Interview: Mick Hopkinson

Mick HopkinsonSince pioneering river sections all over the world in the 1970’s, Mick Hopkinson has continued to explore rivers all over the world & finally settled down in Murchison, where he set up the NZ Kayak School. Mick still lives the ‘kayakers dream’ of alternate summers, and we managed to track Mick down in Wyoming on a ‘rare rainy day’.

CM: Our focus for this interview is expedition boating, but you started as a slalom paddler. How do you think that slalom shaped your thinking & style?

MH: In Britain at the time there was no other form of white water kayaking. Officially organized slaloms were the only time landowners would ever allow access to rivers. Everybody I knew who kayaked was a slalom paddler or ex slalom paddler. There were five divisions: Novice and fourth through to first Division and a paddler’s “status” was determined by the division they were in! If you were in Div 1 you instantly achieved cult hero status and got to race on Class 3!

So we practised the basics… I trained four or five days a week on gates. I still think that trying to do sweep strokes in a 4 metre kayak is the best boof training you can do and I’ve always thought of running rapids in terms of making moves. If I didn’t think I could make the move then I wouldn’t run the rapid.

I’ve seen people launch into the wild blue yonder on optimism and testosterone…not very calculating in the long run. They usually quit after ten or fifteen years because they have no basics to fall back on-no way to try and rehab their psyche after the last big swim. The downside of slalom was that I was sold on the idea of light boats. I raced in boats that weighed 20lbs …9 kilos. When the first plastic boats appeared in 1976 we didn’t jump at the chance of paddling them. They weighed forty pounds and felt incredibly clumsy. Every other sport I’ve been involved in: climbing, ski touring, ice climbing, windsurfing, even caving, the gear got lighter. I’m still waiting for the 25lb creek boat. Hope it happens before I get too old.

But a final word on slalom… I still think Donald Johnston is the best white water paddler I have ever seen and he came right through the ranks of slalom.

CM: In 1971 you joined a team of paddlers who completed the first descent of the Inn & Oetz Rivers in Switzerland & Austria. At the time these sections were seen as class VII. Did you realise that exploratory boating was going to be a major part of your life?

MH: No, not really. I was living in England, remember. Big water was something you did in the holidays in the Alps. Back home in Yorkshire I was a school teacher who spent most of the winter gate training in swimming pools, playing rugby and going climbing and caving in my spare time. The outdoors in Yorkshire were the 3 c’s…climbing, caving and canoeing, aka kayaking.

There wasn’t much tradition of canoeing but definitely a long tradition of caving and climbing. I was a grit stoner… still got the hand jam scars.

CM: In 1976 Mike Jones & yourself led a British Expedition to the Dudh Khosi in Nepal. What was involved in organizing an expedition of such size? (67 people in total)

MH: 18 months of very hard work and lots of talking based on the two or three good slides Mike and I had brought back from the Blue Nile in 1972. That trip helped identify us as “expedition paddlers” in the eclectic world of slalom paddlers. But it really got going when Mike got sponsored by a Birmingham Garage. He had taken the owner’s appendix out! So we got to drive around the UK in a Ford van labelled “The British Everest Canoe Expedition”. Did wonders for our street cred. This allowed us to persuade Leo Dickinson to film the whole thing and helped him to persuade HTV to pay for the film. Pyranha came on board and Harrishok and Ace helmets, (plug your sponsors!) and the rest, as they say, is history.

CM: You’ve completed several large-scale international expeditions. Is there a standout trip? (Blue Nile in Ethopia, Dudh Khosi/Karnali in Nepal, Braldu and Indus in Baltistan)

MH: The Blue Nile it has to be. For a full account of sorts you can read Chris Bonington’s tome “Quest for Adventure” or Dave Manby’s ”Many Rivers to Run.” But to sum it up you have to imagine the complete newness of it all…Central Africa, hideous history. All the previous expeditions had been attacked by the Shifta with various results…castration, shot to death, attacked by crocodiles or drowned crossing tributaries. The expedition after us had one guy shot to death in camp on the river bank. Ethiopia was teeming with guns. On the first day we were surrounded by hippos as they exploded out of the water all around us. For the rest of the trip, especially the Class 2 stuff to the Shafartak bridge, crocodiles were a constant and terrifying danger. And we paddled about 50+ miles of decent Class four and five white water. It was the monsoon season and I can still remember paddling out of Lake Tana and hearing the first rapids in the distance. They were very loud!

