A first descent, source to sea on a river considered one of the cradles of civilization. Paddling the raging headwaters of Myanmar’s Irawaddy River down to its coastal flats was to be a different sort of journey of a lifetime for whitewater dream team Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic. Instead, Stookesberry’s trip report on the failed expedition is a meditation on the extreme challenges that sunk the trip. After frustrating delays and a 10-day portage, the twosome finally put their boats on water three weeks into their month-long journey. Just 200 miles later, they were forced to pull off the river or risk being shot. While formulating a Plan B, their boats went missing. Frustrated yet undeterred, the duo known for their successful descents of unrunnable whitewater bought a local, leaky canoe. With just 75 miles behind them they were then stopped by secret police and detained for a week. So, what went wrong?
When did things start to go awry?
As soon as we got to Yagong in Myanmar our idealized plan started to unravel. The domestic flight was not going to put our boats on the plane. The country’s mentality is very strict. We paid $3,000 and had to wait a week for our boats to be transported to us. Tourist permits are very controlled and our time was running out.
What attracted you to the Irrawaddy?
It’s so remote. There’s world-class whitewater, but also this sense of a journey, traversing so many different climates and cultures, alpine to tropics. This is one of the last undammed, truly free-flowing rivers in Asia. Knowing that the government is actively pursuing large-scale dams, this was an opportunity to see it before it’s changed forever.
What firsts did you experience on the trip?
We wanted to explore more than just the so- called class VI sections of a river and I think that’ll remain part of our motivation in the future. It was the longest hike with a kayak we’ve ever done. Eighty-five miles to the put-in carrying well over 130 pounds each. It was a 10-day hike with supplies for a full month up a 4,000-foot pass. It was miserable.
How does this compare to other trips?
The difficulty with logistics was unprecedented. We knew that Myanmar has the longest running civil conflict and a military beholden to none, financed by the jade and heroin trade. The logistics didn’t seem to us to be too big of a step from boating in other places with their own unpleasant situations but this became the crux. It ended our trip.
Who killed the Mission?
After our kayaks disappeared [and Plan B with them] we bought a local boat. Covered in sun gear, we felt invisible in our 16-foot leaky canoe. For 24 hours and 75 miles it was like a boyhood dream. Then a big boat rammed us. It was military, immigration and special police. They said we didn’t have proper permits and we were put under hotel arrest.
What happens next?
This trip might have only been the first chapter. The best expeditions don’t necessarily happen right off the bat. It’s a special place. I could see world class kayaking and eco tourism creating an economy that would stand opposed to a dam or diverting the river. But for us to go back the political situation will need to change.
This article originally appeared in the Rapid Summer/Fall 2016 issue.
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