Tuesday, January 30, 2007

i PURA VIDA ! Costa Rica Trip Report

(Finally in Costa Rica! Photo by Brad Sutton)

Several weeks ago, I had never been out of the country before. So when I found out about the Costa Rica trip Brad was organizing, it was more to me than an opportunity to kayak somewhere new; it was an opportunity to experience a new part of the world for the first time! But with $500 in my account, no passport, school about to start, and only 2 weeks notice, it was crunch time if I was going to go on this trip. Somehow I was able to get a passport in less than a week, get my teachers’ approval for missing the first 2 weeks of the semester, get my shots, and pick up my new 2007 Rocker just in time to go to the first day of school and then hop on a plane to Charlotte, NC and then on to Costa Rica!

I’ll never forget that feeling I had, flying with my gear and new kayak and stepping off the plane in another country for the first time... It was amazing to have pulled it together for myself in just 2 weeks and the sense of accomplishment and adventure was fresh inside of me with the anticipation of the drops, rapids, and new friends to come. I made my way through the airport, immigration, and customs, carrying my Rocker and luggage out of the airport, only to be met by a crowd yelling names, Spanish, and holding signs for tourists and taxis. A young man grabbed my boat and rushed me across the street where I was eventually met by friendly open hands (for tips) and Brad Sutton, Mario Vargas, and Mario’s girlfriend Coreylynn (no idea how to spell her name… sorry)… they grabbed my stuff and before I new what was happening I was in our shuttle van for the trip and we went to a parking lot to wait for Lucas, our photographer for the trip.

The Costa Rica trip happened for one reason. Brad wanted to run big waterfalls, and he had his eye on La Fortuna… What really happened on our trip, turned out to be completely different than what any of us had expected. Personally, I had no interest in running something like Fortuna, but with lots of waterfalls on the side and the idea of possibly going big, I joined the trip to put the new Rocker to the test and to film with Ben Stookesberry and to learn whatever I could from my friends. My goal was to improve as a paddler and to push myself a bit more than before while experiencing a new culture in a new country for the first time!

Because of the ice storms, Lucas never made it to Costa Rica. After picking up Ben Stookesberry and his girlfriend, Lizzie, we took off to Sarapiqui and for a warm-up on the upper gorge of the Pozo Azul.

(Getting ready for the hike into Pozo Azul. Photo by: Boyd)
(Brad Sutton dropping off the first falls. Photo by: Boyd)

(Boyd dropping off the first falls while Ben films. Photo by: Brad Sutton)

I hit the lip with a bit of extra speed to get over the small shelf above the lip. The Rocker went right over the shelf without losing speed, suprising me a bit. Overcompensating a bit, I pitched a little off the lip but with a fast tuck the bow pulled right back up to 15 degrees with no problem for a perfect landing and great resurface.

(Ben Stookesberry with a smooth line on the first one. Photo by: Brad Sutton)

The Pozo Azul was a bit on the low side, but the waterfalls were great! They proved to be a sweet warm-up for Costa Rica! I was thoroughly impressed with the new Rocker. It plugged great but was especially smooth on the lip and when resurfacing. It smoothly, but quickly, resurfaces upright and balanced with ease! After some easy, shallow, boulder mank, we eddied out above the lip of the big one, Pozo Azul Falls. It's probably the most run waterfall in Costa Rica, but you can't deny its quality... it's a great drop for practice or a good warm-up.
(Boyd testing the Rocker on Pozo Azul Falls. Photo by Brad Sutton)

After our run down Pozo Azul, we took of for La Paz and a quick scout of the waterfall. Personally, I felt that it was a bit low for a run. The pool depth was about 10' lower than where it's usually run, probably pushing the falls into the 90' range. Brad decided it would go and decided to fire it up "tomorrow'... so the next day after more rain, we all showed back up at La Paz in the morning hoping it would have more water. It didn't. Brad was not feeling well that morning so the La Paz/Fortuna idea was deifnitely off, and our focus shifted from park-&-huck waterfalls and easy access to the places kayakers in Costa Rica just don't typically go. Ben was ready to leave the overdone waterfall silliness and go on a mission. We heard about kayaker running a section of the gorge below the La Paz Waterfalls before but couldn't find any info. On our way up to La Paz we found this waterfall:

(waterfall downstream a ways from La Paz. Photo by Boyd)

We got to thinking, what if we could put in at the base of this waterfall? What would be downstream? Keep in mind that the only thing around this waterfall was fresh, STEEP jungle and that the hike in is "muy peligroso" (very dangerous) to stay the least. It was also a lot farther away than it looks in that photo. More like this:

(the falls from the road. photo by Boyd)