I think back on it and realize that slalom training apart we were incredibly lucky.

CM: During the 1980’s and 1990’s you developed your base in New Zealand and explored many of the West Coast runs and the ‘big water’ of Central Otago. Explain your feelings on the development of New Zealand as a paddling destination.

Mick HopkinsonMH: Concurrency! The rivers were always there. But the explosion of post World War 2 affluence was a pretty important factor in the whole business. When I first came to New Zealand in 1978 it was the far side of the universe. (Some of my English friends think it still is). Air fares are radically cheaper and now it’s socially acceptable to drop what you are doing, take time out and go kayaking. After Costa Rica and Chile, New Zealand became the “in” place to go. Graham’s first guide book did wonders to promote New Zealand as a paddling destination.

But it leaves me in something of a dichotomy really. I run a business based on selling NZ as a kayak destination and our instructors can make a decent living working here and in the USA. We need visitors to keep Dando and Jamie Scott in the air so we can fly at our convenience. But at the same time there is still a bit of Bruce Barnes in me that regrets that we have lost the day when you knew every paddler on the West Coast and there was still an air of pre guide-book mystery about every trip. The price of “progress.”

CM: Sections like ‘Sargood’s Weir’, ‘Nevis Bluff’ & the ‘Cromwell Gap’ were seen to be some of the staunchest water in NZ. What are your memories of these rapids in their early days?

MH:Nevis Bluff still is isn’t it? At least Team Red Bull seem to think so. The Cromwell Gap was the upper end aspiration of the average Class 3 boater and I never thought much about it except it was pretty near the Cromwell pub when you took out. Sargood’s was one of my all time favourite rapids, see below! It was big and powerful and ever changing in subtle little ways. I first ran it solo in 1981 in a fibreglass slalom boat! There was a crowd of five watching…Gill Wratt, my then girlfriend, and the owners of the gold diggings on river right over the footbridge. They invited us in for a cup of tea after the first descent! Ah! A bit of a change from England:- “Oi what are doing here. You’re trespassing”. I ran it eighteen times before it was drowned.

The big event was Chris Moody’s attempt at Nevis in 1981. He was an 18 year old slalom paddler from Nelson of all places. He had the skill and the nerve but not the gear. His fibreglass Olymp fell apart after the first couple of drops, ‘The Crux’, and he went on to prove you could survive the swim. Ironically one of the other guys in his team who watched him make the run was Bill Thompson, another young slalom paddler who must have been inspired. He ran Nevis twenty years later in an FJ2 at what are still record flows, 700 cumecs. Mind boggling!

I remember Nevis being a shrine of sorts. Every time we drove past we would stop and worship, check the lines and find a pathetic excuse not to launch. I finally ran it after I’d come back from running the Indus. It was just as big and daunting but I’d come back from the expedition with a Macpac dry suit to bolster my courage.

CM: With the building of the Clyde Dam the kayaking community lost ‘Sargood’s Weir’ & the ‘Cromwell Gap.’ How did you feel about the loss of these sections?

MH: These would be hard to explain in a few words. I guess I can only sum this up with the New Zealand colloquialism “Gutted” in the most extreme sense of the word. Sargoods Weir still rates after 41 years kayaking as one of the biggest and best rapids I have ever experienced. The only rapids that I have run that are vaguely similar are “The Kettle” on the Clearwater River in British Columbia and several no name rapids on the Indus river in Northern Pakistan. I have run Lava Falls on the Colorado River, probably the most famous rapid in the world, three times. I don’t think it is even in the same league as Sargoods Weir in terms of size, gradient and sheer power. Sargoods Weir was genuinely awesome and a truly world class rapid. I can still remember the absolute frustration of trying to explain this to an engineer who was working on the Clutha dam.

