Q&A: Salween Spring Coming Together

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NRS sat down with co-owner of Last Descents River Expeditions, Travis Winn; filmmaker, Will Stauffer-Norris; and Travis’s longtime friend and collaborator, Adam Elliott, to discuss starting a rafting company in China, the fate of China’s last remaining free-flowing rivers, and the making of the film, Salween Spring.

Watch the full film, here.

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Salween River | Even though the Salween is roadside for most of its length in Yunnan Province, sheer cliffs make parts feel surprisingly remote.

NRS: Travis, if you think back to that first trip with your dad 16 years ago, what is your most vivid memory?

Travis Winn (TW): I was 16. I only cared about running hard whitewater and surfing good waves. I definitely didn’t come into the trip thinking that the Tibetan Plateau and China would eventually shape my life. But I remember being blown away at how good of a leader my dad was, and how he dealt with very complicated politics on top of the concerns of a first descent expedition.

But I also remember being particularly overwhelmed and humbled as we drove to the top of a 16,000-foot pass and witnessed a group of monks making a pilgrimage to Lhasa, prostrating the whole way. Think about doing something like yogic sun salutations back to back for hundreds or thousands of miles without taking a single normal step to move you forward on your way. Their only support was an old man leading a donkey and cart, and the goodwill of travelers along the way. It made me realize the world was a lot more complicated than I thought.

However, that journey alone wouldn’t have brought me back to China. It was later, when I was 19, and I was giving some Chinese outdoor enthusiasts rolling lessons in a swimming pool in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. They told me I’d better come back and keep teaching, because they wouldn’t be able to learn any other way. That was the first experience that persuaded me to study Chinese and devote my life to China’s rivers.

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Salween River | The Salween is a unique blend of Main Salmon-sized beaches and scenery mixed with agriculture.

NRS: You started Last Descents to offer the Chinese people a way to engage and experience their rivers, where did the name come from?

TW: I was 22 and hated the idea of business and money in general, so I didn’t actually want to start a company. However, the Chinese friend who suggested the idea said he’d only do it if I committed myself as a co-owner.

The name was a joke in the beginning. I thought if we called the company Last Descents we could get more people to join the trips, to come and see these wild and beautiful canyons before they disappeared. I hoped that as more people came, some of them would be protected, and the name would be left only as a reminder of an era gone by. I had no idea that the name would ring so accurate.

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Upper Mekong River | Monks in training getting into mischief at the takeout for the Daqu.

NRS: What was the hardest part about starting a rafting company, in a foreign country, where the local people didn’t see the river as a place to recreate?

TW: Ha! You should ask me what was easy about it! We never knew when a river was going to disappear behind a dam or when someone from the local government would try to stop us from putting on. We had no idea how to market and yet everything about what we were doing was really expensive, using imported equipment and western guides, so the market we could reach out to was only really wealthy people. But we only wanted to reach out to really influential people, anyway, that might get off the river and go back to the city and advocate for river conservation, so we were extremely picky about who we marketed to. In the beginning, we designed each trip with a specific agenda. And in many cases, we had to go and find rivers in the first place. Think about trying to compress the time from Powell’s trip down the Colorado in 1869 to the time when river running started to play its part in conservation in the 1950s down to a few year timeframe, except in an extremely unsupportive political environment. In retrospect, the whole thing was a really bad idea.

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Salween River | Adam Elliott takes one of the kids for a spin on the SUP.

NRS: It not only sounds complicated, but mentally exhausting. A particular line in Salween Spring stuck out, and kind of caught viewers by surprise: your admission that your fight to save these rivers has affected your mental health and that you actually spent time in a mental hospital. How did you come back from that and keep fighting? What helped you recover?

TW: Let me start with what caused the problem in the first place. From the beginning, I was unwilling to accept failure. I didn’t want to be that person who when faced with the real world quickly had all of the idealism beat right out of them. I wanted to save the world. Being practical was for losers. I was going to bend the world to my will and save those rivers, or essentially die trying. Now it’s worth saying that I thought my only role was to bring people to the river. I didn’t want to tell China what to do, but I was utterly convinced that if I brought the right people to the river there would be this universal love and connection for wild places that would develop and it would somehow create this ripple effect in Chinese society that would save some of the rivers.

