The Choman-Rawanduz Team

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We are extremely lucky to be working with an awesome team in Kurdistan for the Choman-Rawanduz Expedition. Here’s a quick look at the players in the field.

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Nabil Musa is more than the Iraq Waterkeeper, he is the heart of the operation for us here in Kurdistan. Without Nabil’s incredible attitude, endless connections, and boundless energy we wouldn’t be able to make any of this happen.

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Danyar Abdulla is Nabil’s “go-to” man in a crunch, and has brought his tremendous resourcefulness to bear to solve every manner of challenge. As our chase driver, logistics manager, and voice of reason, Danyar is pretty darn busy trying to keep us in line and keep the show on the road.

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Dlzar Qadir has amplified the voice of this expedition through his work as the Public Relation Officer at Halgurd Sakran National Park. There’s no way we would have been on every television station in Kurdistan and CNN without Dlzar’s hard work.

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Karwan Azeez has been our primary connection and translator at Halgurd Sakran National Park, and is always at the right place at the right time with a good story or to make sure that we know what we’re talking about when the cameras are rolling.

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Speaking of cameras, Anna Ferrarie is the documentarian on this expedition and is shooting a comprehensive record of our journey for use in a documentary film to be produced over the coming year.

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Andreas Bleiker is one of our Expedition Paddlers. As the Operational Manager of Majestic Heights, he has the local knowledge of the area that is essential to our success.

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As the Expedition Leader, I’m theoretically in charge of this traveling circus. My main job is to make the paddling look easy and hang out with kids. It’s awesome.

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This expedition would never have been possible without the incredible effort put forth by Anna Bachmann. While she’s not with us in the field, she is the reason we are all able to be here.

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Needless to say, we’re all having a great time, and while this is our core team, there are many others who are jumping in to help us at every turn. We would especially like to extend our very sincere gratitude to Mayor Gwany of Choman, Head of Halgurd Sakran National Park, for all of his support and assistance.

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Launch of the Choman Rawanduz Expedition

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.

crowd 1Andreas 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.

River 1Another 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.

speachWhen 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!

Happy Old Years Day

The party that is life in the West Indies gets taken up a few notches for just about any excuse. “Hey – it’s Tuesday we should be making rum drinks!” One of the principle catalysts for island-style over-the-top revelry is “Old Years Day” – the idea being that you’ve got to squeeze every last bit of partying for the year into one last blast.

The view from Mermaids Chair Overlook

The view from Mermaids Chair Overlook

But here at Botany Bay the pace of island life is a little more laid back. So while thousands of sunburned revelers try to empty the rum stash at Foxy’s, we carried on an Old Years Day tradition that pre-dates our time here on the West End of St. Thomas.

Making our way out to the Western Tip

A small gathering of friends old & new met at the Mermaids Chair overlook & wandered out to the end of the beach to the Westernmost point we could find. Champagne was poured, toasts were made, and as the sun dipped into the Caribbean a moment was taken to remember not only the joys & experiences of the year as it closes, but also “Those who’ve come before us” as my new friend Steven puts it.

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    Making our way out to the Western Tip

Looks like we found the right spot

Everyone misses someone. Loss is an experience we all know. Pausing to remember and recognize the friends and family who have passed maintains their influence in our lives and hopefully serves as an inspiration for us to go out in the year ahead to pursue, achieve, conquer, inspire, and live life to its fullest.

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Simple & Delicious

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Sharing that moment of reflection with good people in a beautiful place with just the slightest hint of ceremony was a wonderful way to end 2012.

May 2013 bring you happiness, joy, accomplishment, success, love, and laughter. Cheers to you and a sincere “Thank you” to those who’ve come before us.

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When Life Gives You Coconuts

For a while I’ve been hinting that the new year was going to bring some new adventures.  Well, now I can tell you a bit about it.

Today I am excited to announce that I have taken on the position of Director of Watersports / Ambassador of Fun at the Preserve at Botany Bay in St. Thomas. While this is a short term engagement, I think that it’s going to be a great one!  For the next 4 months I’ll be launching a full catalog of Kayak, SUP, Snorkeling, Hiking & Orienteering adventures for the owners & guests here at Botany Bay.

