I will admit that after 25 days of third world travel with my future in-laws, my motives for going off to paddle some difficult white water last year were complex. Yes, I've been a kayaker for a decade, and the Bhote Koshi River, which pours down the Tibetan Himalayas into Nepal -- rated Class V during high water, but in winter "a classic Class III," according to one outfitter -- appeared to be within my abilities.
But I was also a 41-year-old man who had lived alone most of my life, some of those years in wilderness. While the trek in Nepal with my fiancée and her sister and parents had been lovely, when they opted for a couple of days of sightseeing in a national park, I welcomed the idea of peeling off with one of the porters, who was also a river guide. Which is how he and I came to be standing between the river and the road at 8 a.m. one day in February, fog rising off the water, wearing wet suits and helmets and life jackets, flagging down a rickety local bus and hoisting plastic kayaks onto its roof.
A few hours earlier, we had arrived at a riverside restaurant at first light after two hours of winding roads from Katmandu in a shared taxi. We sat in the cold mist and ordered milk chai.
"Mark G, what will we eat?" Saroj asked. In Nepali, you add "gee" after someone's name as a sign of respect.
He wasn't asking for my order as much as my prediction. I said, "Chapatis and eggs?"
Saroj exchanged a volley of Nepalese with the waiter and then announced, "We will eat noodles."
Saroj and I had been hiking together for 19 days. He was from a village but had worked as a river guide for seven years and lived in Katmandu. Many Nepalese men appear to Americans as extremely polite, shy to the point of deferential, quick to smile. Saroj not so much. He wore shoulder-length hair tied in a knot, smoked cigarettes, spoke little and smiled slightly while bemusement flashed in his eyes. He spoke English in blunt declarative lines that could sound surly, all of which is to say he acted like almost every river guide I have ever known. When I had first asked him about guiding on the gentle rivers in India, his eyes lighted up. "Ah, very difficult to make Sikhs wear helmet on turban."
After our noodles we changed into river gear, and I climbed aboard the bus while Saroj rode on the roof minding the boats. We contoured along the steep flank of river canyon terraced for farm plots like a big green wedding cake. In the villages, brick structures clung to the hillside, smoke curling from stove chimneys, and schoolchildren in uniform raced to jump aboard. After half an hour, the driver stopped and ordered everyone off. Saroj lowered the kayaks and climbed down.
"Bandh," he said. It was early 2012, and the latest round of government price hikes on natural gas had sent Nepal into turmoil. Students shut down the highways in what is called a bandh -- a cross between a protest rally and a sit-in. Gas lines in Katmandu wrapped around the block, and power outages crippled the city every day for six hours or more. Among the many plots to produce electricity was a proposal to dam the very river we were approaching.
"Now we walk," Saroj said.
We shouldered the heavy boats and trudged, paddles in hand, through the next village, where adults and children regarded us as spacemen. A blacksmith hammered metal in his shop. After a mile Saroj said, "We launch here," and we crossed a delta of cobble and garbage and lifted the boats over boulders to the river. The plan was to warm up on the easy section, then drive farther up the canyon to run the hard stuff in the morning.
The water was low, and the rapids were rocky but not fierce. Waterfalls poured down from the steep jungle off sheer rock walls. Unlike wild places in America, people actually live here: we paddled past stone homes jutting over the banks, and men swimming while carrying a rope across the current to haul felled trees. The rapids were choked with boulders, and Saroj and I snaked between them without so much as an Eskimo roll, which was fine with me: the water was cold and I had no dry-top with rubber gaskets on throat and wrist to keep warm and dry. Saroj lent me his own life jacket, and I ended up wearing a farmer-john wet suit, three layers of fleece and a windbreaker -- warm enough as long as you didn't submerge.
We floated back to the restaurant, and after chow mein and beer Saroj flagged down an empty apple truck and slid our kayaks into the cargo hold. Then we climbed into the cab, where Hindu statues adorned the dashboard and silk tassels dangled from the ceiling. We listened to Newari pop music that to the uninitiated sounds like fast-food jingles with sitar, and headed toward the more difficult stretch of white water. But within an hour the truck ground to a stop behind a line of traffic.
"Bandh," said Saroj. "Bandh, bandh, bandh."
We napped for two hours until the protest ended, then the driver threw it in gear and we lurched toward Tibet. We arrived at dusk at the Borderlands Resort, an eco-lodge on the upper Bhote Koshi. The place was gorgeous -- thatched roof palapas, open-air cantina and walkways through manicured gardens -- the Westerner's ideal of third world living that bore little resemblance to the cinder block and tin-roof villages we'd just passed. As river season hadn't quite started yet, I was the only guest, and while I ate my dinner of spaghetti and French fries to the throbbing drumbeat of Pink Floyd, all five of the employees gathered around to watch.
