I wake up with the sun on the bank of the river. I roll out of my bivy and wander to the water’s edge to rinse my face. Before me stands a surf wave with perfect eddy access, gone unnoticed the night before. No other team members are up yet. It’s time for a dawn patrol! I eagerly gear up, abbreviate a warm-up on the shore, and dive in. The wave is epic.
Soon, several curious road laborers toting picks and shovels congregate along shore and across the prayer-flag adorned bridge overhead, and then gradually, several more. Personnel file from the back of stopped military trucks to watch. My bow dives and my creek boat is sent into the air and upside down in a simple ender. I roll back up, glance, and see relief on the faces of the crowd at my self-rescue. Women shepherds with sheep and school buses packed with young scholars are now contributing to a traffic jam on the bridge, but the motorists and commuters don’t seem to mind; they’re watching too. Now a crowd of more than 50, including perplexed stray dogs, is watching me carve turns across the wave face. When I drift back up the eddy for another, while trying to catch my breath and feeling half drowned from the 12,000ft of elevation, we share smiles.
When I’m finally exhausted, I wander back to the team. After sharing an oatmeal breakfast, we start the process of packing our boats to the brim. A 40lb creek boat weighs a lot. When that boat is loaded with an additional 40lb of gear and food, it weighs a lot more. Hauling this loaded boat feels like a Herculean effort, and I’m glad to lower it into the water. When I crawl aboard and ease off the shore into the current, the river finally takes over. With a boat this heavy, there are some changes in its handling, but for now I compensate with an occasional light paddle stroke to keep me centered in the jet.
As we drift away from this last bit of community and start gaining momentum, our course ahead runs deep through the heart of the Zanskar Mountains. Piled columns of stones resembling cairns line both shores. Cairns are generally helpful in depicting the trail if more obvious landmarks are not present, but we are headed downstream and our direction is clear. Perhaps these Mani, as they are called locally, and the Sanskrit lettering etched into the top most stones, will provide some guidance for our souls.
As we float around a corner, a jackhammer mashes my thoughts from 100ft above. Exposed on an outcrop of stone, a group of road workers have set their hand tools aside for this power tool as they beat the ledge away. Splinters of stone rain down on us in the current below. The road that is planned through this mountain canyon has some concerned that a dam will surely follow. For our team, this marks the end of the road until we emerge, three days from now, on the road construction stringing from the opposite direction.
Although the vantage is limited while tucked into the bottom of any drainage, the scenery of the Zanskar River Gorge is unlimited. Unique colors I don’t know the names for paint the rocks, and unique rocks I don’t know the names for flood the landscape. Peaks of enormous elevation jut up from above all this.
The group feels suitable tent sites may be scarce ahead where the colored canyon walls appear to tighten. We stop early to rest for the night in a spread of sand and river boulders and I nestle down comfortably.
The next day brings with it whitewater surging to match the surrounding geography in scale. Crashing waves, fueled by massive volume, crest into a series of obstacles before me. The momentum of my heavy boat carries me up and sometimes through the turbulent features before sailing down and into the next. The exhilarating rapids dump into boiling eddy lines. An occasional, random whirlpool opens up beneath my boat, spinning into a size that drags me down into the torrent. I am twisted and turned until the water’s violent energy smoothens, dissipates, and stops sucking on me long enough for me to bob with my boat back to the surface. And I breathe.
The mass of water we are riding, now far from its trickling origin up high, has served various and sometimes stinky roles in support of life in the communities upstream. The bits that splash onto my lips do not taste good. At this point my own stomach, despite being warm and dry within a drysuit, has begun to side against me. Then, one by one, we drift around a turn. Rumble, rumble, rumble … KABLAM!!! A gushing clear spring roars into a waterfall cascading into the river from a notch in the rock wall. If a diamond makes a sound, it must share the same frigid, fresh quality of the sparkling echo around me. My relief is as resounding. We stomp up the bank and I immerse myself under the deluge, washing away any muck. From my boat I drag a dromedary, and thrust its opening into the source until it is overflowing. Directly to the side of all this we make camp. We’re slightly cramped between bushes and staggered closely on rocky steps, but it has been a big day and adequate space remains to cook and to sleep, so we do. The roaring magnitude of the situation drowns any thoughts and carries with it my dreams to this call of the wild, oh wait, nope, damn it … that’s nature’s call coming from deep within my sleeping bag.
