Top 5 River Descents (On Earth)

Have you ever had a day on the river that was so god damn good you just can’t stop thinking about it? If your not visiting the Jackson Kayak page for your first time, I’m going to assume your answer is a resounding “Hell Yes”! Of course the very best days, or better yet, weeks on the river have so much to do with the who, when, why, and how of the mission. Still the where of it all is the question I am itching to both ask and attempt to answer.

Paddle all day, wake up and do it again, without portages on route to 6000 vertical feet down the Andes mountains in Argentina. Paddlers: Matias Lopez and Robert Derias

Where are the finest whitewater kayaking experiences on the planet?

Is my list subjective? Answer: How could it not be. Even after a couple decades of non-stop sampling, there are so many rivers that I still have left to run that a quantity such as “many lifetimes” would only describe a single geographic region, let alone the global array of waterways. Also, it should go without saying that no two paddlers are alike; aka, different strokes for different folks. That said I’d like to think that this list is more in the vain of a class V bucket list than a “top 5 extreme accomplishments” list. So I am counting strokes over steps. I am taking into account that the best rivers are experienced with all 5 of the senses. And yes, as I get a bit older, I am starting to enjoy class fun just as much as class 5. Still we spend year’s honing the skills that allow safe passage of these river canyon’s and I for one want those skills to be tested but not necessarily broken.  Also none of these rivers are what I would consider day trips because the best part of day on the river is spending the night exactly where you pull up onto shore and then continuing on from there the next morning.  I’d love to see your top 5 in the comments.

1. Rio Diamante (Argentina) – In 70 miles the Rio Diamante drops 6000 vertical feet through the most remote portion of the central Andean Cordillera. If your like Matias Lopez or Nouria Newman, and the water is right, the entire river is possible without a portage. If your like Robert Derias or I you’ll probably make a few casual hikes to avoid the more aggressive bits.  Access to such a remote, totally unpopulated river corridor usually requires some combination of massive hike or expensive air drop; but here, the put-in at the surreal moonscape of Laguna Diamante is a casual 3 hr drive from the wine country and little known kayaking Mecca of  San Rafael, Argentina.  And unlike so many rivers that spill unceremoniously into a long, boring paddle out, another hike, expensive exit, or an unfortunately placed reservoir; the Diamante saves a big water grand finale for last that will challenge the best paddlers and then deliver them through a few more hours of swift river current with dropping scenery to where the second tallest mountain chain on earth relent and a lonely bridge appears with your take out vehicle, cold beer; or better yet, a nice cool glass of local Malbec to toast the finest river descent on the planet.

It’s a good thing the last canyon of the Diamanté is runnable. If it wasn’t it wouldn’t be one of the best runs on earth. Paddlers: Matias Lopez and Nouria Newman

First Descent and notables: First arial recon by Silvio Gallo and David Pettingill circa 1994. FD 2014 by Silvio Gurierri and Sam Ricketts with Silvio Gallo, Matias Lopez, and Fernando one day behind.

Tips: Contact Matias Lopez, Silvio Gallo, Silvio Gurierri and Kintun Rafting for all the beta on this mission. You’ll need a permit from the provincial authority so you’ll want to make arrangements at least a few weeks in advance.  Plan to spend at least a week in San Rafael on either side of the 4 – 7 day descent of the Upper Diamante to enjoy the ultra classic lower Diamante and enjoy at least a few classic Argentinian assados nearby Atuel River.

Conservation note: The classic class IV+ section of the lower Diamante is slated for damnation via hydroelectric development.  The only way to save the river for future generations is for more of us to visit and to voice our support for a river that has produced generations of Argentina’s best paddlers.

2. Fantasy Falls of the Upper North Fork Mokelumne (USA) – It’s hard to chose California’s best river descent because there are simply many to chose from. Still California’s rivers in this upper echelon of quality are either more difficult to access, have long arduous portages, or frankly are just not as quality in terms of the one of kind river features that make up this epic near 4000 vertical foot descent. Although every inch of the river has now been run, no one has made a full no portage single descent. It’s a prize that is waiting for the world’s best paddlers. For the average class V enthusiast there is only one (arguably) finer river experience on the planet.

Nouria Newman  sends the Untouchable’s Gorge in the heart of Fantasy FallsFirst Descent and Notables: Chuck Stanley, Lars Holbek, and Richard Montgomery circa 1986. Arguably the hardest canyon in the river that I call “Good to Go” and many other’s call “Mommy Gorge” seems to have ben first run by the Lindgren, the Knapps, and the Kern brothers in the mid 90’s.  The last section of river I call the Untouchables was descended in 2012 by Kiwi phenom and Waka founder Sam Sutton.

Tips: Get comfortable on other California Rivers like the Devil’s Canyon of the Middle Feather and the Cherry Creek section of the Toulumne before you try Fantasy falls. It’s a tough river that deserves the upmost respect. It’s also good to train for this one by carrying your kayak a few hours a week. Most boaters will make a couple long portages and there are a few other rivers to the south that don’t enjoy such roadside put-ins fyi.

Conservation Note: Downstream of this free flowing section of the North Mokulumne are several dams that divert water for hydro power and hold back flow for irrigation during Cali’s long, hot, and dry summers. Still as river users we have a voice in demanding minimum in stream flows and recreational releases that give the Cali kayaking season life even during drought years. Join American Whitewater to add your voice to the multitude of paddlers from across the political spectrum  in order to protect the still free flowing rivers and demand boatable flows below the existing dams.

