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Vacation at the Equator

By: Evan Stafford
Photographer: Evan Stafford

The muddy walk-in to the Lodo (mud) run on the Misahualli at super high flow

Take me away. From these days of internet porn (mostly kayak), days of shrinking sunlight hours and taunts from the PACNW Crew. Those fucking bitches. So what we donít get to kayak year round in the freezing snow slush. Take me away to warmer waters. Take me to the Jungle. Take me to Ecuador. This is what I was thinking last November.

Cabanas Tres Rios yoga studio overlooking their personal Quijos river access

It has taken me a long time to report on our little excursion to the Andes, but I figured, better late then never. Maybe itís because I was embarrassed by the fact that three old men possibly got more hardcore in Costa Rica than we did in Ecuador. Or maybe it was that Joe Keck stole some of my gusto by posting his own version on the CKS blog. But for whatever reasons, Iíve decided that I still have some stories that need to be told, some photos that need to be shown and a short little video that needs to be seen.

The finest shuttle rig in Ecuador - "Chuk Norris" photo: P.Stromberg

Kayak graffiti in Borja

"Other" graffiti in Tena photo: P. Stromberg

While I was working on my game plan to get my creek boat on-board my ďwe donít give a fuck about your vacation winter embargoĒ Continental Airlines flight, I received a copy of the second edition of The Kayakers Guide to Ecuador by the Small World Adventures (SWA) team of Don Beveridge, Darcy Gaecther, Nancy Hiemstra, and Larry Vermeeren. Airline strategery was put to the backburner and I began in earnest to star and dog-ear my runs of choice. Runs with names I looked forward to pronouncing correctly: Upper Oyacachi, Damas, Lower Osayacu and Upper Jondachi. It turns out I decidedly liked the runs with the most skulls and beer mugs combined, variables in the beta boxes for degree of suffering and fiesta factor respectively. Colorful character descriptions and a few other essential bits of beta had me feeling pretty well prepared to attack the jungle.

Brad jungle boof on the Jondachi

Termas de Papallacta

Free kids kayak clinic at the Jondachi take-out

When Joe, Brad and I arrived in Ecuador, Pete had already been in country for seven days on a scouting mission that we had dubbed ďoperation honeymoon.Ē It turned out that operation honeymoon was much more about spending time with his wife than it was about scouting rivers. In fact he had zero fresh beta and he had yet to dip paddle to water. Bradís boat arrived, but his bag didnít, so he ended up spending an extra day in Quito while Joe and I went to paddle. We proceeded to dive head first into the hardman's classic run in the Quijos Valley, the Pappallacta. Great, great run. Steepness nearly from start to finish and a run-out on the Quijos that remains steep and becomes quite pushy with double the flow.

Joe in the middle of the Papallacta

Me, Papallacta photo: J. Keck

Joe and I were in the zone, feeling so good to be in our boats, and not wanting to get out of our boats, we boat scouted nearly the entire run. I think Joe got out once to scout a particularly steep drop in the middle of the run and routed me through. Then towards the bottom we got out to stretch and caught a glimpse of a long and juicy rapid, which we could kind of see from our position on shore and we decided we didnít need to walk downstream, so it was kind of a half scout. We crossed under a foot bridge and then I may have gotten a little overzealous with the boat scouting. Before I really knew that if I missed the next eddy, I was committing to the next drop, I rounded a boulder and plugged into a seam coming up with plenty of momentum and looking straight at an obvious ten foot horizon line. It was all instinct from there as I charged ahead determined to make the move in front of me and survive whatever was beyond.

In the eddy below what turned out to be the confluence drop, arguably the biggest drop on the run, I looked back hoping to see Joe styling the boof as I just had and completing our run of the Pappallacta. After about fifteen seconds of straining in my boat to see him coming, I realized that he must either be eddied out or in trouble. I charged across to the other side of the river, leaped out of my boat and saw the top of his boat being pushed up a rock near the shore in the middle of the drop. I dove into the jungle and came out to see Joe, still kind of swirling around in a cauldron, trying to get his boat out of the water. I helped him heave it onto shore and as he climbed out he said something to the effect of. ďI got my boat did you see my paddle?Ē

Brad in the confluence drop on the Papallacta

Brad in one of the bigger drops on the Quijos Cheesehouse photo: P. Stromberg

We had been so excited to get out there and paddle that I had neglected to pack my breakdown before we left Cabanas Tres Rios. It was sitting in our room so I figured, why not hike out, take a taxi back to the lodge, pick up the breakdown and finish the run. Our whole plan was to start out on the Papallacta and to paddle all way back down on the Quijos to the lodge (~20 miles). I was determined to still make it work. We did the above, got back on the water and found the Cheesehouse run on the Quijos to be shorter, but nearly as demanding as the Papallacta. I think we were kind of hoping for a cool down and instead we were forced to remain on our toes, punch some big holes and get pretty serious about continuing to boat scout if we were going to get done with the run before dark.

