Adventurers of the Year 2007

Trip Jennings: Whitewater Visionary

Google Earth may have shrunk the globe to the size of a computer monitor, but that doesn't mean there are no undiscovered spots left on the planet. Trip Jennings, 25, is determined to find them. This September, Jennings, along with a team of kayakers and scientists, set out for New Britain Island, a 370-mile-long (595-kilometer-long) slab of karst limestone off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Ostensibly they'd arrived to develop a sustainable tourism program to protect jungles that, as Jennings says, "have never been explored by people, or chain saws, or anything like that." But the former pro kayaker had more than one agenda: New Britain is whitewater's perfect storm, lousy with impossibly rugged relief and raging torrents. Yet, says Jennings, "No one had ever kayaked there." 

The most enticing of the possibilities was the Pandi River. On maps it seemed to appear out of nowhere, welling inexplicably from the ground with no tributaries or side canyons. And indeed, when Jennings and his team arrived, after days of hacking through nearly impenetrable jungle, they found the river pouring straight from a yawning cave into a gorge. Then, says Jennings, "it drops off the face of the Earth."

He and his team dropped with it. For two days they churned through Class V waters with no idea what lay around the next bend. "You're in a gorge that you can't scout and you can't portage," Jennings says. "You just have to commit." Vines from the forest canopy snaked down a hundred feet through the air to touch the surface of the river. At one point the team was confronted with a 55-foot (17-meter) waterfall. The road was days away, and a hospital much farther. Still, Jennings says, "To take that paddle stroke out of the eddy and over the falls—it was freedom."

The entire run on the Pandi was four days and 40 miles (64 kilometers), and in that span they saw only one other person, a member of the Kol tribe standing on a hand-strung bridge. As the man's jaw dropped like he'd seen ghosts, Jennings realized that "no one, not Westerners or locals, had been down the Pandi. It was amazing to be the first person to see it."