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Dancing With the Bear
An On-line Book by Liam Guilar
Presented by the Idaho State Univ. Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Text and photographs © 1999 Liam Guilar and used by permission (see permission notes).

Chapter 1: Apprentice Years and Dancing Masters.

FOR AS LONG AS I can remember I have wanted to go on an expedition. The genuine variety: in which you take your kayaks to a place where they don't speak your language, where the local officials are truculent and hostile and where, after surmounting amazing political and logistical problems, you launch your kayaks on beautiful, demanding white water rivers which have never seen kayaks before;  rivers with endless rapids and scenery that is mind numbingly beautiful, dotted with villages peopled by inhabitants whose generosity is the stuff of legend.

The source of this ambition is easy to trace. 

I was born in Coventry.  It was, and still is, huge and grey and far from any mountains.  Its sad excuse for a river was a green slimly thing that sludged out of a kayaker's nightmare and glooped though the city as part of the canal system. 

Although my grandfather had been on the first scout camp neither of my parents went camping. My dad had two saving graces (amongst all his other estimable qualities); a love of books and an interest in other countries. When I was knee high to a grasshopper he let me loose in the city's excellent libraries where I raided the history sections. My earliest heroes were Drake and Magellan and Scot. (I dumped Scot from the list when I realised how incompetent he had been. As an undergraduate student I added Sir Richard Frances Burton: linguist, author, translator and traveler, my hero, and lost interest in the others.)  I became convinced that travel was not only exciting but worthwhile in a way making money or being rich and famous could never be.

Unfortunately most of the people I admired had all been dead for centuries and while my peers had football players and rock stars for contemporary role models, I had none. Of course there were still unclimbed mountains but somehow that didn't, doesn't, appeal to me. My aunt took me camping when I was nine, and I plodded up my first mountain in wellingtons, convinced I was about to die of heat stroke. I remember being violently sick in the tent and burning my hands and wanting to go home. Mountaineering is about reaching a specific objective. As the Zen saying goes, you eat so that you can be hungry.

As I grew older my dad pushed Rider Haggard's books under my nose. I doubt if anyone reads these now, but then they were considered the kind of books boys were expected to read. The hero was always travelling into some strange land where magic and romance were possible.  Best of all, somewhere, hidden in the mountains, in a place you could only reach after a hard and perilous journey requiring great physical strength and a professorial control of arcane lore, there was an ancient city, and riches beyond your wildest dreams (as the crooks in the books used to say) and the most beautiful woman in the world waiting for only you. If you lived in a city like Coventry and went to an all boys school it was hard not to find the idea attractive. 

On Sundays there was a  program called The World About Us. It was something my dad always watched, like Tom and Jerry or the Saturday afternoon wrestling. One night they showed a film of some kayaks. I think it was Mike Jones and crew on the Grand Canyon but I wouldn't like to be dogmatic about it.  Here was an adventure. Here were people doing something that looked interesting. I decided that was what I wanted to do.

My parents obliged by sending me on a YHA canoeing holiday. In 1971 or 72 I spent a week plodding down the river Wye in a two seat kayak with a glass fibre hull and a wooden deck.  The worst part of the week, apart from having to be with a group of strangers who all seemed to be perfectly at ease with one another, the most dangerous thing that happened, apart from some of the meals, was a capsize drill in a racing Kayak. I couldn't get out and for years afterwards was terrified of capsizing. On the Wye I was only happy when I could see the bottom.  My partner came from the north of England and I couldn't understand a word he said, not that he said much apart from "I'm not paddling any more."  He did teach me the first truly obscene joke I'd ever heard. I was eleven or twelve years old and terrified. And it was the best thing I'd ever done.

The River WyeI dreamt about the Wye for years afterwards, and paddled around on lakes and lochs in various borrowed kayaks. Serious canoeing remained a fantasy, as realistic as one of Haggard's heroines, until I went to Birmingham University. Birmingham is even bigger and greyer than Coventry, and hell is a winter evening in Selly Oak, with all the buses on strike and no way of getting out of the city. 

My first attempt to put an expedition together occurred after I'd spent three years at university trying to balance a desire to go paddling against the demands of Medieval Welsh and Anglo-Saxon. 

I had been lucky to meet Bob Smith.  On a crowded day at the Fresher's conference I signed up for recreational canoeing.  Two weeks later, on the day of the first class, I decided to stay in the library. At nineteen I disliked crowds and groups of strangers, and was terrified of not knowing the system, any system, even something as simple as getting a locker key for the pool. I dithered but at the last moment bit the bullet and went. I was the only one there, because I was early, and Smith, grinning broadly like a parody of a bronze god in a Charles Atlas advert, was probably as nervous as I was. I have often wondered what would have happened if I had spent the day reading The Wandering Scholars

I would have missed out on an excellent education. Bob was one of those rare people who didn't treat enthusiasm as a dirty word, and there was always one more rapid to run or one more story to tell. Within a year we were in America, on the River of No Return, an amiable monster of a river in the Idaho wilderness. For ten days we did nothing but paddle what then seemed huge rapids,  eat extravagant meals and wonder at the toilet arrangements. The next year we went to the French Alps where the toilet arrangements were an equal cause for wonder among the Americans from ISU who accompanied us.  Possibly suffering from too much cheap red wine I decided I wanted to paddle the Yukon river, all one thousand seven hundred and something miles of it.   Why I should want to do this escapes me now, but after leaving University I suffered from the bizarre delusion that, unknown and unemployed, I was going to convince people to part with a huge amount of money so I could go on a glorified and expensive holiday.  As I was not going to do a first descent, and the possibility of dying spectacularly was rather remote, I failed to raise the money.

