Sunday, December 9, 2007

Taking a day off on the Upper Pacuare

Anne stomping a boof on the Upper Pacuare

After another week of guiding class 3/4 whitewater, Anne and I decided it was time to step it up, so on Saturday, one of our very few full days off, we headed over to the Upper Pacuare. The Upper Pacuare is known as one of, if not the, most classic section of whitewater in Costa Rica. It is a 7 mile class 4-5 section located in a remote jungle and involves two steep gorge sections.

With the help of our friend Brian we arranged a driver and vehicle for the day to drive the three of us from San Jose and drop us off at the river. We decided to make the trip even more worth our while by putting in at the Upper Upper Pacuare, a nice 7 mile class 3-4 warm up before the significantly more difficult upper section.

The day was absolutely amazing, and provided the three of us with not only awesome whitewater, but some amazing scenery as well. There were lots of laughs and lots of good lines, making it my favorite day since I have arrived here in Costa Rica.

Brian and Anne scouting one of the bigger rapids on the river

Brian getting ready to seal launch after a portage

Brian in the middle of one of the last bigger rapids on the Upper Pacuare

Anne and I excited to be paddling on, and not working on, the Upper Pacuare

After arriving back in San Jose, Anne, Brian and I along with an old friend of mine, Molly, who is currently living in Costa Rica, headed out for some sushi followed by a trip to the Lebanese restaurant/bar. It was a great ending to an awesome day. This evening started the next trip, which will be a class 2-3 trip spent mostly in the Sarapique area. Its shaping up to be another great week in Costa Rica!

Me loading boats on the coaster

Me boofing the bottom drop of Lower Huacus on the Lower Pacuare

Monday, July 9, 2007

Breaking the Routine: Costa Rica

Sometimes we forget what drew us to the sport of kayaking in the first place. I think it happens to every paddler – you get caught up in what boat you’re paddling, what river you’re paddling, who you’re paddling with, what roll you’re doing, what rapids you’re challenging, etc, and forget why you started paddling in the first place. I’ve seen many a paddling video tell me what kayaking is – “pushing through the envelope of fear to search for the unknown, living in the infinite moment”, blah, blah, blah. Here’s why we kayak – because its fun. It’s fun to paddle new rivers. It’s fun to paddle with friends. It’s fun to do something you enjoy outside.

It’s easy to forget that though, especially in light of the drought conditions the past few years. You paddle the same rivers over and over, do the same moves over and over, and tell the same stories over and over until kayaking becomes something that it should never become – a routine. It took a trip out of the country to break the routine I was stuck in and remind me why I started kayaking in the first place.

I was co-leading the Adventure Travel trips in Costa Rica with two veteran instructors and close friends of mine from NOC, Chris Port and Anne Sontheimer. Everything about the trip was a new experience for me – eating strange foods, living in the jungle, trying to understand a foreign language, seeing exotic picture-book animals, traveling in a big bus with 20 kayaks down narrow roads, lounging in hot-springs at the base of a volcano – even the rivers themselves were quite different than what I was used to. I could certainly describe all the rivers and adventures we shared with the guests that month, although not in the space permitting. Instead, I’ll focus on my favorite Costa Rican river, the Rio Toro.

The Upper Toro: The Most Spectacular Put-in You’ll Ever See
We had hired a driver for the day to run our shuttle and haul my friend Israel, myself, and our kayaks to the powerplant at the top of the mountain. We of course had only a vague description as to where the put-in actually was, and we couldn’t see the river from the road. Our driver would stop periodically and ask a local farmer if a river access point was near. The locals would then describe the river, often with the word peligroso attached, and our driver would pop his head back in the window and turn to us with a worried look on his face. “Here?” he would say. “No, higher”, we would respond, and he would shake his head and resume the trek up the mountain. It took roughly an hour to reach the top of the mountain, but to say the view from the top was worth it would be one of the greatest understatements of all time. The river lay about fifty feet below us; bouldery class 4-5 water churning through a deep jungle canyon fed by the headwaters upstream and at least three 200 foot waterfalls on the opposite canyon wall. The view from the bridge at the put-in was ineffable.

