The lonely crusade of Croatia's riverman

Zeljko Kelemen is determined to create a river-rafting industry in Croatia -- for the good of his country and his countrymen.


Jon Bowermaster
September 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

A light blanket of new snow covers the fields south of
Karlovac. This Croatian valley of travertine barrens, nestled between the
Mala Kapela and Licka Pljesivica mountains, was a front line during the
five-year civil war that rent this corner of the former Yugoslavia. Today,
more than three years after that war ended, every neat, two-story house we can see from
the road is pocked by hundreds of bullet holes. Most are abandoned forever;
the rest are slowly being repaired, missile holes and burned-out roofs
patched with new cement and shiny red bricks.

Zeljko Kelemen is at the wheel of the burgundy van. A big man with
the body of an aging athlete, his sad eyes slope across a square face. He
pulls over and we climb out to look down onto the Karona River, near the town of Slunj. Serb rebels had dynamited tremendous cliffside rocks into the
river in an effort to destroy a Croat's mill. Amid the detritus of the
dynamiting, Zeljko points out a wire hanging across the river, a reminder of
pre-war whitewater slalom kayak races.

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"When I think of these wars, I am very sad, very angry," he says as we walk
along the river on a cold morning. "I never had any prejudice against anyone.
Neither did most of my friends. Like most of the rest of the world, we watch
these wars only on television ... and are just as confused by them as you
are." Employed for the past 11 years by Croatia's largest tour agency, Kelemen is a
trained pilot; he had volunteered to fight during the war, but was never called. Instead he spent the war years exploring in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and other Eastern European countries, looking for runnable rivers.

In 1989, two years before war broke out, Kelemen founded the Riverfree Club
in Zagreb. Its mission was -- and is -- to preserve rivers in their free-flowing condition
by proving their commercial value as tourist and recreation resources.
Post-war, he is an intriguing mix -- part promoter, part conservationist, with
the soul of an entrepreneur trapped in the body of a former Communist-state
citizen. An English major during his school days, Kelemen is today a
worldly 47-year-old. During our three days touring Croatia, he amazes me
with such capitalist witticisms as "advertising without marketing is
like winking at a girl in the dark."

Surveying the country from above the Korona River, Kelemen is moved to relate war memories. When fighting first broke out, he says, he had tour groups returning from river trips whose routes were blocked by skirmishes between
Croat regulars and Serbia rebels. During the war he loaned rafts to the
Croatian army. Because the bridges had been destroyed
by rebel bombs, the rubber boats were used by soldiers to cross the Korona
into Serb-occupied territory and then ferry the wounded back. "I never saw
those rafts again," he murmurs.

Kelemen's most dangerous river trip, he recalls, had little to do with rapids or
undercurrents. In June of last year he and friends made a first descent of the Una River,
tracing the Bosnia/Croatia border. "We knew the roads, bridges and railroad
were damaged or destroyed and that some land by the river was not yet cleared
of land mines," he says. Reaching the river was easy, they just followed the local
fishermen's trail. But what they didn't expect was to have to portage around a
20-meter waterfall -- through a field laced with mines.

"The mines were marked, but grass had grown up over the markers," he
says. "Nobody said a word as we tiptoed through the grass, rafts balanced on
our heads." This trip got the attention of the local media and soon
afterwards Bosnia army units cleared the remaining mines and rebuilt the
road. In August the first Una Regatta was held, with 300 participants.
And thanks to Kelemen's efforts to publicize the river, discussions of damming the
Una have been taken off the agenda of Bosnia's electric company.

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The day before our Korona trip, we sat in a Zagreb restaurant near Croatia's
Parliament. During the war, bombs had landed just 100 meters away, hitting the
presidential palace. Polka music played over loudspeakers in the background
as we talked.

Neither environmental activism nor river-running are common pastimes
in the Balkans. Kelemen knows he's a bit of an odd fit, but he's used to that.
As a teenager he chose a high school that specialized in languages "because
I was better at English than math" -- and because it was near an outdoor hockey
rink. When it came to university, he started out studying English, then, with
the encouragement of teachers, switched to aeronautics school; "mostly they
trained people to work at airports," he recalls. Pilot courses followed. Still, all he
really wanted to do was paddle. (Fittingly, he never considered following in the footsteps of his father, who worked for a company that made parts for dams.)

