Greetings! Today, I will take you on another splendid journey through time. You have the honor of accompanying me as I recount my personal quest to go whitewater kayaking in South Korea. Is it possible? Is it popular? How can it be done? Not only will these questions be answered, but they will also be placed in a cultural context. Do you think you know everything there is to know about Korea? Have you thought about how recent Korean history may have shaped whitewater activity in the country? If you find yourself unable to answer these questions, continue reading.
In my home state of Tennessee, whitewater activity generates millions of dollars in economic growth each year as a result of local tour businesses, the sale of locally-made equipment, and profits generated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA releases water from dams periodically in controlled amounts in order to provide whitewater for sport while conserving the state’s resources. Arguably the most popular of such rivers, the Ocoee river generated over 40 million dollars in the space of a single year due to guided rafting trips alone. Two geographic features make this sport possible: mountains and moving water.
I had gone whitewater rafting on the Ocoee every Spring and Summer for a couple of years. One day, I brought my father along and my family was forever changed. Suddenly, my dear old dad put down his xbox controller and each member of my family had a kayak of his or her own. I like to joke that he hit his mid-life crisis, and instead of finding a younger woman and buying a sports car, he decided to throw us all in the river.
With our new kayaks (liquidlogic xp9’s and an xp10 for my dad), we set out to learn everything we could. I had just gotten into the sport, having paddled a couple of small whitewater rivers in the area, when I surprised everyone and graduated from my university. Ready to step out into the great big world, I found myself in contact with a recruiter for teachers to go teach English as a foreign language in South Korea.
When asked where in Korea I’d like to live, I said it didn’t matter much to me- but that I liked the outdoors. I signed a contract with a school in the city of Chuncheon. “Chuncheon” means “spring river,” and is described as being one of Korea’s best cities for nature and the outdoors. It’s also called the city of three rivers, because of the three rivers that wind through it. Nestled in a mountain range in a mountainous country, it seemed like I would find whitewater there.
I lived in Korea for a total of 25 months. I am not sure if I ever saw a single kayak while there.
I tried finding whitewater. I found dams, rivers, and waterfalls, but never heard of anyone actually kayaking whitewater. I learned that in the city of Inje, one can sign up for a rafting trip. Curious about how “big” the water would be, I did a search to see how the river was classed. Whitewater ranges in levels from class I-VI. Class I is very easy water to paddle. Class VI is something people rarely attempt, as rescue may be impossible and death likely. I wasn’t able to find out what class the river rafting trip in Inje would be, so I decided to go and find out for myself.River rafting in Inje would probably have been very enjoyable if I had not already been paddling larger water. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that Inje was a class I-II river. I was not satisfied, and I set out to find something bigger. Unfortunately, my Google searches were yielding nothing. I learned about a trip to a place called “Pirate’s Island,” in Namhae. It was about as far away as possible from my home in the province of Gangwon-do, but among the other activities, the trip listed sea kayaking. I signed up to go on the trip and promptly fell ill. I had to cancel.
The next year, the same travel company advertised the same trip. I signed up and went. After travelling two hours by train to meet the travel company in Seoul, we drove overnight in a bus for five hours toward our destination. At this point, I had travelled seven hours. We started the morning by hiking up a mountain to the most beautiful temple I have ever seen in South Korea: Boriam Temple. We watched the sun rise over the sea. Its brightness spread across the sky and cleared away the twinkling lights of the ships at sea near the coastline along the stars perched in the sky above them. It was breathtakingly beautiful but I was distraced by my excitement for sea kayaking later in the day.
We left the temple and boarded the bus. After another hour of driving through winding mountain roads, while I coped with my fatigue and car sickness, we arrived at a beach. A tour guide left the bus, said he’d return, and after a few minutes he came back. He explained to everyone on the bus that due to choppy seas, we would not be kayaking.
The rest of the trip was enjoyable and I am glad I saw the temple, but after having travelled all night long and all morning, I was tired and disappointed. Upon returning home, I again searched for a place to go kayaking and came up with nothing. During a conversation with my dad, he told me that one of his friends working for Jackson Kayak, a company which designs and builds kayaks and equipment based in Tennessee, was a customer service representative. Apparently, he worked with a Korean business that sells kayaking gear and equipment. It became my new goal to track them down.
With all of the mountains, rivers, and people dressed in outdoor equipment, I knew that real whitewater had to be somewhere. Finally, it was winter. In Tennessee, kayaking can be considered a winter sport. There is more water in the rivers during winter, so people gear up in special winter equipment and throw themselves down water-filled ravines, often with snow on the rocks beside them. I appealed to my Korean friends on Facebook, asking if anyone knew of a place where I could go whitewater kayaking in Korea. A very, very helpful friend told me about Inje. I explained that I’d already been there and was looking for something bigger, and not rafting. He told me it sounded strange that I wanted to go kayaking in the dead of winter, so I explained that I was used to the idea of paddling in the snow. Finally, he found me a link to a kayaking school. If I remember correctly, they were affiliated with the same company that my dad’s friend worked with.