About four rapids in, we entered a long stretch of continuous whitewater. A nearly river wide ledge seemingly sprouted up out of nowhere and I charged left hoping that there was some outflow happening there. I landed in highly aerated water and had to paddle my ass of to exit the holes backwash. As I exited I looked back for Joe and noticed that the left side was pretty well backed up by a rock nearly covered in fluffy whiteness. Joe dropped in with a solid boof, but not as much gusto as he maybe would have hoped for and proceeded to get trounced. Sorry Joe but itís part of the story. And so we racked up swim number two. We didnít make it back by dark that afternoon, or for the next few afternoons, preferring to arrive right as dinner was being served and just in time to head off the search party as it was organizing to go out and find us.

The cheap Ecuadorian shuttle. On this bus they forced us to put our boats in the bus through the back window... sweet.

Pete in the above the put-in bridge drop, Upper Jondachi

The rest of the boys showed up and Cabanas Tres Rios was treating us quite nicely, yet without a strong rain we quickly were finding ourselves yearning for a new run. Three runs on the Pappallacta and a couple of failed attempts to find adequate water levels on some of the smaller and harder to catch tributary runs had us heading for another classic Ė the Jondachi. As we made for our first attempt at the Upper Jondachi the heavy and soggy afternoon air was rapidly descending. We got to the put-in bridge and three of us ran the rapid above the bridge. As Brad was snapping on his skirt I noticed from my high vantage on the bridge that the crystal green water was rapidly becoming silted. As Brad peeled out a wave of brown muddy water swept him downstream forcing him to run the drop about three feet higher than the rest of us had. Boats were floating in eddies where the shore had been only moments before and where the sun had once shined the rain gods unleashed a downpour that possibly hadnít been seen by the likes of my people since the Ark.

When Brad came through the water was covering the rock forming the two channels in this shot creating a river wide ledge

Randy, Upper Jondachi

Joe, Upper Jondachi

We debated continuing on into a run which none of us had done, at what was rapidly becoming an absurd level. The water continued to rise for the next half hour and having no knowledge of escape routes, rapid placements and recommended water levels, we decided to hike out. We got back in there a few times over the next week finding it to be an ultra-classic, as advertised. We did not however have half as much luck with another run that we attempted to find a proper level on, not once, not twice, but three times. The Pusuno was on the agenda from the moment we arrived in Tena but the water levels just would not cooperate. Too high, too high and again, too high. In the morning we would wake up, look at each other and say, ďPusu Ė si?Ē Then we would look out the window and hope that it hadnít rained again and, when it had, we would look at each other and say, ďPusu Ė no!Ē Never got it in. We did plenty of other fantastic runs but our wanderlust, our exploratory bug, our waterfall addictions had not been cured.

Me scouting the way too high Pusu - no! photo: J. Keck

Brad, Holin falls photo J. Keck

Joe about to break my paddle

Viva Tena photo: J. Keck

We did get Holin Falls, the classic Ecuador park Ďní huck, hit up South America's largest outdoor market in Otavalo and we did soak in truly some of the finest hot springs in the world, way up high in the the Pappallacta drainage. We also had a great time splashing around on a few different occasions with local kids and playing with numerous varieties of monkeys. Brad even got bit by one, which became an ongoing joke that he had rabbies. On our last night in Tena we finally hooked up with Matt Terry, the main force behind most of the recent class V explorations and river stewardship activities in Ecuador. He told us and showed us pictures of the region around Banos, where there were hike-in runs, untouched jungle, waterfalls, gorges and more. Next time. Next time.

Lesson learned, you canít just show up in country and expect to stumble upon prefect water levels for obscure tributaries and exploratory runs. Duh. But sometimes it works out and you get your hopes up. We did however tour the classics (which are classic) and we tried are damndest to hit some of the obscure runs in the guidebook. The great thing about Ecuador is that for every day we attempted to get on a hard to catch run we still got to paddle an amazing stretch of jungle class IV as a back up plan, which when your on vacation ainít half bad. Ainít half bad at all. Lots more pictures and a video at the end. I like South America.

Private cabana and your own personal hot springs - very nice

Fresh water crab on the Jondachi

Cool spider one photo: P. Stromberg

Cool spider two, we saw lots of spiders photo: J Keck

...and monkeys too

...and other funky bugs like giant caterpillars photo: P. Stromberg

young ladies checking out the caterpillars

kids love to kayak photo: P. Stromberg

The next generation photo: P. Stromberg

Spice stand in Otavalo

Yarn at the market

Mask stand

Scene from the market

Sunset shuttle after another fine day in Ecuador

Tena at night photo: J. Keck

Below is a little video action. Check it. Ecuador's rivers are made for paddling. Enjoy. If you're interested in learning about conservation issues in Ecuador and lending a hand, check out the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute HERE

Thrillhead TV - Ecuador Kayaking December '07 from Thrillhead Creations on Vimeo.