PACKRAFTING REMOTE MYANMAR
Guest blog by Byron Hartzler
“Man, I don’t want to be anywhere else in the world right now!” I exclaimed to my Danish paddling partner, David, just 5 minutes ago. I had spent hundreds of hours guiding waterfalls and canyoning on the Nam Yao River in a back corner of Shan State, Myanmar (Burma) with my company, Myanmar Adventure Outfitters. Myanmar is remote as it is, and now after a military coup on February 1, 2021, it's plunged this nation that had so much promise back a decade or more and imposed isolation. I’ve been passionately curious and explored so many nooks and crannies of the area we live in, an area with no tourism background. We’ve developed routes and relationships that have been the backbone of the award-winning reputation of Myanmar Adventure Outfitters.
Today, however, we were paddling a new white water section that I have only admired from satellite imagery, and we were just mind blown by how sick the rapids were. For us, relative novices to packrafting, just a year with our MRS Packrafts that we brought in across the border from China, the class 3 rapids were just perfect for our experience level, and on this day, we were loving life despite the intense darkness the military has thrust our nation into. The sides of the river were a dense green lush jungle hanging from limestone rock outcroppings. Under the surface was marbled limestone with reef-like holes and dimensions. Being early into monsoon season, the rains had yet to swell the river levels, and the water was a clear turquoise. We had jumped some cliffs, collected some orchids from the jungle to take to our home gardens in the city, and were loving coming around every corner and scouting out the rapid section below to see how we would paddle it.
Packrafting Nam Yao South (Shot one week earlier).
Swim to the Light (Shot just minutes earlier).
Because I know the limestone geological makeup of the river under the surface, we are always careful to observe each section, as what is unassuming above the surface could actually be dangerous below the surface. We paddled into and dropped a small waterfall at an elbow in the river and to a place commonly known for its limestone caves on the left shoreline, where Buddhist monks meditate and above which perches a pagoda. There is a rock island with a bamboo bridge from the shoreline, and the river flows both ways around the island. We looked at it long and hard as we could tell that some of the current was pulling under the rocky shoreline, so we fed a bamboo pole down through the rapid to see how the current would go. The pole got stuck between the rocks on the shoreline above and the limestone surface below, so we figured our packraft would, at worst, bump the sidewall and carry downstream.
Video shot from the island scouting out the relatively unassuming rapid: Scouting out Shan Kai
SWIM FOR THE LIGHT
I was wrong! I hopped in my red MRS Alligator 2S XL, built for my 6’5” frame, GoPro mounted on my NRS helmet, Astral PFD cinched tight, and ready to thread the needle through the narrow passage, paddling with little effort and expecting the current to just send me straight downstream. The previous 5 minutes plus were energizing and life-giving, and little did I know that this unassuming route would almost take my life!
It happened so quickly!!! Altogether about 15 seconds. As I was entering the narrow passage, coming up to the rock wall on my left, I remember the boat folding over my left leg and foot. Next thing I recall, being under the water and reaching up to a rock roof above me. I looked to the left and saw darkness, and to the right, I saw light. My only thought was to “Swim to the light!” So I went for it and popped out from under the rock about 30 feet downstream from where I submerged. Full of adrenaline, “Woo!” I hollered. I came out of the underwater cave with one thing on my brain, where’s my packraft?!
For my paddling partner, David, it was a very long 10 seconds! From his vantage point, he saw me get sucked under the rocks and into an underwater cave and what seemed like an eternity until I resurfaced downstream. In that short time, already, he had the fleeting thought, “What am I gonna tell Eileen, Byron’s wife?!” In such a short time, death was already a potential outcome on his mind; rightfully so, we would find out later. David hopped in the water where I eventually surfaced, elated to find me…alive!
Video of the moment I was sucked into the cave with my GoPro poorly mounted on my helmet. (Fortunately, the GoPro made it out with me!)
For me, the gravity of what just happened started to sink in just minutes after I resurfaced. I had lost one water shoe, found my paddle, but we were waiting for my MRS packraft to pop out from the underwater limestone cave. We waited, looked around, but underwater, all we can see is whitewater bubbles. We searched for a few minutes. I hopped out of the water and onto the island to just rest, coming off the adrenaline surge, and then it sunk in. The packraft is stuck in this underwater cave. If I had not slipped out of the packraft, I also would be stuck in the cave and likely not breathing anymore.
