Paddlers at Jondachi Fest. Photo by West Howland.
Paddlers at Jondachi Fest. Photo by West Howland.

Free-flowing River Festivals

Celebrations around the world for the sake of watershed conservation and free-flowing rivers

On the morning of the second annual Upper Jondachi Race in January 2016, I lean against a rock, my feet submerged in a pool on this still-wet river. This rock on the upper stretch of the Jondachi River is situated just under one degree south of the equator. The pool, located just downstream from the La Merced de Jondachi dam site, is like magic, offering cool water in a heat unique to the midline of the earth. The water is the sometimes-blue-sometimes-green of tropical places; it reflects the mood of the sky. The trees here are rooted in cracks in the canyon wall and their trunks reach skyward, low-hanging branches dripping with heavy, plate-like leaves toward the river's surface. Mosses coat the shaded facets of cabana-sized dry rocks, algae covers all stony surfaces that are in regular contact with the water. In between these lithic sculptures that define the river's course, spiders the size of fists linger in dark cracks where they showcase their hand-spun architecture; the rocks themselves the ceramic art of surrealists.

I sit, vintage megaphone in hand, waiting for the flashes of color of boaters on the course. I look upstream, and see the hanging bridge I crossed to get here. It spans the river maybe one hundred feet below the site of the proposed dam, and it's been here a lot longer than the dam's emerging infrastructure. "Here they come, the last of them," someone shouts over the din of the nearby rapids. The sweepers nod that everyone's here. I reach for the megaphone and holler out in my best gringa Spanish that it's finally happening: we're about to have a race. And at that moment, we believe this race might actually save this river, a notion that we don't dare dismiss, not now, not with all that's been invested, not with all that's at stake.

Ecuador's Jondachi River has its headwaters on the eastern flank of the Andes, and it forms part of one of the last remaining free-flowing, intact river systems in the country. The river, which has been threatened by a dam for well over a decade, provides ecological connectivity between the Andes and the Amazon and is home to numerous indigenous communities who regard the river as a vital cultural resource. A 2013 economic impact study estimated that the Jondachi's whitewater tourism industry brings over $1 million annually to the local economy.

Jondachi Fest began in winter of 2014 as a collaborative project, spearheaded by the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute to demonstrate the economic value of the free-flowing river. The Jondachi Fest model uses whitewater recreation as a mechanism for conservation, in concert with other strategies: a legal defense of the river in Ecuadorian court and a proposed protected ecological corridor, connecting the headwaters of the Jondachi with the Napo River without interruption. Jondachi Fest features the now-classic Upper Jondachi Race and several days of celebration in Tena, one of three hubs within Ecuador's burgeoning whitewater tourism sector.

Jondachi Fest, like many river festivals around the world, has perhaps served to unite and support the passionate local kayaking community as they fight to keep their rivers flowing freely. Kayaking festivals are an expression of solidarity, a unified front in the face of corruption or greed or reckless development. Grassroots celebrations are sprouting up on endangered rivers all across South America and Asia. In Africa, the construction of new, large dams is already underway on the Zambezi and the White Nile. Both rivers continue to host kayak festivalsdespite the fact that much of their famed whitewater and rural riverside communities are to be drowned in coming months and years. In the US, the American Whitewater Association and events like West Virginia's Gauley Fest have shown for decades the effectiveness of focused celebration and organization within the river community.

Peeling out of an eddy, we are suddenly at the mercy of the river; we cannot slow it down or reverse our decision to join the current. Similarly, in declaring our beliefs, our convictions, our passion, our love, we enter a flow of unknown force. By participating in the celebration of endangered rivers, by traveling to paddle in faraway places, by listening and by observing, paddlers come to know the human choice to control or alter wild rivers express their convictions through action. This is the hope, the theory, anyway, behind these celebrations of iconic rivers.


NILE RIVER FESTIVAL

Uganda

The first Nile River Festival happened in 2002, and while it will take place again this year, both the festival and the river have experienced overwhelming changes over the last two decades. In 2011, much of the White Nile was flooded due to the construction of the Bujagali Dam. Only a few years later, the further loss of a large portion of whitewater is imminent, due to the construction of the Isimba dam less than 40 kilometers downstream. The festival is no longer a simple celebration of world-class whitewater, but rather a focal point for activism, an international rally for conservation of Earth's longest river.

Though British by birth, Sam Ward has lived in Uganda most of his adult life. He began working on the Nile River in 2004 and purchased Kayak the Nile in 2011, which organizes the NRF. Sam Ward's tone is surprisingly even keeled – and perhaps necessarily optimistic – when he says the festival will persist after the massive Isimba hydro project is finished in May 2018. After the 2017 festival, Nile Special—home of the famed big wave freestyle event—will be underwater. "We already have plans for where we can move the freestyle competition to," Ward says, "and the rest of the competition will remain relatively unchanged. The festival will live on!"

