The Great Bend of the Yangtze River carves a canyon plunging tens of thousands of feet deep through the tectonic crimps and folds of the Himalayan foothills. At times bucolic, at times roaring with world-class rapids, the Great Bend is formed where the "long river," as Chinese call the Yangtze, juts north from the eastern terminus of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, then curves back south. After this 500-mile arc, the lifeblood of China's rice bowl heads eastward again toward the Three Gorges Dam and the cities of central and eastern China.
In April 2008, just before the Sichuan earthquake struck to the northeast, 16 Americans, 11 Chinese, and one German embarked on what might have been the last rafting expedition down the Yangtze's Great Bend. We joined the trip to document one of China's grand canyons, soon to be impassable due to the construction of eight dams.
The eight Great Bend dams and others upstream of the famous Three Gorges Dam will produce about 200 gigawatts of power. That's roughly 10 times the amount produced by the Three Gorges, which itself produces about the same amount of power as the 15 largest dams in the western US combined. Those of us lucky enough to see this canyon up close, possibly for the last time, came home with stories and images from a part of China that is dying. Our eight-day mission to the Great Bend also filled us with hope that by sharing this canyon with others, we might play a small part in seeing that some of China's river canyons live on.
Doing is Itself Knowing
The Great Bend expedition came together through the vision of China Rivers Project, a recent addition to Earth Island Institute, comprised of myself and fellow co-founder Travis Winn. I had been finishing my PhD on the local politics of dams in western China when I met Winn, a river enthusiast with a passion for China. We founded China Rivers Project with the idea that to get folks to appreciate all that is valuable about China's rivers--their recreational benefits, history, cultural value, ecological services, wildlife, and scenery they--need to experience these values in person.
One warm evening on our Great Bend trip, the western sky still flushed with pinks and blues, I spoke with Dr. Sandra Hyde, an American anthropologist, who reminded me how Chairman Mao once said, "Doing is itself knowing."
Earth Island Institute's founder, David Brower, understood the power of this concept and urged people to spend time in wilderness. His passion for the threatened canyons of the Colorado River led him to invite his nemesis, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Dominy, to take a trip on the river. There, he confronted Glen Canyon, drowned by a reservoir, and the Grand Canyon, which Dominy almost submerged.
Much earlier, turn-of-the-20th century conservationists helped establish the American National Parks system. In the 1970s, kayakers from Colorado formed the American Rivers Conservation Council in an effort to protect their favorite spots from dams. Their small office grew to become the leading US river conservation organization, American Rivers. Ann Mills, the organization's vice president, came to China with us.
"A lot of messages we're trying to tell people in the US are the same as they are here in China," Mills said as we floated through a wide, calm stretch. For her, seeing the Great Bend served as a reminder of the importance of her work back home. "By doing our work really well, we can model solutions that other countries can mimic. The more the Chinese get out and appreciate their rivers, the more they'll be willing to protect them."
But so far, not many Chinese are rating. China Rivers Project hopes this will change, and that it's just a matter of time and persistence. Trip co-organizer Pete Winn has been researching China's river canyons for more than 10 years. He learned to guide on the rivers of the …