Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pusu NO River, Ecuador

Rio Pusuno falls at above optimum flows.  The falls itself was good to go it was just the before and after that were problematic.  The lead in was definitely spicy and then once you had to exit this lovely plunge pool you would have literally paddled into the gates of hell!

We had a group of hard chargers from Durango, CO and Bend, OR last week.  These boyz weren't F-ing around.  They partied hard and kayaked even harder!  Every night we were convinced that at least 1 or 2 wouldn't be able to boat in the morning; but they always turned up to breakfast bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (oh, well, at least they always showed up) ready to paddle.

Danny, not afraid to show a little style in the jungle

Some of the guys had been to Ecuador before and for others it was their first time to South America.  All of them took full advantage of exploring a new place with a new culture and new rivers.  It was really fun to have a group so completely stoked to be in a new place.

Dan navigating the numerous holes on the Cheesehouse section of the Quijos

Having seen some videos online, the crew was super stoked to check out the Pusuno River near Tena.  We were a bit skeptical because the Pusuno is one the most difficult rivers to catch at a proper flow.  It's super finicky, and, while it's usually too low to run, it gets way too high quite easily as well.  The river has actually been nicknamed the Rio Pusu NO because of how often groups get skunked up there.  But we were also really excited because it's very rare to get a group who wants to go to this river.

Tarquino, jungle guide to the maximo, declares the Pusuno too high

So we thought we'd better give it a whirl!  We figured if it was too low, we could always boat the lead in drops, run the falls and then, using a little rope work, get back up and hike back to the car. 

The boys contemplating the odds of surviving the rapids leading up to the falls

Some overnight rain in Tena left everyone with high hopes of a good level on the Pusuno.  As we drove there, the side creeks coming from a similar drainage looked promising...then some of them looked a little too promising!  We arrived to the Pusuno to find it at an unfriendly high level.

Cruise, ripping it up on the Quijos

So, after a few minutes of looking at the 1st drop, then looking around for eddies, and eventually deciding that it just wasn't good to go, we went for a nice jungle hike with Tarquino, checked out the run, the falls, the jungle, saw a few monkeys and called it a day.

Monkey eye balling the weird gringos with cameras, sunglasses and gatorade.  Tony's sunglasses temporarily fell victim to a curious monkey.  But after banging them on the tree a few times, the monkey dropped the glasses back to Tony.

We headed back to the Quijos Valley for a run down the Cheesehouse section, some playboating, beer and tequila drinking around the lodge and then a morning at the hot springs before heading back to Quito.

Tony styling Tres Huevos and expediently paddling away from the cave/hole afterwards

Tony was then off to meet his wife and drag himself up Cotopaxi--19,347 feet tall.   But don't worry, he trained all week with 20 ounce Pilsiner curls!  And, our lodge is over 5,000 feet so that's some acclimatization, eh?
The Crew

Cruise, Joel, and Danny were off to Montanita to do some surfing and to try to re-live the movie Point Break.  I hear the local surfers are quite territorial out there!  But, if anyone could handle them, it's these 3.

Luke, taking advantage of a bluebird day in the Quijos Valley to do a little playboating

Dave, Luke and Dan headed back to their homes, hopefully a little better prepared to face the winter after one last romp in the tropical paradise of Ecuador.

Joel and Dave making their way down the Upper Jondachi

Beautiful jungle along the banks of the Pusuno

Friday, November 25, 2011

Training on Ecuador's Rivers for a Source to Sea Expedition Down the Amazon

 John navigates the lead in of the rapid Chibolo (bump on the head) on the Rio Cosanga.  This move is only the beginning as there is still about 100 meters of rapid left!

David was a nerdy computer programmer sitting at his desk in London when he learned of some crazy people that had done a source to sea expedition down the Amazon River.  For some reason, this story sparked an intense curiosity in him and he began planning and plotting.

 We were lucky enough to have clear skies on the drive to our lodge and got great views of Antisana--headwaters of the Quijos River--with a fresh dusting of snow

His 1st order of business was to learn how to kayak since he'd never before sat in a whitewater boat!

Dave choose Ecuador as his training grounds for the whitewater portion of his trip.  Although it is the subject of much debate and contention, geographers hold that the official headwaters of the Amazon is the Apurimac River in Peru.  But, since all of the rivers that we paddle on in Ecuador eventually flow into the Amazon, Dave figured this was a good place to get his kayaking grove on!

