Exploring the Rooftop of the World

It is still raining. We have been driving for nearly six hours on dirt roads. We’ve had to turn around twice because our driver was going in the wrong direction. I have no clue where we are going. All I know is that it had been raining for two days, and Tess and I are entirely at the mercy of our driver.

We cross over mountain passes and take a few more wrong turns. Our driver stops to ask the nomadic yak-herders  some questions, and then carries along the dirt road. Eventually we dead end at a massive river with a rickety bridge spanning across.  


Even up here near the headwaters, the river is 4-5 times the size of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. Downstream the Yangtze is the largest river in China. It is used to transport goods from the port in Shanghai throughout much of the Sichuan province. It also houses the world’s largest dam, the Three Gorges Dam.


Three Gorges was a controversial feat of engineering completed in 2003. As the reservoir filled behind the dam it drowned a river, millions of homes and thousands of years of human history. But all the way up here in the plateau the Yangtze still feels free. It is rushing, chaotic, screaming eastward with a mission to get to the East China Sea as quickly as possible, completely unaware of its stagnant fate that lies downstream.

We unload and inflate our 10’ paddle boat we have affectionately dubbed “the tater tot” and begin to rig. Within fifteen minutes our boat is loaded and we are in our drysuits, ready to push off. Our driver looks at us as if we might change our minds. We pay him, thank him, and send him on his way. He is hesitant and drives a few hundred feet away before he stops again. He is not going to leave us behind. With adventure and adrenaline streaming through our veins Tess and I hop on the tater tot and push off, heading downstream at the mercy of the Upper Yangtze.

The first few miles Tess and I get the hang of R2-ing the small paddle raft on this giant river. There have not been any rapids and we practice moving the raft from one side of the river to the other.  We turn and ferry. Our little boat is responsive, but it takes a long time to cross the muddy river.



I feel like a cork at the mercy of the water. Supposedly there are not many rapids, and they are not technically challenging. However waves on a river this big will dwarf us in our small 10 ft raft. We talk about our plan for the rapids, and with a lot of discussion and thought, decide it is best to clip our quick releases to our raft.

Every instinct I have from my years rafting and kayaking is to not be attached to your boat. But Tess and I knew in the best case scenario it could take miles to get back to our raft if we got separated. These were not ordinary circumstances and this was not an ordinary river. All we knew was that without our raft, we might not make it out. Even with one person still on the boat, an R-1 rescue would be slow in such a high volume river.  

Hesitantly we clip in at the sound of the rumbling water. As we turn the corner the line is straightforward, the major features easily avoidable. We paddle steadily, taking deep breaths. The river continues on like this all afternoon.

We spend the next few days exploring the steep ridge lines and clear streams and side-canyons of the Upper Yangtze. The landscape is as though the greenery of Ireland met the mountain ranges of Alaska which then plunged into a canyon reminiscent of the Inner Granite Gorge in the Grand Canyon. The mountains do not seem so large, until you realize that the pebbles scattering the hillside are actually 4,000 lb yaks.



At 13,000 ft, they call the Tibetan Plateau the Rooftop of the World. The mountains are some of the highest in the world, and the landscape one of the harshest. Recent studies indicate that humans have lived in this area for over 60,000 years. Their livelihood and religion is intricately connected to the landscape. We float past prayer flags and mani carvings in what seems like uninhabited river canyon, and I remember that we are far from alone.


We float past two monasteries and each time people rush down to the river to see what we are doing. They ask where we were from, and seemed surprised when we say we are American. Through some rudimentary sign language they ask if we paddled down here. Then they ask if we have flipped. They seem relieved, and maybe slightly disappointed when we say no.

The second-to-last morning we raft through a few miles of flat water before we hear the unmistakable roar of a rapid. We catch an eddy on the side of the river, close up our bags and clip our quick-release lines to the boat. As we enter we realize there is no avoiding this one. I start bellowing turns as Tess and I dig our paddles into the muddy water.



