Nepal, a mystical and wonderful land, mostly associated with mountaineers and alpinists seeking the world's highest peaks. Yet, it is also a realm of incredible whitewater rivers and endless trails for trekking and mountain biking. However, the true beauty of Nepal lies in its people. The Nepalese live everyday life with a deeper connection, seemingly happier and more at peace with their place in the world. Traveling through the land evokes a subtle sense of something profound, perhaps the towering mountains, the deep valleys with majestic rivers, the influence of Tibetan monks, or the blend of Hindu and Buddhist ways of life. Whatever it is, Nepal is a land of beauty, contrast, and an intangible sense of living in a connected and peaceful way. A trip to Nepal is more than just sights and adventures; it's about connecting with a unique and beautiful culture, making new friends, and sharing moments with the local people.
The last four weeks paddling in Nepal have been amazing, and I've been content with my paddling skills. Yet, it's day five, and self-doubt sets in as we face the most challenging rapids of our 8-day expedition on the Lower Karnali. Yesterday's paddling was a mess, and now, staring at a solid high-volume class 4+ rapid, I question my abilities. The two other packrafters opt for the raft today, leaving me to confront the challenge as the only packrafter. This may also be the first descent of the Lower Karnali in a packraft. Despite the doubt, I can see the line clearly, a hard push across the main flow, navigating a narrow slot through massive wave trains. It's a moment of introspection as I reflect on the journey so far.
About six months ago, I was invited to join the Spade Kayaks team trip to paddle in Nepal. Nepal had been a destination I longed to explore, especially after hearing mystical reports of its amazing rivers. The Karnali River inevitably came up in these stories—the last wild and free-flowing river in Nepal. Its headwaters start at the base of the holy Mount Kailash in Tibet, a unique mountain revered in Hinduism and Buddhism. The Karnali flows through Tibet and into Nepal, passing through class V canyons, gorges, and jungle wilderness before reaching the Lower Karnali, the starting point for multi-day rafting and kayaking expeditions.
Just six days before the Karnali expedition, space opened up for more participants. I quickly invited friends Tom and Tommy, who, having been on previous trips with me, promptly booked their flights. We met in Kathmandu, skipped the cultural experience of a 16-hour bus trip, and opted for a flight followed by a six-hour jeep ride through the rugged Nepalese countryside. Arriving to the sight of the Karnali river carving its way through the mountains was awe-inspiring.
As we inflated our boats, we could sense the adventure unfolding. Paddling down the river, we witnessed local life—families washing clothes, fishermen by the river, and children running down from villages, shouting "Namaste" with big smiles. After navigating unexpected rapids on the first day, we camped by the river, sharing stories and relishing a Nepalese meal. Days blended into a routine of Paddle, Eat, Sleep, Repeat, with the scenery alternating between idyllic landscapes and traces of modern civilization.
I am staring at the line. The rest of the team has already paddled the rapid and are waiting for me at the bottom.
I ask myself three questions: 1) do you see the line? Yes. 2) Can you paddle the line? Yes I have the skills to paddle the line. 3) Can you get out of your head and let your body do what it needs to do? I don't know… So, in this situation, I do what I always do, I sit in my boat, fit the thigh straps, put on the spray skirt, and paddle out to where the line starts and now I am committed. I am in the flow and heading down river towards the hole. My mind freaks out, an inner voice quietly says, shut up and get it done, the mind goes silent, the body does what it needs and I clean the line with style and with ease. Being the first rapid of the day this gives me the necessary confidence to take the day back and even though the rapids got harder and more technical I was able to get back in the zone. Sometimes in life we just need to commit, when we can see the line, and know we have the ability but the mind is freaking out.
This trip has left me with a deep desire to protect and promote the Karnali. Unfortunately, this river is under threat and may not be here for much longer. Every other river in Nepal has been dammed, killing local ecosystems and impacting livelihoods. Pessimistic thoughts say the dam will be finished within a year, optimistic thoughts say perhaps we have another five years. Yet, this is truly one of the last great river wonders of the world, deserving protection and UNESCO World Heritage status. This river, a true wonder, should be protected for future generations.
Our eight days on the Karnali immersed us in its breathtaking beauty, exposing us to the raw and untouched wilderness that defines its essence. The journey unfolded against the stark contrast of local villages peacefully coexisting with nature, yet tinged with the subtle signs of encroaching modernity.