“Look, another 200 foot waterfall”. This was the phrase du jour Israel and I kept repeating to each other that day. It’s hard to imagine 200 foot waterfalls becoming ho-hum and blase, but after you see about 25 of them, you start to run out of superlatives to describe their beauty. At one point we were even required to paddle under one as the river narrowed. I remember laughing somewhat nervously as we tried to figure out what rating a class 2 rapid with a 200 foot waterfall pouring onto it deserved. (The answer is: class 2, but a really wet class 2)

The Upper Toro was not challenging in the typical way one would think a river to be challenging. There were certainly a few class 5 rapids and a couple we walked (and one we probably should have), but the majority of the run was continuous class III-IV. The challenge most of the day was not the rapids themselves but our decision making in regards to those rapids. Every rapid had to be weighed with regard to the consequences of a mistake and possible injury. Nowhere near civilization, and deep in a jungle canyon, we often took more conservative lines, even on class III-IV rapids that wouldn’t have given us pause in the States. We paddled approximately 10 miles that day under bright skies, enjoying both the jungle scenery and the quality rapids. We decided that this section was a cross between the Cheoah and Lower Big Creek (if you can even imagine that strange hybrid), and certainly one of our favorite all-time runs. Our driver met us at the bridge and waved excitedly, clearly happy that the two gringos had survived the rio peligroso.

The Middle Toro: Wall-shots For Everyone!
The Middle Toro was my favorite run that we paddled with the guests and very similar in character to the Pigeon River – if every rapid on the Pigeon ended with water exploding into a vertical wall. This phenomenon is one of the defining characteristics of Costa Rican rivers. The rivers there are much younger than here in the United States and as such, you seldom witness a gentle bend in the river as the water has yet to erode the bank into a gradual, more rounded turn. Instead, the rapids empty into vertical walls of earth, mud, and rock, make a ninety degree turn, and proceed along their way. We affectionately dubbed this ubiquitous occurrence a wall-shot. Most of these wall-shots are quite harmless, although that didn’t mean that we didn’t witness the occasional swim. It takes about a day on the water to acclimate to these wall-shots and understand the strategy required to navigate them upright.

As stated before the Middle Toro is ripe with wall-shots. It’s also ripe with fantastic, continuous, big-water class 3 wave-trains. How continuous is it? I distinctly remember one of our guests and a good paddler, Kevin, with eyes wide remarking, “Wow, this river is intense!” – and we had only been paddling for five minutes at that point. I thoroughly enjoyed watching our guests paddle each rapid. From my eddy where I set safety I could see their smiles from ear to ear as they rolled over the big waves, and then smiled myself as I watched their countenances change slightly when they saw the wall-shot fast approaching at the bottom of the rapid. Regardless if they flipped or made it upright, they would always finish the rapid with a big smile on their faces, clamoring for more. The Middle Toro is quite possibly the greatest class 3 section of river I have ever paddled, (with one big class 4 rapid thrown in to keep you honest.)

As I stated at the beginning of the article, it took a trip out of the country to remind me why kayaking is such a great pursuit. There was nothing routine about paddling in Costa Rica – which is why I loved it. Everyday I experienced an adventure getting to the river. Everyday I saw something new in the rain forest. Everyday I got to paddle with interesting people and friends. Everyday I got to paddle a new, warm river that’s rapids were different than the ones I was used to. And everyday I had fun…which is why I kayak in the first place. If you feel kayaking has become routine for you, and/or you're looking to have a good time this winter, I would suggest taking a trip south to Costa Rica. For more info regarding the trips click here.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Update from Chile

Recently NOC took part in a grass roots protest of proposed hydroelectric projects in the Patagonia region of Chile. A coalition of local outfitters is trying to bring attention to the plight of the Rio Futaleufu and other rivers in southern Chile that are threatened with newly proposed dams by the Spanish owned power company Endesa. The "A" and "M" in dams above were made with kayaks from NOC's fleet of boats down in Chile. The Rio Futaleufu, arguably one of the best remaining free flowing whitewater rivers in the world could see construction of a dam as early as 2012. For more information about contributing to protect the Futa, check out Futafriends. Here is a great picture of Jon running Terminator on the Rio Futaleufu. Picture by Warren

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Close encounter with Puma

Out last day in Corcovado was a rainy one. We spend most of the day looking for the elusive Green Frog, which looks like this but never could find one.