It was a pretty straightforward line, just avoid the holes and paddle for your life in the waves. It is the most exhilarating feeling to crest waves 2-3 times the size of your boat…not knowing if you have enough momentum to make it over top. Below the first rapid we had a few minutes to hug, breathe and take our adrenaline down a notch before we saw the next one.

These rapids were not that difficult, but regardless of the moves that we had to make, we had no choice but to gut waves that were over 20 feet. Sometimes, no matter how spot on your line is, waves that big just flip you. We hit the waves straight on, paddled as though our lives depended on it, and were lucky. We made it upright through the second rapid.

That was all the whitewater we had that day, and Tess and I breathed a huge sigh of relief as we rounded each corner and were able to stay far away from the holes and waves. I love big waves, but this was survival boating.  

Just as the sun is about to set below the ridgeline, we find a nice grassy outcropping to make camp. Prayer flags stretch across the river, but we don’t see any other sign of civilization. I set up the mega-mid while Tess starts the hot water for our ramen dinner and hot drinks. 4 days of a remote Chinese river behind us. Take-out ahead. It was our last night in this wild stretch of land that  expands all the way to Tibet. Around us mountains jut out to the heavens and I understand why they call this the Rooftop of the World.


About the author

Kiki grew up on the desert rivers of the southwest. On her first trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon she was a small ten-year old with a rag-tag group of boatmen (including her mother). Since then she has had the opportunity to explore rivers all over the world, where they have shown her remote places few have had the opportunity to explore. 

Kiki teaches yoga and guides full-time in Grand Canyon and on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, instilling people with a passion for the natural world and showing them places where rivers run wild and dark skies still exist. You can generally find her tucked up in some side canyon with a flower in her hat and singing songs about humpback chub on her ukulele.

All words and images copyright California Women’s Watersport Collective 2018. All rights reserved.

Paddling Preparation: A Land Session

We don’t often think about having a formal regimen to warm up for a day of paddling. I know mine often consists of a practice roll and then paddling a few strokes in order to peel out of the eddy. In reality, a lot of our warm up happens on the river. For newer paddlers, however, even being on the river can be a place of dis-ease, but warming up is just as important. As a yoga instructor and general river enthusiast I have put together some guidelines to creating a land-based warm-up to prepare your body for a day of paddling, before you even get on the water. Warming up lessens your risk for injury, increases performance, and even helps out with the psychological aspect of the sport.


Before paddling, repetitive movements that focus more on engagement and less on long-deep holds will prepare your body better for movement. In order to spread more oxygenated blood throughout our body we want to increase our heart-rate. This could be anything from sun salutations to lunges and squats. Save the longer stretches for the take-out.

Breath work

One of the psychological benefits of a warm up is that it allows us to focus our attention and reduces distractions. It begins to train our brain to focus just on the task at hand. Think about getting worked in a hole, and how much easier it is when we can focus on how to roll up and get out, rather than thinking of all the things that might possibly go wrong, panicking, losing our heads and pulling our skirts.

Our breath in warm-up can be a tool to focus attention and center ourselves. Throughout your entire warm-up try to link your breath to your movement. Sun salutations are great for this! Below are windmills and sidebends inhaling to a straight back, exhaling to rotation.

Move those hips

Chances are, before you hop in your kayak you have been sitting for quite a while, driving to the river, setting a shuttle, etc. You are about to be sitting a lot more, so take a few moments to initiate movement in your hip joint. Figure 4 stretch (shown below) is great for this, as are lunges (low lung to hamstring stretch below) and squats. Active stretches warm your muscles and increase hip mobility, so it doesn’t feel like you’re squeezing into your boat.

Start to engage your core

Paddling is all about core engagement. The more we can warm-up and activate our core (upper legs, torso and shoulders) before we paddle, the more we will actually use our core to it’s fullest potential when we are paddling. Use this time to mindfully engage your abdominals, and back muscles. Do some movements that you often use when paddling, and focus on using your core in these isolated movements.

Work your entire arms, not just the shoulders

Begin to engage your arms from the wrists all the way to the mid-back. Roll your shoulders and your wrists. Paddle around flat-water to get the blood moving. Warming up your entire shoulder capsule and arm, will allow your muscles to exert more force and respond more quickly while kayaking. Rather than simply stretching your shoulder, work to engage all of these muscles in your warm up by running them through a full range of motion. Do not forget your wrists! Roll your wrists around, open and close your hands.