Needless to say, I set myself up for a pretty hard crash. I was so resolute that in spite of getting pulled over at gunpoint from river trips, having military escorts around dams, and paddling downstream to completed dam sites, something just didn’t click. I wanted something miraculous to happen. It was unacceptable to me that a place as majestic and important as the Great Bend of the Yangtze could actually disappear. Living in denial was an easier option.

When the inevitable happened and everything fell apart, it took me a little more than a year to work through the worst of it. At the beginning I went really nuts, which impacted quite a few important relationships. It didn’t help that our livelihood had disappeared and that I didn’t really have a backup plan.

When I snapped out of it enough to start functioning normally again, we started very small, first finding a new river to run that was shorter and easier to market, and then focusing on youth and families. It was actually by chance that we stumbled onto the possibility of bringing youth out to the river. Even though I grew up on the river it never seemed possible to me that there would be a market for getting kids on the river in China. What I learned is that the power of a child’s love for the river can impact a whole family, which is so much more meaningful for conservation than impacting the father or mother alone. I started finding joy in just the process of being out there with the kids, and less about the big picture and how long the rivers would be around for. So the river helped me recover, and seeing joy on the faces of these young kids learning to paddle.

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Salween River | Lao Tang, a guide for Last Descents, puts kids on the oars on the rafting section of the Salween River.

NRS: I’ve met plenty of people who have fallen in love with another country and decided to pack it up in the States and move abroad, but I always wonder what was the one thing about China that sealed your fate? And of course, what is the one thing you miss most from the States that you can’t find in China?

TW: From a broader perspective, I chose to stay in China because of its role in global politics. It seemed unacceptable for the citizens of a leading power in the world to be river illiterate. I liked the sense of energy in China, the resourcefulness and focus of the Chinese people to make their country better. I want rivers to be a resource for people here to grow and connect with each other and find harmony for the natural world. Hopefully as the Chinese people care more about rivers it will impact how Chinese corporations behave toward developing rivers abroad.

In terms of what I miss the most from the US, I miss being able to throw my boat on my car and head for the river without having to think about conservation or whether or not the river will be there tomorrow. I can just go and have a good time.

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En route to Yuqu | Boats and gear loaded on mules to traverse a 15,000+ foot pass.

NRS: Are you fluent in Mandarin? How long did it take you to master the language?

TW: I am fluent in Mandarin. I started studying in college in 2003. I met my wife in 2008. All of the work we do is in Chinese, including public speaking events. But we joke that our arguments and discussions are what have allowed me to become so fluent. I developed a basic level of proficiency after three or four years, and I’m still improving every day. My dream is that when I retire I’ll have enough time to learn classical Chinese and read some of the old Daoist and Buddhist texts.

NRS: You say in the film that “maybe in two more years this river will be gone behind a reservoir…” if that happens, what is the take-away? What will you do different, or how will you push harder for the next free-flowing river?

TW: The take away is that nothing is permanent. It’s a mistake to separate human behavior from natural systems. We’re part of them and our behavior is part of them. We’re motivated to take care of ourselves, and our offspring, and that inevitably impacts our environment. Go camping for a month next to a stream and tell me what you do with your human waste and garbage and where you get your water. I’ve tried it. It’s impossible under current circumstances not to create damage. Extend that to six or seven billion people. Environmental change is inevitable, and rivers are so critical to our survival that they get impacted the most. If more people choose to wake up and reduce the amount of greed and ignorance in their lives, we can reduce our impact. Whether or not we can reduce that impact to the point of protecting rivers in western China remains to be seen.

As for me, if the Salween disappears behind dams I’ll go and keep looking for more rivers that are suitable for public enjoyment. When there aren’t any more then I’ll do something else, and I’ll cherish the life lessons I’ve learned along the way.

In the meantime, things are looking pretty good. A few years ago the central government started an anti-corruption campaign, one consequence of which was reducing the incentive for the hydro companies to build big dams. Much of that original incentive came from money generated corruptly during the construction process. As another consequence of this campaign the Chinese economy has slowed, creating an energy surplus. Currently the Salween dams are off the table and the river will continue to run free. Local governments all over western China are focusing on ecotourism as a new development model, and nationally outdoor recreation is one of twelve focus areas of the new economy.

