Flat-Busted in Fugong:
China in the Year of the Riverrat

by Dennis W. Schultz, Ph.D

-From the never to be released collection of short stories.

Introduction by Jennifer M. Pyle Esq., Nujiang First Descent
Nujiang Preservation Project Director

I met Dennis in a phone call he made to me in Boulder in 1993. "I hear you can row a small raft?" "How small?" "12 foot Avon Red Shank". "I learned on one!" "I have a Selway permit and need someone to row my raft "Wild Sheep." And so I came out of raft retirement, on the very raft I had learned to row with Gary Grimmís gender neutral U of O Outdoor Program in 1971-74 while studying to become Oregonís first Environmental Law/American Indian Law attorney.

I met the mysterious Nu Jiang in 1986 while attending another "Program" Ė the Chinese Law Program of Beijing University, China. I was already dreaming of running Chinese rivers with the Chinese heroes of the Yangtze River, and the following year of the Yellow River. I immediately mentioned the Nu with the Yellow River teams in 1987, and what they said sounded incredible. They said that it was unrunnable even by them, who had killed perhaps 20 men in running Chinaís top two rivers. Furthermore, the Lisu, Nu and Dulong were famous for running ALL foreigners out, or disappearing them Ė whether Chinese OR Red Devil. AND they had an unwritten deal with the Chinese Army to protect the paranoid border with the rabid Myanmar Generals. Both Beijing and the minority nationalities had their own separate reasons for keeping this area tightly closed. Then suddenly in 1994 while I was in Kunming being treated by a famous acupuncturist, the Sports Commission told me that the local government wanted White Pearl to come and see if the Nu was "suitable" for river running.

When I arrived at the bottom rapid, "Many Fish" north of Liukiu, I knelt in awe to the amusement of my interpreter. I drove the 320 kilometers up the river to BingZhongLuo singing along with the jeep driver the music of Tiananmen Square's hero Wei Jian. On the way we passed hundreds of rapids of white and turquoise, clean and pristine, of all classes. I promised silently and later publicly I would work to preserve this greatest of all Asian whitewater rivers AND its Minority Nationalities. In the ensuing negotiations I discovered to my horror that I was taking on an impossible mission. Yunnan Province had planned for four hydroelectric dams that would provide the pretext to extend the road so Chinese tanks could enter the soft underbelly of Tibet.

I knew my friend, Dennis Schultz, the USA's Number One Catarafter, could handle the challenge of the turquoise turbulent giant the Mandarins called The Angry River.

Chapter 1

"How much is it?" "Five hundred and fifty-three yuan". "What," I exclaimed. I had finally gotten through to my wife in the States to tell her that I was OK, but probably would not be going back on the Nu Jiang (Angry River). "Will you take a Travelers check?" "No, cash only". Guess they had never heard of Karl Malden over here. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to get to see a Chinese jail from the inside. I dredged my wallet and every nook and cranny of my clothing, and managed a little under five hundred yuan. Close enough! It was a fine trade for my freedom. I immediately left the citadel of the Telephone Company and wandered pell-mell past the myriad of little shops along the cobblestone road back to the hotel. I sat down on my austere little bed and contemplated my situation. Besides my ribs, the river had broken some of my spirit and determination, and now the phone company had broken my wallet.

The Nu Jiang trip was going to be my great, once in a lifetime, adventure in a foreign land; a first descent on a beautiful unspoiled river in the Himalayan foothills of southern China. It didnít turn out that way. The Nu Jiang would normally be low in fall. The weather would normally be sunny and warm. It wasnít normal. It was cold and damp, torrential rains persisted, like the cold I caught, for over a week. The river was much higher than normal, a callous 30,000 cfs.

