Darcy is pantomiming to me from an eddy at the bottom of a rapid on Ecuador's Mishualli River. She's pointing, tapping her head, and finally motioning with her paddle. I feel like a flustered kid on first base who has forgotten the steal sign. I look quizzically at Don, her long-time boating partner and co-guide at Small World Adventures. Standing on a mid-river rock next to me, he translates: “It all goes, just paddle hard.”
That about sums up Ecuador paddling. Roughly the size of Colorado, Ecuador's jungle regions get up to 500 inches of rain annually on more rivers per square mile than West Virginia. Our group of Americans—from places like Buena Vista, Colorado and Asheville, North Carolina—is accustomed to great backyard boating, but we've never had so many options as we do here. Our mission is sample as much of Ecuador's Class IV bounty as humanly possible in one week, with the aid of Small World Adventures' hassle-free logistics. We quickly settle into an easy routine—eat, paddle, down a few 22-ounce Pilsners, sleep, repeat.
At the moment, on day two, it turns out this rapid on the Mishualli, indeed does go—even when I blow the entrance, roll at the first drop and sidesurf out of the hole at the middle ledge. It goes even when I under-boof the last ledge and have to fight my way out of the backwash. I guess that's why its been dubbed “Almost Worthy (of a scout).” Planning your line in advance couldn't hurt, but from the looks of the way most of my amigos ran it, paddling hard is a better strategy.
Paddlers have been a fixture in Ecuador for more than a decade. Many taxi drivers know popular put-ins and takeouts, and if you ask around, you can find guys with 4×4 pickups willing to shuttle you and your bros around all week for less than it costs to fill your tank back in the States. Meanwhile, development and population growth here are threatening Ecuador's free-flowing rivers, and not just the paddling options. Many locals rely on the rivers for clean water in which to bathe, wash clothes, and cook. The rivers' only line of defense, so far, is American expat Matt Terry, who operates the nonprofit Ecuadorian Rivers Institute (ERI) out of a rented three-bedroom apartment in Tena, a small town in the epicenter of Ecuadorian paddling. A former Nantahala Outdoor Center guide from North Carolina, Matt, now 37 and a full-time Ecuadorian resident, arrived about 10 years ago to help a friend run rafting trips.
Untreated sewage and garbage in the rivers now forces most paddlers upstream of towns and cities, says Matt, and deforestation continues to threaten remote pristine jungle. ERI's mission is to involve local people in their own watershed. The three-person volunteer staff trains residents to establish in-stream gauges and monitor water quality, while paddlers take inventory of minimum recreational flows. Much of their efforts go into the pristine Napo drainage around Tena. “No other major watershed in the Amazon basin has that level of protected quality,” Matt says. ERI's most visible event—an annual river festival in Tena—exposes local residents to paddling and its fringe tourism benefits, such as visitors to the shops and restaurants in small river towns, and more business for local taxi drivers.
Usually the question around here is “What’s low enough to run?”
Matt believes that there is a unique opportunity in Ecuador to get citizens invested in their rivers before it's too late. In contrast, he points to the Bio Bio in Chile, where a proposal to build five dams stirred paddlers to action but garnered little opposition from locals who couldn't see past growing needs for electricity. “We were a bunch of outsiders and the local people were like 'what benefit are we getting? You want to save this river so you can go kayaking,'” Matt explains. In Ecuador, by contrast, he says ERI has made small inroads in growing appreciation for recreational use on a blanket level instead of fighting individual projects, which he believes is a better approach to lasting change. With tourism the third-largest segment of the Ecuadorian economy, Matt says, “the tourism argument works down here surprisingly well.”
On our third night in the country we get out on the town to make that argument ourselves. We'd read in a guidebook that tonight is the town's birthday, and locals in flamboyant costume perform symbolic dances in a makeshift arena in the center of town. A pair of uniformed policias drinking beside us under a tent tell us the party will span four days. They settle back in their chairs, happy to converse in broken Spanish with the gringos who just bought them another round.
We are celebrating a successful “second descent” of sorts on the nearby Rio Piatua. The classic Class IV run was seldom done because of difficult access, but a six-year paving project between Tena and the Piatua access near the small village of Puollo was recently completed, and we'd jumped at the chance to suss out the run for future Small World clientele. Our biggest crux, it turns out, was the put in. A landslide nearly thwarted our efforts to reach the river, but we cleared that hurdle, only to be warned off by some locals who stared at our gear and promptly told us we were sure to die. Such warnings are common in international kayaking, and usually foretell a good run. In the end, we find the Piatua abounds with tight boulder gardens and few bigger, but still boat-scoutable, drops.
Right now, though, I find I'm in for a bit of tricky navigating of the social kind. One of the cops we're drinking with smiles leadingly and addresses me. I study his round, pockmarked face, accentuated by a stout black 'stache, but about all I catch are the words “amiga” and “muy bonita.” He reaches out as if to stroke my face. He asks how long we will be in Ecuador and I'm psyched that I can answer in Spanish, “only seven days, one more in Tena” before we return to the Small World Adventures basecamp in the village of San Francisco de Borja, about a three-hour drive over the Andes.