 Jenny at home in the big water of the Lower Quijos.  She deftly dodged the big hole in Gringos Revueltos.  She is the only British person I know who likes big water more than rocky creeks!

Dave has come every season for the past 5 years to spend 2 weeks paddling with us in Ecuador.  Over the years, he's met a wide range of characters covering all walks of life.  This time around, he was in good company with 3 other Brits, 1 Scot and 1 Swiss joining Dave on his quest to become a bad ass kayaker!

 Joe looking good in the middle of Chibolo on the Cosanga

This week was meant to be a week of Class IV- rivers; but the entire group was well beyond the Class IV- level and we were able to squeeze in a few solid Class IV runs along the way.  All the while we heard stories, statistics, and plans about the mighty Amazon!

 Paul standing guard while the troops re-supply for a mission up the Rio Piatua

The Amazon River is the 2nd longest river in the world (2nd to the Nile, although this is regularly contested).  The Amazon is 4,345 miles from source to sea, with roughly 200 of those miles containing whitewater (Dave, that's a hell of a lot of flatwater to paddle)!

 Fred was all smiles after he successfully paddled Chibolo.  Fred paddled with us for 2 weeks, and stayed strong the entire time!

More impressively, the Amazon is the largest river in the world, based on its average flow and discharge.  The Amazon's flow at its mouth in the Atlantic Ocean is greater than the next 7 largest rivers combined!   The Amazon accounts for about 1 fifth of the world's total river flow.  Its flow when it hits the Atlantic during the rainy season averages 300,000 cubic meters per second or 11 million cubic feet per second. 

 Jenny showing what happens to Brits when they are exposed to the sun

That kind of volume is hard to believe, but then you start looking around Ecuador's Oriente and seeing the thousands of rivers that the eastern slope of this country holds; then think that all of that water flows into just a few tributaries of the Amazon--the Napo, Pastaza, and Putumayo.  It seems like so much water when you see just one of these tributaries, but, in reality, they make up only a fraction of the flow of the Amazon at its mouth.

 The Amazon man himself!

The Amazon enters the Atlantic Ocean in an estuary that spans more than 150 miles.   And, in many parts of the river upstream of the mouth, people report that, from the middle of the river, you can't see either shore.  During the rainy season, ranchers in Brazil have to build giant floating corrals for their cows because the river floods so much land there is no where for the animals to go.  Hydrologists measured a specific place on the Amazon that, during the dry season is 6 miles wide, but during the rainy season grows to be 30 miles wide.  This is one hell of a river we are talking about!

 Paul taking the middle line at Pica Piedra as Larry looks on

But as Dave's trip patrons--Fred, Paul, John, Joe and Jenny--pointed out, there is a lot to contend with when one endeavors to paddle the Amazon besides the whitewater on the Apurimac.  1st, the endless flatwater paddling, then the piranhas, river pirates, Candiru fish, bugs, and let's not forget about the ferocious, blonde warrior women (for whom the river is named) that Francisco Orellana encountered on his trip down the Amazon!

 John dropping into Gringos.   A nice rainstorm the night before left us with great levels for the Lower Quijos

All and all the crew got along swimmingly and I know everyone is eager to know how Dave's journey goes.  We'll all have to wait a few more years to find out though.

 Don't worry, Caimans only live in the really flat and slow-moving water.  Dave will have to worry about these once he hits the flatwater!   Sometimes it's good to be a whitewater kayaker...

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Intro to Creeking in Ecuador--practice technical boating skills in warm creeks!

 (The crew at the put in of the Lower Jondachi--one of Ecuador's most beautiful creek runs)

This was our second week of trips and we had a fun international crew for our “Intro to creeking IV-”  course.  There was one Swiss, two Irish, and a couple of American kayakers who came down to Ecuador to expand their technical boating skills. 

(Pat refining his boofing technique to style in order to jump over this ledge on the Rio Piatua)

So far, early November is showing us some great water levels with enough rain to make most of the runs more fun but not so much we are being flooded off.  We paddled the Cosanga, Quijos, Jondachi and Piatua rivers; all the rivers we wanted to get in this week!   We did, however, have to tweak the order of the rivers a bit in order to optimize water levels on each run.