ALIVE! It sunk in! Lost shoe…no deal. Lost packraft…no big deal. Strapped into my boat was a dry bag with my phone and wallet. Frustrating to lose, but again, in the overall scheme of life, ALIVE…and grateful to be!!!
After an hour of trying different techniques to see how we might be able to blindly dislodge the packraft from the cave, we gave up. One packraft lighter, without one shoe and no phone or money, we hiked out a few kilometers to a nearby village, hopped a ride on the back of a motorbike with some local kids to the local monastery where I had parked my motorbike. We headed upstream to a shoreline beach where my wife was playing with our kids. Knowing she had expected me back much earlier, I got to her and just gave her a huge hug. “Sorry for being so late, but I’m ALIVE!”
I’ve been stoked with my experience with my MRS Alligator 2s XL packraft. Mostly I’ve paddled in Myanmar, but also paddled a lot in the Canadian Rockies last summer. Not willing to give up on the boat being lost forever, a friend and I headed back to the river a week later to have a look and see if we could dislodge the unseen boat. We didn’t know what the underwater cave looked like, but we spent a couple of hours feeding bamboo poles through the same route that sucked me under and swallowed my packraft. We prodded 20 feet into the cave with the bamboo poles and still came up empty. Assuming the boat was still inflated, we imagined that it was held up against the top surface of the limestone cave, and although we could hear something bobbing inside the cave, there was no way to swim in and search.
Giving up the search, we decided that the only hope was that with the coming monsoon season, perhaps the river surging would wash out the packraft in a few weeks. We visited a nearby residence on the river’s edge, where a Ta’ang tribal community makes their home. I just asked if they could watch out for it. We spoke with their village leader, and the word spread through the community of this missing foreign kind of boat. I explained how I had come to lose the boat, and the village leader was amazed! He said, “Anyone who has ever gone into that cave has never come out! Anything that has ever gone in there has never come out! We run bamboo downstream, and if the bamboo poles go in there, we never see them again." Apparently, a couple of people per year die in that same spot, and when he observed how my 6’5”, 200 lb frame, he was shocked that someone my size could come out of that. Being well prepared with a helmet, a PFD, good swimming and rescue skills, and being a recipient of God’s kindness… all these are why I am still here to tell the story.
A phone call a month later had us back on the search. The village leader was happy to announce that a young village boy had found the packraft while fishing from the rocky shore. With recent rains, the surge in the water had done exactly what we were hoping it would flush out the boat from the underwater cave. The throw bag that was clipped to the back of the boat had unfurled, and the end of the rope had gotten stuck behind a small waterfall downstream about 400m, holding the semi-inflated boat in place. They couldn’t get the rope dislodged, so they cut the rope and recovered the packraft back to the village (unfortunately, the dry bag with phone, wallet and first aid kit was not recovered).
Having much of the village congregating to the scene, they were all curious to see what this sought-after foreign boat was. I first noticed that there was significant wear on the skirt; however, we inflated it there in the village and realized that it was still in somewhat serviceable condition. We were super grateful and gave the young boy a tip for helping us recover the packraft. Having lived in this area for six years, we are always stoked by the generosity and goodwill of our local community, always willing to go out of their way to help, despite their general poverty.
PACKRAFT FIXED (Almost)
Upon arriving home back in Lashio, we inspected the MRS packraft closer, still amazed at its condition after its intense journey. We noticed some damages that we thought might be the reason it was seeping air, took some pictures and sent them to @MRS.packrafting on Instagram. They were super kind, as I’ve come to expect after dealing with them multiple times, from a first interest in MRS to finally purchasing and now seeking some tips on how to repair it on my own. To my surprise, they suggested that I just send it in to them, and they could repair it! So, now we are waiting to get it repaired and stoked at this potential.
VIDEO of MRS
Their service shouldn’t surprise me though. Before I purchased with MRS, I had inquired with a Norwegian-based packraft company about their experience with MRS, and their comment was that MRS packrafts were as good as renowned brands Alpacka and Kokopelli, but what set them apart was their incredible customer service.. I agree and am stoked to get my packraft back in the remote rivers here in Myanmar as soon as COVID lets up and the border re-opens, but for now, excited to be alive!!!
Instagram — @byronhartzler
Myanmar Adventure Outfitters Instagram — @maoutfitters www.myanmaradventureoutfitters.com