A Tour That Will Float Your BoatThirty-two people piled out of the bus and stood in a daze, blank-eyed, muscles twitching, the state one falls into after a four-hour ride. The bus, with U.S.O. written in blue across the side, backed into a parking spot in a crowded lot, spitting exhaust fumes on some of the newly disembarked passengers.
In front of the parking lot, the Dong River was only ankle deep. With brightly colored tents on the riverbank and children splashing in the water, it was a fun-filled atmosphere. A trail led past rows of rubber boats to the beginning of a rafting course where a hundred tourists milled around.
It is a sight that was close to being snuffed out.
The government had proposed a dam on the site to solve water shortages in the metropolitan area and for flood control. Construction of the Youngwol Dam was supposed to have begun in 1996 and ended in 2001.
When environmentalists got wind of the project, they rallied to preserve the area. The Dong River is affectionately known as a museum of nature, and many villages are hidden on the hillsides and along the riverbanks.
A film director named Kim Sung-hwan even created a 70-minute documentary about what the effects of the dam on villagers would have been and how they would have had to relocate. "I made 'Dong River Flow' with a mind-set that we all have to protect the Dong River," Mr. Kim said.
The government finally scrapped the project last year, but only after the frenzy over the dam project highlighted the once unknown area tucked away in Kangwon Province. Ironically, the increase in tourism has chased away some wildlife, once again raising environmental concerns.
Our group of families, couples, coworkers and friends － mostly military personnel － stretched and started the short hike to the beginning of rafting course C. The river is divided into three courses. Course C begins slowly, but is the longest.
"You get three items: a helmet, an oar and a life jacket," said the United Service Organization volunteer guide, James Heo, to my companions. "Do not lose them, and do not use the river as a bathroom."
The Dong feeds into Han River. During the Choson Dynasty, it was an important commercial waterway. Wood cutters would rope together piles of pine logs, a major product of Kangwon province, and raft them into major cities where they were often used to build houses.
After donning the yellow helmets and red life jackets, we split into four groups and stood in four lines for warm-up exercises. Shim Kun-woo, a tour guide with Sims Tour, introduced us to four instructors, shouting their names like the starting lineup of a sports game, "Jeon Seon, queen of the fun ride; Kang Myeong-ho, he likes to race."
Each guide was in charge of a yellow rubber boat with eight passengers. The men sat up front, women in the rear, and we pushed off.
The U.S.O. conducts summer tours to the Dong River every other week. The rapids here rank from class 2 to 3 level of difficulty (class 6 is the most difficult). Now that the area has been "discovered," its low rating and the bordering green hills are vital to its increasing popularity as a family vacation spot.
Last year, an estimated 150,000 people drove to the Dong River, either for the rafting eco-tour or to trek the green mountains. You will not find a heart-stopping thrill ride, but a leisurely 3.5 hour eco-tour through 16 kilometers of valleys that are a veritable outdoor museum. You can choose from 30 to 40 rafting companies in the area.
The shock of the cold water jolted our weariness as our guide, Mr. Kang, yelled out, "Hana, dul" (one, two). The paddlers responded, "Set, net," (three, four). The ride began slowly. Here, the water is shallow, but further downstream it reaches five meters.
The high season is July to August, but rafting season runs from April to November. "Come in November, and it's really about watching nature, not rafting," Mr. Kang said.
All the guides were tanned. Most were college students who heard about the summer jobs through their peers. Many of them are ski instructors during the winter. Mr. Kang became a rafting guide, he said, because it allows him to be outdoors and meet a lot of people.
We neared a rope that spans the width of the river. Boating is a way of life for the villagers, who cross the river by pulling their boats along ropes. That's their routine for traveling to market, neighbors, school and home.
Ducking under the rope, we continued past rock formations, a hill with a legendary handprint of Buddha, and another that supposedly looks like a map of Korea from the air. Mr. Kang pointed to a hill with an odd vertical line of stubby trees. "That's where the dam was going to be," he said. We passed in silence.
Three moderate rapids, two swimming stops, countless water fights, two races, and four hours later, we finally docked. Physically tired but spiritually restored, I pondered why such a beautiful, natural place would be ruined. They were right to stop the dam.
The United Service Organization hosts many tours throughout the year, and everyone is welcome. One of their summer specialties is family-oriented rafting. The next trip will be Aug. 25. For more information, call 02-795-3028.
WHAT TO BRING
Waterproof camera, sunscreen, sunglasses, clothes that can get wet, sneakers or sandals and shower gear.
by Joe Yong-hee