 (The Creekers scouting a rapid on the Upper Misahualli)

Late summer floods in the Tena area moved around some boulders and improved some lines on both the Upper Misahualli and Lower Jondachi.  It was a great opportunity to talk about scouting with the crew.  It's important to be able to recognize the hazards of a rapid; but also to recognize the good line and focus on this if you decide to run the drop.  It's a fine line because obsessing about the dangers won't do you any good, but neither will not noticing them!

 (Friedrich from Switzerland showing an excellent forward stroke as he makes his move in "Dispensable Ensign" on the Rio Piatua)

Being able to pick a good line, read the currents and pick out the crux move(s) are key to a successful scout.  We find there are often 2 extremes in scouting: 1.) people will see a sieve on river right and get so freaked out about it that they never even realize the good line is down river left FAR away from the sieve, or 2.) people pick their line and don't look beyond that.  They get back to their boats and realize they have no idea how to approach the rapid, or their friend asks, "what are you going to do about the big hole" and they respond "what big hole."  
 (Tarquino, your jungle-kayak guide extrodinare!  The socks give him kayaking super powers)

So, being able to see the whole picture while you are scouting is a really important skill.  You need to look at the crux of the rapid, but also at the lead in to the rapid, and the run out of the rapid.  This way you'll know what you have to deal with in order to GET to the crux move, and also what you will have to deal with as you finish the crux.  You need to identify all the hazards that your line poses and then figure out how you will deal with those hazards.  Once you've done all this, you can ask yourself if your skills are up to the challenge and, if they are, is the reward to risk factor worth it?  Then you are ready to either portage or go successfully run your line!

(Utah-Burning-Man-Marc bobsledding his way down "Bob Sled" on the Upper Misahualli River)

Portaging is a skill that kayakers should not overlook.  On some river or another, we've all met the kind who just won't portage anything.  Well, this isn't necesarily the smartest way to go about your kayaking career.  Some days you just might not feel it, other days you just need to be smart enough to recognize that your skills aren't up to the rapid you are looking at. 

(A couple of Irish blokes enjoying a paddling vacation in Ecuador.  Here they are finally back in their own paddling kit after KLM delayed their baggage just a wee bit)

People often forget that "to run or not to run" a rapid is not just an individual decision.  If you run a rapid you aren't well-equipped to do, chances are you will have problems.  If you have problems, chances are your boating team is going to have to rescue you, putting each resucer at risk as well.  So keep the team in mind when you are making your decisions on the river as well!

 (Jeff giving it a nice, vertical boof stroke on "Discotech")

But once you've committed to running, then mentally it's got to be all or nothing (I should say it's got to be all or portage)!  From your eddy, you need to be focused, confident, and ready to put your physical creeking skills into practice to do what you need to do to give yourself a good, clean line.  You shouldn't be walking back to your boat saying to yourself, "umm, I guess I'll give it a go, although I'm not too sure it'll work out."  You should feel good about your decision and be visualizing yourself styling the line.

 (Pat, stoked to be almost to the water after a warm jungle hike)

Having the right tools in your tool box, so to speak, will make your scouting decisions easier and more clear.  So whenever you get the chance to practice strong forward strokes, sweep strokes, boof strokes, body positions and any other kayaking skill, do it!  That way you'll know what sort of things you are good at and which skills you need more work on in the future.  For example, if you know you aren't very good at boofing yet, and the rapid you are scouting requires making a boof or surfing a big hole, well then, you'd better give it a miss until you can refine those boofing skills.

(Niall navigating one of Ecuador's many boulder gardens as the group looks on from an eddy)

Conversely, if you know you are really good at throwing quick draw strokes to maneuver your kayak around rocks and that's what the line requires, then go give it hell!  And, if you are having trouble self-motivating for this sort of practice, come down to Ecuador and we'll make you practice!

Parting shot

(Tim took this awesome shot of a beautifully sculpted Ecuadorian boulder)

The team this week made great advances on their paddling skills and we hope to see them out and about next summer showing their buddies what this creeking business is all about!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Refine your Creeking Skills in Ecuador

Matt and Anders navigating some of Ecuador's infamous "Boogie Water"
We just finished up with our first ever Advanced Creeking Clinic and it was an awesome week of paddling Ecuador's best creeks.  We had an eclectic group of characters from all over the US.  Luckily, all their personalities meshed well together and when they weren't busy giving each a hard time, they did manage to run some sweet rivers and learn a little more about creeking.

