Not-so-gently down the streamAs college students at American universities visiting Korea for the summer, our vacation was not complete without a little adventure on the Dong River in Gangwon province.
We’d never been rafting before, and thought it might be challenging to spend the day drifting down the wild river. Despite freezing waters, sunburn, no food and no proper restrooms, we survived the whole day, and we’ll tell you how you can, too.
Due to our hectic schedules, we wait to pack until we get a little break from life, which happens at midnight the night before departure. Packing doesn’t take long, though, since there’s practically nothing we need to bring except enthusiasm for a new challenge, and a bit of sunscreen.
You also might want to bring comfortable pants (shorts if you want a nice tan), flip-flops, a bathing suit (if you want a better tan) and a change of clothes (trust us on this one).
After four whole hours of sleep, we leave eastern Seoul equipped with snacks and a mom willing to drive. The rafting company usually wants people there by 7:50 a.m.; fortunately, our departure will be an hour later, thanks to high water levels from the monsoon season. The rafting company has to make sure it’s safe to go into the water.
We arrive at the Donggang Dream Rafting office. Our reservation, made two weeks in advance, makes for an easy check-in. It’s time to put on mass quantities of sunblock and meet the crew.
We file into the van that takes us to the starting point. Extremely curvy and hilly mountain roads make for a 10-minute drive that’s like Six Flags’ Vertical Velocity, but without the protective devices. (The friendly driver calls it “car-fting.”) We hold onto the handlebars for dear life.
We meet our incredibly tan instructor, Mr. Kim. After a short safety lesson, we gear up in life vests and helmets. Now is the time for preparatory exercises in the freezing cold water. We’re reluctant, so instructors splash water all over us, explaining that it’s a protective measure so no one will have a heart attack entering the cold water abruptly.
We’re off. Two instructors and six inexperienced rafters set sail for who knows what. The first thing we learn is how to properly hold the paddles and anchor our feet to the straps on the floor of the boat. The next step is to master a countoff. Every time the instructor yells out “one-two,” we are to row in unison with the “three-four.”
We’re the first raft out, but others start to catch up. At this point, one of us has already fallen headfirst into the river. Two of our rafting buddies decide it’s time to pay each other back for a prior rafting experience, and as they tried to push each other in, one of us gets pulled in with them. The instructors respond by pushing more of us into the river.
Enemy rafts approach ominously. Little do we know that this is a sign of an impending attack. As they inch closer, splashing ensues between our raft of mostly girls and their all-male raft. This battle of the sexes results in our victory, of course, though their instructor captures one of our soldiers and throws her into the river. As we finish this battle, other rafts start their own. Soon enough, we’ve teamed up with fellow Dream Rafters against rival company Donggang Leports. Twenty rafts in a water-fight collision must have made an interesting sight for the birds.
Farther down the river, a scenic route unfolds before us. Along the way, we come across a curiously large rock formation with a crack in the middle that somewhat resembles a cross with a rock wedged in the middle. Legend has it that if a woman touches the centerpiece, she will give birth to a baby boy. “What? That’s the first time I’ve heard that,” says Mr. Kim. “Every guide makes up his own story about the sites around here to make it fun.”
No food in sight, and the only accessible bathroom is on all sides of us. Mr. Kim lines us up along opposite sides of the raft. Sitting on the edges, we rock back and forth until one of us falls in, to Mr. Kim’s great amusement. The next trick we learn is to have all of us but one gather at one end of the boat. The point is to pull the rope attached around the circumference of the boat as hard as we can, rocking back and forth, as the lone person at the other end enjoys the Viking ride.
We pull into a small alcove marking the halfway point of our expedition. As other rafts join us, the instructors tell us to take everything out of the raft. As we look on, they flip two rafts upside down, one on top of the other, and yell, “Slide!” An instructor jumps onto the topmost boat, sliding down into the water. This begins a line of impressive dives, leaps, flips and assorted stunts. One of us tries to impress the cute boys, but fails terribly.
