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Ecuador: the land of the boof

Ecuador by sean morley Colin Kemp styling a boof

The act of lifting the bow of a whitewater kayak while going over rocks, waves, or waterfalls, in order to launch over hydraulics (‘holes’) or rocks. By Sean Morley

Ecuador by sean morley

The put-in for the Borja Run

In January I got to go to Ecuador with the Jackson Kayak sales team. I would consider myself a solid Class 4 boater as far as my skills are concerned but my whitewater experience is fairly limited and I knew I would have a steep learning curve.

The flight via Mexico City to Quito, Ecuador was straightforward enough and from the moment we landed the JK sales team were in the very capable hands of Endless Adventure International (EAI) – This was my first time to Ecuador and South America. The two and a half hour journey to San Francisco de Borja (locals just call it Borja) was a wonderful introduction to the landscape of the Andes as we climbed over the Papallacta Pass (3,700m – over 12,000 feet) and descended into the Quijos Valley. It was remarkable to think of the fact that we were now in the watershed of the Amazon River even though we were probably over 4,000 river miles from the mouth of the Amazon and the Atlantic Ocean.

Ecuador by sean morley

Sean running a rapid on the Lower Cossanga

Because of the altitude (the Quijos Valley descends from 7,000 to 4,000 feet) the climate is surprisingly cool despite it being so close to the Equator. It rains most days but when the sun comes out it is nice and warm but not crazy hot and that combined with comfortable humidity makes it perfect for gringos. The plentiful rainfall produces a lush green cloud forest that slowly turns to rain forest as you descend. The main road snakes down the valley and affords tantalizing views of the Rio Quijos and too many waterfalls to count plunging off sheer thousand foot cliffs festooned with ferns, lianas and over-hanging shrubbery that is home to many species of birds and bats.

Arriving at the small town of Borja we left the asphalt to make our way to La Ponderosa, our home for the majority of our stay. We met our hosts, Chris and Andrea Ryman (owners of EAI) and their delightful nearly two year old daughter Radisson, plus the two extra guides, Nate (from British Columbia) and Andreas (from Ecuador) whom Chris had hired to help manage our large group and the kitchen crew, Jesse and Michelle. We had been travelling for more than 24 hours but that didn’t stop us from getting in an afternoon run on the Rio Borja, a tributary of the Rio Quijos.

It was the perfect introduction to Ecuadorian boating. Shallow, fast and quite steep, this ‘easy’ Class III creek demanded attention to avoid the bigger rocks and some low hanging trees but it was just fun all the way to the confluence with the Quijos. I was paddling a Zen 65 – my favourite all-round river running kayak. Others were paddling a mix of Karma and Hero kayaks. As soon as we hit the Quijos the volume increased significantly and thus the size of the waves. We carried on down the Quijos past the Bridge 4 takeout and La Ponderosa and onto the El Chaco section. We scouted a rapid called El Torro, named not for the large boulders impeding one’s descent but for the many cows (and bulls I guess?) wandering the river bank. I watched Dave and Chris nail the line but then watched others have not-so-clean runs and I decided that I was tired from travelling and didn’t want to push it on the first day.

Ecuador by sean morley

Damon Bungard dropping over the fall at the start of the Upper Hollin

We upped our game the next day with a solid Class IV run on the Upper and Lower Cossanga. The Upper section felt similar to the Borja with a bit more volume. The Lower section really got our attention with some challenging moves and big holes to avoid or boof over. It was fantastic and was capped off with a run down the Quijos to Bridge 4 and the take out with just a short walk to La Ponderosa.

The next day some of the crew decided to chill out, take a break and rest their backs – boofing is hard on the body, but Marty and I joined Chris on a low flow run down the Rio Sardinas Grande which is a Class III creek at that level but MUCH steeper than anything I had ever run before. It was crazy fun and I was very glad I had chosen to use the medium Karma. As Chris pointed out, all I needed to do was keep the bow pointing straight down river straight and the boat would find its way. Elbow pads were very necessary on this run and it was no place to swim but it was 35 minutes of pure joy with more boofs than I had the energy to hit. We were laughing the whole way down and Chris seemed to enjoy watching his boats get hammered before his eyes. I had asked Chris earlier if he minded me practicing my boofs and he told me he would be upset if I didn’t.