Five years later, married, ready to move to Australia, I  went back to the States.  The Main Salmon didn't seem quite so terrible, though the toilet regulations had become more rigid and the food was, if anything, even more extravagant than I remembered. After the Main, Jerry Dixon, one of the world's great individuals,  talked me into going down the South Fork of the Salmon with him. While I suspect we vastly overrated the difficulty of the river, the journey was what my history tutor would have called a "Seminal Experience".  Dixon, "shoes and shorts, a shirt if you need it, no water, no food, go light go fast go far," and I moved effortlessly down the river ("If you need to ask how hard it is you shouldn't be there") with everything we needed in the backs of our boats. There was nowhere in Britain where such a trip would have been possible, and I became hooked on the idea of long, lightweight journeys made by small groups.  Cast of thousands Kayaking has never appealed to me, and Dixon and the South Fork confirmed my prejudices. 
Jerry Dixon along Idaho's South Fork of the Salmon
My second trip to the states was an apprenticeship in long river journeys, and having learnt my paddling technique from Smith and practised it on numerous low division slaloms during the winter, I studied under two masters of the art. Ron watters, who I'd met on the first visit and gone to the Alps with, is the sanest river runner I have ever met, and if I had to chose to go down an unrun river in the middle of nowhere, would be one of only three or four people who'd be an automatic choice. The great thing about Dixon is his refusal to accept boredom.  He is the child in the candy store on the first day of the holidays, clutching his penny and trying to decide what to buy, and unable to make up his mind, deciding that he wants to try everything. One drunken night on the South Fork, we discussed unrun rivers, unmushed trails (Jerry lives in Alaska)  and unclimbed mountains and I got the idea that Patagonia would be a good place to visit. 

In Australia, thinking about Patagonia,  Jeff Clarke and I ran the snowy river.  As trips go this isn't very demanding, but it was winter, and it rained for two of the three days we were on the river. On the third day the rain stopped and it started to sleet. The upstream wind was so strong that Jeff swore he was blown to a standstill.  I remember fantasising about hot chocolate and by the third day the fantasies were erotic in their intensity. As we got off the river the sleet finally stopped and it began to snow.

Back in Sunny Queensland, Jeff talked me into the idea of going to Papua New Guinea.   Patagonia would be cold and the main attraction of PNG was warmth.  I was never that enthusiastic about the project; I don't like rain forests, snakes, spiders, hot weather or violent people, but when Jeff lost interest I had spent so much time and energy researching and writing to people that I felt I had staked something on the successful completion of the trip.  Common sense took a back seat and bloody mindedness prevailed.  This is necessary in planning a trip but also dangerous when you cross the dividing line into the unrealistically insane. Every team I put together that could handle the rivers fell apart. Mothers, Girlfriends and Wives tried to talk us out of it. We kept meeting people who had just returned from the Highlands with bullet wounds in their stomachs, or stories about how the rafters had been hijacked and had all their gear stolen. And though I met a couple of old men who had spent time in PNG on the rivers there, they both made it sound more like a commando raid than a kayaking trip. 

Everybody I spoke to, whether they knew anything about it or not,  said it was too dangerous. Finally, in desperation, I asked a friend if she knew of anyone who would go.  Try Robertson she said, he likes adventures and he's crazy enough to try anything.  Fortunately she was right. He does and he is.

The end result of the New Guinea Expedition That Never Was was that I met Trevor, and through him Jackie and Mark, talked the Australian Geographic into supporting my expedition with a grant,  and learnt a great deal about searching for sponsorship. But before it had officially folded, even as the Courier Mail manufactured a picture for its front page,  I had started to write to Sasha Statiev in Moscow, and was planning to go to what used to be the Soviet Union. I was determined that this time I was going.  I had failed twice and that fact lingered like a bad smell. Not only would I get to visit Moscow, that haunted house of my adolescence, but at the end of the river, I was going to Samarkand.

End of Chapter 1 . . .
To continue with the story: Chapter 2
To go to the previous chapter: Introduction
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Copyright Information
     The book Dancing With the Bear is copyrighted (© 1999 by Liam Guilar) and has been used by permission. Links to these pages are welcome, but if you wish to reprint or reproduce significant portions of it, you should first obtain permission from the author Liam Guilar at: dbk@ausinfo.com.au. [Return to top of this page]


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