The two alternatives are equivalent or indifferent; it doesn’t matter which one they chose – it was dangerous!
Stay at home and miss the chance: dangerous to the soul! Travel to Michoacán, Mexico and meet the wrong company: dangerous to the body!
By Seth Ashworth
Featuring: Joel Kowalski, Rafa Ortiz, Dane Jackson, Juanito De Ugarte, Ciaran Heurteau.
The story of the mission to Michoacán
A Canadian, an American, a Mexican, a Peruvian, an Irishman and an Englishman set out together with one goal. Sounds like the start of an awesome joke right? Actually it is a true story of six kayakers, on one epic adventure. The goal they set out was to explore uncharted white water in the volatile state of Michoacán, Mexico.
Michoacán is Mexico’s western state, famous for producing most of the world’s avocados, most of Mexico’s strawberries and also for being extremely dangerous. Most of the danger reported in the media in the last few years has stemmed from violence linked to the areas large drug cartel, The Knights Templar. Former President Felipe Calderon was positioning the Mexican government in a way to tackle these ruthless and quite violent cartels.
As a result of this, the leadership of The Knights Templar underwent constant change with each new leader trying to make his mark on the cartel bringing on a new round of violence. This ranged from robbery to kidnappings through to brutal executions – Michoacán stayed in the press for all of the wrong reasons! For Joel Kowalski this was a big problem, his sights had been set on Michoacán as a destination to explore for white water rivers for a long time.
Joel’s research started four years ago after seeing a picture of a waterfall, the Tzararacua on the Rio Cupatizio. The image showed a double drop in a deep canyon of unknown size – one thing was for sure – it was big! Crude estimates put the drop at a 50-footer leading to a 90-footer but with only one way of knowing for sure, which was to go and find out.
From that first sighting, Joel began his research using Google Earth in his free time to scour the areas around that waterfall in search of other rivers, with the targets of his search being rivers similar to what he had explored in 2008 in Veracruz, eastern Mexico. The key factors being gradient, rock type, drainage area, access and human factors such as dams or hydro projects.
After countless hours he was left with a few interesting prospects, the Rio Cupatizio, Rio Cajones and the Rio Hoya Del Aire as well as a few potential ‘park n’ huck’ possibilities – all close to the town of Uruapan. Timing would be crucial in terms of water levels. Based on his existing knowledge of Mexican white water with similar geology, he knew too much water in the tight, narrow canyons could spell disaster but too little would make it mission impossible. Late November to early December would likely be far enough behind the rainy season to afford a good window, or so he hoped.
Kidnapped and killed
So with his research in place in 2011 Joel was all set to go, when only a few days before he was due to travel, news came through from Michoacán that a number of international tourists had been kidnapped and killed. Friends within Mexico called and begged him to reconsider his plans. With a heavy heart, Joel changed his travel plans and the ‘Mission to Michoacán’ was shelved, for the time being at least. Joel had high hopes for resuming his plans in the near future to see the Tzararacua waterfall for himself.
Fast forward to 2013, the picture that Joel first saw of Tzararacua that raised hairs on his neck had now been shown to five others from five different nations. This team of six was no average team; they were an international team of heavy hitters – experienced white water kayakers from all over the world, all of whom wanted a taste of Tzararacua.
Mexican Rafa Ortiz had been lined up to go to Michoacán in 2011, also joining them would be Freestyle Kayak World Champion and twice winner of the Whitewater Grand Prix, Dane Jackson of the United States, veteran Peruvian kayaker Juanito De Ugarte, Well travelled Brit Seth Ashworth and 20-year slalom competitor and Sickline Extreme race World Championship super finalist, Ireland’s Ciaran Heurteau would round out the team to six.
Media reports from Michoacán were still more negative than positive but in general it seemed the situation was beginning to settle. Closer research of these reports seemed to indicate that the areas closer to the coast experienced more trouble than the city of Uruapan, which was to be the base of the mission to Michoacán. Driven by the pictures they had seen, the team was willing to take a chance and so the dates were set. Joel would finally get to take a look at the Tzararacua waterfall for himself.
After a couple of very quick days warming up on the classic rivers of Veracruz, the team saddled up and drove in one afternoon almost all the way to their destination of Uruapan. Spending a night in a highway motel, the team arrived in Uruapan with a whole day of scouting ahead of them and one thing was on everyone’s mind, an itch that had to be scratched: Tzararacua.
When the team arrived at the waterfall, which was a big tourist draw, they started the long walk down the hundreds of uneven dirt steps to see the drop which they had lit the fire for each and everyone of them. A fast walk soon turned into a run to get down and see the beast, the excitement was palpable! Arriving at the lookout the team was silent, in awe. They were looking upon a 35-footer, which lead directly into a perfect, clean 70-footer. What the team couldn’t see from their low angle at the base of the falls was the dangers this drop held.
After another hour or two of hiking, climbing to various vantage points and taking photos, the group consensus was that the drop was un-runnable. Although the first drop had a clean entrance, the landing was directly onto a huge boil, which was also the lip of the second drop. This compounded with the fact that the boil pushed into a pocket eddy, which fed behind the curtain of the first drop with no means of escape or rescue – it was nicknamed the swirly death cave!
Undeterred the team set about making plans for their next target, the Rio Hoya Del Aire. Scouting the various access points in one day, the team started at sunrise and was in for quite a treat. Over the course of that first day the team paddled around 9km of virgin white water and were rewarded more than anyone could have expected. The run was very clean with minimal portaging. Clean drops raging from 5-40 foot, fun slides, tight and winding rapids, each separated by a calm pool, each one scout-able and manageable.
In the course of that day there was nothing but wide smiles from every member of the team. When they reached their intended exit point for the day, at just over half way down the run, everyone had the same feelings of tired accomplishment. The mission to Michoacán had discovered a gem, a treasure that will draw paddlers here for many years to come. And that was just the first river they explored.
A very gruesome reminder
Ten days after the trip had concluded and the team had left Mexico, five decapitated bodies were found in Michoacán’s capital city Morrelia. A shocking and gruesome reminder that when traveling in Mexico – it is important to be careful at all times.