Monday, September 1, 2014

Urban Kayaking 101 - Mae Sot, Thailand

Moei river looking south: would-be take-out point
GUNK DAM n. technical term commonly used in urban kayaking: a place on a river where passage is obstructed by gunk. 

That is what makes solo kayaking the Mae Sot river so brazen. So Daedalean. So hellaciously formidable. 

So boneheaded.

Gunk dams. As with any adventure, I knew that kayaking my intended waterway could present difficulties. But when I mounted my bike with an inflatable four meter kayak strapped to the luggage  rack one morning, in no way did I suspect that I was embarking on one of the single most physically challenging days of my life.  

Many lesser rivers blue line the local landscape, but it is the Moei river that defines this rural region in western Thailand. It is the largest watercourse and forms the regional Thai-Myanmar border. Oddly, it streams north before confluencing with the Salween river, and emptying south into the Andamman Sea. 

The Moei is also the geographical hurdle that thousands of Myanmar refugees, both political and economic, have crossed for the past several decades to escape the ravages of military rule and civil war. I had chosen a tributary of the Moei, the Mae Sot river, for my descent. 

THE MAE SOT river carves a circuitous path through the heart of this eponymous border town. It flows west from the slopes of the Dawna Tenasserim mountains, bending gently to the north before emptying into the Moei.

Map of Mae Sot river, with put-in and take-out points. Myanmar, bordered by the Moei river, is located to the west.
This river didn't waste any time in measuring my mettle. Just minutes after putting in off the road to Umphang, the first in the series of herculean tasks confronted me. I rounded a bend and reacquainted myself with my nemesis from the Mekong: water hyacinth. A few months earlier, as I navigated canals on my approach to Ho Chi Minh City, a real life superhero helped cut a path through the troublesome plants blocking my way.
Mae Sot river put-in point

But on this morning in Mae Sot no superhero would appear. I would have to manage alone. With my bicycle resting on the bow, for one hour I knelt on the stern, yanking the plants individually from the water. Slowly, very slowly, a path emerged, and I squeezed through.

Concrete waterfall adjacent to Mae Sot Villa
Just moments later I encountered my second obstacle: an eight meter high man-made waterfall. I solicited the help of Burmese construction workers building a house abutting the river in the residential complex known as Mae Sot Villa, and we eased the boat down the right bank slope with rope. Two hurdles overcome; how many to go?

THE DAY before I did some last minute scouting of the river in town. I found a five step man-made waterfall, and pondered how I would descend this section: paddle or walk the boat down on a tether. It began to concern me. As I lay in bed that night, I tried to reason it out, to think it through. But by the end of the day that obstacle had revealed itself as the easiest of all. (I walked it down.)
Five step waterfall

The river in Mae Sot proper laid a handful of concrete structures in my path: a couple step waterfalls, a slotted wall with a one meter fall, two sluice gates that were mercifully open. In town, the river was completely cemented in; the banks became vertical walls, with a one meter wide ledge just below the river's surface - for safety and access - lining both banks, and a walkway above, doubling as the back porch of the houses along the route. But once the cement ended, not far northwest of the river's intersection with Asian Highway 2, nature had an opportunity to assert herself. And she did.

One meter drop off

Two hurdles overcome; 
how many to go?

Several times I had to enter the water, at its deepest chest high, to cut a path through flotsam and trash. Bamboo stalks, broken branches, or whole trees laid the foundation upon which human and natural debris piled up: styrofoam packaging, energy drink vials, beer bottles, rubber sandals, light bulbs, green coconuts the size of bowling balls. The current sent them all crashing into the heap, complicating the passage. It was a mess.

The river was so serpentine that I could see only a short distance into my future. As I rounded each bend, fear of another bout with a gunk dam enveloped me. At any moment, I could have met the end of my adventure, created by an impassable obstruction of gunk.

At far left: Asian Highway
But that moment never came. Instead, impending darkness ended it.

By 2:30 pm. I had skirted under four lane Asian Highway 2, a section of the mammoth infrastructure project that connects Indonesia with Europe. 

Descending the river in Mae Sot proper had taken me over five hours. I had estimated that amount of time to arrive at the take-out point, just north of where this water flows into the Moei river.

But at this point in the course of the river, with vegetation along the banks unimpeded by flood control measures, natural obstacles began to mount. I dodged overhanging branches, and vines caught on by bike and swiveled the boat around. Much, much worse, however, were the gunk dams.

Sluice gate
One, a 6 meter wide impasse, required a full hour to remedy. I stood in front of my kayak, scooping up the gunk with both hands, jaw-like, and tossing it aside. Once, I uncovered a waterlogged teddy bear.

Then, just moments after I traversed that gunk dam, another heap blocked my progress. I used the paddle to clear the styrofoam and other debris, which the river's flow soon returned to press tightly against the boat's tubes. Eventually I learned: clear a path from the downstream side. In this way the current aides removal of the debris.

Gunk dam
As twilight inhaled the day, I stopped twice to mount the muddied banks, two meters in height, to ascertain my location; I wasn't sure my GPS was working properly. From shore all I saw were cornfields. No roads. No people. No possibility of returning home by wandering through crops. My worry grew taller than the stalks. 

IN MY ENTIRE life never have I been forced to spend the night outdoors unprepared. My gear on this trip was minimal: a rain jacket, pocket knife, some rope, a smartphone. Provisions were scant: a small tub of peanuts and three bottles of water. Although it was mid-rainy season, little precipitation had fallen in the preceding days. I could certainly survive the night. But I was not relishing the thought of roughing it. With the weight of lead, twilight was upon me. I was exhausted.
Cornfields: No way home

What to do but press on? I knew I had to stop, and find a take out point as soon as possible. But there was none. Forcing a take out could land me in a deeper fix than continuing through the veil of night. I paddled on, dodging overhangs. A grayish spider of frightening size and muscularity landed on my neck – presenting one tussle, by contrast, that took me mere moments to win.

Take out point
Soon thereafter, standing in the river, I tugged the kayak over a pipe, half a meter in diameter, running partially submerged beneath my boat. Then, not too distant, the sound of civilization: a barking dog. Given my circumstances, a pleasing sound. I rounded the bend shrouded in onsetting darkness and heavy foliage. On the left bank a figure came into view: a lad bathing.

Aung Thein Mon's family

With the weight of lead, 
twilight was upon me.

Chuay dai mai? Unabashedly I asked for his assistance. Aung Thein Mon, 14, helped me pack up my gear and roll up the boat. He carried it single handedly up the bank, past his family's palm fronded shelter, and tied it securely to the luggage rack of my bike. Then, while I pulled, he pushed my bike, boat, and gear up the narrowest of paths through the cornfields, until we came to a wider, dirt path that led back to Asian Highway. I could nearly taste the leftover panaeng curry stored in my fridge.

Moei river - would-be take-out point, looking north
I peddled home. Hunger harkened. My battle wounds were trivial: multiple scratches on my limbs etched by branches, a cut and bruised elbow, a tender ego. While delighted to have made it as far as I did, I had not arrived at my goal. A few more kilometers of Mae Sot river remain before it confluences with the Moei – clearly, a future gunk dam adventure.