The Value of a Wild River Beach

Posted by Kristen McDonald on Thu, 04/15/2010 - 12:23

Beach near Ahai DamI am just back from our second trip on the Jinsha River this season. This time, all of our guests were Chinese, including a well to do Hong Kong businessman who is linked with The Nature Conservancy China, and his family. While quite new to wilderness travel, these folks were highly intelligent, eager to learn about the river, and quick to have fun rafting. As we shared our experiences around a campfire on the last night of the trip, it was gratifying to hear the young folks on the trip – age 13 to 19 – talk about how experienceing the Jinsha made them realize that they personally wanted to get more involved in conservation efforts.

We also brought two writers, one the Chief Director of New Century Publishing (新世纪出版社), which focuses on children’s books, and the other a senior editor at Urbanization Magazine (城市化杂志). The latter has a format much like Life Magazine, but has focused on the experiences of Chinese moving to cities, a huge phenomenon in the last 20 years of China’s growth. Recently, the magazine has started running stories on the reverse process, of urban Chinese moving to and exploring China’s countryside, mountains, and rivers. I anticipate solid outreach pieces from these participants.

For me, a highlight of the trip was the last night on the river. I was off kitchen duty and decided to take a stroll up the beach. It was a mild night, with a gentle breeze and gorgeous light. The lower part of the beach, where we were camped, had a wide expanse of fine, tan sand, sheltered by a tall rock cliff and house size boulders. A small spring ran from under one of these boulders into the eddy where our boats were parked. The upper part of the beach was covered with house size limestone boulders, polished to a fine gleam by the river during the summer high water stage. Little passage-ways ran between the boulders, revealing hidden beaches and caves. Some of the boulders were textured and conglomerate, making perfect hand holds for climbing.

Above the high water mark, there were about four giant trees that must have been at least 100 years old, probably older considering the size of their trunks. Birds I had never seen before on the Jinsha, and squirrels, busied themselves among the branches, and ground was littered with crunchy leaves. Judging by the prints left on the sand, mountain goats made much use of this beach, but not humans (except for us rafters). I also found prints that might have belonged to a coyote or wolf, smaller prints about the size of an otter, and shore bird marks everywhere.

Further up the beach, I tucked between two rocks and came upon a circular patch of sand, about 100 feet across, surrounded by boulders and flowering trees. I found a smooth flat rock to lie on, and watched the sky for a while. I felt both at home and an intruder. This place felt full of magic I could feel and understand. But also, this place was a refuge for wildlife, one of the few along the Jinsha. So many of its beaches, if accessible to humans, are now being hammered by low-budget suction dredge miners, who tear up the sand and rocks and push massive amounts of sediment into the river. It’s a practice that was outlawed ten years ago, but apparently the government is turning a blind eye, perhaps given the fact that these areas will be covered by reservoirs soon anyway.

Five kilometers downstream from this special beach is the Ahai Dam site, which means that it will be one of the first things to disappear under the 138 meter tall dam. It is heartbreaking for me to think of those ancient trees being drowned by the reservoir, or possibly chopped down in advance of the flood. The animals that have made this beach their home will have to move on, if they manage to survive at all. Its true that hundreds of years from now, the Jinsha River may be able to recover from the massive onslaught of dams, but I can’t help but think that in the meantime we humans are still accountable for the loss of life – even the possible extinction of some species – that the reservoirs will cause.