There was one trail system that we had not yet hiked during our stay, so Anne and I decided to hike that loop even though it was raining hard and we were soaked. When we had been in Corcovado during our honeymoon seven years ago, a friend of ours had an encounter with a Jaguar so we hoped that this trail might lead us to a big cat. We were not very optimistic as it was raining very hard and all the wildlife seemed to be taking shelter. This trail is the steepest around the ranger station, going straight up a knife ridge. It eventually stopped raining while we were half way through the trail, which is when Anne stepped around a tree like this one.

We had heard a troop of Howlers sounding off close by, we assumed they were warning other monkeys to our presence, but when we stepped around the tree we saw what they were truly concerned about. All I heard as Anne stepped around the tree was almost a whisper, "Chris there is a Puma right in front of me" without turning her head. I walked forward some and looked around the tree to see the large golden Puma not 10 feet away. It was incredibility beautiful, his coat was a smooth golden color and he had a very large head. From this distance I could see the different striations of color in his ires. I was trying hard to get my camera out of its box but I ended up not being able to get the shot, here are some pictures of what it looked like. The cat we saw was larger than this, it had to weight at least 200lbs. It took a good look at us and then just walked on by. It was an encounter that we will not soon forget and one that solidified Corcovado National Park as one of the most incredible places in the world.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Wildlife in Corocovado

We applied special camouflage to disguise our sent so we could sneak up on wildlife better. This turned out to be completely unnecessary, the wildlife cared not one bit that we were walking around. We saw Tapirs, wild pigs, crocodiles, snakes, frogs, countless birds and many white faced coatis. The concentration of wildlife in this jungle is just amazing, in all my travels in South America, including the Amazon basin in Brazil, nothing even comes close to this park and how it consistently yields close encounters with wildlife.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Tropical Paradise

We arrived at La Serena Biological Research station in the rain. It soon stopped and we had a few hours to hike around and watch the beautiful sunset, there is simply nothing better than relaxing on a warm beach in the middle of no where.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

To Corcovado National Park

Today marks the beginning of our week off. We planed a trip down to the Osa Penisula and one of my favorite places in all of Costa Rica, Corcovado National Park. The only way to really describe this place is to think of a tropical zoo without any cages. Getting there was an adventure in an of it self, involving first a flight on a small plane, then a bone jarring 4x4 ride for over an hour followed by a hot 13 beach hike. One at La Serena biological research station you can chill and go on small day hikes around the station. We planed on camping at La Serena for a least three nights.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Costa Rica

Class IV Trip
The NOC Costa Rica Class IV trip sets out to run the most exciting and beautiful rivers in Costa Rica. The runs on this trip tend to be very continuous class III-III+ with some Class IV sections mixed in. While the rapids are not solid class IV, the high level of commitment due to poor accessibility combined with the potential for flash flooding mean you need to have Class IV river running skills to safely navigate these sections. Examples of skills commonly demanded from the paddler on these runs are strong cross current maneuvers, running blind rapids, hole punching and reading water on the fly. The following is a day-by-day description of the last Class IV trip we ran. Keep in mind the none of these trips will ever be exactly the same due to varying water levels, weather conditions and strength of the group.

Saturday, Nov 25 2006
After outfitting boats and getting to know everyone we went to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in San Jose, Machu Pichu. This Peruvian themed restaurant serves up some great seafood dishes and one of the best Pisco Sours outside of Chile. A few of those Sours and a fine seafood meal of delicious corvina (sea bass) and we were all ready to rest up for tomorrow's adventure.

Sunday, Nov 26 2006
In the morning we loaded our Coaster and greeted our awesome driver, Ruben, and off we went to the Rio Balsa. The Rio Balsa is situated north west of San Jose, on the way to the town of Fortuna. This river starts out with a really fun Class III rapid and then keeps on going with some very easy and continuous Class III water that is just lots of fun. The Rio Balsa is just the perfect warm up for this trip, it is a low stress introduction to the continuous nature of the rivers in Costa Rica and is really beautiful We passed by some spider monkeys chilling in a tree and saw some of the larger water fowl, blue herons, egrets and cormorants. After a nice day of paddling and a traditional casado dinner, we had to give our muscles the ultimate treat at the Baldi Hot tubs. This place is just great, huge hot pools, fed from the natural thermal waters of the Volcano Arenal that have mystical healing powers. With pools of varying temperature, from 104 to 153, there was a pool for everyone. We had a little contest to see who could stay the longest in the 153 degree pool, 23 seconds was the longest full body immersion, that was pretty hot. Almost everyone eventually settled into the pool with the big bar in it, hard to beat soaking with a Pina Colada in your hand.