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Daqu | Surfing in the evening light at Honeymoon Camp on the upper Mekong River.

NRS: Well now that we’ve covered the deeper, complicated subjects. Let’s talk about the river trips themselves. How do the Chinese feel about groovers?

TM: Ha! Well, every time I do the groover talk, I tell them the next time they come back we might be packing out their poop, but that in the meantime as long as river use is limited and we have places to set up toilet pits below the high water line, we’ll still be pooping in the sand or grass. We have a squat system and a sit toilet for people to choose from. We bought a groover tent from NRS, but cut the door off before ever using it, because the best thing about pooping on the river is the view.

Our original sit toilet was a giant plastic flowerpot that one of our guides found, cut the bottom off of, and fixed a toilet seat onto. The brand name of the flowerpot translated to be something like “Sound of the birds and the smell of the flowers.” Now that was the real deal. Unfortunately, the pot cracked and we kept falling in the pit.

NRS: What does camp cuisine look like on the Salween?

TW: Well, if our Chinese guide Lao Tang is cooking, it’s an awesome medley of local produce and meat prepared in a flaming wok over a blaster. He cooks all of the dinners, and guests mention his meals years after their river trip. The international guides are in charge of breakfast, lunch, appetizers and desserts, and it’s your standard western gourmet river fare, ranging from eggs to order to guacamole wraps or taco salad to baked brie and pineapple upside down cake. The number one ingredient in either case of course is love!

Will Stauffer-Norris (WSN): Yea, [the guides] spend all this time making bacon and eggs and a huge breakfast but we would always heat up left overs from dinner the night before and add rice. The clients tended to flock to the left overs, leaving the bacon and eggs for us to eat. When it came to snacks, Dali Bars, which are similar to Clif Bars here in the States, are popular. That and pickled chicken feet. I wouldn’t recommend those.

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Salween River | Lao Tang, a Chinese guide and chef, shows off his SUP skills on the Salween.

NRS: Adam, when was the first time you came to China and worked with Travis?

Adam Elliott (AE): I first came to China in late 2005, to work on my thesis project in architecture school. Travis and I had been roommates at the University of Oregon and I had heard many stories of committing first descents, amazing food, spectacular scenery. Travis organized a nine-man team for an eight-day exploratory run of the Yalong Jiang on the eastern flanks of the Himalaya in Sichuan Province. Frozen paddling gear in the mornings, suntans on the roofs of Tibetan houses, incapacitating food poisoning, portages upon portages, glorious, steep exploding wave-trains. All of this adds up to the first of many suffer-fests and big-water shenanigans. Working with Travis was a natural progression of working many years in the Grand Canyon, beginning to learn the language and having such high regard for one another’s contributions.

NRS: Will, how did you first get involved with Salween Spring? Did Travis approach you or had you paddled the Salween before inspiration hit to do a film on it? 

WSN: I met Travis on a Grand Canyon trip in 2013 and he invited me to come to China after the trip. I worked for Travis for a season, documenting video and I told him I wanted to return to do a more in-depth story about him and China and the river and that’s where the film started.

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NRS: And what do you hope to inspire in people through this film?

WSN: I don’t think a lot of people know what’s going on in China and if they do it’s a broad knowledge of pollution and damming. There’s a lot of nuance in how hydropower is developing over there. It seems to be slowing down in some places but other places things are happening fast. It’s politically impossible to stand up to the government and hydropower companies but you can do something in around about way. It’s more about not showing the shitty parts of what’s going on and showing the beauty and what can be done and appreciated. I hope this film inspires people to do something for the places they love, even if that something is seemingly small.

NRS: Being that Last Descents is an American-made company in China, I’m sure there are a lot of similarities to the river community and culture in the States, but having paddled in both countries, do you recognize a distinct difference in how a river trip runs in, say, Idaho and how it runs on the Salween, or any other river in China?

