Exclusive: Nick Troutman becomes first kayaker to paddle over China's Detain Waterfalls
Our recent China trip came together almost like a dreamed reality. So, let me first take you back a couple of years to when I saw a photo of the Detain Waterfalls and immediately knew I wanted to run them and would love to get the first decent.
I started putting in some real research and quickly realized that this incredible series of waterfalls was on the border of China and Vietnam. It was extremely unlikely that I would ever get the permission needed from both governments to be able to run this waterfall. After continuing to dig, and even proposing this project to some media outlets and brands, I continued to get shut down. I decided to put this dream project on the back burner to pursue other projects and dreams.
Fast forward five years later and I get an email out of the blue to join a waterfall project in China for a TV show.
I was intrigued and immediately accepted the invitation. I also invited Dane (Jackson) to come along.
After a couple of weeks of emailing back and forth with our Chinese affiliates, a glitch came up and they needed to change location.
I was asked if we thought the Detain waterfalls would work. Of course, I was immediately excited about the proposition though I also knew it had issues of its own with regards to permissions. Somehow within only a couple days, they had the green light that would allow us to run the waterfalls and film the first decent.
I didn’t know exactly how they pulled it off, but I wasn’t going to sit by and miss this dream opportunity.
So Dane and I got our visas set, organized a couple kayaks from our Chinese distributor, and packed some gear to head to the land of Kung Fu.
Once in China, we drove three hours from our final destination to the Detian waterfall valley. This concluded our 52 hours of travel, which we also pretty much didn’t sleep during thanks to the 12-hour flip flop time change.
Our first real cultural experience was our breakfast noodles — yum. Hands down the breakfast noodles have been my favourite food in all of China.
Both Dane and I were pretty keen to check out the waterfalls that we had travelled so far to see. So we jumped on the bus with our full production company and went to have a look for ourselves.
The waterfalls are a big tourist attraction with several viewing platforms and boat tours — the works. It is pretty much the Chinese equivalent to Niagara Falls, which made it seem even crazier that we somehow got permission to kayak there.
Dane and I were given the go-ahead and approval to jump the fences and give the falls a full scout. Our only limitations was the simple fact that in absolutely no terms were we able to touch Vietnamese land, which pretty much just meant staying on river left at all times.
The waterfalls had several different spouts and falls, some clean drops and others cascading onto shallow rock. There was one gorgeous looking 80+ footer that looked clean, but we were immediately shut down on the idea as it was on the Vietnam side. The water levels were also a bit low and dropping, which limited our line choice. We quickly realized that the TV show that we were filming was pretty much a full-on reality TV show, as Dane and I constantly had a camera in our faces.
After scouting and picking out our lines, Dane and I felt ready.
First, we had to wait for permission to run the drop, so we decided with the TV crew to check out another nearby drop for a bit of a warm-up. The first drop was 40-50 feet, though the volume was too low and just barely flowing over the waterfall at all. We realized that we were in China during the dry season and most of the rivers were running at a trickle.
Lucky for us there was another nearby series called the Waterfalls of Love that was a triple drop sequence that had enough water for us.
The Waterfalls of Love consisted of a 50-foot drop followed by a wide 20-foot rolling drop and then a final six-foot boof. Dane and I were stoked to find some water and were thrilled to finally get in our boats.
Coming up to the first 50-footer we got out for a quick scout and then felt ready to go. Dane went first and I watched from the lip. It seemed to me that Dane had a great line, though quickly I realized that Dane had hurt his shoulder upon impact. After making some hand signals I knew Dane was ok, but possibly injured. Still, up at the top I decided to continue on and drop the waterfall.
I lined up the lip, ran the entry and hit my line just as I wanted. It felt perfect, though was still a bit of bittersweet joy as I knew that Dane was hurting. I spoke with him at the bottom and he told me that he was OK, just sore and possibly tore a muscle. We ran the next rolling drop and final boof to end off our first day in the water.
Back at the hotel, we started to plan for the next day and the first descent of the Detain Waterfalls. After some discussions, Dane decided to confirm a plan in the morning depending on how he was feeling.
The next morning we got up and had breakfast and coffee while making our final plans for the day. Dane’s shoulder was still bothering him so he decided to take a rest day and help with safety and shoot photos while I would drop into the Detain waterfalls and attempt the first descent. So we drove into the park and I started to gear up.
While getting ready we met up with the local superstar Han Geng. Geng is a famous Chinese pop star who also wanted to learn to kayak, though first up was the waterfall descent.