Brought to his first canoe club by his older cousin when he was just
6 years old, Kelemen began competing in canoe and kayak races at 15, on the Sava
River, which flows through Zagreb. "For 10, 15 years that club was my second
home. Every day I would spend the whole afternoon at the club, then go into
town with my friends. Our passion was competition. But if there was a good
disco nearby, I would do very badly in the race because I would have stayed
in the disco all the night. We weren't getting any money for it; we just did
it for fun. We built our own fiberglass boats, made our own spray skirts and
paddle jackets. It was more recreation than sport."

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After a mandatory year in the army, Kelemen needed only 50 more hours to
obtain his commercial pilot's license. But it was winter and the flight
school was closed due to bad weather. To earn his beer money, he took a job at
a travel agency. "I liked it and forgot about the flying," he explains.

Since then he's worked in tourism, though never giving up his love of paddling.
At one point he took a job with a hotel in Karlovac so that he could be near
the confluence of four rivers and paddle every day. Sheepishly, he admits his
passion for rivers cost him his first wife and occasionally makes it hard on
his second. He lives with her and a second daughter in his mother's Zagreb
house. The small yard, garage and even its rooftop balcony are filled with
canoes, kayaks and the detritus of a commercial rafting business. For the
past decade he's run the "adventure" desk for Atlas Tours -- Croatia's
largest travel agency -- focusing on canoe and rafting trips across the
former Yugoslavia.

"I was lucky," he says, sipping a Coke. "The same cousin that
introduced me to canoeing and to adventure also introduced me to Huckleberry
Finn and Robinson Crusoe. Those things changed me forever."

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Plitvice Lakes National Park -- Croatia's largest, at 50,000 acres -- was
established 50 years ago, on April 8, 1949. On a cold, clear day Kelemen
and I hike among its frozen lakes and waterfalls. He has been trying for
years to convince the park's managers to let him run canoe trips on the upper
lakes, so far without success.

It's a big job he's taken on. At every turn he finds himself talking until
he's blue in the face, trying to explain how protecting rivers really is
good both for the environment and for tourism. He delivers his mantra to
politicians, government ministers, electric company managers and the man on
the street. Every day is a new challenge: "One of biggest educations we must
make is for people not to use the river only for washing their cars or
changing their oil, which is quite popular." Even the river guides he himself
trained sometimes need reminders that dynamiting rocks out of the way or
cutting down low-hanging trees may be expedient but not environmentally sound.

Though his message is slowly being heard, he gets little help,
especially from the government, which would prefer he not even use the
English word "raft" in his promotions. "They would prefer I use the Croatian
'splavarenje,' from 'splav,' for wooden raft or log raft -- which no one
understands, and makes my message even harder to get across."

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Kelemen's biggest fight at the moment is trying to prevent a second dam on
the Dobra River, 60 miles outside of Zagreb. He first ran commercial trips on
the Dobra in 1989, with great success. Using information generously passed
on by electric company workers, he coordinated the day trip with water releases
from the existing dam. Now, thanks to his high-profile campaign against new
dams in Croatia, those once-friendly electric company employees are forbidden
from giving him any information. This makes it difficult to schedule trips
on the Dobra.

"Now that tourists are slowly coming back to Croatia, it would be
great to get back on the Dobra. Before the war we'd made contracts with
people who live near the top of the river to help them develop camps, to
build rooms, to expand their farmhouses to accept tourists, all with support
of the National Tourism Board. Which means there are more and more people
against the industrial use of the river."

But his opponent, the national electric company -- HEP -- is a powerful monopoly. "How powerful? This congress gave them a concession to use rivers to make and sell electricity. They are supposed to pay 1 percent of the money they make selling energy to the state. Out of arrogance, they never signed the contract and refuse to pay the 1 percent. But no one can
tell them to stop producing electricity, because then we have no electricity.

