Exploring Korea: Whitewater rafting on Naerincheon River

Photos by Kyle Haney
Photos by Kyle Haney

Exploring Korea: Whitewater rafting on Naerincheon River

by Kyle Haney

Are Korean rapids what you’d expect to find in places like the Colorado River? Certainly not. But are Korean Rapids still a good time? Absolutely! Read on as I recapture my amazing time rafting the Naeinchon River through the USAF Outdoor Recreation program.

The Naerincheon River
Located in Inje-gun, Gangwon-do province, the Naerincheon river flows into the Han River (the fourth longest river on the Korean peninsula). The class II/III rapids are set in a wooded, picturesque environment complete with blue skies above and vegetated valley walls that stretch up at least a hundred feet on both sides. The entire river is not inundated with repeated rapid sets, rather it’s a combination of slow-moving water and fun drops into whitewater, making this river the perfect spot to be during the hot, Korean summers.

The Outdoor Rec Program
One of the many amazing benefits of being a servicemember is the access to the outdoor recreation outings offered on base through the Outdoor Rec program. Outdoor Rec programs are ran by a combination of volunteers and active duty servicemembers with the mission of “provid[ing] expertly managed recreational activities and outings, as well as professionally-trained and knowledgeable recreation staff”, and they do just that! The outdoor rec folks can provide insider knowledge on “hidden secrets” near your base and as bonus, they rents out tried-and-tested recreational equipment to help you get the most out of any adventure you set out on!

Getting there…
The morning of the rafting tour started early (like, 0530 early), but I was loaded with anticipation. I had been out of my mandatory 2-week quarantine for only 72 hours but here I was, seizing the day! I showed up on base with my GoPro in hand, eager to see a side of Korea that was anything but the same 4 walls I saw from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep–you can imagine I was chomping at the bit to get out and explore!

There was a group of 80+ military dudes/dudettes who all signed up for this excursion, and we were loaded onto 2 charter busses to get us there. At 0600, the busses rolled out of Osan Air Base and made their way northeast towards Inje county. With a 2-hour bus ride ahead of me, I pulled out a magazine that I snagged off the counter of the registration table before we departed, hoping to do a little light reading to pass the time. Sure enough, a blurb on how to read and understand the Korean alphabet filled my time until we made our first pitstop at what I would call a Korean truck stop.

This pitstop was at no ordinary truck stop though, oh no. This “truck stop”, if you can even call it that, was like a mini strip mall that offered dining at three different restaurants and had vendors selling their hand-made goods, all set in the picturesque Korean countryside. Oh, and there happened to be bathrooms on-site as well lol. Being a total tourist, I went with what I knew and grabbed a Jamba Juice before getting back on the bus to go hit some rapids.

We arrived!
As the busses pulled up to a dirt parking lot, the one Korean translator for a group of 80+ Americans tried her best to explain where the shower facility for changing was, and that we needed to start forming groups of 8 once we were ready. Not needing to change, I meandered over to the registration table where the crowd began to organically separate into groups of 8.

The Korean river raft guides began explaining the process of getting life vests, helmets, and oars to the translator. The translator explained that our group leader (me, in this case) would go up to the equipment drop, snag enough life vests for the group, drop them back off for distribution, then do the same for the oars. Before we knew it, our group of 80+ all began to look like a studly group of amateur river rafters!

Surprisingly, as we all hauled our rafts down to the river to begin the journey, nobody began walking out into the water. It had to have been 90 degrees out! So, being the curious, polar-plunging guy I am, I started walking into the water. When nobody yelled at me to stop, I decided to take a big dive in–the water was perfect! The river was nowhere near as cold as the rivers in the Rockies being constantly fed from snowmelt, and with the outside temperature being so high, I felt instantly refreshed.

Soon after, the Korean river raft guides directed everyone into the water to do the same. To my surprise, much of the group thought that the water was too cold and decided to only get their legs wet—the Korean raft guides were not happy with this lol. They began splashing the entire group! The herd scattered back to the riverbanks, hoping not to get wet as if they had forgotten what they signed up for lol. It was comical to say the least.

Setting sail down the river
Finally, with all the scaredy-cats packed into our rafts, we set off to smash some rapids. I lucked out with my group for many reasons, the main one being that the translator for the group was in my raft. Whenever the Korean river guide would say anything, she would announce it to the group for us in English—score!

“Forward 1!” the guide would yell, and we’d all lean forward as if trying to scrape up rocks from the bottom of the water just outside our reach. As we’d pull back our oars, the raft would uniformly launch forward down the river. “Forward 1! Forward 1!” the guide yelled. As I peered ahead, I could see why he was getting us moving so quickly: rapids! The anticipation was mounting, and I had only the faintest idea of how this was about to play out compared to the big ones I remember hitting in Colorado as a kiddo.

