Monday, November 29, 2010

Our one day of kayaking in Colombia (and how we lost the confidence of our Outfitter)

On Thanksgiving Day 2010, Todd Truen and I flew from Minneapolis to Bogota the capital city of Colombia.  The next day, Friday, we took a 7 hour bus trip to San Gil.  There we met with Cesar, a local kayaking guide who owned Colombia Rafting Expediciones.  We talked that night about prices and options on what we could do. 

Knowing that we wanted to run the Chicamocha River, Cesar informed us that a group of European Kayakers were looking to run it the next day.  With the recent heavy rainfall, roads to one takeout were washed out meaning it would be a 4 hour return trip to San Gil making it a 12+ hour day.  I was excited with the idea of more paddlers on the river for safety but also very concerned with the guidebook’s mention of a 2km IV+ rapid in the middle of the run.  Todd was more concerned with a long day on only our third day in country but super stoked about the run, and so was I.  It was on! The next day, we’d be kayaking our first Colombian River, my first river on another continent. 

In the morning, we met Cesar at the office in town and drove out to his house and boat shed.  Todd and I received a confidence boost when we laid eyes on two boats that looked quite familiar.  Cesar just happened to have a Wavesport Habitat, a kayak that Todd owns, and Bliss-Stick Huka, a kayak that I own. 

Once Todd and I fitted our boats we assisted with the tied down of all the boats for the group.  We drove back to the office and met three kayakers from Belgium and one from Holland.   We all piled into the van with a woman named Gloria who we’re pretty sure was Cesar’s wife.  She would be the shuttle driver for the day.  Along the way to the put in, we stopped to pay an entrance fee to the Chicamocha National Park. Steven bought some cooked ants, a snack we all ate on our way to the river.

Arriving at the put in we started to unload and learned about a gear situation with the European group.  Apparently someone left their lifejacket back at the hostel.  Now if it had been me, I would’ve got back in the van and rode to the take out but I’m not a sponsored kayaker who paddles all over the world.  You’ll see him in the video; he’s the guy who finally saves Todd. 
The river starts out wide and smooth with some easy wave trains that are building in size.  Our group starts to really spread out and at one point I’m way out in front of this group of six boaters and reading and running on the fly.  It’s such a great feeling to be leading yourself down a new river, not knowing what’s about to come next.

Then the river begins to narrow and Cesar gets to the front of the group.  He signals for us to eddy out river right.  Todd and a European miss the main eddy and land just below us out of hearing distance.  I’m listening as Cesar and the rest of the group converse in Spanish.  As they talked, I looked downstream and saw nothing but chaos and worse yet, it continued around a corner and out of sight.  Not knowing what’s around the river bend is a scary feeling, especially on big water rapids.  Suddenly Steven yelled out “OK it’s a class IV+ rapid, you follow Cesar!” At this moment I knew Todd and I had to buck up and get this done.  “OK” I yelled back and slid down to the next eddy to talk to my friend.  “Todd, were gonna follow Cesar ok?” I decided not to tell him hoq hard it was going to be. 

This is when he started filming.  I’m just ahead of him in the blue boat.  I get stuck in a hole and get behind him in the beginning.  After we eddy out and take off again, the rapid below the eddy was huge.  I didn’t think we were gonna make it past that.  We do and continue down the river.  I get nervous when Cesar leads us to left of center, there’s was just so much water and I felt safer closer to shore.  Then he begins to cut back to the right.  You see Todd blast through a huge wave then into a large hole behind it, flip and swim.  What you don’t see, is me flipping behind Todd at the wave before the hole and also swimming, at the same time.  We seem to have a habit of doing that on our trips, Todd and I.

My swim pales in comparison with Todd’s.  According to the video he’s in the water for over five minutes.  I was in for maybe a minute and I was lucky enough to hold onto my paddle. Eric from Belgium was there to help me into an eddy.  Then he took off down river.  The last I saw of Todd, he was in the water.  I started to walk with my paddle downstream along the river.  I was tired from my swim and moving along the boulders, sometimes as large as my Cavalier, was a difficult and slow process. 

Now remember when you watch the video, I had to walk the entire distance he swam to get to him and it took me over a half hour.  As I was walking, all these thoughts were running through my mind.  What happened to Todd?  Is he injured? Is he even alive? Did anyone else swim?  Are they okay?  Did someone recover our boats?  Does Todd have his paddle?  Looking around the canyon walls, I realized any sort of rescue or hike out situation would be very tough if not impossible.  All I can do is continue to walk down river until I see… anyone.  The roar from the river was so loud that as I walked along the steep canyon walls, I could hear the noise reverberating back at me so that it was coming from both sides like being in the water. 

Eventually I started to see someone standing on a rock in the distance.  I get close enough to see two of the Europeans were with my paddling partner.  He was alive and not injured, just really tired.  We got some chocolate and water from our new friends and started walking together.  Todd did not have his paddle.  I remember walking about another 20 minutes before arriving at my kayak feeling relieved to see it was recovered and I could paddle out of here but fearful because I’d have to get back in my boat and paddle out of here.  Todd had to continue further down the river with Cesar to his recovered gear. 

The remaining rapids were just larger wave trains.  We had passed most of the big stuff.  One treacherous portage through the jungle we had to make but after that it was smooth riding all the way to the take out.  At the little shop at the take out Todd was buying rounds for everyone to say thanks for the help on the river.  He even did the classic drink a beer out of your river booty because you swam tradition.  I decided not to follow his example but he did swim twice.  The second was nothing compared to earlier.  He just landed in a hole at the confluence with the Rio Suarez and swam into a large pool.  Our day then ended with 4 hours of driving in a van between Todd and Steven on really bumpy narrow Colombian roads.  With dinner it was a 16 hour day.

After that experience, we arranged other activities through Cesar but we weren’t able to paddle with them again.  Every day we asked about rafting the Rio Suarez but they always said it was too high.  On our last day they gave us a cold shoulder and so we went to another outfitter.  There we learned from a guide from the states that gear is like gold down here.  I don’t Cesar was happy that we almost lost some of his.

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