After talking to some locals, the hike sounded like a bad idea... but exactly what I think we were all looking for. Before we knew it, Ben had paid a local man, Senario, to show us the way into the gorge as our jungle guide. With only 5 hours of daylight left (4 in the jungle) we quickly geared up for the hike in. Ben, Lizzie (his girlfriend), me, and Senario took off down a hill and through a field and into the rainforest. Within the first 5 or 10 minutes Senario turned around and warned us not to get an upcoming tree into our eyes and not to rub our eyes after touching it. If we did, he said, it would make us blind. Before I could say much of anything, we're climbing through this tree and another and another, pretty much setting the mood for the rest of the hike. The rainforest is an interesting place, but it seems like everything in it will kill you or mangle you somehow... everything seemed poisonous or sharp, but absolutely beautiful. climbing our way down the steepest, mudiest forrest floor I've ever seen, we could finally hear water! Once in the river and with the sweat washed away for a moment, we began our trek upstream to the base of the waterfall.

(Our fearless guide Senario in rubber boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt...& he couldn't swim! )

The craziest thing about having Senario as our guide was that once we reached the river, he still kept up. We told him he didn't have to go up with us, but he insisted. He couldn't swim and had no gear. But somehow he made it from one shore to another heading upstream like a persistent, half-drowned rat...with the biggest smile I had ever seen, only stopping to dump out his rubber boots. He really made us feel like pussies in there...us in all our paddling gear, helmets and everything. And we were glad to have it on!

(me looking up at the falls, finally made it. photo by: Lizzie)

After finally making it to the base of the falls, we realized that we had a potentially great run, but that we really needed more water before we could consider it. The yield for good drops at that level was simply too low for the amount of time and danger to get in there. Running out of daylight and with the risk of being in the jungle in the dark growing, it was time to make our journey back out of the gorge. Senario was impressed and we made record time for our round trip! That night after guaro shots and a good meal, we were still ready to go on a mission. Ben had picked out a small section of the Sarapiqui that had never ben done before into a section that we had heard of being done once before... the information was sketch at best, but with a steep 4+ miles of river to run, we put on expecting to spend only a day on the river... with the unlikely possibility of one night out. Myself, Ben, and Lizzie packed our expedition gear with a little bit of food in preperation for the worst while brad stayed behind with Mario and Cory to nurse his sick stomach. I only packed 3 cliff bars thinking we probably wouldn't take long on 4 miles; we all felt more than confident. We had no idea how wrong we were! We were most definitely in for a mission.

(me entering the first boulder rapid below the bridge while Ben films. Photo by: Brad Sutton)

(Lizzie sportin' Brad's Rocker in the upper bouldery section. photo by: Boyd)

(Ben Stookesberry on the upper section of the Sarapiqui. Photo by: Boyd)

The rapids started off as class IV and V boulder gardens, nothing too stressful or difficult. It continued this way until we reached a small powerhouse on the left where we were faced with a difficult boulder choke into a 20' waterfall with a long sliding enterance that all seemed to flush right through a caved out wall. All deciding to error on the side of caution we portaged with our first rapel into the pool below where we entered a new gorge:

(Boyd in the first deep gorge. Photo by: Ben Stookesberry)

Once locked into the gorge, the rapids changed in nature completely. After eventually running out of daylight, we found our camp for the night:

(Our first campsite on the Upper Sara. photo by: Boyd)

Right beneath this waterfall!... well, across the river from it. It was the most beautiful place I've ever camped and one of the most beautiful I've ever seen! The next morning we were thinking... "yeah... we'll get off today." We had no idea how wrong we were. The moment we left camp and around the the next bend we began dropping into a canyon... a deep, overhung, soaking wet canyon with back to back class V and V+ boulder gardens with no escape.

(a view down the canyon... before it really closed in. photo by: Ben Stookesberry)

The canyon was definitely full-on to say the least. And with minimal information on what was in the canyon, we had to tip-toe our way through the gorge to stay safe. Typically, only one of us would scout while another would probe the rapid based on river signals, moving on to scout the next drop while we moved through. Eventually, we saw heavy mist exploding up the canyon. Knowing it was a very large waterfall, we continued into the mist towards the rapids in the base with no other option (and a bit of curiosity of course). We came to the brink of a manky class V or V+ rapid right in the base of a 250 ft waterfall. The Canyon walls were so closed in that the wind and spray from the high volume falls could only fly upstream and downstream and straight back up! It was litterally like a hurricane at the base of the falls with winds strong enough to flip you if you let you guard down, making the rapid in the base even more difficult to run. I ran first on Ben's directions... Lizzie came down next and we all just nervously commited around the next blind corner, hoping our creek didn't drop over its own waterfall while knowing from what little information we had that another rapel lurked downstream. After one of the longest, highest stress days of paddling I've ever had, we finally made it out of the canyon.

