India will blow your mind and turn your whole world upside down. Stepping off the plane in Ladakh, India, I felt like I'd landed on another planet. The dry, mountainous landscape was unlike anything I had ever seen. Susan Hollingsworth, Adam Elliott, Jacob Glissmeyer, and I had taken an early morning flight from New Delhi over the jagged white peaks of the Himalayas. My eyes were glued to the window as the plane descended between two giant mountain ranges and landed in the Indus River Valley.
We were so relieved to see our four kayaks surface in the pile of cargo that emerged from the plane. From the airport we strapped our boats to the roof of a small taxi van and wound our way through the chaotic streets of Leh. Amid all the strange sights, smells and blaring horns, it was so nice to see some familiar faces as we pulled up to our guest house. Monica Gokey, Ty Bequette, and Ben West were there to greet us and the garden patio of the guest house was soon overrun with colorful dry bags, paddles, and kayaks. As we all sat down over some chai tea to plan our paddling adventure, I couldn't help but look around and feel lucky to be surrounded by such an awesome group of people for such a memorable trip.
Originally Monica, Susan, and I planned a ladies trip, but there was a lot of violence towards women popping up in the news from all over India, and I was relieved when the guys decided to join us. Susan and Adam met paddling in China and are both experienced travelers and river guides. They are also a great journalist/photographer team and do a lot of work in paddle sports and environmental conservation. They live not too far from me in Oregon so I've been able to paddle with them quite a bit over the last few years.
Monica and Ty can usually be found somewhere in either Montana, Idaho, or Alaska. They are great at logistics and had most of the trip details sorted out by the time we got there. Monica and I took an amazing trip to Nepal a few years ago and I've been hoping we'd make it back to some large volume Himalayan rivers ever since.
My brother, Jacob, is a character and a really good paddler. We grew up rafting together but had only kayaked together a handful of times before this trip. He and his family live in Wyoming and I don't get to see them enough so I was excited he was able to join me on an international kayaking adventure!
Ben was the wild card of the group. I didn't know him well before the trip, but having him along turned out to be a best case scenario. He's a great paddler from Colorado and he's really fun. There was no shortage of entertainment on the trip with Ben around.
To top it off there was Skaldan, our incredible interpreter, guide and driver from Splash Adventures. He got us to and from all the rivers and through all the government check points successfully. Thank you so much Skaldan!
Ty, Monica, Susan, Ben, Jacob, Adam, Christie, and Skaldan (far right)
Leh is about 11,500 ft. above sea level and we were all feeling the altitude while we were there. For our first run we did a warm up on a day stretch of the Indus River from Thikse to Nimu. The drive to the put-in was an experience in itself. Buddhist monasteries were perched in the steep mountainsides all around us and stupas and prayer flags dotted the landscape. The section of river we paddled was quite flat for the first half, but then it picked up with plentiful wave trains and surf waves as it funneled into a gorge.
photo: Monica Gokey
The Mamba Creeker was the perfect boat for this trip because it is good at everything: big water, creeking, surfing and self-supports. Skaldan joined us for this stretch and he was learning to kayak in the Mamba. It is the type of boat you can paddle as a new kayaker and never grow out of as you advance to class V because it is so versatile. I brought the Mamba 8.1 because it is a nice size to travel with and still has plenty of volume for self-supports.
Traveling by kayak is my favorite way to view the everyday lives of other cultures. Life in rural India revolves around rivers and we were right in the middle of it all. Along the way we saw kids swimming, women washing clothes, farmers irrigating fields, families gathering wood, and monks in red robes leading donkeys down for a drink of water. Later in the trip we even floated by a funeral ceremony. Unfortunately, the water quality reflects all this activity and I was very determined not to flip over on this trip.
photos: Monica Gokey
Late in the afternoon we reached our takeout at the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. Looking upstream, I caught my first glimpse of the Zanskar Gorge as it exits the giant Zanskar mountain range. It was a section of river that I had been wanting to paddle for a long time and our plan was to head that way the next morning. I don't know if it was jet lag or excitement, but I could hardly sleep that night!