In conclusion, work those arms, hips, core, breathe and get some cardio. You can do it with any of these movements mentioned, but the ultimate kayaking warm-up? Parking lot dance party! Crank up those tunes, get down and boogie.

About the Author:

Kiki Wykstra, RYT 200, began her yoga practice in 2002, as a means of rehabilitating hyper-mobile joints and preventing further injury. Quickly her interest in yoga moved beyond physical healing into the more subtle aspects of the practice. Her curiosity continues to this day, inspiring her teaching. As a yoga instructor, Kiki sees yoga as a space for people to connect to their mind, body and community. Her classes work to bring more awareness to these parts of our lives in a variety of ways. She is always excited to help people increase body awareness and mobility.

Kiki also works as a river guide on the most iconic multi-day trips in North America: The Grand Canyon, Middle Fork of the Salmon and the Alsek River in SE Alaska. When not exploring new rivers or teaching yoga she can be found playing her ukulele on a small boat in the San Francisco Bay.

For questions or inquiries you can reach Kiki at kwykstra@gmail.com.


1. Magazine, SUP. “Paddle Healthy | Dynamic Full-Body Warm-Up Routine | Video.” SUP Magazine. SUP Magazine, 27 Oct.
2015. Web. 07 June 2017.
2. ”Psychological Benefits of a Warm-up.” The UKs Leading Sports Psychology Website. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2017.
3. Quinn, Elizabeth. “The One Thing Your Should Always Do Before You Exercise.” Verywell. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2017.
4. Fischer-Colbrie, Megan. “The Importance of Warm Up and Cool Down for Athletes.” BridgeAthletic. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June
5. Starrett, Kelly. Becoming a Supple Leopard: Movement, Mobility, and Maintenance of the Human Animal. Auberry, CA: Victory, 2012. Print.

All word and images Copyright California Women’s Watersport Collective 2017. All rights reserved.

Wilderness Love on the Salmon River

Being on the Lower Salmon River is magical. I have grown up on its banks, eddies, and rapids and it is still on the top of my list of favorite rivers. Last year, I had the pleasure of sharing the river with women on our wellness retreat. Our retreat was a perfect combination of whitewater and Pilates. The women were able to choose between riding in the raft, inflatable kayak, or their hard-shell kayak. Some enjoyed learning the fundamentals of paddling for the first time while others were able to fine tune their whitewater skills. Lisa Marie instructed her Pilates routine to fit what paddlers need. Our mornings began with Pilates followed by breakfast on the sandy beach, then we took to the water. The Lower Salmon has a perfect mix of whitewater and calm pools that work great for kayak instruction. I was in my kayak providing instruction and safety while assisting all the paddlers with skills and the many different aspects of paddling. Meanwhile, Lisa Marie was in the water with us, reminding us how to integrate the movements of Pilates into our strokes. Camp time provided for relaxation and playing in the water. I taught roll clinics while others enjoyed a cool beverage with their chairs in the water and the umbrellas up for a little shade.


As the sun slowly slipped over the canyon wall, we began our evening of dutch oven baking for dinner and time for reflecting on the beauty of the canyon. The sandy beaches of the Lower Salmon River tucked us in as we snuggled into our sleeping bags only to begin the fun again the next morning. Each day provided fun rapids, laughter and smiles, and many “I got it,” moments as the paddlers learned new skills, skills that empowered them to believe in their paddling.

We would love to have you join us and Barker River Trips for our Women’s Wellness Retreat July 29-August 1, 2017. Come join the fun with a wonderful group of supportive women!

Author, Devon Barker-Hicks,  is a 2-time National Freestyle Kayaker and World Champion Surf Kayaker. As an instructor, Devon is ACA and Swiftwater Rescue certified and loves helping people learn new skills just as much as she loves learning new moves. Devon currently lives in Boise, Idaho and teaches Jr. High in the off season.