultz's recollection above. Here are some more reactions.

Dave Pizzuti, Generation X Extreme kayaker, nicknamed " Snake": "I don't like big water, where are the waterfalls?"

His buddy Scott Young, nicknamed "the Bull" whines: "I had to rassle your Monkey raft and rescue too many bodies in one day."

Phil Kantor boated ahead 10 kilometers before realizing it, scared us to death, so we made him sleep with the boats one night.

Greg Drawbaugh, who not content with kayak thrills, got his fill, filling in as an "Oar" paddling in place of a ripped off oar stand.

Brad Rosenzweig, after having his eyeglass poked out, and a 2nd pair lost in his last swim, says, "Maybe I'll run and hike a little."

Mike Gheleta, our guitarist, who pronounced every rapid class 2+ from the road, says, "Jeez, I've never flipped a paddle raft before, much less THIS many times."

Of the thirty-six rapids, aside from the five mentioned, another eight because of their violence are rated at Class 8 - 10. Even the Probe Team has walked away from one class 10+, and no one considered the upper river Class 5, now rated at Class 10++. All in all, the NuJiang team is VERY proud of its performance record, a record that includes modeling good safety moves, decision making, and cooperation to the Chinese. I think this is USA boating at its best. Stay on line for the next Rapid Report of the Nu River.


The Enchanting People of the Nu River

The running of the rapids, as exciting and heart stopping as it is, is matched and sometimes over shadowed by the wonderful human exchanges

© B.Rosenzweig
and interactions with the people of the NuJiang Valley. At various beach camps, music and dancing around the campfires often unites us together in wondrous celebrations. Lisu and Nu ladies come down out of the shadows dressed in their intricate best clothes, embroidered and decorated with shells and beads.

A Lisu girl dresses up in a black velveteen top and white skirt. For her headdress she wears an 'oulei' cap woven of strings of red and white beads and patches of couch shell. Necklaces of beads and a sash of big round couch shells cover her chest. A married lady wears a big couch on a necklace, representing her husband's heart.

World has traveled ahead of the team about the Riverrat Band, comprised of Mike Gheleta - guitar, harmonica and vocals, Zia Parker - flute, Chuck Symthe - recorder and vocals, Frank Leuthold - clarinet,

© B.Rosenzweig
and Jen Pyle - vocals. (Everybody thought I was crazy when I interviewed them about their musical abilities before the trip.) After twilight, twinkling flashlights from the hills to the river signal that the crowd is coming down for the beach party. Everyone gets in on the act when the Lizu ladies pull us into their circle to learn their dances. We alternate local and American songs, joined arm in arm. The Lisu, particularly known as the Merry Nationality, love a party and can spend all night singing and dancing to dawn.

Meanwhile the kids are usually surrounding their American daddy Frank Leuthold, or standing politely in line to be hoisted on the Probe Team arms, shouting the kayakers' signal of greeting "Sha Ka Bra". I am told this is Hawaiian for "Yo, Bro." The V victory sign in every village now is twirling thumb and little finger like bull fighter, no doubt just one of the Americanisms to take root. We sincerely hope a little environmental awareness has also.

Each day local radio reports our location and word spreads so that along the river school classes let out and farmers gather to watch, for them, the thrilling and never before seen river ballet performed by the team. At every capsizing and bashing by the Angry River, people rush to help, and express concern. "Ne Hao" (hello). "How many kayaks did you see go by?" And some one always knows. When the Monkey ran off by itself down river, the locals caught it five kilometers away, turned it over, and beached it for us. Oh, NuJiang river people, "Shamou tse" - a Lizu thank you to all. You rest in our hearts forever.


The Green Report

By Sandy Snyder
Alpine Gardener, Denver Botanical Gardens


© B.Rosenzweig

There are plants around the Nu River that are recognizable to the American gardener. Many towns have a public garden where you can hike up to a temple. At the temple's entrance there is usually a display of Chrysanthemums.

All of the women gardeners I have seen raking, sweeping, burning leaves and rubbish do their work in high heels and dress pants. I haven't seen many birds around, perhaps due to over hunting, but I have seen quite a few large interesting butterflies.

The Yunnan pine, 'Pinus yunnanensis' has been prominent on the hills throughout our trip from Kunming to Bing Zhong Luo. The stands of large bamboo are magnificent and can be spotted growing on the hillsides from a long way away. It is fall here so there are not very many flowers still lingering to help me identify precisely the Viburnums, the Jasminum, and the Clematis that I see.

There is beginning to be a hint of fall color given by the few stands of trees. The local walnut trees have almost completed losing all of their leaves. I am told that the valley would like to plant more walnuts but lack the money.

Around our campgrounds there are plants that have tough leaves, spines and interesting growth habits that I do not recognize. Their berries easily identify Pyracantha shrubs. We saw many large Hypericum shrubs along the river. I was very surprised to discover what I know as the Japanese Anemone to be the most abundant bloomer at the riverside campsites.


See Field Report No. 3 for more from Fugong on the Nu River.


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