Ecuador – The Land of the Boof
When my boss Marty Cronin invited me to Ecuador with the Jackson Kayak sales team my reaction was somewhat muted – how could I afford it, what about childcare whilst I was away, were my whitewater skills up to the challenge? I need not have worried. Marty made it financially impossible to decline, Gina (Bless her!) made some shift trades so that she could take care of the kids; now it was down to me and my lack of confidence in my whitewater boating skills.
I knew I would have a steep learning curve when Colin Kemp took me on a low water ‘warm up’ run on the Tobin section of the North Fork of the Feather River. Colin gave me a master class in boofing and I bounced and crashed my way down the 330cfs run. But I lived to tell the tale and at least began to feel like I might survive Ecuador.
The flight via Mexico City to Quito, Ecuador was straightforward enough despite a long lay-over and from the moment we landed the JK sales team were in the very capable hands of Endless Adventure International (EAI) – www.ecuadorkayak.com. This was my first time to Ecuador and South America. The two and a half hour journey to San Francisco de Borja (locals just call it Borja) was a wonderful introduction to the landscape of the Andes as we climbed over the Papallacta Pass (3,700m – over 12,000 feet) and descended into the Quijos Valley. It was remarkable to think of the fact that we were now in the watershed of the Amazon River even though we were probably over 4,000 river miles from the mouth of the Amazon and the Atlantic Ocean. Because of the altitude (the Quijos Valley descends from 7,000 to 4,000 feet) the climate is surprisingly cool despite it being so close to the Equator. It rains most days but when the sun comes out it is nice and warm but not crazy hot and that combined with comfortable humidity makes it perfect for gringos. The plentiful rainfall produces a lush green cloud forest that slowly turns to rain forest as you descend. The main road snakes down the valley and affords tantalizing views of the Rio Quijos and too many waterfalls to count plunging off sheer thousand foot cliffs festooned with ferns, lianas and over-hanging shrubbery that is home to many species of birds and bats.
One feature of the landscape that is an almost constant reminder of reality is an oil pipeline that parallels the road and crosses the river as many times as the road does. It is rather disconcerting to know that this pipeline carries crude oil extracted from the Amazon Basin and is being pumped at extremely high pressure up over the Andes to Quito. Should an accident occur and the pipeline burst the consequences would be catastrophic for the Rio Quijos and the Napo and Amazon River systems that the Quijos feeds into. But the fact is the pipeline brings jobs; the pumping stations are a major source of employment for the valley; and with the oil being exported to China, the Chinese government is investing heavily in the infrastructure of the region with a new airport for Quito and dirt roads over the mountain passes turning to asphalt before your very eyes. Road building is a good trade to be involved in just now in Ecuador.
Arriving at the small town of Borja we left the asphalt to make our way to La Ponderosa, our home for the majority of our stay. We met our hosts, Chris and Andrea Ryman (owners of EAI) and their delightful nearly two year old daughter Radisson, plus the two extra guides, Nate (from British Columbia) and Andreas (from Ecuador) whom Chris had hired to help manage our large group and the kitchen crew, Jesse and Michelle. We also met Jon, another guest (from British Coulmbia) who had the good fortune (?) to be boating with us. We had been traveling for more than 24 hours but that didn’t stop us from getting in an afternoon run on the Rio Borja, a tributary of the Rio Quijos.
It was the perfect introduction to Ecuadorian boating. Shallow, fast and quite steep, this ‘easy’ Class III creek demanded attention to avoid the bigger rocks and some low hanging trees but it was just fun all the way to the confluence with the Quijos. I was paddling a Zen 65 – my favorite all-round river running kayak. Others were paddling a mix of Karma’s and Hero’s. Jake is the least experienced whitewater kayaker in the crew so he had opted for an inflatable kayak (IK) and he was having a blast until his paddle snapped on a boulder!
As soon as we hit the Quijos the volume increased significantly and thus the size of the waves. We carried on down the Quijos past the Bridge 4 takeout and La Ponderosa and onto the El Chaco section. We scouted a rapid called El Torro, named not for the large boulders impeding one’s descent but for the many cows (and bulls I guess?) wandering the river bank. I watched Dave and Chris nail the line but then watched others have not-so-clean runs and I decided that I was tired from traveling and didn’t want to push it on the first day. I had promised my wife Gina that I would walk anything I didn’t feel good about and I hoped this wouldn’t be the first of many.
The rest of the run was challenging but really fun and I continued to work on my boofs, trying to lean back, time my last stroke to catch the face of the rock, launch the kayak over the rock and then throw my body weight forwards and pull up with my knees to lift the bow to land. The idea is to land flat or slightly stern first AND maintain momentum to skate across the hole behind the rock. Sometimes it was necessary to let the bow fade away from the rock if the top of the rock was dry and this would sometimes cause me to inadvertently eddy out behind the rock, much to the annoyance of the person behind me who would have to take avoiding action to prevent a collision. It was great practice and by the end of the run I felt like I was actually getting it.