"The Nile River Festival plays a vital role in allowing progression of the freestyle kayak scene in Uganda," says Hannah de Silva, the Ugandan Freestyle Kayak Team manager. The Ugandan Freestyle Kayak Team – comprised of Ward and four native Ugandans from Jinja – has been invited to compete at the Freestyle Kayaking World Championships in November 2017 in Argentina. Every member of the team depends upon the Nile's whitewater industry, working as safety kayakers and making a viable living in a country where much of the population subsists on $1.50 a day. "I imagine the role of the festival will be even more important in the future, by promoting kayaking in the region as the river changes following the dam," continues de Silva.  

For now, Ward invites paddlers to attend the next Nile River Festival in January 2018, to see the river before it is altered further. To support the Uganda Freestyle team's effort to get to the World Championships, visit their crowdfunding site. For more information about the Isimba dam, visit savethewhitenile.org and isimbadam.org; sign the petition; contact Dr. Jessie Stone or Sam Ward as soon as possible to see how you can get involved in the movement to re-imagine the future of the Nile.

Surfing at the legendary Nile Special Wave


BALKAN RIVERS TOUR

Eastern Europe

Sam Ward and Rok Rozman have at least two things in common: they both organize international paddling events born, as Rozman puts it, "behind the beer counter." Rozman, an ex-Olympic rower from the Slovenian Alps, organized the first Balkan Rivers Tour in 2016. He describes his work as "a movement that is demolishing dams in people's heads in order to stop plans for real ones in southeast Europe."

The Balkan Peninsula is a latticework of high alpine trout streams, dreamlike waterfalls, and broad fluvial valleys. Its pristine beauty is a secret that much of Europe has not fully realized. Sixty-nine species of fish are endemic here, which means they are found nowhere else on earth. Forty percent of endangered freshwater snails and mussels exist within Balkan river systems.

The 2016 Balkan Rivers Tour consisted of 35 days of paddling from Slovenia to Albania, traversing six countries and 18 rivers, culminating in a high-profile flotilla down one of the last remaining free-flowing rivers in Europe, the Vjosa. In 2017, participants in the Balkan Rivers Tour paddled 85 miles of the Soča River from source to sea, carrying their boats around the five existing large dams. The crew then undertook a 17-day mission with skis, fly rods, and kayaks to explore the expedition adventure potential of the Dinaric Alps. "We are bringing fresh breeze to the scene of nature conservation as we think it should be fun, the action contrary to the boring and expert-only field of activism. Our project is proving that nature conservation is rock ‘n’ roll and that anybody can join in at any time."

The Vjosa, the last free-flowing European river outside of Russia, traverses the peninsula and empties into the Adriatic Sea. Near the Vjosa's headwaters in Albania, a hydro-project has been in a state of partial construction for the last decade, stalled amid ardent protest from environmental groups. In all, 2700 more projects are planned for the Balkan Peninsula, a number that has shaken Rozman and his paddling partner Zac Kunic to the point of dedicated action. Rozman likes to quote Jeff Johnson, a gritty surfer-photographer whose work is often featured on the pages of Patagonia catalogs: "If you love a place, you have a duty to protect it."

"We are exposing the unpleasant truth about how big companies are taking advantage of local people and last pristine nature in Europe just to make more money," Rozman says. The German NGO Riverwatch, one of Rozman's partners in the BRT project, is pushing for the declaration of Vjosa National Park, the first-ever wild river national park designation in Europe. To apply Johnson's creed, "This duty can't be more sincere and couldn't feel more right than when you dive into helping save a river," adds Rozman. "Since Earth is home to everyone, I think this is a perfect experiment to prove we don't care too much about politics and borders, but we see the bigger picture. We all depend on Nature, whether we admit or not, and it comes to be really simple at the end."

A huge victory came on May 2, 2017 when an Albanian court ruled in the country's first-ever environmental lawsuit that the Vjosa River must remain undammed. The court cited inadequate environmental impact studies and lack of public consultation as the basis for its ruling. When the 2017 tour came to a close not long after, Rozman posted to social media: "This is not the end – we have just gained even more momentum for future battles. Raise your hand, paddle, rod and beer in the fight for the right thing! Make love, not dams – spill beer, not blood." Rock and roll, indeed.

THE UNDAMAGED – documentary teaser from Leeway Collective on Vimeo.


MACHU PICCHU KAYAK FEST

Peru

Thousands of miles from the karst fields and bora winds of Eastern Europe, an alliance of South American citizens is fighting to keep big dams off of their remaining free-flowing rivers. Across the Andean region, kayakers are unifying efforts to preserve rivers of ecological, recreational, and cultural value.

