A wish to re­unite Chi­nese with their wa­ter­ways

Where some see dan­ger, rafter sees fun and ex­cite­ment

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVER STORY - By XU XIAOMIN in Shang­hai xux­i­aomin@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.”

River trips

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.

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