When I went to their website, I learned that they would take people on kayaking trips through their school, but in order to paddle with them on Class III water (which was my goal at the time), I would first have to paddle with them on flat water, Class I, and Class II water. At each level, I would have to be certified by them before advancing to the next level. The classes were very, very expensive.
I gave up and threw myself into a new sport, which I had fallen in love with in Korea: cycling. I’ve biked in the US, France, and in the Netherlands. It is my very strong opinion that no country so far rivals Korea in cycling infrastructure. It is by far my favorite activity in South Korea. I hope to write about its merits one day.
I am living in France now, and I’ve learned that kayaking competitions are sometimes held in a town nearby. It should be easy for me to find a place to kayak here. So, in Tennessee, the eastern half of which is mountainous, I can go kayaking. In Normandy, which is not mountainous but does have rolling hills, I can go kayaking. But in Gangwon-do, South Korea, a region of mountains, valleys, and rushing water, it took me two years of searching for a place to go kayaking and I never truly found what I was looking for.
Why have whitewater sports taken such deep roots in Appalachia and in Normandy, but have not done so in South Korea? One of the first things that outsiders will often notice when they visit Korea for the first time is the droves of people dressed fashionably in outdoor clothing: hiking boots, sturdy hiking pants, windbreakers, and waterproof hats with wide brims. Hiking into the mountains is an extremely popular activity in Korea, and the trails are generally well-maintained and beautiful. Personally, I am impressed with them. Hundreds of miles of beautiful running, walking, and cycling paths stretch across the country from east to west, north to south, and along the eastern coastline. Along these paths, one will often discover people exercising on equipment installed there for public use.
Tennis courts, driving ranges, soccer fields, swimming pools, gyms, and public parks are found everywhere. It has always appeared to me that healthy eating and exercise are large considerations in Korean society. So, why have whitewater sports not caught on in a country which, geographically, seems to be made for it? Why especially have they not caught on in a country which seems to enjoy outdoor sports to a vast degree?
One of the jobs of an expatriot ought to be discovering not only how other cultures differ, but also ask himself or herself the question of why it is different. I remember a conversation I had with another American in Korea; we were discussing the idea that “Koreans can’t swim.” It’s not a good idea to make broad generalizations, but this statement danced around inside my head like a carrot in front of a horse for a long time. If I were to accept the idea that Koreans swim less often or less well than their American counterparts do, this might help explain the curious lack of interest in Korean whitewater.
The first thing I began doing was questioning what I knew about Korean swimming habits. Contrary to what my friend said, I knew that many of my students attended swimming classes, and I knew of a few swimming pools in my city. I suggested to my friend that he might be mistaken, and he countered with the idea that Korean children are now learning to swim perhaps because their parents could not. He suggested that maybe their parents wanted to make sure that their children had the opportunity to learn a skill they were not able to learn in their youth.
He told me a story about the time when Park Geun-Hye’s father was a dictator in the newly-recreated nation. He claimed that he read about the Han River in Seoul being surrounded by fences and access to it forbidden. My friend said that since the time of the Korean War, people were discouraged from swimming and from visiting beaches because of the opportunity it might present to defect to either side. Given that the country is so mountainous and the border so heavily guarded, the beach might present a much safer passage across the border. In addition, crossing the border sometimes means crossing a river. Crossing a river means that the defector may have to swim.
Even now, at night on certain beaches, you’ll find that they are sometimes lit up like the top of a birthday cake before the candles are blown out. I was born in Florida and attended middle school there. I had a particularly vocal biology teacher who lamented the city lights on our coasts because they encouraged hatchling sea turtles to move toward the lights and cross into the road instead of following the reflection of the moon into the sea, as is their instinct. So, when I visited a certain beach at night in Korea, and I saw the flood lights stretched as far as I could see in either direction, I wondered about the effect it might have on the nearby wildlife. What would drive a city to install floodlights on a beach that isn’t used at night?
It made me wonder if the stories about using the beaches to defect were true and it made me wonder if stories about older Koreans not knowing how to swim might actually have some merit. The next day, I went swimming in a very small area of the beach that was roped off and guarded vigilantly by two very fit lifeguards. Most people simply bobbed around where they could still stand up if they needed to, and nobody was trying to do laps. When my friend and I ventured further out to the edge of the barrier, the lifeguards immediately came near to us. Did they think we were in danger of drowning? I’ll never know without asking.
I urge the readers of this article to tell me about their experiences with Korean beaches at night. I also ask that you share with me your thoughts on Korean swimming habits and culture. I do not think that a simple, “general inability to swim” can explain the lack of whitewater activity in South Korea. As I said before, geographically, Korea is as perfect for whitewater as a hand is to a glove.
The image of the Class VI waterfall is Niagara Falls.
If you're reading this, I'm flattered! I'm an American expat with a strong interest in eating things without knowing what they are, learning tongue-twisters in new languages, and I feel most at home when I'm not at home. Currently residing in France, I often think of returning to South Korea, where I lived for just over two years.
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