It’s an embarrassing situation to be in. I’m bow right in a raft with board members from the International Raft Federation (IRF) and we’re stuck fast on a rock, going no where.
We’re pre-running the slalom course at the 2007 World Rafting Championships on South Korea’s Naerinchon River. Watching from shore is the entire international rafting community, including 40 six-person teams from 30 countries, trying to glean information from our line. Two seconds in and we’d already provided some valuable data…might want to go left of that submerged rock guarding gate number one.
Swallowing our pride, we bounce ourselves free. Then I make another inept move. I forget the gate is an upstream and try to contort my neck under the pole as we glide by, sending it swinging like a wind chime. Note number two to onlookers: go up through gate number one. A collective cringe arises from my teammates as we back paddle away to negotiate it correctly.
Thankfully, the IRF has no such shame in its 10 years of organizing international rafting competitions. With seven such events under its belt in as many countries, it’s as sure of its course as ever. But it’s the cross-section of rafters on shore who are the sport’s heart and soul. I’m here, getting caught on rocks and bashing gates, to see what this culture is all about.
Most of the competitors paid their own way to get here, and put family and work lives on hold for the honor. The women’s U.S. team even held a bake sale to raise funds. All to find that the water level’s dismal—the promised monsoons haven’t arrived and the river could barely saturate a ramen noodle. Still, everyone is surprisingly upbeat. With nothing but pride on the line—no money or endorsements—their sole reward is knowing that, should they win, they’re better rafters than anyone else on the planet.
Their pride shows in everything from matching pin-striped sweat suits and team jackets—saying things like “Hungarian Rafting Team” in bright red letters across the back—to the race bibs showcasing each country’s flag. It’s also seen in the crack-of-dawn push-ups executed by the Russians and studying of game-day videos by the Czechs. You’d expect such from the slalom and flatwater crowds, but these are simple down-in-the-trenches, blue-collar rubber-pushers, who get together once every two years to vie for the world’s top bragging rights.
The result is a cultural melting pot of talent. At the races, you’ll see the Slovenians performing communal arm-circles, the Slovakians taking a synchronized leak, and the Dutch huddling in a strategy session near a large boulder. While they keep to themselves at the races, the Athlete Village in nearby Inje, featuring a communal rice-paper-walled dining hall surrounded by cottages housing each team, stirs everyone together like a giant wok.
The line for dinner is a smorgasbord of dialects. Stand in it and you’re sandwiched by Austrians, Serbs, Croatians and Australians, while the Germans strut by in matching khaki shorts, black t-shirts and Humphrey Bogart-style fedoras. Afterward, the Kazakhstan team tries its best to avoid good-natured Borat impersonations (“Very nice…high five!”), the South Africans, Indians and Ecuadorians play cards with one another, and the Japanese, Indonesians and Italians while away the time playing hacky-sack.
Despite the low water (that’s why we got stuck, after all), their true spirit shows the final morning. The monsoons have finally arrived. The night’s rains have brought both the water up and their excitement about getting to run the Class IV-V upper gorge. It’s finally a chance to paddle some big water.
I hitch a ride with the Norwegian and Brazilian women’s teams to the put-in and borrow a kayak to shadow the U.S. squad during its practice run down the seven-mile course. It’s a Project 52, left here by Tyler Curtis, and its squirrelly lines are made more so by the river. Unlike the raft teams, I have no one else to confide in regarding routes. Hmmm…that line looks munchy, better find a sneak. While I scout the third horizon line, where the river is pinched tight by oozes of black metamorphic rock, the U.S. team dusts me and continues downstream. Clouds seep their fingers over lush, green ridgelines and their rains bring the water up another foot by race time.
They say that the benevolent spirit of Buddhist teacher Han Yong-woon resides in the Naerinchon and that the area is known as the Land of the Morning Calm. There’s nothing benevolent or calm about it now. The river is a completely different animal. Lines we had memorized earlier have changed completely, now ending in huge, frothy, stir-frying holes. It tests everyone’s ability to read and run on the fly.
When the race ends, I catch a ride in the Kiwi women’s shuttle van. They’re despondent, placing second overall to the Czechs. Inside, I catch a waft of their gear, which is surprisingly pungent. While I’m happy with my own personal tri-fecta—procuring rides from three different women’s teams all in the same day–they’re in no mood to chat. Team captain Nikki Kelly hands me some cheese and bread, and they pass a pack of Menthos around as if that will freshen their attitudes. It doesn’t. Like everyone else, they wanted to win, to be the world’s best.
Back at the Athlete Village the teams cut loose like the monsoons. While a DJ spins tunes on stage, everyone dances the night away around a bonfire casting a strobe light on an eclectic, dysfunctional mosh pit. There’s no rhyme or reason to the display. The only common denominator is rafting. Around 2 a.m. a Hungarian steals the Brazilian team van and crashes it into a pole. It reminds me of our run in the IRF raft, an apt metaphor for an organization guiding the sport forward no matter what bumps surface along the way. But it’s the revelers around the fire who deserve the real credit.