UNFILTERED – Mick Hopkinson

Unfiltered – Mick Hopkinson
Expedition Kayaker

Before the names Scott Lindgren or Ben Stookesberry became synonymous with expedition kayaking, there was Mick Hopkinson. The 62-year-old native of Yorkshire, England practically invented the genre with the late Mike Jones and four others who completed the first descent of Nepal’s Dudh Kosi in 1976 without the help of air travel, drysuits or plastic boats. The BBC documentary they made, Canoeing Down Everest, remains the most-viewed paddling film in history, but is just one episode in Hopkinson’s remarkable life. His 12-year-old son, Liam, has heard a novel’s worth of bedtime stories, from crocodile attacks on the Nile to driving 15,000 miles from England to Nepal and back again. Be certain that many of the elder Hopkinson’s tales aren’t suitable nursery rhymes. Brash and unapologetic, the Whitewater Hall of Famer remains one of the world’s foremost experts on kayaking instruction and exploration. – Joe Carberry

I started paddling in a canvas canoe at scout camp on the river Shannon in Ireland at 11 or 12. We were making things called TBK 22s. It was a homemade rip-off of the boats that the Royal Marines used in World War II to sink German ships.

In Britain, there’s no riparian right. If you own the land you own the water. If I were to paddle through a little village in the north of Yorkshire, I’d have to ask 300 people for permission. Then you’re straight into the British class system. It forced us to do a lot of trespassing. People have had their tires let down and fisherman throw stones at kayakers off bridges. Guys have been put in the hospital.

I went overseas with the British Junior Slalom Team. We’d train in the morning and look for something to do in the afternoon, which is how we all ended up being the first to run the Inn [one of the Alps’ landmark Class V runs]. I ran the biggest rapid on the river in Landeck [Austria] in 1971 and nearly got banned from the British Canoe Union.

In 1972 Mike Jones and myself went off on the Blue Nile expedition, which was way harder than anything we’d ever done. It didn’t get as much fame because we only had a bunch of poor-quality slides of the whole thing. It has a messy history. A Swiss expedition in ‘63 had two people shot, and the first descent in 1905, an American team with steel boats, were all captured and castrated.

It’s pretty full-on 1972 Class V, and at one point we were shot at. You sat there in a kayak in the Grand Canyon—that’s the scale of the thing-–with rifle bullets splashing around you and all you have is a pistol.

We spent a year putting the Dudh Kosi trip together. We spent three weeks training in Austria and then we drove there, 7,526 miles. We got a free van and free kayaks and we were driving through Afghanistan, Iran, and it was dirt-cheap. Then we walked for three weeks and went kayaking. It’s Monty Python, isn’t it!

When Mike Jones swam on Pakistan’s Braldu Gorge, he was chasing Roger Huyton, who swam first. Roger was wearing a wetsuit, Mike wasn’t. And Mike had a helmet camera on that weighed him down. It’s 102 degrees, and you get down to the river and you make the classic decision: Do you dress for the water, do you dress for the air?

Mike ended up chasing Roger around the corner into the Class VI. I was running down the right bank. There were no trees—it’s high-altitude desert—and I found Roger on his knees in an eddy. So I drag him out and run on down the river. We never found Mike.

It’s not a mountaineering trip. You kayak for fun. Mountaineering is all intellectual, spiritual, commercial—stuff where three people die and, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be a great book. Let’s keep going.’ Kayaking expeditions aren’t like that. We felt a massive responsibility to go home and tell Mike’s parents.

I tripped into the New Zealand heli-creeking scene by accident in 1983, after I’d moved there. A friend of mine would fly across from Tekapo and do this transect of rain gauges down the Whitcombe and the Whataroa. He’d give us a ring and we’d go stand at the bottom of the river. The empty helicopter would arrive and pick us up on its way back over the main divide. We’d get dropped off at the top of the Whitcombe.

My wife Pam and I came up with a massive compromise. She didn’t want to leave Jackson Hole. We decided to spend summers in both places and we’ve been doing it ever since. Commuting backwards and forwards.

The first year I was bitter and twisted about the Hall of Fame. They put me up against Rob Lesser. He drove two days to Canada, camped next to the river, had a cup of coffee and got on and paddled for two days and made it into the Hall of Fame. After being cynical about it though, [being enshrined in 2008] gives me some street cred when talking to the New Zealand government about damming a river. It might not stop them, but at least they’ll know it’s world class.

Every time I read that somebody’s off to do the ‘Everest of Rivers,’ I go, ‘Nah, we did that in 1976, go find your own bloody river.’

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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