Thursday, January 22, 2015

Christmas on the Rio Maranon

Drew's exciting account of our week on the
Upper Grand Canyon of the Maranon, Peru

Standing at the bottom of canyon walls that tower hundreds of feet above the river, staring at a maelstrom of whitewater knowing that it would be the biggest rapid we had ever run, and having been told that there was no way to walk around the exploding chaos named Shapalmonte we studied the rapid intently while walking back to our kayaks. Once at our kayaks we tightened our life jackets and slid into the flooded river above a rapid larger than anything on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. After splashing my face with water and energizing myself I looked at my wife Christie and said, “We have the skills to do this, we know our line, stay on my tail, fight for vision, and paddle hard. You ready?” With a nod of her head Christie indicated it was time to go so we began paddling into the largest class V rapid either one of us had ever attempted in our paddling careers, each of which span well over a decade. At that moment we had no idea that neither one of us would make it to the bottom of that rapid safely until the next day. Spending a week on the Rio Maranon in Peru, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Amazon, with just my wife was an experience chalked full of trying hardships, lasting memories, and endless smiles.

Awesome surf wave below the narrows section

When Christie and I first became friends in 2008 I recall her sharing a desire to visit Peru on a whitewater adventure. Having heard stories from friends that had visited the South American country it seemed as though any adventurous whitewater kayaker should include Peru in their travel plans. Due to other commitments as well as financial and time restraints it wasn’t until the fall of 2014 that Christie purchased two plane tickets for her and I to finally fulfill a dream to go kayaking in Peru.

Knowing that we would be in Peru during a time that the majority of the country experiences a rainy season we knew that the typical kayaking destinations of the Colca Canyon, the Apurimac and Cotahuasi Rivers would be out of the question due to dangerously high water levels. After doing some research we decided that our adventure would lead us to a six day, five night expedition on the Rio Maranon, which is the mainstream source of the mighty Amazon River. Receiving water from glaciers on the highest tropical mountains in the world with elevations over 20,000 feet our trip on the Rio Maranon began at an elevation of about 7,000 feet above sea level. The arid canyon that squeezes the Rio Maranon into it’s valley is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and contains rapids that rival anything on the iconic rafting trip of the U.S.

Nevado Huascaran near Huaraz

Beginning our trip in the mountaineering town of Huaraz located at the base of the second highest mountain range in the world we were about an eight hour drive from the river. After our first ride decided the roads weren’t good enough and it was too far we managed to find a different ride to the river and agreed upon a price. The ride to the river was incredible, taking us over a 13,000 foot mountain pass and near sites of Inca ruins we were in awe of the beauty of the country. Our driver was pleasant, pointing out points of interest. Suddenly the car stopped in the middle of nowhere and our driver demanded a couple hundred dollars more if we wanted to continue, despite our previous agreement, and threatened troubles for us should we not pay him. After nearly thirty minutes of arguing on the side of the dirt road we foiled his attempted extortion scheme and we got back in the car to continue the drive. Although it was an awkward ride it was a mere thirty minutes more to get to the river where our driver wished us luck by exclaiming “Buena suerte!” and sped away.

Drew packs up his boat at the put-in
Starting our journey at Puente Copuma
Camp #1
After paddling the first class III rapid on the river we immediately felt the power of the water and it took some getting used to the volume of the river. Living in the Columbia Gorge and regularly paddling the Hood River along with other local stretches of rivers in the Gorge we are used to flows of about 2,500 cubic feet per second (cfs). The Rio Maranon boasts flows of over 10,000 cfs in December. 

The Narrows
The second day, Christmas Eve, was littered with many class IV rapids, sunshine, and surf waves. There was even one section where the river boiled it’s way through a narrow canyon no more than eight feet wide. Having an amazing day on the water we arrived early that afternoon to our campsite, which was on a huge sandy beach. The sun was hot and the water was cool so we went swimming and worked on our tan while enjoying the serenity of our private getaway. 

Camp #2 on Christmas Eve

The next day was Christmas! After a delicious breakfast we began our float. Christmas day included a couple of really cool side hikes to ruins and waterfalls. We even found some mango trees and enjoyed some of the delicious fruit.

Mid-way through dinner on Christmas night our merry excursion began it’s morph into an epic adventure as I found myself having a sudden urge to dig a hole, the kind of hole used to bury human waste. I’ll save all the details from this story but by dawn I had experienced a restless night of diarrhea and vomit sessions. In the morning Christie began her fight with the same symptoms that had struck me. We weren’t sure if it was our breakfast, the water, those mangos, or something else but we knew that we were days away from help and in a precarious situation. In addition, it began raining that night and the river came up to an estimated 15,000 cfs. Having few options we packed our gear and made our way downstream. After several large rapids and more great scenery we made it to camp and hunkered down in the rain. Christie suddenly experienced violent shivering and more vomiting as we both continued to combat diarrhea. Observing the rain become stronger throughout the evening our concern continued to grow. In the morning we noticed the river had came up again, this time several feet. Now we had flows near 25,000 cfs and the largest rapids were downstream.

