Saturday, January 31, 2009

Athletics - WCKA paddling with Last Descents River Expeditions down the Great Bend of the Yangtze by Ben Dann

Ben Hurd throwing a massive blunt on the Kim Jong Wave.  photo by Ben Stanistreet

There I was on the Great Bend of the Yangtze river. This is what I had been looking forward to for the last few months of my life. Everyone had their gear loaded on the rafts and we were ready for action. Soon we made our way down to the first rapid of the trip, and each of us was anxious to experience the power of Yangtze. We decided not to scout the rapid, and dropped in with only the verbal directions of our coaches. As I paddled over the horizon line I saw what I was least expecting. Huge haystack waves were crashing in front of me. An immense surge of excitement shot though me. As I reached the bottom of the rapid, I knew that from that point forward the rest of the trip was going to be epic. The honor of being one of the last people to ever paddle these amazing rivers will be with me for the rest of my life.

We spent seven days on the Great Bend of the Yangtze and every second of it was amazing. Our trip was led by the local rafting company, Last Descents. Travis Winn and Adam Elliott created the company to inform people of the endangered, beautiful white water in the gorge. The Great Bend of the Yangtze is on its last leg. Many dams will soon turn its stunning canyons into a series of giant reservoirs. With the rising water level, many farmers' homes and land will be submerged. On this trip we had an earlier take-out than the trip in 2007 because of the construction of dams downstream. The upper section of the river we paddled had not yet been affected by the dams. On our third day on the Yangtze trip we headed down river to spend the day on a wave called, "Kim Jong... because it's ill." World Class Kayak Academy named this wave on its first trip to China. The wave was nicely shaped and had some potential for huge tricks. Everyone had a good time and many people added a few new skills.

The last major rapid we ran was called "Windy Corner." The river took an abrupt turn and was pushing a lot of water against the far wall. It formed big waves and holes much larger than anything I had ever seen before. The waves had big pillows and were not afraid to push us around. As we progressed down the river and crossed a major fault line past "the bend," the canyon walls slowly drifted away. It was great to have been in such a beautiful place and have shared this experience of going to high school on the beaches of the Yangtze.

Scott Doherty digs into the Yangtze.  photo by Ben Stanistreet

Along with education and character building, World Class is all about athletics. Not only do we go paddling almost every day, but we also have a morning workout every day before the sun comes up. Our head coach Jesse Shimmrock leads the main workout, and our assistant coach Susan Hollingsworth leads us through stretches and occasionally yoga. Our workouts usually consist of intense physical activity, such as muscular strength and muscular endurance training with the occasional game thrown into the mix. 

One of our campsites was on a sandy beach right below the biggest rapid on the stretch, "Judgment Day." For morning workout that day we took a little break from the strengh workouts and played a game of foot ball. It was definitely not the normal game of two-hand-touch. We used paddles shoved in the sand as goal posts and a throw bag as a the ball. It was so fun to be running around in the sand in a beautiful gorge playing football WCKA style. Everybody is fairly reluctant to get up in the morning for workouts, but starting off the day with some exercise helps everyone wake up in the morning. It's also good to keep our bodies balanced because kayaking is mostly upper body strength.

Ben Dann and Ivan Stiefel charging the Windy Corner.  photo by Ben Stanistreet

This experience is a life altering opportunity. It is fun, educational and most importantly, it will shape who I am as a person. The ability for me to be on this trip to China will change my life forever. Not many kids get the pleasure of going to high school, river-side, doing the thing we all love the most, kayaking.

Travel and Culture - Damming of the Yangtze River by Quinn Connell

photo by Ben Stanistreet

Huge peaks tower thousands of feet into the sky. A massive river rushes by, tumbles and roars through waves and holes as it makes its way downstream. The mountain faces are speckled with tiny villages, home to natives who have lived there for generations. The mighty Yangtze is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. But not for long.

The sudden leap in wealth and industry that China has experienced in the past 10 years is creating a rift. It is quite literally tearing the country apart, both socially and physically. Not too long ago, China was largely an agrarian, developing nation. The sudden influx of wealth has given the upper class much more money and influence, but has done hardly anything for the lower class. This new wealth is centered around the larger cities. When the self-sustaining farming families are presented with a glimpse of this westernization they are captured by a new-found sense of materialism and believe they need to go work in the cities to make money and live this new lifestyle.

In one village that we passed, as is the case throughout the country, the upcoming generation of adults had left their village and their family to go work in Lijiang, one of the largest cities in the Yunnan Province. In many cases, by leaving with the hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families, they leave their parents with the burden of not only sustaining a farm and themselves, but of raising their grandchildren. The division of families is now fairly common in China, and this is a direct result of the advancement in industrialization its culture has recently experienced.

Another effect of China's industrialization is the rapidly increasing exploitation of its natural resources. The cliff walls and mountain sides that once formed the pristine Great Bend of the Yangtze are now riddled with gold mines, limestone quarries for dams, and hydroelectric stations to power these. As we moved further downstream and closer to civilization, roads and telephone wires began to rob the landscape of its natural beauty. The benefits of such devastation is not widespread, however. The money simply goes into the pockets of a few wealthy individuals and to the government to allow these companies to continue their destructive practices. As one Tibetan national said, "These mines are here no gain wealth. If they really wanted to help the villagers, they would build them a bridge to get across the river."

