By Swaati Langeh and Dielle DSouza
Starting out as a child, Beth Morgan took to kayaking like a fish to water. From a holiday hobby, paddling turned into a career. Ever since her first visit to India, Beth has been hooked onto the wild, tumbling rapids of India’s great rivers, from the Iruvanzhi in the south to the Zanskar in the north, and across the sub-continent.
In 2015, she stole the show at the Malabar River Festival, winning the Rapid Rani crown and then defending it the following year. Earlier this year, she finished first in the women’s expert at the North West Creeking Competition on the East Fork Lewis River in Washington, and third on the Canyon Creek Race nearby.
Currently working as a raft guide in Quebec, Canada, Beth is training to compete in races around the country, already topping the podium at the Neilson Race, Rouge Challenge and Hollywood Head 2 Head. She’ll soon storm the waters at the Montreal Eau Vive and Seven Sisters Slalom over the next few months.
She chats with BigRush about life in a kayak and the scene in India
How did you get into kayaking?
When I was a child, my father would often go kayaking and my uncle used to be a coach. I learned during our family vacations to France when I was about 12. Back then it was just a holiday thing. I joined the canoeing club at university and it took over my life. I did it all the time. All of my holidays turned into kayaking.
When did you know you were really hooked?
In the second year of university, I really immersed myself in the club. I was canoeing every weekend. When I graduated, I went travelling and had planned on doing a bit of kayaking and a bit of touristy stuff. But I ended up going kayaking the whole time. This is, maybe, when it turned into an obsession.
What has India been in this journey for you?
It’s my third time in India. Earlier I came for the Malabar River Festival in 2015, and then I went to Meghalaya in October of that year. I recently quit the job I had for the past three years and am just travelling and kayaking.
And how does that work, living that life?
It’s pretty amazing. I think it was a lot more natural to slip into the life than I thought it would be. I thought it would be a bit more of a challenge to go from working five days a week every week to coming out here.
I always feel really at home in Asia. I’ve travelled a lot here; I’ve been to Nepal, Indonesia. I really love it and it feels right. Coming to India first has really helped with going into that lifestyle. It’s somewhere that I’ve been, it’s somewhere that I love and I feel very comfortable.
Tell us what you’ve been up to in the world of kayaking lately.
After my six month trip in India and Nepal last year, I returned to the UK for a couple of months to see friends and family. Then I headed to California and Washington for three weeks for the North West Creeking Competition and the East Fork Lewis Race.
At the end of April, I headed to Canada and did my raft guide training in Quebec. I’m now working as a raft guide for the summer and learning French as well! I’ve been doing a lot of kayaking as well and will be racing in competitions too.
When I get time off from rafting, I’m hoping to explore some more rivers in the area, particularly up around Quebec city and Saguenay. The Tareau, Valin and Mistassibi are top of my list!
Then when the season ends in October, I am thinking of going to the Green Race before heading to South America for the winter.
So, competitive racing or going down the river?
Going down river. I’ve done a bit of competitive racing but I’m trying to get into it more. In the last six months, I’ve been trying to get into slalom to improve my race head. I put a lot of pressure on myself but I don’t do a lot of racing so I don’t really know how to. I felt a lot more relaxed this year, which was nice. It’s definitely something I want to do more of but if I had to choose, I’d just do it for fun.
It’s interesting to learn from that process. It seems to add cataclysm to your game, on paddling in general…
I think it’s a very different way of paddling because you’re on your own and you’re totally focused on just racing. It’s a very interesting way of paddling because I find it hard to just focus on kayaking and not think about everything else – not worry about other people on the river or about myself when I’m on the river.
So I guess paddling as a child was really useful to give you this direction in life. Where around the world and in India have you gone kayaking?
I’ve paddled in a lot of places – around Europe, Nepal, India, Indonesia. In India, I’ve paddled in Meghalaya. The rivers are a lot bigger there, and in Kerala they are smaller and you need the rain.
In Meghalaya in the monsoons, the rivers are quite scary so you need to wait for the rains to stop so the water drops. They are a bit more consistent.
It’s good to have a variety and I’ve just been to Ladakh where the rivers have larger volume, the kind I’ve not done much of before so that’s quite exciting. Zanskar is really nice.
It’s an entirely different country in every place. What does it feel like to you? Is there anything that connects the people? Or are they just different people?
They’re different people but everyone is really friendly and welcoming. They are really excited to see you. Ladakh is quite touristy.
It’s a bit different in Kerala and they’re not quite used to seeing westerners. It’s not touristy every season. Being a kayaker is not what they see every time. So they’re still quite excited. You feel like a celebrity, which is a little bit weird.
Tell us how India’s events compare to the others you have competed in.
I think Malabar River Festival is quite unique compared to other ones I’ve done in the sense that it’s got different categories. It’s got slalom, boatercross and downriver. That’s fun, exciting and good because it means that the winner is more of an all-rounder rather than just one particular event.
The atmosphere here is just incredible. I’ve never been to a competition where you get so many locals who don’t really know anything about kayaking coming out and supporting you on the sides, watching and cheering you. That’s really exciting and that makes this festival quite unique.
What would be your impression of the kayaking scene in India so far?
It’s really great. There are a lot of local kayakers which is quite exciting. I really like the fact that they are trying to train more people in Kerala. Before I came down here, I was kayaking in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. It’s all quite different.
Logistics is incredibly easy in India. That’s one of the best things, especially in Uttarakhand. You just chuck your boats on a local bus and go up to the river. I’ve also kayaked in Meghalaya and I’m doing a bit of a tour.
Did you have any trouble bringing your equipment into the country?
No, but it is getting harder to fly with kayaks. The airlines have changed their policies so you can no longer fly kayaks with them. Much as I managed to get mine in with no problems, I think other people are going to struggle which is a bit of a shame.
But a lot of people are coming out here and selling boats so I think the equipment allowance in India is getting better; there are more kayaks available which is good.
What kayak do you own?
I’ve got the Pyranha 9R as my main boat. In California, I paddled the new Pyranha boat which is called the Machno. It’s super fun and a bit more forgiving than the 9R, so I may well end up using that for harder rivers and expeditions but the 9R is best for races.
Which spots in the Indian sub-continent would you pick for excellent ‘undiscovered’ kayaking?
In terms of unexplored areas of India, I think anywhere with mountains is likely to have unexplored rivers. Areas such as Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Ladakh have been explored more already, but the more southern states and the north-eastern states definitely have a lot of rivers to explore!
Kerala certainly is still very new for kayaking and there’s a lot more to do. Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have been explored a bit but particularly around the monsoon, there will be more to do and the other north-eastern states must have potential as well.