Adventure 2017: Kurt Casey — Kayaking four first ascents in Myanmar
March 28, 2017
Local international expedition kayaker Kurt Casey certainly could have picked an easier country to paddle in last spring than Myanmar. But that would have been too easy, and that's not his style.
Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar is wedged between Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand and bordered on the north by the Himalaya and on the south by the Bay of Bengal and Adaman Sea.
While that alone makes access difficult, its political climate has been even more foreboding. It's been a pariah state since 1962 when military dictatorship commenced under General Ne Win, closing its borders.
"Little news has come from the country beyond reports from refugees fleeing into camps in Thailand," says Casey, adding that it harbors 133 different ethic groups, each with their own language, food, customs and culture. Many also have their own military and a shared distrust of the Burmese government.
Just ask Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Major General Aung San, who gained the country's independence from Great Britain. Returning to Burma in 1988 to care for her mother and promote democracy, she was arrested a year later, spending the next 15 years in custody. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she was released in 2010, holding a parliament seat until 2015. That November, her party won a landslide victory, selecting the next president: Suu Kyi’s adviser, Htin Kyaw. Shortly later, Suu Kyi was named state counselor.
With this came a loosening of world sanctions and the opening of the country to visitors. While certain areas are still off limits, they can be accessed with proper permits. One such area is the mountainous, river-filled region of Shan, Myanmar’s largest state comprising 33 different ethnic groups. That's what captured Casey's kayaking eye.
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"I remember looking at maps of the area in the early '90s and dreaming of a trip there, but it wasn't until Google Earth that you could map out river courses," says the international adventurer. Casey and partner Rocky Contos visited Myanmar in 2015 and secured permits for a whitewater kayaking trip in 2016.
Last April, Contos, Casey and Josh Fischer arrived in the capital of Yangon with trio of kayaks and a pair of rafts, intent on a month-long river running odyssey. All the rivers they ran were exploratory first descents, ranging from low-volume steep creeks to huge, Amazon-sized whitewater on the Salween — one of Southeast Asia´s largest rivers.
First, they tackled the Nam Pan, whose limestone canyon forms the border between the states of Shan and Kayah. The group started at a small Buddhist monastery along the river, tackled its Class IV-V whitewater and finished at a bridge surrounded by three opposing armies.
The next river they explored was the travertine ledge-riddled Nam Teng, requiring them to bring overnight gear. Paddling self-support, the trio spent three days kayaking the river, including watching it rise threefold thanks to early monsoon rains. Next up was the Nam Pang, "a medium-sized river with 86-degree azure waters and spectacular waterfalls and rapids."
Shorter trips notched, they then tackled a longer, bigger endeavor — a 286-kilometer-long section of the Salween, flowing at a "low" pre-monsoon level of 60,000 cubic feet per second (five times the average flow in the Grand Canyon). Here, they used their rafts to carry gear on the nine-day trip.
Born in the highlands of Tibet, the Salween, called the Nujiang (Angry River) in China, features the longest river canyon in the world. It enters Myanmar for 1,200 of its 2,815-kilometer course.
"Many river runners have thought of trying to run an exploratory trip on it over the years, but being off limits, the lack of roads and ethnic fighting has kept them away," says Casey. "It was pretty wild to be in there for the first time."
Encountering big wave trains, secluded beaches and a few Class Vs and mandatory portages, the trip was so successful that Contos, through his company Sierra Rios (www.sierrarios.org), plans to commercially run kayak and raft trips in the region this year.
"The only sad note," says Casey, "is that several dams are planned on what is now one of the world's longest free-flowing rivers. If they go in, it will ruin a fantastic whitewater run."