Both the provincial governments and the companies that are enabling this industrial growth continue to ignore the well-being of the local inhabitants. There is currently one dam in operation, and a string of eight more likely to be approved. Once built, these dams will turn the free-flowing river into a series of stagnant lakes that will conquer the valley, forcing the relocation of over 100,000 people. This is on the Yangtze alone; hydroelectric projects are happening throughout the country, all of which will have a detrimental effect on the livelihood of the villagers.

The people are told that their quality of life will improve as a result of the dams. Once they are there however, the companies who built them will have rights to all of the fish in the reservoir, leaving the many fishermen without means of income or sustenance. They are told they will be given great resettlement packages with resources better than those they currently live with. Brandon Zatt, a journalist who has studied the topic said, "These people are rarely given fair compensation, if any at all." A village nestled deep in the gorge of the Yangtze is launching a formal protest with the local government, but not to try to stop the construction of the dam and save their homes. That, they feel, is already a lost cause. They are simply trying to ensure that they are not overlooked and will hopefully receive a more fair repayment for their property.

Like the people who live here, the natural life will take a large toll as a result of these dams. The stopping of the river that provides a third of the country's fresh water is no small endeavor and will have huge repercussions. All of the rapids will be gone, all of the species that depend on the river will be forced to adapt, and none will be able to experience the untouched beauty of this place as it naturally occurred. In a place where earthquakes cause mountain ranges to crumble upon themselves like a house of cards, one is left to wonder about the longevity of such a monumental dam, or the catastrophic impact should it fail.

There are currently no highly effective NGO's fighting the development of the dam. "Organizations like the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Federation can't afford to have a policy on hydroelectricity here," claims Travis Winn of Last Descents, a small whitewater outfitter that runs trips down the Great Bend of the Yangtze. "They will be shut down if they don't agree with the provincial governments." As we continue into the 21st century, we should not be asking ourselves, "How can we further ravage the earth to better fit our lifestyle," but, "How can we adapt our lifestyle so that this isn't necessary?"

Academics- Great Bend by Ben Stanistreet

photo by Ben Stanistreet

On our first day of classes here at World Class Kayak Academy we awoke to the roar of the Yangtze river and head coach Jesse Shimrock's voice calling, "Time for workout!" After morning workout and a hearty breakfast of potatoes and eggs, we settled down in the sand for the first period of spring semester 2009. As the day continued I would hear new students as well as returning students making comments like: "I can't believe we are China!", "This is incredible," or " I just had chemistry class on the banks of the Yangtze River!" Similar enthusiasm has continued throughout our trip on the Yangtze and first week of class.

While in China and on this river trip we have had some unique academic opportunities.  Some people joining us on this trip are Li Hong, a professional photographer from Chengdu and Brandon Zatt, a journalist from Shenzhen, a city on the border of Hong Kong. Brandon is originally from the US but he speaks fluent Chinese. While sitting around a campfire he discussed his experiences as a journalist living in China for the past 10 years. He had many interesting things to say and gave our journalism class some good advice on writing a captivating and successful story. His main point was that a good article needs to be about a topic you feel strongly about so that you can get the reader just as excited as you are.

Journalism class also benefited from Li Hong and Adam Elliot's willingness to teach us about photography. Adam is a guide for Last Descents River Expeditions, and he is our trip leader. He is also a very experienced photographer. He taught us some basic principles of photography such as "F:8 and be there." This phrase refers to having the camera on an appropriate setting and recognizing the opportunity for a good shot. The students with SLR cameras were able to learn more about the manual settings and their cameras' capabilities. Li Hong doesn't speak any english, but thanks to Brandon's translations we were able to enjoy a couple of photography related stories and gain some more valuable advice about snapping good shots. He gave us a quote that he really likes: "If your photos are not good enough, you are too far away." Most of us are very excited to be taking quality pictures in this beautiful and culturally rich place.

In cultural studies, teacher Ivan Stiefel has been teaching us about the meaning and characteristics of culture, and we just dove into Chinese culture. We have been reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, a very well known journalist who reports on China. All of the other classes are going smoothly as well. As students we may complain from time to time about the amount of homework assigned or how early we have to get up for workout, but all it takes is a quick glance at the bigger picture to realize this is about as good as high school could get. 

As I sit here in the sand, listening to the river and the crickets, I cannot help but flick my headlamp off and look up at the few scattered lights on the steep hillside in front of me. They are from the houses of local Naxi people who live off of the land, fishing in the Yangtze and building terraces to grow food. It is heart breaking to think that because of the construction of so many dams this mighty river may not be here in a few years for others to enjoy as much as I have. It will just be a bunch of lakes and concrete. The small village that I am looking at now could be under water as the tourists zoom around in their speed boats above. 

This past week has been one of the most amazing I have had in my time as a student at WCKA. I learned more about this place by experiencing it than I ever could have with books. I found the most valuable things a student learns at World Class are usually outside of the classroom. I am in my sleeping bag, looking at the stars and listening to the Yangtze river while doing my homework. This is the World Class life.