Back on course, our adventure turns into a scene from the movie “Titanic.” Having discovered a married couple on board, we try to get them to reenact the famous scene in which Leo and Kate stand at the prow of the ship. At first the bride refuses, sure that the instructors will push her into the water. But all of us singles convince her to do it. Her husband grabs her tightly by the waist, just like in the movie. Now one side of the raft rows forward, the other side of the raft rows backward and, magically, the raft spins. The couple is very excited. The bride then generously offers her husband to the other girls in the raft.
We reach the most dangerous part of the course, where several boats have flipped over in the past. All seems serene ― the calm before the storm ― when Mr. Kim warns us to make sure our feet are securely strapped in. “You know what happens when you fall over here?” he asks. “You body-raft.” Fearing for our lives, we hold on tight and brace ourselves.
We make our last stop, resting our aching arms for about five minutes. Here, others can use restrooms or buy some Cup Ramen. We didn’t think to bring any money, so we go hungry, but you don’t have to.
One of us makes the mistake of telling Mr. Kim she’s cold. “Let me help with that,” he says, and throws her into the water and repeatedly dunks her, hardly giving her a chance to breathe. “This is how we do our laundry here in the Dong River,” he says.
Our mission is complete. The buses wait at the bottom of the river as we triumphantly sail across the finish line. We still have the ride back to the office to look forward to, though. This time the ride seems smooth, and both of us sleep like babies.
We head for home, stopping on the way for the first meal of the day. Four hours later, we look back at our day. We had our fun, despite sunburn, hunger and the perils of Korea's crazy waters. We came. We saw. We conquered.
Rafting on the Dong River
The Dong River, in Gangwon province, is about 60 kilometers (37 miles) long. Its beautiful scenery often inspires comparisons to China’s Guilin River. Its gentle current and relatively low water levels make it ideal for beginning rafters and family excursions.
During the peak summer season, the Donggang Dream Rafting company typically sends about 15 rafts onto the river per day, each holding six to 12 people. Prices range from 20,000 won ($16.80) for a two-hour, eight-kilometer course to 70,000 won for a 25-kilometer course that takes six to seven hours. The company’s Web site is dreamrafting.co.kr; their phone numbers are (033) 372-5042, (033) 373-0442 and (033) 373-0443. Online reservations are available. Their season runs from April through November.
Donggang Leports also offers rafting excursions, at prices from 15,000 won to 54,000 won. Courses range from 13 km to 25 km. Call (033) 334-6689 for reservations.
Rafting elsewhere in Gangwon province
Rafting companies will be happy to take you to these other popular sites:
I Love Rafting, (02) 231-5220
Prices are 45,000 won for adults, 40,000 won for children; the price includes transportation, insurance and a shower. Buses leave Jonggak Station Exit No. 4 at 7:50 a.m. and Jamsil Station Exit No. 3 at 8:30 a.m. Reservations must be made three days in advance.
Rafting Land, (033) 462-4629
Buses will be sent for group reservations. No children under nine.
Sorak Leisure School, (02) 1544-9562
Has courses running three to four hours, some of the longest available. Buses run about every five minutes from the East Seoul Bus Terminal (Gangbyeon Station) from 6:25 a.m. to 12:20 p.m.
Lezeus, (02) 3147-1401
Cost is 25,000 won for both adults and children. This company encourages rafters to get to know each other, with icebreaking activities beforehand and photo shoots afterward. No buses available.
Rafting Man, (033) 372-0345
Per-person costs range from 29,000 to 42,000 won. Through Aug. 20, groups of four and up get to use a small house with cooking facilities. Groups of 15 and up get a campfire and grilled potatoes. No buses available. The company also offers skiing in the winter.
Rafting Camp, (02) 588-7266
Buses leave from Gangnam Express Bus Terminal, East Seoul Bus Terminal, Jeongsun Intercity Bus Company, Gohan Intercity Bus Terminal and Taebak Intercity Bus Terminal.
Rafting Club, (033) 332-3344)
Cost is 30,000 won per adult, which includes insurance. Hiking and fishing trips are also offered by the company.
by Sunny Park and Josephine Hojean Lee