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Most whitewater trips fall into the float-and-bloat category. You start with a bunch of friends and a few cases of beer, and you end up with a collective case of sunburn. The Whitewater World Championships are different. You get a bunch of river rats and a few cases of high-and low-tech rafting gear, and not infrequently you end up with a collective case of bruised male egos.
Arlene Burns is largely responsible for the bruises. She's captain of the U.S. women's Whitewater team, known in rafting circles as the Amazonkis. To the chagrin of 40 all-men crews, Burns and the five other women on her squad placed second overall in the last two competitions. Sluicing down the Nantahala River in North Carolina and the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica, the Amazonkis won four gold and three silver medals in events ranging from orienteering to two-person catamaran. They intend to float home another raft of medals at next month's 11-day tournament on Turkey's treacherous Coruh River. "For a long time the guys refused to take us seriously," says Burns. "It just shows that in a man's world a woman has to be twice as good to be considered half as good."
The six Amazonkis are a collection of thirtysomething hydrologists, river guides, photographers and free-lance adventurers. Their paddling is so rhythmic, you would never suspect that they never train together. "The trick is not to take deep, lunging strokes," Burns says, "but quick, short, calibrated ones." She thinks the greatest weakness of her male counterparts is their strength, "instead of lighting the rapid, they should try to find a natural course," she says. "Within the chaos of the river, finesse is as important as power."
Burns is as serene and unflappable as a Himalayan climber, maybe because in her adopted hometown of Katmandu, she is one. But, she says, "I prefer paddling to climbing. Water tends to be softer than rocks." Burns ought to know. She has had more near-death experiences than Evel Knievel. She was pinioned under the crown of a fallen tree during her maiden kayak trip, in 1974; slid headfirst 900 feet down a glacier in Alaska in 1981; and broke both ankles on a kayak jaunt on the north fork of the Payette River in Idaho in 1987.
Burns combines the earnest ecological consciousness of the early '70s with a more contemporary, slightly sarcastic sensibility. "I travel the world like a whale spans the oceans," she says, "pulled by some subtle rhythm in nature." The tugging began in 1981, when she graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in geology. She bought a one-way ticket to New Zealand, and she has been in perpetual motion ever since, wandering by foot and fishing boat, balloon and bungee, yak and kayak.
It was in a kayak that Burns pioneered such formidable Whitewater rivers as the Rangitata in New Zealand, the Modi Khola in Nepal, and the Brahmaputra in Tibet. "Those journeys taught me to transform obstacles into adventures, and always to be open to constant change—the only constant," she says. "All you can do is try to ride the wave with grace, to maintain a balance in motion."
Maintaining a balance is also the aim of Project RAFT (Russians and Americans for Teamwork), the California-based nonprofit outfit that organizes the world championships. At Project RAFT's first meet, in 1989, 300 competitors from 17 countries bivouacked together on the Chuya River in the Altai Mountains of south-central Siberia. The Amazonkis, who finished 11th in a field of 36, were the only women's team:
A year later, on the Nantahala, the Amazonkis led for the first five days of the 1990 worlds and might have won the title had they not placed 13th in the triathlon, in which one team member rides a bike, another takes a run and the four others raft down a three-to four-mile course. "The Siberian men were really embarrassed by our success," Burns says. "The thought of their getting creamed by a bunch of little girls was too much."
In the end the Siberians found a way to save face. "Their alibi was simple," says Burns, grinning. "They told their wives we had bribed the judges."