After getting geared up I started the hike to the top and put into my kayak. I was on my own, as safety was left at the bottom and Dane was up on the balcony shooting photos. The line I had picked started off with an eight-foot boof that was super fun. Next up was a 25 footer, though the original line we had been looking at landed right beside an undercut and I decided I would jump this drop while on my own. That was followed by the main bottom 40-foot drop and the pinnacle of the Detain sequence.
I goofed into the eddy, gave the high sign to our film crew and drone operators and peeled out into the current. I rolled over the edge and lined up the slight kicker part way down. The line was to hit the kicker to avoid the undercut cave behind and to the right of the drop. I hit the kicker perfectly tried to tuck uptight and landed softly. I was stoked and shouted out in celebration with our local Chinese paddlers. I then did a couple of quick interviews with our TV crew before focusing the rest of the afternoon on teaching Han Geng how to paddle.
Geng was a quick learner and picked up on the stoke and receipts quickly, even though we had a bit of a language barrier with his little English. We ended the day with a unique local meal that consisted of a lot of bugs. I was told that the meal was made only for VIP guests and they were so honoured to share it with us. I wasn’t sure if that was true or just a ploy to get me to eat the bugs, though I felt obliged to try them anyways. Let’s just say I wasn’t the biggest fan of the bugs. Though some of them (like the dragonflies), were OK, others (like the bees) were really hard to keep down. After our cultural meal, we went to bed with the plans to hit up Detain one last time the following day along with Dane.
Our final hurrah for Detain was at hand, and Dane still hadn’t run the falls, so I wasn’t a surprise that he was super keen to run the waterfalls regardless of his shoulder. He said it felt much better with the rest, though I know he was going to paddle either way.
We had travelled too far and knew this could quite possibly be the only time we could ever even get permission to run this waterfall. With this in mind, Dane decided to also attempt the second of the three tiers (the one I jumped around the day before). So this time Dane and I reversed our roles, as I hiked in and ran safety for him on the first two drops.
He styled them with ease and I ran around to watch Dane drop the third and final waterfall.
While Dane was in-between the second and third drop a crew of armed military men came out of the jungle on the Vietnamese side calling for Dane to come to shore. He couldn’t tell what they were saying, though, with the simple strict advice we had, which was to NEVER touch the Vietnamese shore, Dane decided to pass on the armed men and drop off the falls.
Again, Dane made it look effortless and sold me on the idea of going again only after the armed police and military seemed to have left the scene. I gave Dane a quick high five and congrats, I grabbed my boat and went back to the top for one last run at the series of drops, this time trying for all three in a row. Once at the top I lined up a new route on the top eight-foot boof that would set me up for the second 25-foot drop. I rolled off the edge and stomped down my bow for a super soft landing of the low volume drop. Next up was the boof into the eddy and off the main drop. I quickly could notice a difference in water levels from the day before. I continued on, and just like the day before, I gave the high sign, put in my mouth guard and dropped over the edge. Again I was able to hit the kicker ledge at just the right angle to stay vertical but out in front of the landing and away from the cave.
I was stoked. I had successfully dropped the first decent the day prior and then gone back to do it again with Dane.
We were both thrilled about the drop and stoked to see our new friend Han Geng at the bottom of the drop waiting for us. We were all stoked and give off several high fives as our film crew documented our level of stoke. We went back to our hotel to finish off our evening with an epic sunset, some cold beers, and tons of great Chinese dishes. There were still some bugs on the menu though this time it was the noodles and veggies that caught my appetite.
On our final day consisted of some more filming and interviews, some hiking around and then a drive back to the main city. The irony of our waterfall descent was that only after finishing kayaking did we hear the news that the Vietnamese government had retracted their allowance and no longer wanted us to paddle the drop. Though luckily for us, we were already done.
Once at the airport, we said our goodbyes to our production crew and all our new friends. Dane and I grabbed one last delicious Chinese meal, the hot pot, which is like a Chinese fondue of sorts, and then we started our two-day flight back home.
All in all, it was an incredible trip, and a dream come true to see the Detain Waterfalls in person and beyond words to get to be the first people to paddle them. I would love to go back and attempt some of the drops on the Vietnamese side, though, between our super fortunate opportunity and the simple fact that Vietnam no longer wanted us there, I’m guessing that might not happen anytime soon. I guess for now I’ll just stick with the memories I have from this incredible trip.
Check out our Chinese reality-TV show debut here!