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"There are 16,000 people working for HEP and I'm not fighting all of
them, just a few top management who don't care," says Kelemen. "These managers
make like $9,000 a month; the average salary in Croatia is $400 a month. They
can't possibly understand how a raft guide who makes $40 a day feels about
protecting the river."

The Dobra's 12-mile raftable stretch is close to Zagreb and its
citizen and tourist base. Ironically, Kelemen and his then-novice guides
perfected the run during the war years. "There were thousands of United
Nations troops stationed in Zagreb, with nothing to do," he says. "There
was a U.S. MASH hospital at the airport, with hundreds of doctors and nurses
just waiting in case they were needed. Most of the injuries they treated were
from basketball. A Finnish construction battalion spent its time
building a bridge and a sauna for themselves. Canadian and French soldiers
were stationed near the airport. They were all looking for some recreation on
their time off. I offered them rafting trips.

"They were all young people, trained and fit," says Kelemen, and he
used them as guinea pigs as his guides learned the river. "It was easy to
bring them to the river with beginner guides because if the boat flipped, they
were happy. We put in just below the dam's power plant. When they released
water we had 50 cubic feet per second for the first two, three miles. There's
one big hole that can flip boats easily, and lots of big waves. It was the
biggest thrill most of them had during their service here.

"We did those trips in May and June of 1993. Then rockets attacked
Karlovac and we could hear bombs falling around Zagreb. After that they were
not allowed to leave their stations, so it was a short season."

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Still, those trips generated local media interest. The following
year, hordes of locals sought out Kelemen to organize more rafting trips.
"People had heard about rafting, seen it on television in places like the
Grand Canyon, and now it was here in their country. I figured I should
concentrate on them, because the more local people I brought to the river,
the more people there would be against building new dams."

With Atlas' help he bought five Avon rafts and organized a race on
the Dobra, garnering even more attention. ("It was beautiful weather, with
sponsors providing beer, Coke. We all got suntans; it was great.") Now
all of Zagreb wanted to go rafting.

Despite initial skepticism from his bosses, in the waning years of
the war, canoe and rafting trips became a boomlet for Atlas, selling out weeks
in advance to tourists from Germany, Italy and Scandinavia.

"The hardest part was that 99 percent of the people had never been in
a canoe before," remembers Kelemen, "and it was very difficult for them just
to go straight."

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In the last three years, he and Atlas have expanded to several rivers
near the Dalmatian coastline, where thousands of tourists flock to the
beaches every summer. But Kelemen's favorite rivers are inland, particularly
the Una and Mreznica, each featuring dozens of beautiful waterfalls and
difficult rapids. He knows that, thanks to the destruction in Kosovo,
not many foreigners will make the Balkan peninsula a vacation destination in 2000.
But his campaign to keep the rivers free of dams continues.

"The only problem is that now I'm wasting 90 percent of my time on things I shouldn't. Now I spend a half-hour each day organizing trips and five hours writing letters to
ministers.

"Just today," he says, "I sent a letter to the Minister of Environment. I need his help if I'm to do canoe trips in the national parks.
I sent him statistics that I picked up in Denver last summer that show the
incredible economic impact rafting has on that state. How many people it
employs, that kind of thing. River-rafting in Colorado generates $100 million
a year, which a country like ours -- in big economic trouble, where
unemployment is a big problem -- needs to seriously think about.

"What reaction will I get? Probably nothing. But I have to keep trying."

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Asphalt turns to gravel, then mud and snow, as we wind downhill
towards the Mreznica River and the home of Kelemen's friend
Milka Smokjanovic. The two -- Croat and
Serb -- met a dozen years ago when Kelemen canoed upriver during an exploratory
trip and stopped to visit Smokjanovic's small mill. "I told her right away that we
could start tourism on the river and that she could make money renting out
her beautiful meadow to rafters and canoeists," laughs Kelemen. "She thought I
was out of my mind.

"But after one season she became a believer. Thanks to money she made
renting her field and selling cheese and bread and meals to rafters, she was
able to buy a little color TV, a small car for her son. She became one of the
richest women in the area. The meadow was so nice, people didn't want to
leave."

Their small enterprise was halted after just two seasons, due
first to invading Serb rebels and the Yugoslav army, then to the Croat
army, as it reclaimed the area.

