Seti is My Teacher

Learning to Kayak in the Himalayas

It's just past 5 a.m. in this deep river valley, somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas. Although the sun is up, it won't breech the eastern ridge of the Annapurna range for another four hours. It's cold, and I'm scribbling in near darkness, wearing heavy fleece and wishing I had a hot cup of camp coffee. All I can hear is birds calling and the rush of the river.

Steep inclines, thick with evergreen oaks and blue pine, rise from the rocky banks of the Seti River. We're far from even the smallest village, yet above us small thatched huts perch precipitously on impossible ledges.

I am not alone. A scruffy man has walked barefoot from the hills to the riverbed. He unravels a triangular net attached to two long poles. He inspects his net, mending it in a few places, and then shoulders a hand-woven wicker basket and wades out waist-deep into the river. Silhouetted against the gray sky to the east, he dips the broad end of the net into the water like a shovel. Leaning forward, he slowly raises the net above his head, hoping to scoop a few fish. Repeating this movement, he makes his way upriver, to the west, where stars still hang in the sky.

Here on the beach, six kayakers and a three-man Nepali crew are camped beside the water. We're here because Nepal, though generally recognized for its mountains, is a world-class destination for river paddling. Jill and I enlisted in a beginner kayak course, motivated to learn the ropes after recently rafting the mighty Marsyangdi, a continuous Class IV river just north of here. It was a week-long thrill, and we have a taste now for the challenge and excitement of whitewater. Kayaking, our guides told us, was an even more intense thrill.

Our first day of training was on Fewa Lake, in Pokhara, a beautiful setting to practice the basic forward, brace, and sweep strokes. We learned the elements of the Eskimo roll (so-named because Eskimos were the first kayakers) and how to bail out of the boat when the roll doesn't work.

Fewa Tal is the second largest lake in Nepal and is separated from the 8,000-foot mountain range by a single line of foothills. The snow-capped peaks set the backdrop for the town of Pokhara, and on a calm day, the rigid Himalaya can be seen twice, once on the horizon, and again on water's reflection.

Group trips generally inspire camaraderie, and by dinner we were well acquainted with Marcella and Mark, a Danish couple on a year-long world tour; Simon and Steph, two Kiwis on their way to find fame and fortune in England; and Laurie and Al, our instructors, who travel Asia looking for work and enlightenment.

The next day, we set out for a small tributary of the Seti. We drove by bus down to the gravel riverbed to unload, and a man stopped his team of oxen to chuckle at all our flashy gear. It is here that we met our Nepali crew, who will raft our gear and food; cook our meals; and offer kayak support over the next three days. Ram, who is in his early twenties, showed me a picture of his four-year-old son. Suni, a bright-faced 18 year old with a never-ending smile, seemed ready to party. And Milan, our wild-eyed safety kayaker, kept mostly to himself.

The Seti is a calm, warm river—an excellent place to get one's feet wet, so to speak, and practice "eddying in" and "eddying out." Rivers generally flow swiftest towards the middle. The calmer water along the banks (particularly behind boulders and other obstructions) are the eddies, and there is generally a distinct separation, the eddyline, where the current begins. To enter the main current, we learned to paddle upstream—crossing the eddyline at a 45-degree angle. Once in the main current, we planted our paddles downstream and leaned slightly. When done correctly, the boat turned downstream and joined the current. When done incorrectly, as was often the case with us beginners, we ended up flapping our paddles in a desperation balancing act before finishing the move up upside down—yet another chance to practice that all-important eskimo roll.

It has been said that running Nepal's rivers is one of the best ways to see the country (mountain biking and trekking being two other popular means). Along the banks women wash clothes, farmers plow terraced plots, and naked children dive and splash. People often stop what they're doing to smile and wave—and their enthusiasm is infectious.

Once underway it was follow the leader behind Al, with Laurie in the rear and Milan floating freely, watching us with sly side-glances. Occasionally, a drooping suspension footbridge spans the river, but for the most part the river flows uninterrupted for miles, cutting tremendous valleys and gorges through the Himalaya. For two days, between the thrill of whitewater, we floated lazily through the broad bends of the canyon, watching children prod water-buffalo, or calling out "Namaste!" to a pilgrim resting under a tree.

The fisherman on the river has been joined now by his two sons, who look to be around five and eight. They are surprisingly independent for their age, having walked down, saluted their father, and set directly to work with nets as big as his. They smile when I take their photo, but continue diligently scooping the water with the nets.

Milan is awake now, preparing the breakfast. Last night, before a storm hit, he sat apart from the group. I learned he's from Sarankgot, and is of the Gurung lineage, a Tibeto-Burman people who come from the central highlands. I can imagine his father might have been a Gurkha soldier, the feared warriors with long knives and cool nerves. Britain used a regiment of Gurkhas in the Falklands war, and they inspired legendary fear in the Argentineans.

Yesterday, we formed an unspoken bond, this quiet Nepali and I. At the top of a long, crashing rapid, I charged ahead with bravado, only to be swallowed by the whitewater. I bailed out and was swept through the malestrom. When I surfaced, Milan was there beside me in the midst of the torrent.

"Relax," was all he said.

I had drunk half the Seti and was bewildered, but his presence kept me at ease. I was calmed by his eyes, how similar they were to the mythical Buddha eyes painted on temples on the hilltops of Kathmandu. For the rest of the day, I followed his line.

Before we were even off the water, there was thunder in the distance, and I noticed above the beach where we made camp, slash-and-burn fires flared on the forest valley walls. Later, the sky became heavy and the wind went furious, spreading orange blazes up the ravine. The air smelled electric.

A furious gust kicked up sand and blew the tent over, as I sat in it. While Jill and I struggled to right it again, the rain came down hard and soaked us like we'd been dipped in the river. Huddling together in the flimsy tent, we waited an hour until it let up.

Then the storm stopped as abruptly as it had come, and we walked out into a lightning show that surrounded all sides of the river valley. The band of sky we could see between the ridges lit up in flickering patches of daylight, and the wind blew, but high above us. The hill fires had been doused.

Although our dinner, in mid-preparation, had been wet and gritted with sand, our Nepali guides prepared a fine meal of dhal bhat and rice. They impressed me, as they worked hard in these conditions without complaint or loss of humor. When the storm returned, washing out two tents, they braved the whipping wind and downpour and unselfishly gave up their bivouac.

The night was long, and looking now at the Seti, I see it's twice as high, and murkier. The paddling will be challenging today, especially after the Seti joins with the Trisuli, a cold glacial river that runs straight out of the mountains. We'll face four big rapids before lunch, all Class III.

"Are you ready?" Milan asks me. I didn't realize he had approached, but he's brought me a hot tea with milk, unasked.

"I am," I tell him, but I sense he doubts me.

"No harder today," he says after a pause and explains that with more water today, many obstacles will be covered and we can kayak straight on through.

He returns to fixing breakfast, and I'm left listening to the low rumble of water on rock. There is order in the rapids: The water is seeking the sea and will take the easiest route. Today, I plan to paddle as a Buddhist would, with the current.

One of the fisher-boys comes over to show me his catch. In his woven shoulder-basket he has about a dozen silver fish, each the size of a finger. He's proud of his catch, and now, after three hours of work, he walks up the bank and disappears into the vegetation, beginning the long climb to him home.

The others are awake now, breaking camp and eating breakfast. I think I'll join them.

Until the next time,

Safe travels.

All Original Material Copyright © Dan Kaplan. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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