TW: It really depends on the river. Obviously we don’t have to compete for campsites or worry about planning our days’ activities around those of other river parties, but there are other human elements that come up in the day that might impact our plans, like villagers visiting a camp or a lunch spot. The language barrier between the guests and the guides can add a lot of challenge but also a lot of fun opportunity for cross-cultural interaction. In general, I feel like Chinese are just really excited about getting out there and experiencing their rivers. It’s just so new that there’s this aura of excitement that I think is a little bit more amped up in China than in the US. Another major difference from the perspective of running the trips is that the government doesn’t publish river flow information, so we have to guess and gamble and make sure we’re prepared to deal with rapid flow fluctuations from rain or snow events and heavy monsoon rains.

WSN: The coolest thing about the Salween is that Travis and Last Descents have been creating this rafting community from scratch. He’s taking a lot of systems that American companies use—the four-bucket dish system, safety standards, roles of guides, etc.—taking the best practices for rafting culture in America and bringing it over. Some aspects, like River Flair, are all on the guides’ initiative. And then there are the medical kits—Last Descents always has two: one filled with Chinese medicine, the other with Western medicine.

AE: Travis and I are products of the rafting culture of the Grand Canyon, and the early days of river conservation that grew alongside the development of the recreational rafting industry. We’re actively promoting (and recruiting to advance) a rafting and outdoor culture that is rooted in stewardship, holistic skill building (i.e. Outward Bound), while recognizing that our guests are quite different than many that we bring down the Grand Canyon or the Salmons. In the end, all river trips are the same: expect to be surprised, look after yourself and your friends, bring a rain jacket, and drink water!

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Salween River | Last Descents crew and passengers enjoying the final morning of a three-day rafting trip.

NRS: If you could continue to fight for China’s rivers but had the opportunity to start this same fight for another country, which country would you choose and why?

TW: That’s a good question. I think we need certain ingredients to make the right recipe. For instance, we need a country with a developing middle class interested in outdoor recreation. We need leaders that can be encouraged to take pride in their natural resources. It can’t be a fight. It has to be driven by the energy of the people that actually come out on the river. These participants need to be in a socioeconomic situation where they have enough free time to recreate and care about preserving the opportunity for others. I want to say some countries in Africa or Central Asia but I don’t know enough about these countries to be certain whether or not they have the ingredients for success. Honestly, Myanmar might be the best place to act next, or else working hard with local boaters in a place like India where river recreation already has a long history of development.

The challenge is that right now, money and expertise for dam projects everywhere are coming from China. If we don’t address awareness among Chinese first it will be difficult to expect success in other places. We can make that impact from within those countries though, it doesn’t need to all happen in China.

WSN: America seems to have gone through that phase 50 years ago and it’s cool to be in the middle of a brand new “fight” where you don’t know which way it’s going to go—protection or destruction—I know it’s happening in a lot of countries: Thailand, Laos, Peru just to name a few. I’d probably choose somewhere in South America but I’m not really sure.

AE: I’m not particularly interested in “fighting” for the rivers in China. I don’t think it’s a dualistic argument. Bring people on amazing river trips and they will recognize the beauty, value and ultimately, that helps tip the scale in a societal-level cost/benefit analysis. That said, efforts to resist large infrastructure projects that have too great of an environmental and social cost are very important and need more voices, more action to achieve results. Take for example Sin Represas and the results that they’ve seen in South America.

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Mekong River | Local transport carries kayaks across the Mekong en route to a three-week kayaking expedition.

NRS: You guys have all spent a considerable amount of time in China my first question is, what is the biggest misconception you had of China? And two, if you could bring one thing back to the States with you from China—be it a food, a drink, a cultural norm, etc—what would that one thing be?

TW: In the beginning I guess I had a very limited conception of what China was supposed to be like, so it was difficult to have misconceptions. I just remember hearing all of these really good things from my Dad, who kept saying that Chinese were far from the grey and black Mao suit wearing communists from the 70s and 80s that the media portrayed them to be. He told me people in China were motivated, creative, and resourceful. He also said they were kind and welcoming, and so when I went there, I guess I brought that mindset with me. And at first, honestly, all I wanted to do was go kayaking, so as long as there were good rivers it was going to be a great country, as far as I was concerned.