During the height of the fighting, Smokjanovic moved,
against her desires, to Serbia. When she returned, she found her home
destroyed; in the past year, she has rebuilt the roof and interior walls and
her mill is operating again. People come from 20 miles away to grind flour
for bread and for animal feed. But things are a long way from back to normal. The
bridge at the end of her road was destroyed; virtually all of her neighbors,
their homes destroyed, will never return. To use a phone she must hitchhike
into town, past burned-out homes, schools and shops.

Widowed, with two grown children, Smokjanovic is in her 50s. She wears
multicolored moon boots, thin navy-blue pants and a black wool vest over a
thick navy blue sweater and a small orange scarf around her neck. Thin
salt-and-pepper hair is pulled into a short ponytail. She is excited to have
company, and greets us on the road below her stone house with a firm handshake
and three kisses each.

We tour her mill, then watch the sun set over the
green-blue river that drops through a small rapids directly in front of her
house; beyond, the water bends into a small eddy in front of her meadow.

Through Kelemen, Smokjanovic has become an ardent
believer in ecotourism. On the wall of her simple kitchen is the 1999
Atlas Adventures calendar, next to pictures of her son and daughter. Thanks
to that daughter, now living in Italy, she has a few pieces of furniture.
Rebels knocked down electric lines, so she heats her home with wood; a propane canister
sits in one corner for a hot plate. Batteries power a small radio; candles
are her only lighting.

Rubbing cold hands before the wood stove, we talk as she prepares a
festive dinner of freshly slaughtered pork shank, raw onions, fresh
bread and homemade cheese. She offers an aperitif of homemade plum brandy.
In the candlelight she searches for and finds a simple silver tray. Placing
two glasses on it and a big bottle of beer, she invites us to sit.

They reminisce about the summers she played host to passing groups
of rafters. "She's a great cook," says Kelemen. "We'd have fresh, hot bread
every morning. Fantastic thick bean soup with macaroni and sausages for
dinner. For big parties she would grill a lamb or a pig. They were some
legendary parties. When we camped here, nobody wanted to go to sleep.

"And she loved it. She made many friends, from many different
countries. It was a great example of ecotourism at work, because it didn't
change her, or her place. She earned some money to buy a small tractor, some
better clothes and some furniture. I made a contract with her to use her
meadow and paid her three years in advance. That way she could build some
toilets and improve the road. It worked well, until the war."

In 1991 all travel through the region ended, except for tanks and
military transports. "We had good bookings, but it was clear the country was
not going to be safe anymore," says Kelemen. Electric lines were cut, garbage
was thrown into the river. During the first two years of fighting, Smokjanovic refused to leave.

Eventually word of her business and cooking skills leaked,
specifically to a camp of U.N. troops, mostly Czechs and
Poles, stationed nearby. "They discovered this beautiful place by the river, and that she was a good cook, always willing to sell them some wine or beer," explains Kelemen.
"When one of the officers had a birthday they would come to her and ask, 'Can
you make us a special meal, some drinks?'" In order to make "reservations,"
the soldiers gave her a military field telephone.

Jealous, Serbian neighbors accused her of being a spy. The phone was
taken away. Then a land mine was thrown onto her roof, one of several efforts to
scare her away from her land. There was an obvious profit motive at work as well: Her neighbors, a mix of Serbs and Croats, were savvy enough to understand that whoever occupied her land after the war could eventually go back to collecting rents from passing rafters.

Now that she's back home, and back in business, Smokjanovic and Kelemen are
anxious for the next rafting season to begin. They make plans to meet again soon
to talk about schedules. "I am ready," she announces emphatically.

After dinner, the night sky filled with stars, she bids us goodbye on
the icy road with kisses on each cheek. As Kelemen and I cross over the
just-rebuilt bridge he is silent, thinking about Smokjanovic and what lies ahead
for them both. Unprompted, he speaks out of the darkness.

"You know, I've got enough to do to last the rest of my days. It's a
good thing I like what I'm doing."


Jon Bowermaster

Jon Bowermaster writes for a variety of publications, including National Geographic, Outside, Men's Journal and the New York Times Magazine.

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