(A brief moment of relief, we were finally out of the canyon. Photo by: Ben Stookesberry)

Finally out of the canyon, the nervous tension broke into laughter; but our mission wasn't over. We knew we hadn't covered much distance and the sun was going down. Once above a manky class V+ or VI- rapid with few portage options, we were forced to call it a day and spend another night in the canyon. With very little food, my left-over cliffbar was not very filling and with no good sleeping options, my pile of lava rocks felt like the most comfortable bed on the trip. We were exhausted, but hopeful that we would make it out the next day. The next day we started bright and early with our second rapel of the trip, our only option for portaging... and downstream we were met by some of the highest quality rapids of the trip:

(Boyd at the lip of another drop into a wall. Photo by: Ben Stookesberry)

The rapids gradually leveled out and the stress level gradually dropped allowing us to make some serious time again. The banks got closer and closer to river level. Before long we began seeing signs of civilization again and we knew our mission was almost complete. With smiles and grins, we made our way to the take-out bridge to meet up with the rest of our worried crew... probably as happy to see us as were to see civilization again... 3 long days later!

You would think after being locked in a canyon for 3 days, that we would be in the mood for a break. Brad was feeling better though, and fresh rains meant the Rio Patria would most likely be prime. We immediately began to prepare for another overnighter... the Patria. The next morning we got a later start than we hoped, and the whole day just seemed to stay slow. Once geared up and at what we thought was the beginning of the hike into the Patria, Ben and Brad realized we were at the wrong spot... it was a mad search for the trail and their memories as we were running out of daylight. Not long after, Ben found the right trail. With the thought of just trying again the following morning, we decided to press on into the gorge.

The hike into the Patria is the steepest, mudiest trail I have ever seen. Roots and vines were a constant problem while the trail seemed to constantly give way into a mudslide through the forrest below for hundreds of feet. Many times the trail was only wide enough for one foot while the mud on it was deep enough to reach my knees, nearly pulling my shoes off a few times. A 3 hour hike through the rainforest doesn't do the hike justice at all; it is much harder and more complicated than that. It was too wet to drag a boat and carrying the heavy boats meant constantly dealing with vines and trees while trying to just stop sliding down the mountain. This was quite likely the most difficult hike I've ever done with my kayak, and it was loaded down with full overnight and rescue gear. Eventually we made it to the Rio Patria, where we scraped and beat our way down about a mile to our first campsite of the trip...shortly above "the gorge." The next morning we made our way to the gorge on the Patria, sporting 3 drops in a mini-canyon with the last one nearly 70 ft tall. Ben portaged with the camra and I set video above the drops... thinking of running it, but opting for the portage. I'm still kicking myself for not going for it, but that is just a part of the experience of it all... maybe next time. Brad was the only one who ran it, having waiting for his second chance for about 9 years! He styled the canyon and the falls, but breaking his paddle on impact, he had a bit of trouble hand rolling up... It was really cool to see Brad step up his game and run the biggest waterfall of his life. He had a sweet line!

(Brad Sutton going huge. He waited 9 years for this one! photo by Ben Stookesberry)

Below the gorge Brad and Ben remembered easier rapids (V- with some V), but the river bed had completely changed. Only one rapid was recognizible to them and more portages and sick boulder gardens were waiting downstream. Trying to make it to the Rio sucio before dark, we started making some incredible time down tight, technical class V rapids through blind slots and stout holes. Late that evening, it became apparent that we weren't going to make it so we found a camp for the night, hoping the rain would finally let up (it rained the whole time). It didn't. After pouring on us the whole night, the rain brought the river up 2 ft that night. This seriously juiced things up for the next morning, nearly reaching our camp. We geared up for an exciting run to the Sucio... we had no idea. The first rapid of the morning was a slotty drop into a large fold and into some really big holes; and it didn't stop there. We were in for a serious ride, fully testing the big water capabilities of the Rocker in an extremely technical and dangerous environment, fully loaded down with expedition gear. Once we made it to the Sucio, the water turned yellow with sulfur and the water got even bigger... a fun stomping ride to the bridge in Puerto Viejo... the completion of our second 3-day expedition in a row!

Finally off the Patria, it was time for me to pack. The next morning I had to get back to San Jose from Sarapiqui to catch my plane back to Memphis... and that was a journey to say the least! I can't wait to see the video.... you can check it out in the upcoming Hotel Charley: River of Doubt movie by Clear H2O Films. I learned a lot on this trip from a group of amazing new friends in a place I can't wait to visit again! The journey was amazing and the change of plans lead to exactly what we were all looking for... though once at an unexpected time. Mario and Cory were awesome for driving us around a showing us a great time....HUGE thanks Mario! Thanks to Jackson Kayaks, Ben, and Brad for bringing me on this trip!

Pura Vida !

Boyd :-)


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