Cofanes River, Ecuador
After years of anticipation, the river was even more amazing than I had expected. After 2 hours or so of wide open boulder garden rapids (think Piatua on steroids) we dropped into a seemingly endless section of short, but super tight, box canyons. The middle stretch of the Cofanes River serves up one bedrock canyon after another. Luckily, most of the rapids in these canyons were Class III and IV and we quickly passed through without any epics . Only 1 canyon gave us major delay—the 2nd real canyon of the trip. The entry drop—a 10 or so foot folded falls—was somewhat hard to scout, but we quickly saw enough to know that it went. But, what we couldn’t see was what was next. It was clear it was a smooth-walled bedrock canyon and we couldn’t see past the 1st drop.
(Don entering tight box canyon #1 of the trip)
So we committed ourselves to a little jungle excursion to complete the scout. It took us 2 hours and a little rope work to rappel 40 or so feet down the sheer canyon wall to get a river level view, but we finally saw the entire canyon and were pleased with what we saw. We went back to our boats and reaped the benefits of our hard work as we dropped in and enjoyed 4 sweet rapids in the bottom of a little crack in the earth that we knew few other people in this world had seen. We paddled another hour that day and then settled into a nice riverside camp just above another bedrock canyon.
The next day brought an amazingly long section of bedrock canyons—first grey walls, then red, then black—truly an incredible place. Although the river bed up by the put in is wide-open and at least 100 feet wide at any given moment, the river in these canyons often squeezes down to only 15 feet wide. We were blessed on this trip with low water and NO unmanagable logs in any of the box canyons. A high water event on this river would spell disaster for kayakers; so if you go, make sure you start with low water and you'd better pray that it doesn't rain all night while you are camping out!
Around 10am we arrived at the only mandatory portage of the trip—fortunately, it does not lay in one of these box canyons! It’s a large rock fall that has created a series of sieves and tunnels that are, in their current state, unnrunable. Luckily, there is a nice shore to portage along!
From the beginning of our scout/portage we had a great view downstream and saw what we thought was a significant tributary coming in 200 meters or so below the portage. At the put in, the locals had told us of a waterfall that lay between smooth-walled cliffs. They were arguing back and forth about the height of this falls with some maintaining that it was 10 meters tall, while others were certain it was 30 meters tall. We suspected the waterfall (be it 30 feet or 100 feet depending on which locals we chose to believe) would be somewhere near this confluence. Between our portage and the tributary, everything looked easy and good to go save for 1 ledge just below the portage.
From way up high at the beginning of the portage I guessed the ledge would be more or less 5 feet tall. We saw it would be hard to scout the landing, but with such a short drop, I knew we could easily boat scout enough to see the place with the best outflow to fling off of it. There was a massive pool above it and, even though this ledge was stuck between two sheer cliff walls, the overall situation seemed very manageable.
45 minutes later when we finished the portage and were much closer to the “ledge” I realized it wasn’t really just a ledge, it was “The Waterfall.” Upon realizing this, my initial reaction was actually relief since it was clear the thing was NOT 100 feet tall. But I soon became a bit worried because it was also clear that it was a lot taller than 5 feet!
(Darcy navigating the rapids in one of the Cofanes' many canyons)
We were at least able to get a pretty good scout from river right—enough that we were 98% confident the landing was good. We were able to climb up the cliff wall enough to see that the right side of the drop was no good. We couldn’t see the landing itself on river left, but since we could see what the water was doing just below the landing, we were able to reasonably assure ourselves that it was good to go. Don elected to go first and probe. Moments after he dropped out of sight I heard his excited hoot from the bottom. I could tell from the tone of his hooting how stoked he was at the bottom of the drop. I knew it must be a sweet, clean falls! I followed him and had a nice line off the 20ish foot drop. The sun was shining up the canyon and in the falls you could see just how amazingly clear the water was—it was a beautiful moment--Just me and Don in an incredible river canyon, figuring things out, and each of us equally stoked that we’ve found a partner to enjoy these sorts of journeys with. Most people aren’t lucky enough to have their best friend and boating partner also be their boyfriend.
After Don and I both successfully ran the waterfall that I was confident was the same falls that the locals were talking about, I felt a huge sense of relief. All along, I believed that if we could make it past the falls, the rest would be easy. And indeed, the boating eases up quite a bit after the waterfall and the 17 miles between the falls and confluence with the Chingual flew by. We’d done the Chingual before and knew if we could make it to the confluence before dark, we could make it out that night since we knew that section of river well. So, 2 days later we emerged from the Cofanes, reveling in the experience and the amazingness of the place.
We had planned on 4 days for the run, but it only had taken us 2; leaving us still with 2 more days off of work. So we started thinking...We knew all the rapids and canyons were clear of wood, we had paddled the 50 kilometer run in 14 hours NOT knowing it…we knew we could easily cut off the 2 hours we had spent scouting the 2nd canyon, and could probably cut off another hour or 2 skipping all the other scouting and boat scouting we had done on the first trip (luckily we both remember rivers/rapids for a living so felt confident we could remember most of what we needed to).
So, we decided, what better way to get the chance to see that awe inspiring river again without stressing out about all the “what ifs” Do it in 1 day! We repacked our boats for just a day trip; carrying a little bit of emergency camping gear "just in case" but overall keeping the boats light for our 1-day mission.
We got an amazingly clear day and had remarkable views of Cayembe on our drive to the put in. We put in at 8:11am, and set ourselves to the task. 8 hours and 20 minutes later we were tired but satisfied and happy at the take out. We saw even more macaws on this 2nd trip down (at least 50 if not more), we saw 4 Andean Cock of the Rocks, tons of Torrent Ducks, and more breath-taking scenery in 1 day than most people get in a month.
Mostly, this river reminded us why we are kayakers. We love exploring new places and getting the chance to visit areas that people couldn’t otherwise see—if not from a boat.