3. Grand Canyon of the Stikine (Canada) – For at least a couple of decades, Northern BC’s Grand Canyon of the Stikine was considered the “Everest of Rivers”. Yet today I think most class V paddlers would agree that it is more of a classic descent than a death defying feat when descended at a proper water level. So what changed? There’s no doubt that both the skill we employ and technology of the gear we use has advanced significantly over the years, but there is another factor that is far more important. About a decade ago a river gauge went public that now gives paddlers a realtime view of the flow in the river. This makes all the difference in a river that can easily double and or triple in flow with a surge of rain from the Gulf of Alaska that can easily turn a classic river descent into a life or death struggle overnight (just ask Taylor Robertson and Jay Kinkaid). But with a good weather forcast and proper water levels between 300 and 420 cubic meters per second the Stikine is a must for the strong class V paddler.  And now for the elite of our sport, a no portage descent is a career defining moment. Still it’s not for the faint of heart or the risk adverse, but that’s a big reason why the longest drive in North American kayaking is worth every hour spent cruising up and down the Stewart-Cassiar Hwy.

Barney Young and I enter the Wall lap #2 2014. Photo: Chris Korbulic

First Descent and Notables: Rob Lesser the god father of the river first scouted the canyon via airplane in 1977. Then in 1981 Lesser, Lars Holbek, Jon Wasson, Don Banducci and Rick fernald completed the river up to Site Zed with helicopter support. In 1985 Lesser, Holbek, along with Bob McDougall finally completed the entire river also utilizing help support. It wasn’t util 1989 that a self support descent was completed by Lesser and Doug Ammons after they started the trip as a trio with Bob McDougall swimming in entry falls and barely escaping with his life.

Tips: Go in August, spend a couple of weeks, and take your time.

Conservation Note: The reason the real time gauge exists is because of potential Hydro development.  Now that the nearby Isquit is dammed, the infrastructure is in place to dam the Stikine and send the energy south. But a more eminent threat exists in terms of the massive strip mining operations that are encroaching into the river’s sacred headwaters.

4. Rondu Gorge of the Indus:  This is the biggest, baddest, most spectacular whitewater on this list. I’ve been thrilled to see Aniol Serrasolses leading trips to this seemingly forgotten river corridor over the last few years after nearly 8 year’s without a descent. Prior to their first 2016 descent, our 2008 trip was the last trip that I know of but after their consecutive successful trips it seems that the river is open for business once again. With huge yet predictable flows and surrounded by some of the highest peaks on earth, all with the Karakorum Hyw providing access throughout it’s 100 mile 3500 foot descent to the confluence of the Gilgit River, it’s unlike any other river on earth.

First Descent (Attempt): Grand Canyon pioneer Buzz Hatch in 1958 via pontoon boat. German legend Dr. Margaritar in 1972?  Documented in 1990 in the Film “Taming the Lion.”

Tips: Contact locals, get a guide, fly to Skardu, take-out at Gilgit Confluence.

Conservation Note: The lower portion of the Indus below the Gilgit River looks to be another fantastic and less rowdy 200 mile section of river that was reportedly first descended by Buzz Hatch (of Grand Canyon fame) in the 1950’s via motorized pontoon boat. Today that portion of the river corridor is a hot zone that passes too close for comfort to the entrance to Swat Valley and the back door entrance to Afganistan’s tribal regions. When we passed through there in 2008 that portion of the river also featured an active test site for a proposed project near the first bridge over the river from Islamabad near Thakot for a massive hydroelectric that would inundate those lower gorges of the Indus. It’s also worth noting a report from the “Wire” that India has approved Sawalkot Dam on a major tributary of the Indus (Chenab River) that could potentially disrupt the natural hydro-graph of the Indus. What’s more concerning is that the two countries in perpetual conflict would use the river as a weapon in if the conflict were to escalate.

5. Lohit River, India – The Lohit is about as far from where I live as anywhere else on earth and still I have made the effort to go back there on four different occasions.  Of the river’s on this list it is the easiest given low water that occurs post monsoon from November through February, but it is also arguably the best.  From near the extreme Northeast corner of India the river drops some 4000 feet over 80 miles of completely runnable whitewater to a massive concrete takeout bridge at the head of the mighty Brahmaputra flood plain. The only problem is that it can be a real pain accessing the upper reaches of the river near the sensitive border with China.

First Descent: Aquaterra Adventures 2001?

Tips: Contact Nino Dai at Donyi Hango for necessary permitting guide and driver arrangements. Plan for 1 week of planes, trains, and automobiles to get to the put-in. If your a spice wimp, like me, steer clear of the small, colorful, and ridiculously hot Tezpur Chile pepper that accompany most meals in the area.

Conservation note: In 2006, the year of my first trip to Arunachal Pradesh and the Lohit, nearly every river in this headwaters region of the mighty Brahmaputra River was slated for hydroelectric development. Thanks to an extreme local opposition and a precipitous drop in energy prices, many of the projects including a large hydro dam on the Lohit have been put on hold as of 2016.  But the demand for energy from the world’s fastest growing economy will continue to escalate putting extreme pressure on the country’s one of a kind natural resource.

 

 

 

 

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