The morning dawned cold and sunny, and we were on the river at 10. The water was faster, and now it felt as if we were falling from the Himalayas, walls of the gorge rising up and up, farther than I could see. I broke one of my cardinal rules, and did not take a practice roll -- the maneuver by which a capsized kayaker rights himself by sweeping the paddle blade over the surface of the water while doing an upside-down twisting sit-up. I figured such an activity would leave me soaked and shivering the rest of the day, and Saroj had already said that at low water we might be able to make it through without rolling.
So I was surprised to whip around a bend in the first serious rapid and see my guide's boat bobbing upside down in a hole. I hesitated, not wanting to ram him, and in that instant lost my momentum and bobbed into the hole. Instantly it flipped me, and my helmeted head whacked a rock on the river bottom. The river held me face-first in its washing machine; icy water blasted my sinuses and seized my heart. Being upside-down in a kayak is always startling, especially when it's February. Before I could roll back over, the river flipped me upright, dunked me again, then released me from the hole. I prepared to roll, but my arms, their sleeves now engorged with gallons of cold water, were numb, unresponsive objects. With a spasmodic jerk I flicked my head above the surface, sucked air like a carp, and flopped below again. I prepared again, but now my knee slipped out of the cockpit, and instead of reinserting it, I felt slight relief that I was that much closer to escaping this coffin. I groped for the handle on the spray skirt, pulled it, and was flushed out of the boat into churning water.
I touched bottom, but before I could land was swept into the current, separated from kayak and paddle. I pinballed between rocks. When I look back now at that submersion, I'm still gripped with panic: my wedding will never occur, my unborn children will remain so through eternity -- tragedies that were wreaked by my vain insistence on striking out alone. But the only thought that actually accompanied me down that rapid was that I had zero influence over my own destiny. My sole ambition was to point my feet downriver and lift them above the surface so that they did not become entrapped in rocks, which could be fatal.
Finally I was delivered to calm, swift water, and swam for shore. Saroj hollered at me to grab the kayak, which from the corner of my eye I saw spinning in the eddy. Forget that. I clutched at the rocks and belly-crawled to safety. Saroj threw me my paddle, which he had valiantly retrieved, then he raced downstream after the boat. I lay there in an embrace of dazzlingly white river stone, warmed in the divine morning sun. Only then did I allow the thought that perhaps I was getting too old for this.
After a few more moments to praise the rock, the sun, the universe, I stood up. Saroj and my kayak were nowhere to be seen. I began hiking, climbing over boulders, up into terraced gardens crossing clear rivulets, finally seeing my guide a quarter-mile downstream, where he'd rescued my boat and dragged it ashore.
He inquired after my health, and I told him I was fine. I asked about his and he said, "Cold. Freezing cold." As it happened, we had reached the threshold of the Bhote Koshi's most difficult rapid. I took one look, judged it a stout Class V and decided to portage. We heaved, hoisted and dragged the boats across a hundred yards of boulders. Saroj must have noticed my look of exhaustion and despair, because he doubled back over the final rock, took away my boat and shouldered it the rest of the way. I had a vision of Melville's islander. "You be bad magic!" he scolds Captain Ahab. "Queequeg harpoon for you no more!"
It was not yet noon, and we still had three hours of white water, including a pair of Class Vs that would require scouting and maybe portaging. I suppose at any time we could have hauled our boats up the gorge and flagged a truck. Neither of us mentioned it. I told myself that when I made it to Katmandu, safely in the folds of future wife and family, I would reassess, and do things differently from here on out. We sealed ourselves into the cockpits and slid the boats back into the river.
"Mark G," Saroj commanded. "You will not swim again."
And I didn't.
Rankings are from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very).
Although the Bhote Koshi hugs a paved road, it is far from medical help or rescue teams. Consider yourself on your own.
Creature Discomforts 2
The Borderlands resort is comfy, and the beer is cold, a sharp contrast to being crammed into public buses, hitchhiking in trucks and flailing through white water.
Physical Difficulty 4
Extreme. Do not attempt this unless you have real experience paddling Class IV and V rivers. Most boaters will choose to portage at least one rapid, which in itself is a physical challenge.
MORE ON RIDING THE RIVER
While only experienced Class IV paddlers should attempt the Bhote Koshi in a kayak, people of all abilities may run the river in a guided raft. Ultimate Descents Nepal (udnepal.com) runs guided raft trips between Oct. 15 and Dec. 31, 2013, as well as February through May of 2014. The two-day trip departs from Katmandu with a night spent at the Borderlands Eco Adventure Resort (borderlandresorts.com) and includes all transportation and meals ($110 to $140). Hotel Tibet also offers rooms, $145 to $180 (hotel-tibet.com.np/).
Learn more about efforts to protect Himalayan rivers at nepalrivers.org.np.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.