I still feel extremely bitter that such a major feature of one of New Zealand’s greatest rivers was given absolutely no consideration or value in the lead-up to its destruction. It is obviously hard to argue a case for a recreational activity or a major geographical feature in the context of a building project that was part of the National Party’s “Think Big Scheme” and was targeted as being for the future good of the Nation. Kayakers would be considered selfish in demanding that Sargoods Weir be saved for their personal pleasure. But the actual value of the Cromwell Gap, Bannockburn Raid and Sargoods Weir were never part of the equation. They were considered valueless. Now 12 years after the formation of Lake Dunstan I still grind my teeth every time I hear somebody raving about Lava Falls. I feel like telling them that New Zealand had a rapid much better than that and we drowned it!

Consequently I have rarely been back to Central Otago to kayak. The traditional three day weekend of the Shotover, Cromwell Gap, Dogleg and Roaring Meg leading to running Bannockburn, Citroen and Sargoods Weir is no longer worth the drive from Christchurch or Murchison.

CM: How do you feel expedition boating has changed over the last 20 years, with the advancement in equipment and logistical info? (Boats, safety, communications, Google Earth).

MH: It is more or less accessible to everyone. Twenty years ago we had more information on the Karnali river than the engineer who was building the dam on the lower river. Peter Knowles had inveigled himself into the British War office and copied all the spot heights onto the Nepali Tourist map. We knew where the two big Class 5 gorges were before we went. But not everyone could talk their way into the War office. Today there is much more information available but politically more difficult as it is harder to find roadless rivers that are available as first descents.

The gear is better. I got my first dry top on the Karnali expedition in 1987. It was OK in that it had neck and wrist seals but no waist seal. I’d been paddling for 26 years in woolly jerseys and nylon paddle jackets by then. But to be honest I can’t remember not running anything on the Karnali because of the gear. At the time it was the best I’d ever had!

Tibet has opened up big time and you can do package tour expeditions there already. India seems to have endless opportunities. The Stan’s if you don’t have an American passport and blue eyes and blond hair. It seems best to look like Mikey Abbot; you know the terrorist racial profile that he excels in. Doesn’t work too well when tries to get into the US.

And it seems modern attitudes to communications are the same now as they were then. I hated the whole business and after taking radios on the Blue Nile I vowed never to take them again. You can’t eat them! Modern expeditions seem beset by the need to make sure their website is updated every lunch time. To be fair I did take a vicarious pleasure in following Zak Shaw down the Parlung Tsangpo. But even more I enjoyed Eden’s comments after the trip that they could have paddled twice as much if the video camera wasn’t there. I hate the intrusion of the camera into the continuity of the paddling day. “Can you just wait a minute while we load, reposition, repair the camera” whilst your pulse is going off the scale and you are pissing all the adrenalin away……………

CM: The NZ Kayak School is now your focus during our NZ summer, and through this you’ve taught many NZ & Australian paddlers the basics of river running. Where do you see the development of kayaking as a sport heading?

MH: We have had the rise and fall of Rodeo as a participant sport. I think only EJ and his kids still compete any more and his wife is the spectator. Slalom is making something of a comeback which is great for

would-be expeditionaries. The two most significant events in our sport went unnoticed by most paddlers. A couple of years ago radical, outrageous, Riot kayaks started making a sea kayak and this year Jackson kayaks started a rec division making big open cockpit touring kayaks for Americans to blow out to sea in. So the general public might be getting into sea kayaking and C-to-C kayaking but it seems that the hard core numbers of white water boaters might not change enormously. A lot of people give it fifteen or twenty years then fall by the wayside. No commitment!

CM: Any advice for aspiring expedition boaters out there?

MH: To use the NZKS axiom…”Slalom is what you do before the big drops and Rodeo is what you do when you screwed it up.” Practice your slalom and rodeo skills. Spend a season or two getting beaten up on the coast. Mahinapua hangovers give you some semblance of paddling with altitude headaches. Get some stamina and waterfall training in sunny California where you only have to worry about kayaking and not Delhi Belly. Then try and steal Mikey’s laptop sometime and see where he Google Earthed last!

CM: Thanks Mick.

This interview was originally published in CUMEC Magazine Issue #3, October 2007

Images courtesy of Ben Jackson