Down from the snowy peaks, and into the river valleys, I’ve crossed the subcontinent once again. Left Sikkim with a grand smile after our big trek, spending a couple of days checking out Buddhist monasteries and lounging in the capital city of Gangtok, dining on Tibetan specialties and soaking up the atmosphere. Even managed to catch a speech by his Holiness the Dalai Lama before coming back to North India proper; although I’m not actually sure what the DL said in his talk (in Tibetan) about relaxing the mind, I did find something soothing about the whole affair even with a crowd of thousands attending.

Having been invited to participate in the first Indian descent of the Tons River, I followed up Sikkim with raging whitewater on this remote tributary to the holy Yamuna. One of the seven sacred streams of Hindustan, the Yamuna emerges as a dirty ditch in Delhi and is reputed to be incapable of supporting life when it passes the Taj Mahal downstream in Agra. But the famed river does get its start in the high mountains of Uttaranchal, covered this year with historic snow levels, and the Tons, flowing down from Bunderpanch (‘Monkey’s Tail’) Glacier, is one of the Yamuna’s main sources.

The expedition kicked off at the tail end of April with a refresher course for out-of-practice paddlers on the upper reaches of the Tons. The mountain scenery of the Aquaterra Lunagad Camp (Aquaterra being the sponsoring company for this outing) was all pines and ridge lines. At the outset, the river appeared impervious to the snow pack as the upper reaches were bony and boulder-strewn. A mostly Indian crew arrived, ready for action (the trip coincides with a forthcoming article I’ll pen for Paddler magazine in the US). A year had passed since my last Himalayan raft trip. Lungs conditioned by trekking to Goecha La, my arms and back – not to mention my reflexes – still needed work.

Nonetheless, it seemed an auspicious time to tackle the Tons. The sun was shining. The hills were alive with the sound of nomadic Gujjar tribesmen and their families moving herds of cattle, sheep and buffalo to the cool higher altitudes of Uttaranchal. Kingfishers – both the black-and-white Crested variety (called the zebras of the river) and common White-chinned, their fluorescent blue backs flashing in the sun – were commonplace.

The challenge got to me right away, as on the first day of practice I found myself swimming a rough stretch of water called the Horns of the Tons. Ironically, this continuous Class III/III+ stretch includes a sweep of boiling whitewater known as Longhorn Rapid; in another lifetime, I might have felt right at home. But with rocks looming and waves piling up, this erstwhile Texan was profoundly relieved when the guides pulled me back on board. That quick dip left me wide awake, ready to paddle.

I managed to avoid swimming for the rest of the trip, as we covered about 70 miles of river – including many sections of beefy Class IV rapids – in 5 days. Our raft, one of two, managed to do pretty well, losing just one other swimmer, getting surfed hard just one time, pounding down various slots and drops with a reasonable facsimile of military precision. For safety, we also had two kayaks and two pontoon boats. Along the banks, villagers came to cheer and stare in great number as the regatta passed out of the alpine zone through steep-walled canyons, eventually finding ourselves in a tropical clime with palms and fern-bedazzled seeps. At take-out, we rejoined the wandering Gujjars, their skullcaps and long beards reminiscent of Saudi Imams, still migrating upward.

So, between Sikkim and the Tons, it’s been back-to-back adventures. But as with any good travel, the memories are fueled by more than adrenaline. From local specialties prepared in Sikkimese style to the beef momos served in Gangtok’s Tibetan cafes, the food marks a change of pace from the rest of North India, marking a cultural shift. The relaxed Buddhist vibe and friendly Nepali faces (Sikkim was once part of Nepal, and with the political troubles in that Himalayan kingdom many Nepalis have come over the border) adding to the charm of this land of mountains and monasteries. New friends from my latest whitewater encounter hopefully will also remain pals well into the future.

(More details on the river trip should be forthcoming this fall in Paddler. Loyal fans, I’ll let you know. Just now, however, I’m not sure what India holds next.…)

Epilogue: With the whitewater bug still flowing through my veins, I managed to get C, who missed the river trip and has not been in a raft in a decade or more, to hop on a raft in Rishikesh. We were splashed by some big waves on the rolling, holy Ganga. For the weekend, our lullaby was the sound of temple bells. Then we came back down to Delhi, where the mercury has been hovering around 100 degrees. We hope not to stay too long.


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