Like Coronadoís captain, Cárdenas, who first gazed down upon the Colorado River from the south rim of the Grand Canyon and thought the river to be six feet wide, we too, greatly underestimated the size and power of the Nu Jiang. We had tried to map the river as we rode upstream on the bus, but the road was often so far above the river that it appeared as a mere trickle. Although we thought we knew better, like Cárdenas, we too were deceived. Rapids that we classified as 2ís or 3ís from the bus were in reality 7ís, 8ís, or 9ís on the Grand Canyon (1-10) scale. Rapids that we classified as 4ís or 5ís were 10ís or unrunnable at this water level. Furthermore, while many wave trains and even holes on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon can be smooth, regular and downright consistent, most waves and holes on the Nu were extremely irregular, pulsating, and even exploding at times. Their only consistency was their inconsistency. Like a starved lunatic, they eagerly awaited their first taste of hypalon.

Our river team consisted of 3 rafts and 5 kayaks, Mike and Frank captaining two floored rafts, me in a cataraft, and kayakers Dave, Scott, Phil, Brad, and Greg. Mike and Frank were both competent, experienced rafters. Phil, Brad, and Greg were competent class IV-V kayakers while Dave and Scott were world-class boaters. Jennifer was the expedition leader. The various on river duties were assigned by a vote of the entire group. Scott was in charge of safety; Norbert, the road crew; Bill, supplies; Zia, the kitchen, Mike, the maps; and I, river navigation. Two of the floored rafts, which were destined to be left in China as part of our river running agreement, had been purchased specifically for this trip. I was to row the expedition leaderís cataraft, the "Monkey", which was almost identical to my own cataraft.

The first two days on river were a fairly easy warm-up although the rain rarely abated. We had put in at 1:30 PM on Thursday, October 31st from BingZhongLuo and floated 9 k the first day and 15 k the second day. This section of river contained only minor rapids with the exception of one major rapid encountered the second day in which both Mikeís and Frankís floored rafts did 360ís before exiting. I was much more maneuverable in the cataraft, but also, much more flippable, as I would soon find out.

We camped on Friday, November 1st on a large beach on river right. Mike wanted to use the Avon Adventurer since its stern frame would give him an additional level of control beyond that of a paddle crew. However, the shipping container with the rafts had been damaged in route. The Avon Adventurer had received several small puncture wounds in the floor as well as one in a tube, resulting in a slow leak. My first attempt to patch the Avon in the pouring rain had not been very successful. Since the sun had decided to make an appearance, it seemed like a good time for some raft repair before we ran the serious whitewater downstream. We decided to layover Saturday to work on the rafts and let the kayakers run and scout for us the first significant stretch of serious whitewater below. Mike and I spent the morning mapping out a strategy for running the next 4-5 days down to Fugong, which was nearly the halfway point. We had to move at a fairly good pace to accomplish the entire run in two weeks. I spent the rest of the day patching the Avon. Our glue had been ruined in route but we had managed to purchase the creme de la creme of Chinese contact cement. After several failed attempts, I got the patches to stick... well kind of.

Sunday, November 3rd, was our second straight day of sunshine, and we were excited about running this challenging 20k stretch down to Gongshan. Jennifer, the expedition leader, wanted to ride on her raft. Unfortunately, I still hadnít found the hardware to attach the bow seat to the boat. I donít think we found that hardware until we were packing up the gear to be sent home! This left the cooler behind me as the only place for her to ride. Neither could I find two large water jugs that I wanted to use for weight up front. Normally, I like the bow of my raft to be slightly down, especially for hole-busting, but I ended up running with my bow slightly raised instead. In retrospect, I was too nonchalant, and a bit over-confident as well. But heck, those are usually my two best river running attributes. In any event, the sunny day as well as the groupís confidence level was about to take its first big blow.

The first major rapid was visible from our camp. While others were still rigging, I walked down to the top of it to take a quick look. It didnít appear to be any big deal, just a straight shot middle left, down the gut as usual.