Now Bryan, who boasts a mastery of the local tongue greater than Roger and I combined, is struggling to catch increasingly slurred Spanish over blaring music. He's telling Julio the Cop about me. I catch the words “kayakista” and “escribe.” “El numero de telefono” is unmistakable in almost any western language, especially accompanied by Julio sliding his notepad across the table my way and tapping it with a pen. I push it back his way and frantically search for the words to say, “No, you give me your phone number, and I'll call you.” I tuck away the yellow slip of paper; he peppers the rest of our conversation with an occasional sly smile, drunken wink, and thumb and pinky to his ear in a “phone” motion. By breakfast the next morning everyone has heard about our little run-in with the law, and the boys taunt me for the rest of the week.
A few days later, at Small World's rustic lodge on the Quijos, it has started to rain. The fat droplets are amplified as they drum on the metal roof. We discuss the plan for tomorrow.
“Usually the question around here is not what's running, but what's low enough to run,” remarks Darcy, raising her voice above the din outside. The next day, we head upstream on the Quijos toward Pappallacta Pass and a run known as Casa de Queso (Cheese House), after a house near the put-in where a wooden sign once proclaimed, “Se Vende Queso” (cheese for sale).
The house is still there, but there's no sign and presumably no cheese. Just a swollen streambed the consistency and color of chocolate milk. The white vee's in the river that appeared innocent enough from the road a few hundred feet above are a roiling froth at river level. At the put-in, my hands shake a little as I snap my sprayskirt. As we peel out, the amount of water pumping through the Quijos belies its seemingly manageable 130-foot-per mile description; we are going fast.
Clinging to the bank and sloshing against each other in the first eddy big enough to accommodate six creekboats, we exchange wide-eyed glances. This is when Don advises us to “rest on the fly” in the boogie water. This sounds like great advice to my adrenalized brain—I'm pulling on every stroke with all I've got just to maneuver in the stiff current–careening back onto the river's silty tongue, however, I'm left with the impression that Don has a sick idea of what he considers “boogie water.” More than one rogue wave has knocked me off balance, snapped me upside down, and promptly righted my kayak before I could even lift a paddle blade to the surface. A few rapids down I'm working on Don's advice to “practice the art of zen boating.” I'm still not quite sure what that means but it seems to work; I manage to catch a few breaths while bobbing over the brown peaks, throwing in a brace stroke here and there.
We pull out to scout a rapid called Piggly Wiggly. From our perch on the boulder-strewn outcropping high on river left, the line down the right channel looks a little like Iron Ring on the Gauley—a big V-shaped wavehole with at least two-thirds of the river's flow whooshing through the middle. I'm certain of the line—hit that thing just a hair to the right of the jagged peak. Get too far right, just like at Iron Ring, and there's a curler spinning off the right bank with the power to pick up an unsuspecting kayak and toss it directly into the left-side maw. I'd made that mistake on the Gauley and vowed never to repeat it, but standing here on a muddy riverbank far from West Virginia, I'm not so sure I can keep that promise. Darcy asks if I feel good about the line. I answer “yes” with as much confidence as I can muster, while inside my stomach sinks with the memory of how things played out after my last scout on the Mishualli.
It seems my luck is turning, however, or maybe I'm finally able to take Darcy's advice from a few days ago. I line up between the entrance waves, crash through the big one, and get spit into an eddy at the bottom as planned. A creative sneak down the rest of the rapid involves penciling over a small lip and “lowsiding” through a crack, then we're back to impromptu boofing over mid-stream boulders and taking waves in the chest. Casa de Queso crescendos into a final big hit at the bottom of a dicey chute in a rapid called Esquina (Corner) before the runout to our takeout at the next bridge.
The run turns out to be nothing unmanageable (Don compared it to the North Fork Payette), though a few of the guys walk Esquina out of sheer exhaustion. That's what they get, I figure, for paddling so hard all week.
IF YOU GO:
Small World Adventures (800-58KAYAK, smallworldadventures.com) runs fully outfitted trips and rents boats and equipment from their lodge in San Francisco de Borja, about a three-hour drive from Quito. Their guidebook, The Kayakers Guide to Ecuador, is available at the basecamp or through the Web site. Delta, Continental, and American Airlines have flights to Quito but do not accept kayaks as baggage. Panamanian carrier Copa Air connects through Panama City and flies from L.A., Houston, D.C., New York, and Miami and allows kayaks for a $50 oversized baggage fee. If staying overnight in Quito, the kayaker-owned Crossroads hotel (02 223 4735) is one of the cheapest options, with shared or private rooms from $6-$25 a night. Buses run daily from Quito to the Quijos or Napo drainages (about $TK-TK); it's best cross over Papallacta Pass (about three hours from Quito) in daylight. In Tena, kayaker-friendly Welcome Break hotel (02 288 6301) has basic rooms with shared bathrooms for $5 a night and the Hole Bar, a thatched-roof hut next to what was once a “play park” on the Tena River, attracts paddlers at night.