Bam! Our raft dropped over a collection of boulders and smashed into the whitewater, taking on loads of water in between laughs of excitement from the team. It was exhilarating! Moments later we did it again and again, seemingly smashing through class II and III rapids like only a group of amateurs could lol. “Forward 1! Forward 1!” the guide yelled. We continued for a few more moments and before we knew it, were through the first round of rapids. With adrenaline still coursing through our veins, our first break had been reached and the team was immediately congratulated by a stretch of gentle, rolling water.

A sense of peace and reflection
The break in rapids allowed me enough space to soak in the beauty of the blue skies overhead and to breathe in the clean air that I hadn’t realized I missed so much. The now-distant rapids echoed through the valley, generating a white-noise that put me in a state of bliss, allowing my mind to finally rest for a moment. As I dropped my hand into the river, I was greeted with a sensation of cold that directly opposed the warm sun that was heating my bones. I was at rest. I was in complete peace. I remember this so vividly because this was the moment my endless anxiety finally shut the fuck up.

The peace I gained on the river in that moment allowed me to frame a juxtaposition of joy in the moment with the state of misery I had been in in the last few weeks; last few months really. This ended up being more than a rafting trip for me, this was the first sense of joy I had felt in…I don’t know how long. You have to understand that as a military guy with orders to Korea for a year, the months leading up to my PCS were a series of moments where my loved ones and I were just trying to “play it normal” in every situation, despite the 600-pound ‘me-leaving-for-Korea’ gorilla in the room.

I met Ciara in the beginning of 2020 and quickly fell in love with her. Throughout 2020, we created this “normal” life where we would travel almost every single weekend, enjoying each other’s company more and more, as we scratched things off our bucket lists. I had also finally established the relationship I had always wanted with my mother but only after a horrible, horrible divorce allowed me to do so. I had a great life! But each and every ‘thing’ that Ciara and I, or my mom and I would do leading up to my departure left this lingering feeling in my head of, “is this the last time I’ll ever do this with these people again?”, and it drained me from the minute I woke up to the minute I went to sleep. So much can go wrong when you’re thousands of miles away and Murphy’s Law still dictates much of our lives.

As situations or objects would present themselves, I would be instantly reminded that on May 30th, this reality that I prayed and worked so hard for would be a thing of the past. I was being contently reminded of a ticket I booked for myself on a one-way train bound for loneliness, uncertainty, depression, and homesickness, thousands of miles from home. It’s not easy saying goodbye to loved ones for an indefinite amount of time while trying desperately to comfort them by saying “I’ll be home soon!”, not knowing when that will be. And when I actually landed in Korea, I was ordered into Korean quarantine in the Incheon Airport, not knowing just how long it would be before I was going to be back in American custody. Then to top it all off, when I finally made it out of Korean quarantine and onto base, I spent two more weeks of listening to F-16s scream by my window at all hours of the day while eating pre-portioned DFAC food.

I needed this peace lol

Man overboard!
Suddenly, I was shaken out of my daze by the river guide yelling “Forward 1!”. Thanks to muscle memory, I didn’t even have time to think before my arms stretched forward and began pulling the oar back as hard as they could. I was back to reality. “Forward 1! Forward 1!” the guide yelled, and we began thrashing into the rapids when suddenly, the guy to my right fell right out of the raft! Mid-rapid, he must have been bounced out, thanks to the turbulence, and was now floating down the rapids on his back, legs forward and head above water like the guide instructed. A few scary moments later, the guide pulled him back into the raft and we continued on. No rest for the weak! Or however that expression goes haha.

After a few more sets of rapids, the river guides gave us a much-needed break in a slower part of the river near these rather large boulders. Our raft was the first to make it to this part of the river, so the guide ordered us all out of the yellow inflatable and onto solid ground. I started to peer over the rocks we were standing on, noticing that they were in a rather good spot of the river for, say, jumping in? My spidey-senses were right as the river guide waved at me to wait. I was on to something!

Cliff jumping
The next group of rafters arrived shortly after us and they all piled out of their rafts and onto the rocks where my group was standing. The guides began pulling the giant, yellow rafts out of the water and flipping them over. I thought I knew where they were going with this and sure enough, they stacked them one on top of the other, so that the “cliff” we were on, was an extra 5 feet tall! Without hesitation, I locked eyes with our river guide, and he motioned me forward.

Fearlessly, I walked out on to the yellow plank, about-faced, and backflipped right into the Naerincheon River–a perfect 10 I might add lol! One after another, this rag-tag group of beginner river masters jumped high into the air before splashing into the river. 30-or-so minutes had gone by entirely too fast before the guides wrapped it up, flipped the the rafts back into the water, and pointed us towards shore. Each group helped carry their rafts up the sandy riverbank before making their way to the busses and just like that, we were shuttled back to base.

This trip was an absolute Godsend after the hiatus that was my life the weeks leading up to it, and I’m so blessed to have been able to take advantage of the Outdoor Rec program. If you’re an active duty member, I strongly suggest you look into your base’s ODR program and get involved! They usually post activities by the month and reservations are required. If you’re civilian, then google “River Rafting near me” or something similar and give it a go! Take care of yourselves and take care of your minds, and enjoy this big, beautiful planet we all call home.

Carpe Diem!

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