However, soon after we entered the rapid, we went into a huge wave/hole/backcurler and flipped head over heels. Jennifer twisted her left knee, but got pulled into Mikeís boat almost immediately. I was holding on to the side of the cataraft but the next huge wave ripped my hands from it. However, the boat was just downstream a little, so I swam to it. Just as I was about to grab on, I watched stupefied as another huge wave lifted the cataraft 10-15 feet in the air and then sent it crashing down on my head giving me a mild concussion. Despite being a bit more dingy than usual, I managed to grab hold of the raft and slowly climb onto this slippery haven from the turbulent waters around me. I had planned on reaching down into the water and grabbing one of the oars to maneuver it over to shore. However, no sooner had I reached this sanctuary than I espied a huge rock pour-over dead ahead.

I now found myself entering the second major rapid of this section, which was only a couple hundred feet below the first. However, I felt the rockledge ahead held more danger than main current. As if leeches awaited me as in the "African Queen", I stood up to my trepidation and leaped back into the Nu Jiang maelstrom. Over the years I have developed a real hatred, but not a fear, of swimming whitewater. I know how to survive in such water--by getting out as soon as possible. However, this seemed unlikely, as I was caught in the grip of the Nuís omnipotent current. As I neared the bottom of the second rapid I was beginning to feel like a soggy piece of bread or a watery version of gravy train. The sight of Phil kayaking toward me raised my hopes of a rescue at last. But such was not to be. Soon after reaching me we both got chundered in a huge hole, and for a short time, I had a swimming buddy. However, a second kayaker soon paddled over to us and pulled Phil to shore as I continued my downstream journey.

Suddenly, I heard someone yelling from Frankís raft. His floored raft, nearly full of water, was barreling toward me. Frank dropped the oars and pulled me into his boat. Being dazed and confused, slightly hypothermic, and extremely waterlogged, I was of no assistance to the crew. I sat and watched dumbfounded as the crew struggled frantically to keep the remainder of the Nu Jiang waters on the outside of the raft while Frank struggled at the oars for some small illusion of control. We continued our frenzied float downstream, more as part of the river than on top of it.

Frank was trying to pull us over to the left riverbank. The river turned suddenly to the right crashing the current and us off the left wall. The left oar jammed against the rocks on river left as the boat smashed into the vertical wall, exploding the left oar lock and part of the wooden raft frame into splinters. Fortunately, this taste of Hypalon was not to the Nu Jiangís liking, she gagged and spit us into an eddy on river left where we were able to pull over to the left bank at last. Still dazed, I watched as Greg, one of the kayakers who had also been salvaged into the raft, and Frank used straps and duct tape to tie down both oar stands to what was left the of the frame. The upturned cataraft floated by us while Frank and Greg were busy working.

We pushed off and rendezvoused with Mikeís raft just downstream and decided to pull over to river right where we could get help from our road crew. We also had picked up Philís kayak. None of the other river runners were in sight. We had lunch and accessed our situation. The upturned cataraft and the other kayakers were all far downstream. Our road crew arrived along with Phil and Scott. At first we thought Frankís raft frame was too damaged to continue. However, Frank and Greg had done a great job. The oar stand was now stronger with straps and duct tape than with the bolts and glue that had originally held it together. After some discussion, the less experienced, wet and cold paddlers got on the bus while the rest of us cold wet crazies continued downstream. Greg and I now paddle-assisted on Frankís boat. We still had the toughest rapid of this stretch to run. Even from the bus, we had classified it a 4, which meant it was at least a "14" on the Grand Canyon river scale.


Afterword by White Pearl: Please read my Field Reports to supplement Dennisí story. The Introduction of Chapter 2 will tell how I used my University of Oregon Outdoor Program Assumption of Risk philosophy to good advantage. Chapter 3 will conclude with information on the 13 dam project that threatens the Nu Jiang (New York Times front page article up now on www.chinarivers.com). And most importantly how you can object to this horrible tragic destruction of the Nu peopleís homeland and on how to go paddling there before itís destroyed.


 

Read Chapter 2.