If I were going to bring anything back, I would bring the ethos of hope and excitement that seems to permeate China right now. I’d also bring good Yunnan food and a few big rapids from the Salween.

WSN: The biggest misconception is the fact that people think the whole place is crowded and polluted but its a lot like the US where the Eastern part is crowded but the West has a lot of wilderness area and nature and is less populated.

If I could bring something back to the US it would be the customs of restaurants. In the Yunnan province you go into the restaurant, you walk back to the chef, there’s a huge glassed refrigerator and to order you just point to the items you want and the chef makes it delicious. No service, just go in and point.

AE: There is a cultural disregard for lines in China – for queuing up to wait for something. This is seen in the traffic, restaurant lines, buying bus tickets, whatever. For me, a fairly well-mannered person, I found these experiences to be incredibly stressful. My blood would just boil when someone elbowed in front of me. It’s such a personal affront for most Americans to be “cut in front of.” Yet, in China, it has a certain efficiency and people keep their cool about it. It’s expected! This response is what I would like to see more of in the USA. I think you’d call it equanimity. Don’t take it so seriously. This is what I practice daily, partly because of my time in China.

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Photo: Adam Elliott

Adam, Will & Travis: Finally, has your experience in China affected how you feel about the state of affairs in the U.S.? If so, how?

TW: Living in China has turned my worldview upside down in many ways. For instance, it’s not obvious to me that our political system is much more functional than China’s. Obviously, there are many things that I don’t agree with in terms of how politics happen in China, but in general I feel like there is much for us to learn. That is a very complicated topic. I feel like if there is any one single thing I’ve learned, it’s that a political system alone cannot make a country strong. It’s the moral character of the leaders and the citizens of that country. It’s the pureness of their intention, and willingness to take personal responsibility for their actions, that is the deciding factor in how successful a country is. Without focusing on that first nothing else makes sense.

AE: After spending so much time in China and feeling disconnected from the politics and decision-making surrounding hydropower development, I returned to the states feeling so grateful that we have a system that requires public comment, environmental assessments, and approval at various levels of elected government. Organizations like American Rivers and American Whitewater are so important in this process. They’re the link between the power companies, the extraction industries, and the stake-holders (you, us, the fish, recreation industries, our grand-children, energy consumers, everyone that the river and its use impacts). I am a little weary of the ambivalence that many people have on these issues, but I also feel a sea-change coming. As a nation, and world-power, we may be on track to have a much better relationship with our rivers.

WSN: It really makes me happy to have a relatively open political dialogue. Censorship is huge in China and it’s bleeding into the US. A lot of book publishers consider the Chinese Market in regards to what they’ll write. But just having non-censored internet is huge.

I had to censor Salween Spring to showcase it at Banff Mountain Film Festival in China. I had to cut out everything pertaining to dams. And I had a hard time with that because that’s the heart of the film. But then I decided it was better to show people the Salween and show kids paddling the Salween than not have it shown at all.

TW: With that being said, I don’t think the censorship is extreme. It’s in China’s best interest to avoid making people angry. As we see in Western politics, that doesn’t do anything except create unrest and turn people off to politics. It’s very important to me that in however this media is presented to the public that we are not creating a “David and Goliath” story of fighting the good fight against a bad superpower. That defeats the purpose of what we are trying to do. What is very difficult for westerners to understand is that the Chinese government is actually very, very sensitive to problems within the system and changes that need to be made. They just need to make sure that these changes happen at a pace that they have control over and where they are leading the charge. Keep 1.3 billion people stable and healthy and happy is no easy task, and in my opinion China’s leaders have done an incredible job of doing so. Censorship is just one way to help everyone get along. Change needs to happen slowly and showing Chinese kids having the time of lives on one of their own rivers to tens of thousands of people via the Banff China platform is a huge step from where we were at several years ago. Ultimately it will create a much stronger and sustainable energy for conservation over the long term than more critical approaches.

Editor’s note: all photos were taken by Will Stauffer-Norris unless otherwise noted.

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The birthplace of fireworks | Guests were always excited to see an impromptu pyrotechnic display after a dutch oven dessert on the Salween.