The next day is our last on this trip down the Zanskar River. We reach the lower progress of the road construction, and with it we are united with some familiar commercial rafting groups as they launch with their customers for a day float. As we pull over to them, they offer friendly cheers with handshakes and congratulations on our adventure. The safety kayakers join our side through the continuing multitude of humungous trains of waves.
I long for the scene to continue, but the current does not stop for us. We are carried once again to the confluence with the Indus. Rain has set in and chills us, but not long after the rain starts, we crawl out of the river, ditch our soggy attire, and drink warm chai. While warming our limbs and cores, we discuss our next move. It is decided; we have time for an overnighter on the upper Indus River.
We take a day to restock and recover physically in Leh. Some of the team and I use the opportunity to scurry up a steep, loose trail leading up and out of the noisy, claustrophobic city center to an artfully manicured staircase attached to a Gompa constructed into a rocky hill. A monk greets us openly and, with a grin, opens the doors behind him, inviting us into the holy monastery. The architecture is old. Important holy relics of vast importance are set about in the form of drums, bells, gongs, and bone ornaments. Detailed art covers the walls portraying wrathful deities among billowed clouds, swirling waterfalls, and flames. Intricately carved wooden pillars shaped into dragons and beasts’ faces stand all around. Everything focuses towards the statue Buddharupa. Incense burns from the corner and almost inaudible mantras pass across the monk’s breath as he patiently stands aside thumbing his prayer beads.
Our shuttle the next day follows the Indus River. The view from the dirt road provides a scout of amazing Class IV rapids streaming through rich sandstone colored granite. For this trip, the team is joined by two additional paddlers: Poly from New Zealand, and Biru, a local from the region who met us in Leh and wanted to tag along. Our drivers double check to ensure we are adequately equipped before leaving us on the roadside beside the river. Our group of nine is large, and we all do our best to maintain open communication while providing safety support, but the tall waves and winding rapids limit visual contact.
I plunge too close into the corner of a hydraulic feature behind a steep pour-over and stall completely. With the stern of my boat and the tip of my paddle blade, I manage to grab some down-stream current to provide an exit out the side. Underway again, I notice my boat begin to drag. With an accompanying sinking feeling in my bowels, between waves, I glance down to see my sprayskirt partially blown off from my brief recirculation. Without hesitation, I set a direct course for shore. I make it, and after sponging out the bilge and securing my skirt, I nod to Biru who noticed my distress and stopped with me. He nods back, and we peel out to catch up. From beyond the next horizon line a whistle bursts and a paddle blade flashes back and forth signaling caution! The blade then thrusts to the river’s left side, indicating we proceed in that direction. I commit, then crest a wave and shake the spray from my eyes to see another raging pour-over right off my course. From here, I dodge the trap easily to join the team pulled ashore. Several of the paddlers’ eyes are still staring wide in reaction to the wild ride in the reported obstacle. Fortunately, the experience is only a harrowing close call. A brief group discussion emphasizes continuing with increased caution.
We go through two long days of this and, at the end, we reach the take out, at a small village. We drag ourselves out of the river to a find a warm meal while we wait for our scheduled pick-up. Six hours later, we find ourselves still waiting. About this time, a local bus headed our direction stops. Fare is negotiated while some of us maneuver our nine kayaks and gear onto the top and into the back of this public transport. Some yoga is required to acquire seats around and under the load. The bus driver drives fast, very fast, and every bump sends me and my lap-full of boats into the air and back down in a disheveled heap. The “For Military Use Only” sticker is peeled back from atop the bottle of rum secured in a deal during our wait, and we celebrate.