Brian lining up on the final ledge of Discotec on the Rio Piatua

We covered a ton of ground during these 7 days of paddling and tried to talk about as many low volume paddling techniques as we could.  All the guys were solid Class IV and IV+ paddlers so it was easy to move right into the some of the more advanced creeking skills such as boat scouting, setting up on tricky boofs, rest on the fly techniques and much more. 

I'm not sure who was staring more--us at these guys' crazy river-crossing contraption, or them at the crazy gringos and their river running contraptions

We were super lucky with our water levels last week and so got to practice on low volume runs like the Upper Jondachi at roughly 500-800 CFS and then also on some bigger, pushy creek runs as well such as the Oyacachi at probably 1500-2000 CFS. 

Kevin putting the week's lessons into practice with a perfectly time boof stroke

Reading and running and boating scouting on the fly was another skill we constantly practiced.  All the boaters soon learned to fear the term "boogie water" whenever Don or I said it.  It's easy when you can describe a rapid with distinct characteristics--such as the "Best Boof in the World" on the Upper Jondachi.  All we have to do is tell people to drive left, get a piece of the sweet dished-out boulder and boof like a rock star!  But when there are tons of holes and rocks to dodge and you can't describe an exact line, we like to tell people it's boogie water (always with the qualifier that boogie water doesn't mean it's easy) and then let people follow us and read and run as they go.

And these little piggies tried to follow us home.  But then they heard all the boys commenting about bacon and turned and ran the other way

Another point we tried to stress was that, while the lead boat in any boat scouting mission on a new creek has a lot of responsibility--catching eddies, keeping themselves safe, picking out the best line, and ultimately deciding whether or not to scout--the 2nd boater in line also has a great deal of responsibility.

Matt powering through the froth leading into "The Boof" on the Rio Oyacachi

 The 2nd boater in line has to make sure they stay close enough to the lead boat to watch where they go and "watch their back" so to speak.  But, they don't want to be too close and pressure the lead boater out of an eddy before they are ready to leave.

Anders blasting out of a rather sticky ledge on the Piatua.  He was very pleased with the performance of Ecuador's very 1st Liquid Logic Stomper!

That 2nd boater needs to make sure that they can be "the back up plan" to the lead boater.  It's happened more than once that the lead boater will go downstream 1 eddy too far and will get themselves into a position where they can't get out to scout AND they can't see another eddy to boat scout to.  Then they are really hoping that their 2nd boater will come to the rescue!

The incredibly picturesque "Tres Huevos" rapid on the Upper Jondachi.  It doesn't really look like it from this angle, but this rapid is good to go down the river right side.  There is an ugly under cut and cave on the far right, but it is avoidable if your advanced creeking skills come through for you

Often all the 2nd boater will have to do is get out from an upstream eddy, scout the line, see that it goes and can give directions to the lead boat who is stuck in the lower eddy.  But sometimes, if the 2nd boater scouts and finds that the rapid doesn't go or doesn't go from where the lead boater is stuck in their eddy, well then, it's lead boater rescue time and that 2nd boater has to help their buddy out of the "last eddy" and to safety (this can be a tricky endeavor so make sure you are up to the task)!

Doctor Steve getting aggressive with his boof body position.  He was nailing boofs all week long!

If you are the lead boater, I'd NOT recommend that you go that eddy where you are trapped and can't get out of your boat and can't go further downstream.  It's just not a fun position to be in, but it seems it will happen to most people at least once if you do a lot of boat scouting/eddy hoping.  Then, it's really damn important that you trust your 2nd boater!  So, pick your boating posse wisely!

Anders testing out a sketchy bridge on the Upper Jondachi.  The crazy part is that the Quichua folks around here nonchalantly walk across this bridge all the time carrying 80 lb loads of narjanillas

We also did some talks on how to get yourself out of holes.  People often think that there aren't bad holes on creeks because they tend to be low volume...but the reality is quite the contrary.  On big water runs where there are really big holes, boaters will often flush through after 1-3 go arounds because there is so much water and power that a kayaker can't usually get stabilized in a proper "I'm stuck in this hole side surf."  But on lower volume rivers there seem to be more of the pour over type holes that can really hold a boater.

