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.

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