Arriving at the first of the “big” rapids, which were supposed to be two class IV rapids, we were faced with one long and difficult class V. We managed to find a good route through the exploding whitewater and we made it to the bottom safely, albeit humbled by the power. After rounding a few corners and enjoying some large waves we made it to Shapalmonte, the largest rapid of the trip and the only rapid that we were told we could not portage. After spending an hour or more scouting and discussing possibilities to get through the rapid we found ourselves torn to find the best option. There was just so much happening in the rapid with a large hydraulic at the top on the right, several unpredictable features in the middle, crashing waves throughout, and a scary hydraulic at the bottom on the left, which happened to be boxed in by rocks. All of the water was pushing to the left into that scary hydraulic. We knew it would be a tough rapid. We knew that it would be the biggest rapid we had ever paddled. We knew that paddling this rapid with just the two of us was not an advisable move but we didn’t have another option. After taking a moment to collect ourselves we attempted to run the rapid. Making it through the first few waves I looked back only to notice that Christie had flipped over in one of the crux sections at the top. After I passed the large hydraulic that was on the right I looked back again to watch as Christie went into the aforementioned hydraulic upside down. Fearing the worse I made the decision to get to shore and prepare to rescue Christie by throwing her a rope. On my desperate scramble to shore I noticed Christie had miraculously made her way out of the hydraulic, rolled her kayak upright, and got to shore quickly. I managed to stop my kayak in the last possible spot above the scary hydraulic that lurked at the bottom of the rapid on the left. After catching our breath we walked back upstream to the top of the rapid and began weighing our options. After feeling the power of Shapalmonte we knew that attempting the rapid again would be a roll of the dice. With rain beginning to fall again we were aware that waiting for the river level to decrease was a pipe dream. We made the decision to portage.

A quarter of the way up the portage
Camp #5 at the bottom of Shapalmonte Rapid
Attempting to portage a rapid that has previously been determined to be “unportageable” is a daunting task. At first look we thought the portage would go pretty well, however, after beginning our climb out of the canyon with our eighty pound kayaks we realized that the soil was rocky and loose. A few hours into our portage the sun began to beat down on us. We had grown exhausted and had run out of water. Being several hundred feet above the river level and becoming increasingly dehydrated we didn’t have any way of accessing water. As I sat in the minimal shade behind a cactus I decided to cut into the water bearing plant. The cactus produced zero water. Still sitting and thinking how I could rehydrate I decided I was going to urinate on my shirt and ring the liquid into my mouth. To my delighted surprise Christie came into view from above me and exclaimed, “I found a trail over the saddle and back down to the river!” With this new knowledge we left our kayaks behind, took a few essentials, and scurried over the pass and down to the river on the other side of the canyon that we had been climbing. After filling our water bottles, twice, we trekked back up to where our kayaks were and decided to leave the boats for the night. At this point it had become dark and we had been working on the portage for seven hours. We took all of our camping gear back down to the river where we set up camp, ate some much needed food, and developed a plan to retrieve our boats in the morning.

Quebrada Parco

At first light we went back up the canyon wall, over the pass, and down to our kayaks. We set up a pulley system to make hauling our kayaks easier and within three hours we had our kayaks and all of our gear safely at the bottom of Shapalmonte. After sharing a brief sense of relief and reflecting on our portage that required ten hours of teamwork we happily resumed our trip downstream. With the river still at flood stage we could hear rocks rolling on the stream bottom as we made our way through the remaining twenty kilometers of our trip that contained fifteen foot tall waves. We once again experienced a sense of relief when we saw the bridge that marked the end of our river trip and found a ride to a town that awaited us with a hot shower, a warm meal, some antibiotics, and a toilet!

We still had another week to enjoy Peru and become tourists. We visited the ancient town of Cusco, explored the ruins at Machu Picchu, and walked along the beaches near Lima. However, our trip on the Rio Maranon strengthened our ever-growing love and respect for the natural world, in particular rivers. I don’t know that we’ll ever return to the Rio Maranon, or even Peru for that matter, but we’re incredibly grateful to have had such an epic adventure that provided us with a few trying hardships, so many lasting memories, and most importantly the endless smiles. Like our driver exclaimed after dropping us off at the beginning or our journey, “Buena suerte!” to all you kindred spirits.

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