Well, this is the day we’ve been looking forward to and working hard to get to… launch day. And our partnership with Halgurd Sakran National Park has turned the beginning of this expedition into a much more extravagant affair than we could have ever expected. It has become a bit of a challenge for us to focus on the actual paddling and not get caught up in all of the other activities that have developed around it. Today we had no choice. It was time to paddle and everything else would just have to wait.
Andreas and I spent the better part of the morning scouting the river and trying to keep a running list of all of the potential surprises and challenges we anticipated along the way. Up here at the headwaters of the Choman Rwanduz River, our main concern is the near constant presence of sweeper branches reaching down into the water from the trees that line the banks of this swift, roiling waterway. The river is quite narrow here, and there is rarely more than a 3-5 foot wedge of water to run cleanly. There is almost never more than one line to run, and very few good options if you miss it.
For most of the run there are as many strainers (trees in the river) as there are overhanging sweeper branches, so we’re going to have to be extremely cautious and stay upright and in our boats to avoid the threat of being caught up in these dangerous hazards.
As we are scouting we are accompanied by an entourage of rangers, policemen, park staff, and media. In trying to help them understand what we are discussing and why we are choosing the lines we are, I tell everyone that in rivers like this “rocks will hurt you, but trees will kill you.”
That being said, there are plenty of rocks for us to think about as well. The section we planned to run today is about 15 kilometers long and contains about 3 meters of flat water. This is basically a 15 km rapid that ranges from short stretches of class 2 to miles of class 3 punctuated by a couple of solid class 4 sections. My mantra for the morning as we try to map the run out in our minds is “it’s not going to be boring.”
As we prepared to get on the water, the crowd of well-wishers and spectators had swelled into the hundreds. There is music playing, kids running around, car horns honking, and a general atmosphere of celebration in the air. It’s about now that I realize that this is a pretty big deal.
Of course, in this kind of crowd, there are times you wish you had a moment of privacy. My luggage is still missing, so one of the last things I had to do before hopping into my boat is cut the legs off of my jeans to ensure that I don’t get snagged in my boat if I have to wet exit. Jean shorts are not my first choice of paddling gear, but I can’t exactly run into the bazaar and pick up a pair of surf trunks here in Choman. I’m not sure what the crowd was thinking as I grabbed a knife from Andreas and chopped my pants off at the knee, but I know that I was thinking “I wish I’d done this in the car.”
Once we were in our boats, Andreas and I tried to have a quick strategy conversation and push the crowd from our minds. As we discuss how we’re going to enter the water, where we want to be in relation to each other on the river, and generally check our confidence levels, someone drapes a Kurdish flag over my shoulders and ties it like a cape. Andreas turns to me, smiles, and calmly says “don’t worry about the river… the celebration is going to strangle you.”
I untie the cape, stick it in my PFD, and push off into the river. We are immediately impressed by the strength and speed of the current. As we are whisked past hundreds of cheering Kurds we are showered with flowers being thrown by children. It is incredibly surreal to be here in a recent war zone doing something I love and having so many people around us who are at least as excited as we are about the fact that we are paddling this river.
The first kilometer disappears in an instant before I finally spot an eddy on the left. I pull in and Andreas barely has room to make it in behind me. Immediately a dozen kids and their parents are down the river banks and taking pictures with us. After this impromptu photo session I ask Andreas how he’s feeling about the river, his boat, and the run so far. We agree that it’s challenging, but a lot of fun, and then we launch back into the current again.
Another kilometer of river flies past and suddenly we’re in downtown Choman.
In Choman there are several bridges over the river, and each of these was packed full of cheering crowds. Again, showers of flowers flew from the hands of the children on the bridge. If there were any way at all that we could slow down and enjoy this outpouring of goodwill we certainly would have, but the river had no time for that.
After we passed under the 3rd or 4th bridge I heard a distinctly different sound behind me. I turned around to see everyone on the bridge pointing to the underside of Andreas’ boat. After a couple of seconds I spotted Andreas in the water behind it and his paddle heading downstream away from him. I made a quick move toward the paddle, but it had already been swept into the tangle of trees on the left side of the river. Prioritizing paddler over gear I backed away and searched for an eddy in order to help Andreas in any way I could. His paddle disappeared in an instant, and my brain started sprinting toward Plan B. Tucking into an eddy I was soon out of my boat, up the bank, and making sure that Andreas was OK. After a quick visual check I hiked out to the road to try to track down one of our support crew and get another paddle for Andreas so that we could get back on the river.
After a couple of minutes I found our crew along with Andreas, and I learned that our plans were about to change. While climbing out of the river Andreas grabbed a board and a nail pierced the base his right thumb and passed right through to the other side. One look at the bloody wound was all it took to know that we were not going to be finishing the paddle the way we set out to.
After a quick assessment Andreas assured me that he would be OK for a quick paddle into our planned take out where a huge crowd had gathered.
After a quick stop at the last bridge to greet the crowd that had assembled there to watch us, we drove downstream a bit and hiked our boats in to hop back into the river. We only had a minute or two to appreciate how much fun we were having before the crowds started cheering.
There were kids in trees, and old men on the banks of the river, and then a small flotilla of our friends in kayaks waiting to paddle in with us. The little riverside pond we paddled into had transformed into a festival site with a band, banners, flags, and several hundred cheering Kurds. We were once again showered with flowers and had a great time paddling around the pond giving high fives and shaking hands.
Dlzar, the head of Public Relations for the National Park, waved me to the far side of the pond and encouraged me out of my boat and up onto a boulder that was serving as a stage. A microphone was thrust into my hands and suddenly I was addressing this massive crowd. I don’t know what I said, but I know the message I was trying to convey was a combination of “Thank you – This is amazing.” and “If you take care of your river, your river will take care of you.” When I was done I handed the mic off to Andreas who explained that our adventure today had been cut short by the very thing we were trying to raise awareness about – pollution in the river. That nail didn’t get there on it’s own. It was one of thousands of pieces of trash that had been thrown into the river.
When you’re trying to educate people about river safety and protection you never miss a moment with a crowd. Andreas and I scampered off the boulder and back into the water to demonstrate some safety and rescue techniques, talk about the dangers of foot entrapment and highlight the fact that trash that goes into the river does not disappear. It just goes downstream to someone else’s section of river. This idea that “we all live downstream” is one that you hear a lot back home, but not so much in developing communities.
All in all I have to say that today was a great success and a heck of a lot of fun. We didn’t get to do exactly what we set out to accomplish today, but we did achieve many of our goals. This trip is about more than paddling, more than fun, and certainly more than a couple of paddlers. This expedition is about a very special river in a very special region, and the power of the Kurdish people to protect and preserve their resources for generations to come.
It wasn’t that long ago that rivers all across the US looked a lot like the rivers in the developing nations of today. Even today we are still cleaning up a legacy of treating our rivers like garbage dumps and sewers. It is not an impossible dream to picture the rivers of Kurdistan, or the rest of Iraq joining the ranks of storied paddling destinations around the world. This place is amazing, and I can’t wait to get back on the water tomorrow!