Which was just as well because after a very comfortable night that included being treated like royalty by the kitchen crew; Andrea, Jesse and Michelle we were upping our game the next day with a solid Class IV run on the Upper and Lower Cossanga. The Upper section felt similar to the Borja with a bit more volume. The Lower section really got our attention with some challenging moves and big holes to avoid or boof over. It was fantastic and was capped off with a run down the Quijos to Bridge 4 and the take out with just a short walk to La Ponderosa.
Another fun evening of socializing JK style followed with tequila and more delicious food – thanks Andrea and crew! The next day some of the crew decided to chill out, take a break and rest their backs – boofing is hard on the body! Marty Cronin and I joined Chris on a medium low flow run down the Rio Sardinas Grande which is a Class III creek at that level but MUCH steeper than anything I had ever run before. I made this video which gives you some idea of how continuous it is.
It was crazy fun and I was very glad I had chosen to use the medium Karma. As Chris pointed out, all I needed to do was keep the boat straight and the boat would find its way. Elbow pads were very necessary on this run and it was no place to swim but it was 35 minutes of pure joy with more boofs than I had the energy to hit. We were laughing the whole way down and Chris seemed to enjoy watching his boats get hammered before his
eyes. I had asked Chris earlier if he minded me practicing my boofs and he told me he would be upset if I didn’t.
It was raining and the Quijos was rising. Chris suggested we go higher up on the Quijos and do the Bridge to Bridge run. Marty was all fired up and I just went with the flow. When we arrived at the put in at Bridge 2 I thought I might be taking on a bit too much. The Quijos was BIG & BROWN! The difficulty starts immediately with some big moves and the river definitely pushed me all the way. By the time we took out at the confluence of the Sardinas Grande that too had turned brown. Marty was on fire and wanted to immediately go and run it again. I asked for a break and we returned to La Ponderosa for a late lunch and to pick up Nate and Andreas. A bigger crew proved useful when we returned to the put in for Sardinas Grande because it had turned into an exploding brown staircase. The majority of the rocks were hidden but had been replaced by some chunky-looking holes that we would need to avoid. I checked with Chris – should I do this? He thought I was good to go.
The run is really one continuous rapid but the very first series of moves is the most difficult and saw Marty out of his boat and bouncing off submerged rocks. Chris had him into the bank (river right) in no time then chased down his boat with Andreas. Nate had his paddle (river left) and it took a while to reunite Marty with this and his boat. As his adrenalin rush faded Marty felt a bruise on his pelvis and sensibly decided to walk to the road. I asked Chris if I should continue. He responded by saying it was my call but he would enjoy doing the rest of the run with me. His answer was spot on and just what I needed: not pushy, it allowed me to make my own decision. I felt good and decided to continue. The rest of the run was a total blur. The creek was almost unrecognizable, even though I had run it just hours earlier. It was the most challenging whitewater I have ever paddled and I found myself breathing hard powering through countless holes and fighting to stay upright. I kept telling myself – just keep the boat straight! We were down in just 25 minutes. I was mentally exhausted and whilst Marty wanted to immediately go back and slay the dragon, it was getting dark and I was done. We headed back to La Ponderosa where Marty faced up to the inevitable booty with characteristic fortitude.
The next day we headed over the mountains to the put in for the Upper Hollin, a Class II & IV overnighter in the jungle. The two hour drive provided more incredible views of the cloud forest but all the Andean ridges remained stubbornly obscured by cloud. Chris was anxious about the river level – he has been caught out by flash floods on this extremely committing river. From the put in once you descend the first few rapids there is no way out other than to paddle to the take out 72km downstream. The run has been completed in a single very long day but Chris likes to do it over two days. It would be easy to spend three days on this incredibly beautiful river and explore the many waterfalls, tributaries and take the time to swim and fish.
The run starts with a high volume 20ft waterfall with a very straightforward line. Chris, Andreas and Colin were the only ones to successfully boof the drop and remain upright but even so they each had some downtime. The rest of us were swallowed up whole by the curling lip and taken deep down into the plunge pool. But we all rolled successfully and there was no real drama but a lot of high fives and smiles after this spectacular drop. I was really impressed with Joe Pulliam’s performance. The 58 year old paddle sport industry veteran tackles Class IV with style and grace. Jake had wisely opted to walk the waterfall with the IK but after lunch he took on the challenge of solid Class IV with tenacity and good humor.
One of the most memorable rapids enters river right into a deep cave-like undercut perhaps fifty feet deep and a hundred yards long. Calcium formations line the roof and walls of the cave and the sound of the rapid reverberated through my boat. I have been in many sea caves but this was very different, sunlight penetrating through the draping ferns highlighting the rapid that required a solid boof to avoid a real boat-eater of a hole.