Dave busted out his hand paddles for the Piatua and he rocked it.  That guy is incredibly smooth without his paddle

We talked about, in addition to just bracing and stabilizing yourself in that side surf, you should try to paddle forwards either by sculling that brace or by actually taking paddle strokes on both sides of your boat.  If that doesn't work, try to paddle backwards.  People like to try to get out of the hole they way they are facing, and often neglect to try backing out which will work surprisingly often.  Getting yourself to the edge of the hole and then committing to a big reaching forward stroke on the upstream side (reaching out into current that is going downstream) will work quite well too.  You are pretty much committing to being upside down but the hope is that your body will catch current and wash you out of the hole leaving you to roll up in nice downstream-moving water.

Brian, Kevin and Matt contemplating Chibolo on the Cosanga River.  Scouting skills are crucial to a happy creeking career

Don even demonstrated his very fine hole-escape techniques in a sticky hole on the Oyacachi (a hole he went into on purpose that crazy guy).  Don't just hang on the brace he'll tell you, be active with it!

And so,  if there are any words of wisdom that we can take away from last week's trip, it's this:  "Remember, stroke it, don't hold it."

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Back in Ecuador for the 2011/12 Season

Everyone's stoked that we're back in Ecuador!

Our friends from Aspen Whitewater Rafting came back down to Ecuador in late October to help us get the season started out right. This group of raft guides and kayakers comes down to Ecuador every fall to
celebrate the end of another whitewater season in the US, and to have one last warm weather hurrah before heading back to Colorado to face winter.

Tim taking the bull by the horns in El Toro

As always, we had a full line up of rivers to run and culture to see.  This year we added a bonus trip down the Napo River in a motorized canoe to visit a jungle lodge for the afternoon. While the lookout tower and the jungle were awesome, a swim in the lodge’s pool was a definite highlight for some of the gang who found they were sweating a lot in the tropics!

The gang at San Rafael Falls

This year, in addition to our “normal” river runs, we did an intro to kayaking course for the non-kayakers of the group. We loaded the boats in a torrential downpour--perfect to set the mood for learning to kayak in the Amazon Basin! Tarquino was our trusty trip leader and took us to his preferred learning section on the Anzu River. He is currently teaching is 9-year-old daughter, Angelica to kayak and this
is one of her favorite stretches.

Neal and Justin shredding it up

We arrived to find a brown swollen river, which set a few people’s nerves on edge, but that’s the great thing about this stretch on the Anzu--whether you have low water or high water, it stays pretty much Class I and II. I wouldn’t recommend it at flood stage, but as long as you can see some of the rocks on shore you should be good to go!

Even on a jungle side hike we found our way back to the water

All the kayak students did great. Despite worries to the contrary, everyone quickly became and expert at the “Wet Exit.” Some of them even got their rolls! We also worked on the forward stroke, sweep stroke, peel outs, S-turns and ferries. Everyone successfully navigated the Class II rapid at the end of the day.

The beginner kayakers stop to enjoy a scenic waterfall on the Jatunyacu

We think we may have created some monsters - or at least kayakers. After the day of instruction, most of the "rafters" opted to get in kayaks whenever they could. We'd do a morning of difficult rapids in the raft, and then hop into kayaks in the afternoon on easier stretches. By the end of the week, Neal even ran "Curvas Peligrosas" on the Bombon section of the Quijos.

Beth and Shannan enjoy the reward for a hard days work

At the end of the week there was a big celebration and rafting races on the Quijos river right out in front of our lodge. Half of the group wanted to keep kayaking, and half decided that we needed to represent in the Quijos Rafting Championships. Since no other gringo team was entered, we borrowed the "Team USA" name and came in third. There were cash prizes on the line, so the competition was actually pretty steep. The Ecuadorian national team came in first, and they were a very impressive team.

"Team USA" in the rafting slalom

It was quite the scene over the weekend - beer tents, food vendors and dancing. Their were three disciplines in the rafting race: Downriver, Slalom and head to head sprint. The sprints were probably the most fun as they were single elimination heats, but the biggest crowd draw was probably the bikini contest. In fact the awards ceremony for the rafting got delayed because the bikini contest went over. We all had a great time, enjoying the nature and rivers of Ecuador, plus the culture and festivals!

Neal thinks YOU should come to Ecuador with SWA!