After her older brother Juanito died on Chile's Nulahue River in late 2014, Sandra de Ugarte committed herself to perpetuating her brother's legacy and grooming future advocates for river conservation through education, celebration, and human connection. "After Juan passed away, I took time off and spent time in United States with my older sister. During this time some incredible female paddlers and friends of Juan's—Anna Bruno and Carmen Kuntz—approached me with the idea of honoring Juan’s legacy through Peruvian youth, and the Juanito de Ugarte Memorial Scholarship was born."

Niceto Yalan, a close friend of de Ugarte, had been dreaming of bringing kayaking events to Peru for years. A professional kayaker himself, Niceto saw the potential of his home country as a host for races. In 2016, Yalan brought the idea of a festival to Sandra de Ugarte and together they began planning the first Machu Picchu Kayak Fest in Santa Teresa, a little over an hour's walk from the fabled Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. "The Machu Picchu Kayak Fest is a community event designed to connect the whitewater community in Peru and to reach out to Peruvian youth to teach them about what kayaking has to offer," says Yalan. "It is an inclusive movement, created to share kayaking with all sectors of Peruvian society and teach river conservation and independence to young adults and children."

For her part, Sandra de Ugarte continues to dream big. "I would love to paddle in Mexico and run my first (small) waterfall, progress to being a solid class III+ paddler and paddle my first class IV…don't tell my dad! I want to see the programs I am involved with grow and flourish, and help maintain free flowing rivers in Peru."

Peruvian Daniel Rondon and Canadian Maison Cavaliere at the Boater cross ramp.


PUESCO FEST

Chile

In the Trancura Valley of central Chile, a grassroots celebration of rivers and reggae has blossomed into a 4,000-person festival where kayaking, arts, indigenous culture, and live music come together in a beautiful confluence known as Puesco Fest. Sponsored by NRS since its first year in 2014, Puesco Fest has morphed into the quintessential rallying point for free-flowing rivers. Escape owner L.J. Groth, who splits his time between White Salmon, Washington and Curarrehue, Chile, began guiding in South America in 2005. Groth, along with Argentinian boater Fede Medina and local activists Andres Macias and Gunvor Sorli, developed their vision for the festival after they learned about numerous proposals for new hydro projects in the Curarrehue region. "The local community was up in arms," Groth recalls. "No one knew what to do. We decided that we could bring attention to the issue through the festival. We wanted to do something more than protest in the streets."

"I feel like there are few places left in this world where you can still float undammed rivers and experience a vibrant native culture," says Groth. He and his fellow organizers work closely with local Mapuche communities who provide "spiritual guidance," and Mapuche families provide 90% of the food sold during the event. While they acknowledge that it's important to recognize the priorities and goals of local communities, Groth and Medina—both technically "outsiders" in Chile—believe that no one involved in international river conservation should consider themselves as foreigners. "We are a global community working to protect a vital necessity: water."

For Groth, the greatest challenge associated with Puesco Fest has been to remain focused on the goal: to keep the region's rivers running free. "With so many activities and bands, sometimes the focus can get lost in the music festival side of things, but we will always have our roots in the fight for free rivers and protection and recuperation of the Mapuche culture." He believes it has worked: as of this spring, plans for the three hydro projects in the Trancura-Puesco drainage have been terminated. Groth recalls a moment during the first Puesco Fest that affirmed his team's efforts. "Back in the first year of 2014, we felt powerful gusts of wind and then massive condors -which usually soar high above – buzzed the crowd as local Mapuche leaders were on stage sharing their experience of a lifetime of fighting for their people, for their rivers, and this land. It was an unforgettable, powerful moment. Everything felt like it made sense."

Sam Ricketts among the beauty of the Puesco River Valley. Photo by Tait Troutman.


SAMANA FEST

Colombia

Some rivers are left undammed because laws protect them, they are culturally or economically significant in their natural state, or they boast some factor that limits their viability as an ideal site for hydro. Colombia's Samana River, however, still flows freely for a different reason: It runs through what was, during Colombia's 52-year war, a violent and uninhabitable swath of jungle, its banks controlled by paramilitaries, its riverside families forcibly displaced. The Samana was effectively abandoned, forgotten, and preserved in its pristine condition by human violence, by a tragic civil war called La Violencia and the decades of fighting that followed.

Jules Domine grew up in the French Alps but lives now in Medellin. "After exploring and paddling the world to my heart's content, I realized the rivers that gave me so much joy were becoming polluted or choked, contaminated with heavy metals from mining, turned into sewage systems, or dammed for hydroelectric energy. Rivers were in a state of rapid degradation," Domine says. "No longer could I go from one pristine river to the next before it was destroyed. I decided to stay in Colombia and try to protect its rivers. Here remains some of the world's last wild, clean rivers and ecosystems, but more importantly, a community of resilient and resourceful people brave enough to stand up to protect them."