Many more Class IV rapids followed and Jake swam multiple times and inevitably became really tired. Our progress was slow despite Chris physically directing Jake in his IK down the last couple of miles of rapids. It was a remarkable display of skill the like of which none of us had seen before. Even so it was almost completely dark when we arrived at our campsite marked by a house size rock blocking the river’s path. Paddling Class III/IV at dusk is interesting to say the least but I will never forget the experience of floating the flat water sections listening to the jungle, watching swifts and bats chase erratically after invisible bugs, trickster fire flies catching your eye before disappearing just as suddenly, and herons squawking as we disturbed their fishing. As soon as we landed a full moon rose above the tall trees defining the crest of the ravine making head torches largely superfluous.
Chris was disappointed to find that the perfect beach he was hoping for had been largely destroyed by recent floods that had brought down trees and filled pockets of sand with head high brush. Thankfully his stash of tarps and supplies remained in place and it only took a few minutes for him and his team to reassess and set up camp complete with tarps, washing lines and a smoky fire perfect for keeping the bugs at bay. We all mucked in before long were well and truly settled in. We had chosen various sleeping options. I had brought my Hennessy Hammock, in my opinion the perfect jungle bed. It has a built in mosquito net and tarp and is super lightweight. That combined with an ultra-light ThermaRest and thin fleece sleeping bag liner proved to be ideal. Damon came prepared with a nice bivvy set up. Others chose to sleep in a tent or simply lay on a mat under the tarp and the bugs seemed to not really be an issue. After dinner I explored the area by head lamp and found a spider much larger than my hand and a locust-like bug the size of the thick Cuban cigars some of the lads were smoking by the fire. The sounds of frogs filled the jungle and whilst I could see their eyes glowing in the light of my head lamp they remained elusive. Perhaps it was just as well since even touching one can apparently put you to sleep, possibly permanently!
Hanging out by the river was a wonderful experience made even more enjoyable by the camaraderie and rum and coke! As clouds increasingly obscured the moon I retired to my hammock wondering if we would experience a night-time tropical downpour. Our campsite remained dry and the river level actually dropped slightly during the night and we woke to find our kayaks still safely stashed high in the bushes. Judging by how late I slept in and how great I felt in the morning I must have slept really well and was ready for another long day in the kayak. But there was some more exploring to do first and daylight had revealed a spectacular waterfall on the opposite side of the river. To get a better view I climbed the house sized rock that almost blocked the river. Despite a boisterous rapid and subsequent eddy I decided to throw myself off the rock into the deep pool figuring I could swim out of the eddy. It took two attempts and I was reminded once again of the power of the river. Nate watched my struggles and found an easier place to jump in and together we swam downriver to where Damon was fly fishing, sadly unsuccessfully. Indeed none of us had seen any fish in the river larger than a minnow. Perhaps the otters that were known to reside there had cleaned up all the larger fish?
By 11am after a relaxed and extremely enjoyable morning it was time to start heading down river. The next section was supposed to be much easier and whilst it wasn’t the “dos mas” (Class II+) that Marty had described to Jake when he’d persuaded him that it would be navigable by IK, it did get easier and Jake styled many rapids. One rapid got named “Shit Show” after it produced multiple capsizes and three swims. We all blamed Damon who had taken the lead on this one not quite realizing the size and number of holes at the bottom of it. It reminded me how lucky we were to have Chris take the lead for the majority of the river, which allowed us to really enjoy the run. Despite his relaxed demeanor, Chris was super attentive, checking every rapid for wood before committing us to it. I never once saw him lose control of the group and he worked seamlessly with his guides. Andreas buddied up with Jake and took him down the easiest lines and helped back in his boat or reunite him with it and his paddle if he took a longer swim. Nate was always sweep and helped clean up the mess when necessary. It was an impressive performance by an expert team and I had complete confidence in their ability to keep us out of trouble, directing us when we needed to avoid the larger holes, portaging an un-runnable rapid when absolutely necessary but otherwise allowing us to find our own lines and push ourselves as far as we wanted to go.
We came across a cable footbridge in the middle of nowhere which allowed us a short hike up a steep slippery trail into the jungle. It was another reminder of how utterly remote we were and that travel by river is the only serious option for us gringos. I tested the footbridge which was remarkably sound for how sketchy it looked. It occurred to me as I edged my way along the footboards holding onto the wire cables that the indigenous people that reside in the region probably skipped across the bridge with heavy loads without a second thought.
A late lunch at yet another spectacular waterfall and then the river continued to moderate as we approached the take out, once again timed perfectly to coincide with nightfall. It had been a remarkable two days and without doubt the most enjoyable river journey of my life.