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The Beach at Sandy Bay – This is where most of our Kayak and SUP programs will be launching.

The fact that the season here will wind down just in time for me to get back to the Eastern Shore and get SouthEast Expeditions rolling into the 2013 Season means that I get to both do something new and exciting, and continue building the business that I love back home with my friends, family, and community.

This is also an awesome opportunity to introduce Coastal Kayaks to the Caribbean, and to hopefully expand our dealer network into some pretty cool places. Keep an eye out for some great product shots & videos coming out over the course of the next several weeks. Our container full of boats just hit the docks yesterday, and I am looking forward to getting them on the water and doing some demo’s at several resorts here in the islands.

I am also excited about continuing my work as the Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper.  Obviously I will have a lot of help from some hired guns to get out on the water, attend meetings, and do some of the other fun tasks that are required while I’m away, but this is an extremely rewarding job, and I believe that this change-up may make us an even stronger organization over the coming year.

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This is Sandy Bay – Hiking, Orienteering, Birdwatching & more await in the hills that surround  Botany Bay & Sandy Bay

The team I am working with down here is awesome.  My brother Chris is the Project Manager, and the opportunity to work with him every day was at least as much of a draw as the gorgeous blue waters of Botany Bay. For those of you who know my father’s company, Timbers Resorts, you’ll recognize that the Preserve at Botany Bay is indeed a Timbers property, so I get to work with my Dad too, which is pretty cool.

So, aside from the family time and the fabulous tropical location, what else could a guy ask for?  Well, how about a blank slate of 400 acres in paradise, the chance to work with my buddy Bland Kiser who is not only an exceptional guitarist, but the lead Sales Agent on the property, and a job that requires me to help people have as much fun as possible in this incredible natural playground.

Palm Trees at Botany Bay

Incredible snorkeling awaits just beyond the shade of the palms at Sandy Bay.

So, if you’re in the neighborhood and want to see “Paradise Perfected” then please let me show you around the best destination in the Caribbean. If you’re not planning on being in the neighborhood, but would like to change that, drop me a line and start making some plans.

I’ll be making a concerted effort to post photos & updates here on my blog, so hit the subscribe button over there to learn more about the fun that awaits at Botany Bay.

Sunset over the Caribbean

Sunset over the Caribbean – A great show every evening

Chinese MBA’s apparently love kayaking

On Friday Nick had scheduled a presentation with a student union type group at a business school in Hangzhou.  Much of my time on Thursday had been spent preparing my half of the 90 minute talk, and I felt fairly well prepared as we pulled into the University parking lot.  Our host, Mr. Hu gave us a quick tour of the campus, including a spot on the canal where they hold an annual paddling event that draws 240 participants and a crowd well over 1000.  This year Winner is supplying all the boats, and I think it’s a great opportunity for them to show off the difference between their products and the random menagerie of watercraft that have made up the fleet in previous years.

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Once we were in the classroom with the students I quickly found that most of them spoke much less English than I had been led to believe.  No worries.  That’s why I slammed my Power Point full of photos.  I figured that most Americans would get bored listening to me talk about the kayaking industry for over half an hour, much less Chinese business students.

However, the presentation went really well.  I had some great help translating from a couple of them, and even ended up chatting with some of the students while Nick was giving his talk.  I think that we may have inspired some future paddlers, and I fear that we may have even convinced a couple of them that there might be a decent job in the industry (oops).

My class

That night we headed to Qian Dao Hu (Thousand Island Lake) where we would spend the weekend doing kayak demo’s and taking a couple of great kayak trips.

Group shot of Class

Wanna see some photos?

I wanted to be sure that everyone knows that you can click that little link that says “More Photos” at the bottom of the pictures to the left if you want to see my whole Flickr photo stream.
Much like this blog, it’s not always up to date, but hopefully the pics will give you a good idea of what life is like in this little town, and the other places I’ve been playing.
If you’d rather have a regular link to click, here it is:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/40062571@N00/