Monday, Nov 27 2006

We loaded up and headed to La Virgen to paddle the Upper Serapique river. This is a real classic Costa Rican river with lots of braided rocky rapids, fun play features and lots of avian life, the Serapique is just lots of fun. The rivers starts out with a very technical rapid called, Cafe da Manhan (trans: Morning Coffee), that at the level we paddled it was Class III+ but at higher water is definitely a Class IV. The river did not let up at all after that, having a very consistent gradient it remained very fun Class III-III+ for seven miles. Most of the folks took out at the first bridge but others in our group were not done paddling yet, so they opted to paddle another seven miles down to our hotel, the Selva Verde Lodge. We were serenaded by a troop of Howler monkeys and slept peaceful to the sounds of the tropical jungle.
Tuesday, Nov 28 2006
Today we ride the bull, el Rio Toro. We drove up river to the Recreo Verde and put in three or four miles above the main bridge. This is river has some really fun continuous Class III-III+ I have paddled. The upper part from Recreo Verde down to the bridge goes through some beautiful gorges, this part of the river is not accessible by land, the only way to get in here is going down the river. The inaccessibility of the run makes this a very committing section of river, no way to get out but going down the river. The lower part of the Rio Toro is pure fun, if you like wall shot rapids that is. A wall shot is when the river goes down a very shallow braided rapid then hits a wall and makes a 90 turn. That turn up against the wall can be tricky as the water is very funky and rolling in that funky water was a challenge. I counted over 25 wall shots on the lower section and there were probably more. At the end of the this day, Lori and the crew invented the "Wall Shot" shot, part coffee liqueur and part Centurion rum, we toasted the Rio Toro and enjoyed the warm tingly feeling it gave us.

Wednesday Nov 28 2006
Howler monkeys sent us on our way to the Rio Reventazion, one of the classic big water rivers of Costa Rica. A good way to think about this river is to imagine the lower Gauley River in West Virginia between 5000 and 7000 cfs. This river has some very long continuous Class IV-IV+ rapids, large exploding waves make a lot of the rapids hard to read from the top.The best way was to come to the top of a large wave in the rapid then shake the water out of your eyes quickly look for the holes. The holes on the Pascua section of the Rio Reventazion are big and juicy and would sometimes blindside you from the back side of some big waves. This river involved some powerful crosscurrent maneuvers and lots of hole punching. Some folks put in at the lower put in and paddled the Florida Section of the Reventazion, this section has some really fun big water wave surfing. After paddling thirteen miles of pushy hard hitting class IV, I was ready for my Imperial at the take out.

Thursday, Nov 29 2006
The original plan today was to take an easy day and paddle a short section of the Pacuare down to our campsite for the night. The gang was fired up to paddle though, so we decided to run the upper Pejibeye as well as part of the Pacuare. The upper Pacuare turned out to be a lot of fun, some very beautiful class IV rapids at the beginning which then mellowed out into some eddy hoppy class III. One of my all time favorite runs in Costa Rica. The quality of the water is so clear and the stream bed so fun and natural that it is just a pleasure to be on it. We paddled down about 5 miles and then ate lunch and loaded up for the Pacuare.

The road down to our Pacuare put in was a little steep and muddy for our Coaster so we had to hike down hill the last mile or so, but it was definitely worth it. A powerful tropical rainstorm moved in right over us and the river began rise. It rose slowly at first then just starting coming up very quickly making the 4 miles down to our campsite go very quickly indeed. The Pacuare rose about 4 feet in the space of one hour. We secured our boats way up in the woods and made our way to the Costa Rica Rios campsite, just an awesome campsite. We ate a nice dinner and drank wine and punch into the wee ours of the night.

Friday November 30, 2006

Waking to a beautiful sunny day our little bungalows was really nice. The way the little bungalows are built you can lay in bed and still have a clear view down to the river, just a perfect way to wake up on a paddling trip. The Pacuare was still high but had already begun to drop, the side streams were running clear and the weather was sunny and clear, everything was pointed to a perfect day on the Rio Pacuare. It did not disappoint, we encountered some very exciting Class III+ and IV rapids downstream and everyone had a great last day of paddling on this trip.