I should explain that when you paddle with Chris and Endless Adventures International, everything, I mean everything is taken care of. All you have to do is paddle. You get a ride to the put in, there is a ride waiting for you at the take out. We were over an hour late but the three drivers with their yellow pick-up trucks were there, waiting patiently and Chris had planned ahead and cold beers were provided as we changed into dry clothes. Frogs leapt out of the headlights of our convoy as we drove to Ecuador’s boating capital at the confluence of the Rio’s Tena and Pano.
Tena is a vibrant town that has welcomed whitewater tourists with open arms but without it being in your face. The town’s river front is still recovering from devastating floods four years ago that filled buildings with mud up to the second level. We met up with Abby, another of EAI’s guides and an Irish girl who has lived in Tena since the age of 8 when her parents moved to Ecuador as missionaries and chose rafting over religion, setting up the first operation in town. According to Abby the river levels are much more sporadic now. Whether it is down to climate change or water being diverted for irrigation and hydro-electric schemes Abby is not sure but the ‘normal’ river level has dropped as much as twenty feet leaving the diving board that she would use as a child high and dry and unusable. Abby has been guiding for as long as she can remember and knows the region better than any gringo. For now she is renting a large house in Baeza in the Quijos Valley working for EAI and sub-letting rooms for traveling boaters. If you are looking to travel independently then be sure to look her up and see if she has space. Whilst she has chosen to not run Class V anymore she is an extremely competent paddler and instructor and would make a wonderful guide both on and off the water. Abby knows everyone and since she lives there year round is very much considered a local.
After a delicious steak dinner at the Marquee, we sampled a little of the Tena nightlife at the Spider bar overlooking the Rio Tena but it was a fairly reserved affair as far as the JK crew were concerned with the overnighter in the jungle taking its toll on our motivation to party. The following day we looked around Tena for a bit in the morning, checking out the market where you could find everything from disgustingly huge live grubs or unrecognizable fruit to eat, alongside genuinely attractive indigenous artifacts and jewelry and the tackiest Chinese-made ripped off Disney crap you could imagine – it was quite a colorful mix!
Afterwards we walked over a new, rather bizarre-looking footbridge that lacked any local design influence to the small zoo where I got to scratch a Peccary (he really dug it) and talk to the spider monkeys (they were far too busy to talk back). It was no wonder that we hadn’t seen any in the jungle, these guys are tiny and normally quite shy.
Soon it was time to drive back over the mountains to Borja but we stopped for lunch on the way and admired the spectacular views of the Rio Jondachi – arguably one of the best Class IV+ runs in Ecuador but one that would have to wait for next time…
Passing through the town of Baeza the community had turned out in large numbers for a bull fight but it had started to rain and no-one seemed keen on stopping to witness the slaughter. We arrived back at La Ponderosa just in time for a quick run on the Quijos from Bridge 4 to the confluence of the Sardinas Grande. The river was at a great level and I nailed my best boof of the trip, getting plenty of air time and landing straight. It rained hard that evening, over-night and it was still raining on and off in the morning. It was our last day of boating and there was much discussion on what we should run. In the end we decided to make it easy for everyone and repeated the Bridge 4 to Sardinas Grande run. The river was really stonking now and some of the large pour-overs and holes looked really ugly. I was so busy looking at one particularly nasty feature I flipped and rolled just in time to miss getting eaten by the next hole. Despite the high flow some of the boofs were still possible and it was a nice way to finish up our time on the water.
I haven’t mentioned a key member of the EAI Team. Don Wilo is a part-owner of the Ecuador operation and owns and runs the farm where La Ponderosa was situated. He is the principle driver of the pick-up truck(s) that would drop us at the put in, and be there at every possible take out. Wilo’s family own much of the land in the Borja area and I got the impression that Wilo didn’t need the work but was always available when we needed him, always had a handshake and a smile for us and seemed to genuinely enjoy being part of the boater community. Chris, Andrea and Wilo seemed more like friends than business partners and I have no doubt that this strong relationship is the key to Chris and Andrea’s success in Ecuador.
Whilst I was anxious to get home and see my own family, I was sad to leave La Ponderosa. It is a special place and I can’t wait to come back whether it is with the JK sales team or even better, with Gina and the kids. La Ponderosa is a working farm with cows, chickens and even guinea pigs (for eating). Chris and Andrea have ambitious plans that include catering to boating parents with guide/nannies on hand for childcare. It is a niche that really needs to be filled and I cannot recommend EAI highly enough. As paddling parents themselves they know how special it is to be able to boat together as a couple and I can assure you that both you and your children will be in very capable hands.
This was my first visit to Ecuador and the South American continent but it will definitely not be my last and proved to be the perfect antidote for an abnormally dry Northern California winter! I want to thank Marty Cronin and Jackson Kayak for making this trip happen for us. As a team building exercise this trip had proved extremely worthwhile and we all feel fired up and ready for a busy year.