Domine and the other members of the first Samana expedition began talking with locals who indicated that the river was renowned among villagers for its healthy supply of fish. But when they spoke with friends from the city of Medellin, only one and a half hours' drive from the Samana, no one had heard of the river. Domine soon learned of the plans to dam the Samana. "Most of the people living around the river were displaced survivors of the violent period. I couldn't imagine what it may feel like for someone, who probably lost their sister, their father, their friend, their home in the war, to learn that this, too, was being taken away from them," Domine explains. "The Samana offered food, water, and a natural hideout and shelter during and after war. I wanted to find a way to reach out to these people, form friendships, and work together to help protect this river refuge."

In an effort to bring Colombians closer to the river, and to keep hydro off of the free-flowing Samana, Domine now organizes Samana Fest, which will celebrate its fourth year in 2018. The festival has come to serve as a metaphor for a peaceful future in Colombia. As Domine points out, a strange dichotomy has emerged: with a new period of peace comes enthusiastic interest in development. "The country's destabilization prevented destructive, major scale development of critical ecosystems during a time when neighboring ecosystems were being deforested at alarming rates." It is hard to know if peace will prove productive in the long run. "Initially, Samana residents may receive small payments to move from the land so that the river may be dammed, but is that going to sustain them in the same way that a lifetime of fish, cultivated land, or other possible development programs could?" Domine asks. "Is that the best way to invest in a peaceful future for Colombia?"

Since the ceasefire in 2016, villagers from the Samana region have been returning to their home to begin a new life. Samana Fest aims to unite local river communities and, as Domine says, "create one strong voice against the threat of a proposed hydroelectric dam project that will impact not only their livelihood but also the pristine, natural area sheltered by the years of war."

Marching in the streets for the Samana River.


QUIJOS RIVER FEST

Ecuador

Abe Herrera has been organizing the Quijos River Fest since 2013. The festival originated when World Class Academy came to town in 2013 and wanted to engage with the local community. Herrera planned the event to coincide with Baeza's annual town festivities. That year, over 100 locals tried kayaking on a local pond with World Class kids assisting throughout the day, and the Quijos River Fest was born. For Herrera, the goal behind the annual Quijos event is to cultivate appreciation of and connection to the river within the local, non-kayaking community. "We want to create awareness in the local community to have leverage against indiscriminate dam construction," he says. "Most people in this part of the world think there is benefit to their community from dam construction that will generate work for some for a few years, but we work really hard to help people develop more business related to tourism. Kayaking uses a whole bunch of hostels, hotels, transport companies, cafes and restaurants. Many Baeza businesses have actually been able to base their economy on the kayakers that roll in every year between October and March."

Herrera is enthusiastic about his beloved Ecuador, and about getting more people to his country to experience the rivers and advocate for their protection before they are dammed or degraded beyond repair. "Get involved with local festivals and help share the love. Take it personally and be the one that does something to make this a better experience for everyone, or at least for someone. Kayaking is taking on a huge new meaning in traveling abroad and we need to give it direction and purpose: river preservation, river awareness, including locals; every effort we can put in towards bringing the good to our river community has a huge impact in smaller communities. Being a good ambassador of the sport also means to give back some love to those places that we go paddling."

Local kids playing around in the kayaks.


The Bottom line

Currently, two-thirds of the world's large rivers are dammed; major river systems unaffected and unobstructed by dams rare. The term "free-flowing" conjures images of precious movement, tumbling water, migrating fishes, liberty. Free. Flowing. For now.

The existing majority of dams are concentrated in in the northern third of the world, though plans currently exist for over 400 dams across the Amazon Basin. It's a difficult thing to suggest that a better solution be sought – that a dam remain unbuilt – when a proposed hydro project promises temporary prosperity for local communities. But certainly the intrinsic value of the river itself should be considered in any long-term economic forecast. What metrics determine the value of a free-flowing river? How do we assign values to healthy fish populations, clean drinking water, ecological connectivity, tourism revenue, recreation opportunities, indigenous sovereignty, and the ancient grace of wild rivers?

I try to consider the effects of rivers on our souls, the communities of humans whose lives and livelihoods are defined and shaped by meandering or thundering waters. Deeply embedded in the river I find my best friends, boundless inspiration, my greatest challenges, and my most transformative moments. What can be accomplished when a common focus is identified, and the power of human awareness is coupled with the power of a free-flowing river? The result has yet to be seen, and kayak festival organizers are waiting to find out.

Related:

—Video: Jondachi Fest by Mike McKay

—Video: Malabar River Festival, India

European paddlers band together to combat new hydroelectric dams in the Balkans