I was at my girlfriend’s office Christmas party in Vancouver the other day talking about innovative solutions for real-time monitoring of scour in river beds and found myself saying, “Oh, Chris? Yeah, I met him in Mexico in 2007, we accidentally spent a cold and rainy night in the jungle together.” My conversation partner took it well-enough in stride — apparently that was right in line with what he knew about Chris — but I’m inclined to think that was the only conversation about being benighted in Central America at the office that night.
You might wonder how 18-year-old Nick — having just relocated to New Hampshire from New York City a couple months earlier — ended up stuck in the jungle sharing four emergency blankets between six guys, huddled around a fire under a spider-infested overhang. Also, it was pouring rain, and all we had between us was a pack of Oreos and an unmarked plastic bottle of clear caña — a disgusting form of sugar cane alcohol.
People like to talk about cascading series of decisions leading up to disaster. The human factor, and so on. Well, ours started at a chicken place in Ciudad Valles, Mexico. “Pollos Asados Los Arcos.” If we hadn’t received funding from our university outdoor club to go on a kayaking trip, it probably would’ve turned into a chicken-and-tacos trip, but feeling pressure from our funding source, we were forced to kayak one river after another. In 2007, beta for the area was pretty limited — later on the trip, we’d head to Tlapacoyan and the Alseseca River, home of the now incredibly popular Big Banana section. It hadn’t been run more than a handful of times and the only information we had was from an email exchange with one of the members of the first descent team. In Valles, we collected information from a local outfitter and pieced together whatever other sources we could find.
We found the Rio Santa Maria in the pages of “Whitewater Classics: Fifty North American Rivers,” alongside the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, British Columbia’s Stikine River, and Idaho’s North Fork of the Payette. Pretty impressive company — why not give it a shot? We rounded up the other team of taco-hunting gringos with kayaks that happened to be lurking around Valles at the time — a group from Oregon — and hit the road for the put-in.
Which is where we ran into our first problem. We didn’t really know where the put-in was, nor did we know that it would take more than two hours dodging logging trucks on a narrow dirt road to reach it. By the time we got there, it was 3:30pm, and we weren’t actually sure we were at the “right” put-in. I mean, we were pretty confident we were on the right river, and that we had at least twelve miles to paddle to the takeout, but we were concerned — accurately, it turned out — that our put-in was further upstream than we had intended. The prospect of trying to find our way back to our start that night after paddling seemed ambitious, so we drew straws to see who would drive the car to the takeout instead of kayaking. As it turned out, the simpler goal of getting to the takeout that night was a bit ambitious, too, and later, we all wished we’d drawn the short straw.
So there we are, 3:30pm, about three hours of daylight remaining, an unknown distance of river to paddle and a not-insignificant hike out. This was the critical moment — the one where we could decide to pack it up and go back to the chicken place or carry on down river with the potential for a great office holiday party story. Instead, we pretended there was no decision to be made, glancing around furtively as we stuffed what meager supplies we could piece together into our boats, refusing to talk or think about the almost certain night we were about to spend in the jungle.
In our defense, we made it pretty far. The Oregonians — Chris and his friends — kept routing rapids as it got darker and darker. But night set in and we were forced to make camp on a beach. Here, by “make camp,” I mean we pulled our kayaks onto shore and made a fire — there wasn’t any camping gear to speak of. We shared our Oreos and aguardiente and regaled each other with tales of woe, none of which came all that close to our current predicament. You wouldn’t think being stuck on a river in Mexico would be that bad — the jungle is warm, right? — but it turns out when it’s pouring rain in the high country, it gets pretty cold. The saving grace was that the Oregonians just had one space blanket between them, so they ended up stoking the fire the whole night. There was also an incident involving a giant spider and a paddle, but we all survived.
I would say, “The next morning, we awoke and paddled downstream” but that implies a degree of sleep that doesn’t seem genuine. I’m all about honesty. At first light, we crawled out of our space blankets — those of us that had them — and paddled downstream. Lo and behold, the takeout was around the next corner — couldn’t have been more than a mile. Hindsight is 20-20, they say, though realistically, we pushed it as far as we could the night before. We probably could have put on a half hour earlier though…
The takeout is stunning — a full-sized river cascades off the canyon rim into the Santa Maria. At low flows, you can continue past the waterfall — Cascada de Tamul — but at our level, it would’ve been impossible to paddle through (the canyon is that tight) and we opted to hike out above the falls where, with any luck, our friends would be waiting. This is the kind of place where you want to stop, hang out, and marvel for a while. Maybe even have a safety meeting. Unfortunately, we weren’t really in the mindset to appreciate the beauty of the scene. Having to rope boats up a series of ladders didn’t help, but at least it was daylight, and we were greeted by our friends on the trail who were quite pleased they hadn’t spent the night out there with us.
I’m not sure if the book “Whitewater Classics” was intended as the whitewater analog to “50 Classic Ski Descents of North America.” It’s probably in need a revised edition. If you’re in the area, I’d recommend the Rio Santa Maria, but I’d also suggest putting on early. Alternatively, the Rio El Salto is a classic — and short — section with an excellent taco place near the takeout. Highly recommended. And I like to think the chicken place in Valles is still there. But if you really need a talking point for next year’s Christmas party…
Photos taken by some combination of Alfie Umbhau, Jeff Sharpe, David Strauss, and me — it’s been a long time and my waterproof Pentax Optio got passed around a lot on that trip.