It was raining and the Quijos was rising. Chris suggested we go higher up on the Quijos and do the Bridge to Bridge run. Marty was all fired up and I just went with the flow. When we arrived at the put in at Bridge 2 I thought I might be taking on a bit too much. The Quijos was big and brown! The difficulty starts immediately with some big moves and the river definitely pushed me all the way.

Ecuador by sean morley

Sean running the Sardinas Grande

By the time we took out at the confluence of the Sardinas Grande that too had turned brown. Marty was on fire and wanted to immediately go and run it again. I asked for a break and we returned to La Ponderosa for a late lunch and to pick up Nate and Andreas. A bigger crew proved useful when we returned to the put in for Sardinas Grande because it had turned into an exploding brown staircase. The majority of the rocks were hidden but had been replaced by some chunky-looking holes that we would need to avoid. I checked with Chris – should I do this? He thought I was good to go.

The run is really one continuous rapid but the very first series of moves is the most difficult and saw Marty out of his boat and bouncing off submerged rocks. Chris had him into the bank (river right) in no time then chased down his boat with Andreas. Nate had his paddle (river left) and it took a while to reunite Marty with this and his boat. As his adrenalin rush faded Marty felt a bruise on his pelvis and sensibly decided to walk to the road. I asked Chris if I should continue. He responded by saying it was my call but he would enjoy doing the rest of the run with me. His answer was spot on and just what I needed: not pushy, it allowed me to make my own decision. I felt good and decided to continue.

The rest of the run was a total blur. The creek was almost unrecognizable, even though I had run it just hours earlier. It was the most challenging whitewater I have ever paddled and I found myself breathing hard powering through countless holes and fighting to stay upright. I kept telling myself – just keep the boat straight! We were down in just 25 minutes. I was mentally exhausted and whilst Marty wanted to immediately go back and slay the dragon, it was getting dark and I was done. We headed back to La Ponderosa where Marty faced up to the inevitable booty with characteristic fortitude.

Ecuador by sean morley

Marty Cronin running the Lower Cossanga

The next day we headed over the mountains to the put in for the Upper Hollin, a Class II and IV overnighter in the jungle. The two hour drive provided more incredible views of the cloud forest but all the Andean ridges remained stubbornly obscured by cloud. Chris was anxious about the river level – he has been caught out by flash floods on this extremely committing river. From the put in once you descend the first few rapids there is no way out other than to paddle to the take out 72km downstream. The run has been completed in a single very long day but Chris likes to do it over two days. It would be easy to spend three days on this incredibly beautiful river and explore the many waterfalls, tributaries and take the time to swim and fish.

The run starts with a high volume 20ft waterfall with a very straightforward line. Chris, Andreas and Colin were the only ones to successfully boof the drop and remain upright but even so they each had some downtime. The rest of us were swallowed up whole by the curling lip and taken deep down into the plunge pool. But we all rolled successfully and there was no real drama but a lot of high fives and smiles after this spectacular drop. I was really impressed with Joe Pulliam’s performance. The 58 year old paddle sport industry veteran tackles Class IV with style and grace. Jake had wisely opted to walk the waterfall with the IK but after lunch he took on the challenge of solid Class IV with tenacity and good humour.

One of the most memorable rapids enters river right into a deep cave-like undercut perhaps fifty feet deep and a hundred yards long. Calcium formations line the roof and walls of the cave and the sound of the rapid reverberated through my boat. I have been in many sea caves but this was very different, sunlight penetrating through the draping ferns highlighting the rapid that required a solid boof to avoid a real boat-eater of a hole.

