Sunday, March 31, 2013

Another extremely committing canyon in Colombia, Rio Junambu

Joel Fedak enjoying the entry rapids, Chris Baer, colombia, junambu
Joel Fedak enjoying the entry rapids

My six-week trip to Colombia was quickly coming to a close and our team was in the southwestern corner of the country. It was going to take a solid three days of van, bus, and pick-up trucks rides to get back to Bogota and depart.

such a huge country with so much to offer

Jared Page heading towards the gorge, Chris Baer, colombia, junambu
Jared Page heading towards the gorge

One more, one more, one more, is a recurring theme in my life. After a quick discussion we realized that we could sneak out for yet one more adventure. The boys had paddled the Rio Junambu the previous year and spoke of a deep canyon with quality class 4 rapids.

smashed into the mini van , chris baer, Junambu, colombia
smashed into the mini van

Access to the canyon took a little longer then anticipated. The road had degraded over the season, and was now exceedingly jarring. Exacerbating the situation was the fact that we packed six deep into a mini van, with all three of our creek boats loaded inside the van with us.

An arching bridge marked our put in, and upon inspection the water level looked a little low. We bumped and ground our way down the river for a bit until we reached the first major tributary on the right. The confluence rewarded us with double the water. From here down there was one small tributary after the next. Unfortunately at least a couple of these tributaries are the runoff from villages far above. These streams brought in an abundance of trash and some interesting smells.

Jared Page in the boogie

As the river got bigger so did the rapids. It was fun class 4. We picked apart the rapids, finding alternative and interesting lines.

more great class 4, chris Baer, colombia Junambu
more great class 4

Jared Page entering the canyon, colombia, junambu, Chris Baer
Jared Page entering the canyon
As we approached the canyon sheer walls shot straight up. The gorge was a few hundred feet deep. It was beautiful. Unfortunately the gorge wasn't very long, so we stopped and took a small break enjoying the location and a quick snack.

our take out bridge, Chris Baer, colombia, junambu
our take out bridge

Paddling out of the canyon leads you to two different historical bridges, both are arches, and it would be really easy to misidentify the one that your shuttle driver was waiting at. After hiking the few hundred vertical feet out of the canyon we continued switchbacking our way up to the new yellow bridge at its rim. The hike was exhausting. My hope that our shuttle was in the right location dwindled, along with the light.  A handful of phone calls later we luckily contacted Yander Gavilanes a local rafter in the community. It took a few more calls and Yander re-coordinated the shuttle driver.

yes we hike to that yellow bridge, Chris Baer, colombia, junambu
yes we hike to that yellow bridge

Yander also invited us to hang out in the town of Buesaco. The next morning we took a small tour of town and of a local farm. Colombian coffee is amazing especially when it is served piping hot, feet away from where it was grown.

enjoying breakfast on the farm

the view from our 20 dollar hotel in Buesaco

The Junambu was a great way to wrap up an awesome six-week adventure in Colombia. A huge thanks to all the Colombians for making this one more trip of a lifetime!

another adventure by Chris Baer

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Deep in Guerrilla Territory, Rio Guabo and Guiza

I have received some flack about this writeup, please understand this is MY interpretation of the situation. Everyone we meet in this area was exceedingly friendly, and I am hopeful to return to this amazing community.

Jared Page enjoying Rio Guabo, Chris Baer, colombia
Jared Page enjoying Rio Guabo

Risk assessment 


Over the years I have done a lot of it. Trying to figure out what amount of risk is worth the reward is a constant in my life. Dealing with whitewater is relatively easy; you can see the hazards. Dealing with Guerrillas and corrupt military is entirely different. Every one becomes suspect, and the level of tension escalates quickly.

pretty far out there, colombia, Chris Baer
pretty far out there
Two fellow paddlers and I packed for another sixteen-hour bounce bus ride to the relatively large city of Pasto. We were excited to be meet at the bus station by a local acquaintance, who is starting a tourism business in the city.
another comfortable ride to the river, Chris Baer, Colombia
another comfortable ride to the river
The goal of our trip was to head to the tiny town of Piedrancha and paddle a couple new sections on the Rio Guabo and Guiza. The two other paddlers had been in the area the previous year and spoke highly of the rivers. There was also a mystery canyon downstream that they hadn't gotten to paddle. On Google Earth the canyon looked steep and very committing.

