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Rafting China

River Guiding in China

The life of a river guide

As I sit here on a cold, snowy, offseason morning in Idaho, I can’t but not think about how good life is.  Trying to recap this past season, and how it could quite possibly have been the “Best Season Ever!” I am lucky enough to spend seven months out of the year guiding in some of the most beautiful places in the world.  I get to wake up next to an amazing river each day and go to work. This past season I spent my spring and fall guiding for Arizona Raft Adventures in Grand Canyon, and the summer was spent guiding for Last Descents River Expeditions in Western China, and Canyons River Company here on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and Main Salmon River.  There’s been a lot of highlights, from seeing the Canyon in full desert bloom this spring to seeing the eclipse from trail hot springs on the Middle Fork to seeing a snow leopard on the Upper Mekong River, it’s been an awesome season. It’s definitely been one of the best! This August, I got home from two months on the Tibetan Plateau with Last Descents.  This was my fourth trip to China, and the second time to the Daqu River. We had an incredible summer guiding western and Chinese Guests on the Daqu River, home to China’s First National Park. It’s been a big year for Last Descents, and I want to tell you a little more about our organization.

Last Descents River Expeditions

Last Descents was founded by Travis Winn, an American who grew up on rivers in the US.  His dad, a geologist did a lot of exploratory work in China, primarily on rivers and often let his son come along on his expeditions.  Together they spent much of Travis childhood days paddling rivers in Western China. Travis fell in love with the area and decided he wanted to start a company that would take Chinese guests out on river trips in their homeland.  It is his mission to teach the Chinese how important it is to protect and conserve these wild places before dams and development take over. Travis and his wife, Weiyi, have been influential in inspiring the next generation of Chinese people to advocate for these wild places.

Rafting seasons in China

Last Descents has two different seasons throughout the year.  The first season is on the Salween (Nu-Jiang) River which is in SW China.  The Salween floats through the heart of rural China, and through one of China’s greatest watersheds.  The Salween is still free-flowing and remains one of the longest undammed rivers in the world. There is a great variety of whitewater on the Salween, and it is home to high volume, pool drop style rapids. Our Salween Season typically starts at the end of January and runs through February. The commercial trips on the Salween River are typically three or four days in length. There is incredible scenery and amazing whitewater on this stretch of whitewater.  We visit villages along the river that are only accessible by boat. The Salween is a great introductory river for our guests to whitewater and a great place for teaching kids how to kayak! For many of them, this river trip is their first time out of the city for a vacation in the outdoors.  Often most people are stepping out of their comfort zones, and it’s really great to watch these people change and become more comfortable throughout our time together on the river. The other season in China is on the Daqu River, which is high on the Tibetan Plateau. The Daqu is also known as the Upper Mekong River in China.  This season starts Mid June and runs through August. The Daqu flows from the Sacred Three Rivers Source Area in China, home to headwaters of the Yangtze, Mekong, and Yellow Rivers. It has a dramatic Himalayan landscape with a deeply-rooted Tibetan Buddhist culture. Our trips on the Daqu River start at 13,000 ft and are nine days long.  We experience totally different landscapes throughout our trip, from vibrant grasslands to red rock paradise, to granite gorges. The scenery here is amazing, and I think it just may be the most beautiful place I have ever been. In 2016 Last Descents was contracted by the Chinese Government to help write a National Park Plan centered around the Three Rivers Source.   And as of last winter, it officially became China’s first National Park. The park is named, Sanjiangyuan, which means the source of the three rivers. The creation of this park is a major move forward for the Chinese as we are seeing a shifting attitude towards protecting China’s National Resources. Last Descents has been working side by side with the Chinese Government, advising on how to effectively run and operate a National Park.  The Daqu is such an amazing place, and I am forever grateful for getting the chance to guide on this sacred river.  

Kids and Kayaking

One of my favorite parts about guiding for Last Descents is working with the Chinese kids (ages 6-18) that are members of our Kayaking Club. Our boss started a youth kayaking club in Beijing many years ago and throughout the fall and winter, he meets with them in a pool and teaches them the fundamentals of whitewater and paddling.  He is so passionate about teaching the next generation of whitewater enthusiasts how to kayak and to be good stewards in the outdoors. After a few pool sessions, these kids come to the river for a multiday trip with their families. These trips are so much fun to be on. We get to show the Chinese what river trips are all about!  I have been lucky enough to be on many trips with the original kayaking club members. All of these kids and their parents are hooked on whitewater. These kids have been on trips to the Salween and Daqu River in China, as well as on the Colorado River thru Grand Canyon and the Main Salmon! In 2015, the kayaking club came to the Main Salmon with Canyons River Company!!  And over the years, it has been so much fun to see these kids kayaking skills improve, as well as watching them grow up into smart, well-spoken young adults. It’s also been fun to see the kids graduate into bigger kayaks each time we see them!

Our River Family

It’s so inspiring to work Last Descents and to be a part of something so special.  There are many similarities between Last Descents and Canyons River Company that I love, but the biggest one being the Family atmosphere.  For those of you who have been on a Canyons trip, you know what I am talking about. Our crew is a tight-knit family that loves sharing the river with Chinese Guests! To have close friends to share the experience is nothing but the best!  I am forever grateful for the opportunity to guide in China, and already looking forward to the next Daqu Season! To find out more about Last Descents check out these links….

Last Descents Website:

Chinese Guests on the Main Salmon with Canyons River Company –

Chinese Guests on the Main Salmon with Canyons River Company –

Salween Spring Video:

The River Guide:

Protecting Sanjiangiang National Park:

Photo and videos by Jonah Grub and David Spiegel

BLOG written by Kelli O’Keefe

About Guides

The written word by Team Canyons. Guides, Guests and Friends alike, share their creative writings with us, to share with you, here on the RIVERBEAT BLOG.

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