Ecuador by sean morley

On the Quijos

Many more Class IV rapids followed and it was almost completely dark when we arrived at our campsite marked by a house size rock blocking the river’s path. Paddling Class III/IV at dusk is interesting to say the least but I will never forget the experience of floating the flat water sections listening to the jungle, watching swifts and bats chase erratically after invisible bugs, trickster fire flies catching your eye before disappearing just as suddenly, and herons squawking as we disturbed their fishing. As soon as we landed a full moon rose above the tall trees defining the crest of the ravine making head torches largely superfluous.

Hanging out by the river was a wonderful experience made even more enjoyable by the camaraderie and rum and coke! As clouds increasingly obscured the moon I retired to my hammock wondering if we would experience a night-time tropical downpour. Our campsite remained dry and the river level actually dropped slightly during the night and we woke to find our kayaks still safely stashed high in the bushes. Judging by how late I slept in and how great I felt in the morning I must have slept really well and was ready for another long day in the kayak.

By 11am after a relaxed and extremely enjoyable morning it was time to start heading down river. The next section was supposed to be much easier and whilst it wasn’t the “dos mas” (Class II+) that Marty had described to Jake when he’d persuaded him that it would be navigable by IK, it did get easier and Jake styled many rapids. One rapid got named “Shit Show” after it produced multiple capsizes and three swims. We all blamed Damon who had taken the lead on this one not quite realizing the size and number of holes at the bottom of it. It reminded me how lucky we were to have Chris take the lead for the majority of the river, which allowed us to really enjoy the run.

Ecuador by sean morley

On the Quijos Rapid on the Lower Cossanga

Despite his relaxed demeanour, Chris was super attentive, checking every rapid for wood before committing us to it. I never once saw him lose control of the group and he worked seamlessly with his guides. A late lunch at yet another spectacular waterfall and then the river continued to moderate as we approached the take out, once again timed perfectly to coincide with nightfall. It had been a remarkable two days and without doubt the most enjoyable river journey of my life.

I should explain that when you paddle with Chris and Endless Adventures International, everything, I mean everything is taken care of. All you have to do is paddle. You get a ride to the put in, there is a ride waiting for you at the take out. We were over an hour late but the three drivers with their yellow pick-up trucks were there, waiting patiently and Chris had planned ahead and cold beers were provided as we changed into dry clothes. Frogs leapt out of the headlights of our convoy as we drove to Ecuador’s boating capital at the confluence of the Rio’s Tena and Pano.

After a delicious steak dinner at the Marquee, we sampled a little of the Tena nightlife at the Spider bar overlooking the Rio Tena but it was a fairly reserved affair as far as the JK crew were concerned with the overnighter in the jungle taking its toll on our motivation to party. The following day we looked around Tena for a bit in the morning, checking out the market where you could find everything from disgustingly huge live grubs or unrecognizable fruit to eat, alongside genuinely attractive indigenous artefacts and jewellery and the tackiest Chinese-made ripped off Disney crap you could imagine – it was quite a colourful mix!

Ecuador by sean morley

Loading the vans at La Ponderosa

Soon it was time to drive back over the mountains to Borja but we stopped for lunch on the way and admired the spectacular views of the Rio Jondachi – arguably one of the best Class IV+ runs in Ecuador but one that would have to wait for next time…

We arrived back at La Ponderosa just in time for a quick run on the Quijos from Bridge 4 to the confluence of the Sardinas Grande. The river was at a great level and I nailed my best boof of the trip, getting plenty of air time and landing straight. It rained hard that evening, over-night and it was still raining on and off in the morning. It was our last day of boating and there was much discussion on what we should run. In the end we decided to make it easy for everyone and repeated the Bridge 4 to Sardinas Grande run. The river was really stonking now and some of the large pour-overs and holes looked really ugly. I was so busy looking at one particularly nasty feature I flipped and rolled just in time to miss getting eaten by the next hole. Despite the high flow some of the boofs were still possible and it was a nice way to finish up our time on the water.

Ecuador by sean morley

The Hostal La Pasada in Tena

This was my first visit to Ecuador and the South American continent but it will definitely not be my last and proved to be the perfect antidote for an abnormally dry northern California winter!

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

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