A wish to reunite Chinese with their waterways
Where some see danger, rafter sees fun and excitement
I never expected China to have such amazing rivers. I’ve always been attracted to the power of flowing water, but there is something extra special about rivers here.” Travis Winn, founder of Last Descents, a company that specializes in river expeditions
When Travis Winn first came to China 16 years ago with his father, a veteran rafter and geologist, he was instantly captivated by the grandeur of China’s rivers, thus lighting a passion for the waterways in the country.
“I was shocked by their beauty,” says Winn, 32. “I never expected China to have such amazing rivers. I’ve always been attracted to the power of flowing water, but there is something extra special about rivers here.”
From 2000 to 2015 Winn led or took part in more than 200 trips down China’s rivers, including 45 first descents (a type of raft). He has explored more than 5,000 kilometers of China’s rivers and logged an additional 10,000 kilometers on repeat voyages to favorite sections.
Because agriculture is a way of life for millions of Chinese, they have long had a stronger disposition toward mountains and fields than to rivers. Furthermore, the Sino-US joint rafting expedition in 1986, which, with similar ventures at the time, claimed the lives of 11 people, fed the notion’s outdoor enthusiasts that powerful rivers were things to be feared.
“I grew up floating down rivers in the western US, and it surprised me that no one in China seemed interested in exploring or going close to rivers,” Winn says.
“To me, rafting is huge fun and I’ve rarely felt it was life threatening. Even if you don’t have any experience or training, under the guidance of professionals on the right section of a river anyone can come and enjoy it.”
At the urging of outdoor enthusiasts in Sichuan province in 2003, Winn, who at the time had 20 years’ experience in rafting, decided that he would start organizing river trips for Chinese.
Three years later he established Last Descents, a company that specializes in river expeditions. Last Descents is now a registered company in Beijing with a staff of five.
“I named it Last Descents because I knew that many of the rivers we were running would soon disappear behind dams,” Winn says. “I was hoping the name would create a sense of urgency and encourage more people to come outside and see these wild places, and that maybe as they did some of the rivers would be protected.”
In Winn’s years in China he has witnessed the major changes in not just the landscape but also how society has come to appreciate the need to protect nature. The Chinese government has changed policies on water sports to encourage greater participation, even setting up university programs to promote the activities, he says.
In addition, Winn says, government officials today are looking for ways to develop their waterways for tourism and enjoyment, which is a huge departure from the development model of the past.
“There has been a huge change. Before, local governments did not support rafting because they thought it was dangerous. Now, after having acknowledged the importance of rivers, they are coming forward to cooperate with us.”
Winn is now involved in planning for Lancang jiang National Park in Qinghai province. The opportunity came up when a local leader interested in conservation joined a rafting trip and recognized the value of the activity to the local area.
Rafting since childhood
Born into a family of rafters in Salt Lake City, Utah, Winn has been rafting since he was five and piloted his own kayak through the Grand Canyon at the age of 13.
Asked about the difference between rivers in China and the US, he says that many factors, including the gradient, volume, geology and topography of each river canyon all come together to determine whether or not a river is safe for rafting. This can change throughout the year as rainfall or snowmelt impacts the volume of the river.
“The section of the Yangtze River from Batang to Dege on the border of Sichuan province is especially dangerous, due to the high gradient, high volume, hard rock geology and huge mountains on each side of the river.”
Complicating things further is the fact that the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau where the upper level of the Yangtze River passes through is still geographically active, which means it is prone to earthquakes and landslides.
In 2008, Winn met Li Weiyi, who was inspired by Winn’s vision of “bringing Chinese to visit their mother rivers”. She quit her real estate job in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, to work with him, neither of them knowing at the time that their shared vision would lead to a personal relationship.
Winn and Li married early this year. To date, Winn has accompanied several hundred Chinese, including many children, on rafting trips in the country.
“Currently we focus on bringing children to the river, knowing that if they fall in love with rivers and enjoy growing up on rivers it will benefit them immediately and maybe also benefit China in the long term.”
Travis Winn has taken several hundred Chinese on rafting tours in the country.
Veteran rafter Travis Winn has led or participated in over 200 trips down China’s rivers.