Guerrilla territory

One large issue with the area is that Piedrancha is directly in the middle of hostile Guerrilla territory. As we arranged transportation, the locals in Pasto were asking us why we wanted to go to such a dangerous place. It took us a while to find a driver that was willing to go into the area. Finally Milton introduced himself and was willing to go into Guerrilla territory.

Bribing the military

On the way to Piedrancha, the military check points quickly increased. It was at one of these that our truck was pulled over. The military dug through our boats and checked everything they could. They were looking for a bribe. My heart was pounding as I was surrounded by late-teens with machine guns looking for a little cash. It took a little while for this to develop, but eventually the cash came out. We bought off the folks at the military check point and were able to continue on our mission.

Joel, Eduardo, and Jared , Chris Baer, Colombia
the team 
Upon arrival in Piedrancha we met with the local dentist, Eduardo, who speaks fluent English. We hung out with him into the evening, talking about logistics, Guerrillas, and joking - all while drinking beer and listening to his ancient record player. 

That evening we headed into the center of town to grab a bite to eat and meet up with our Pasto connection, who was coming in on a later transport. We found a place serving an interesting version of a hamburger and started chatting up the locals. The moon was rising brightly over the city, so I walked down to get a cool angle for a photo. I quickly had a laser sight pointed on me. Thankfully it was the military, and after a quick harassment they let me go.

moments before being in the cross hairs of the laser sight, Chris Baer, colombia, Piedrancha
moments before being in the cross hairs of the laser sight
After two interesting confrontations with the military, all I wanted to do was find a safe place to pass out for the evening. The next morning we awoke to the beautiful mountain town and walked to breakfast. The Pasto connection had set up a meeting with one of his childhood friends, Evan. Evan has a sizable influence in the area. After promising Evan that we were not politically involved, weren't members of Farc (the Guerrilla organization), and that all we really wanted to do was go kayaking, he helped set up meetings with the two local township mayors.

Shaking hands with the Mayor

Meeting with the mayors (Giavanny Melo and Eder Burgoswas) was interesting. I have never jumped through so many hoops to paddle a remote section of whitewater. We shook hands and once again promised that we were not there on corrupt business. Both of the mayors were more then friendly and gave us the authorization to paddle the river. They even signed a note that we referred to as our "get out of jail free" card. Giavanny went one step further and donated his personal truck and assistant. We were stoked - transportation was taken care of.

get out of jail free, Chris Baer, colombia
get out of jail free


yea were in Farc territory now, Chris Baer, colombia
yea were in Farc territory now
We started scouting the river; it looked great, big granite boulders with enough water to navigate with out being too pushy. As we scouted further down the river, the Guerrilla influence became more and more visible. "Farc" was spray-painted on houses. We chatted locals about the lower canyon, and all of them had a different version. It was twelve kilometers long - no it was 2 kilometers. There are waterfalls… it all goes into rocks… snakes… Guerrillas… coca fields… DRAGONS! Well, maybe not dragons, but the beta we were getting was way to loose - especially after asking the follow up question, "have you seen it."… "Well, no. You can't see in there."

sketchy scouting, Chris Baer, colombia
sketchy scouting near coca fields
Our time was running out. Part of our agreement with Giavanny was that we would make a guest appearance in front of the town. We would talk about why we (the crazy gringos) like their town and river so much. Finishing up the appearance, we shook tons of hands, signed autographs, held babies, and got a hundred pictures taken… we were treated like rock stars!

enjoying town life

Blast zone

We piled back into the pickup and headed to a family farm, which was only a couple miles away and adjacent to the river. Upon arrival on the property, the one thing that stuck out like a sore thumb was a pipeline. It went directly through the farm. The pipeline carries oil from the lower flat lands to the west coast to be exported. One of the locals then pointed out that this is one of the things the Guerrillas are very opposed to. It turns out the Guerrillas are partially eco-terrorists. They have opposed the taking of natural resources from the country, especially when the locals are not financially reimbursed for there losses. We walked along the pipe line for a couple minutes, and noticed a large clearing in front of us. "That's where they blew it up," he said.

the damaged pipe line

The Guerrillas had blown up the pipe line five months earlier, and there was a massive blast zone. The pipeline had been repaired, the local said it probable wouldn't be long until something else happens to it.

eating with the mayor
The next day we awoke and once again walked to breakfast; this time we ate with the Mayor Giavanny Melo. He was all smiles, excited that we were there and that we weren't too afraid of the Guerrillas and the reputation of the area. We finished breakfast and packed the mayor's truck with our boats. It was finally time to go paddling. The plan was to run a bunch of different sections - partially to go through the city areas and appease the curious locals, and partially to run some first-descent sections.

packing the mayors truck

enjoying the polished granite

Finally on the river

The river paddled really well - fun, polished boulder gardens. We were in and out of the truck, skipping sections that had been paddled the year before. Meeting and greeting the locals at every bridge, with tons of pictures and handshakes.

Gurappo bridge meet and greet
Half way through the day we stopped at yet another bridge, and the locals flocked towards us. Cameras flashed, kids climbing on the kayaks, and every lady from 6 to 60 cuddled up for a hug and a picture. One of the paddlers turned into an instant celebrity after giving a couple kisses on the cheek. The best was that one of the local farmers had brought down some of his local brew (Gurappo), this stuff was delicious and definitely potent. After a few hundred photos and a few sips of Gurappo we turned and continued downstream.

sipping on gurappo and looking for a date, chris baer, colombia
sipping on Gurappo and looking for a date

The River continued its user friendly nature, and we quickly made miles until we were waved over by the Family Florez, they offered us pork belly, juice, and their daughter. Smiles, high fives, photos, and we pressed on.

Jared charging into another stompy fun rapid, Chris Baer, Colombia
charging into another stompy fun rapid

Early in the afternoon we arrived at the biggest rapid of the day. From our scouting perch it looked like all the water moved towards the left against a tall vertical wall and dropped into a couple large hydraulics. I thought it looked fairly reasonable and charged in. The first major hydraulic was big, and I took a huge stroke and found myself barely on the back side of the boil. The rest of the rapid was pretty rowdy, and I stopped at the next possible eddy. I tried to give the other paddlers some hand signals and set safety; it was big. The next boater charged in, and took a hard right line at the hydraulic, and came through relatively smoothly. His first words in the eddy were, "damn that hole is BIG."

Chris Baer heading towards the big hydrolic

Our last paddler brought up the back of the pack and tried to get right of the hydraulic. It didn't work, and he ended up taking a large piece of the hole. Next thing you know, he was in for a major rodeo session. He stuck it out for a while and then abandoned ship. The swim was brutal - ledge after ledge - and a ton of down time. By the time he got to us, he was totally exhausted and couldn't even hold onto our grabloops. Finally, I helped corral the swimmer to the right-hand shore. I asked him if he was ok and he responded slowly and weakly with "I think so?"

Urging him to get all the way out of the river, the other paddler and myself took off into the unknown chasing his gear.

Joel Fedak on the Rio Guabo, Chris Baer, Colombia
Rio Guabo

Things to remember... Float bags, and throw rope practice.

Unfortunately, our swimmer didn't have his float bags in his boat, and recovering the mostly-submerged boat took an extended amount of time. Upon pinning his kayak, it took me three lousy throws to get the rope out to pendulum the boat in to shore.

Guiza at it's finest

Go throw your rope!

We cleaned up the situation, and the other paddlers energy levels were dwindling. We scrapped the rest of the day and were rather content getting some new first descents and a great rapport with the locals.

We changed into dry cloths and packed into the mayor's truck one more time - this time seven deep with three kayaks for a three hour drive back to Pasto.

All said and done, this is a beautiful and relatively dangerous part of the country. Talking to the mayors might be the best way to guarantee a safer visit and local cooperation. The entire river drainage looks great. The canyon section is still filled with dragons and needs a strong-willed crew to slay them… I want in!

another adventure by Chris Baer