Winter Paddling- Costa Rica

I read Andy’s article about paddling the Shohola in the winter and thought I would share an opposite point of view on the subject of paddling in the winter- Go somewhere warm! Shorts and flip-flops work for me.
This January I paddled in Costa Rica with some friends. I have wanted to do this for a long time but didn’t want to go alone. Chris Scalisi has been raving about how wonderful it is for years. So when Butch and Monica told me they were going this winter, I asked to join them and Cameron and Kerri on their trip.  John Hense also joined us at the last minute. We left NJ in mid-January during one of the many cold waves (it was as low as 4°C the week were gone). It’s a constant 70-80° with moderate humidity in Costa Rica in January. It’s the dry season, so it only rains once in a while rather than all the time. We paddled with Costa Rica Rios, a very reputable outfitter in Turrialba Costa Rica.
I admit I was more than a little nervous about paddling in a strange place, in a different boat, in a country with snakes and bugs, but there really was nothing to fear. The water is warm and clear in January, and the rivers are relatively low since it is the dry season so most of the Class IVs turn into Class IIIs with a lot of rocks.
Our first task was to pick out and outfit a boat from the large selection at Costa Rica Rios. I had selected a Mamba 7.6 as it is somewhat similar to my boat (not so much, but it was a good thought). It fit well and was comfortable. The more adventurous of our group selected play boats for the first day. We headed out to the Paso Marcos section of the headwaters of the Pacuare. Don’t ask me where it is, you get on a dirt road and drive a long way into the wilderness, the road gets worse and worse and finally you are there. We paddled a short section before lunch to warm up. It was labeled Class II, but a bit different than our home rivers. There a lot of rocks and the rapids are nearly continuous with lots of bouncy wave trains. I had a bit of trouble getting used to the boat and didn’t handle it too well. John took a real beating on the second rapid as he bounced his way down a rock garden upside down, finally rolling up at the bottom. It was very beautiful and remote. After lunch, we drove even further on the dirt roads, which got worse and worse as we drove up the mountain. The river may be Class III, but the road was Class V. We had to leave the van behind and all rode in the pick-up truck with the trailer of boats behind us. We got to the end of the road where a small stream crossed the road and the road continued straight up from there. We walked. I was amazed that the pick-up truck actually made it up the hill from there. We were at the put-in for the afternoon run which was called Class III, even further upstream on the Pacuare. Again, the rapids were nearly continuous with lots of rocks. It was challenging and fun, and again very beautiful. We are survived the first day, with only John taking on a few bruises and scrapes. We went back to the B&B, sat in the Jacuzzi and drank beer before dinner. After dinner, we were treated to a dance lesson. I am much better than kayaking than dancing, but after a few beers, who cares?
The second day, the playboaters all switched to river-runners for the Sarapiqui river. It was a long drive, but at least the roads were paved the whole way. The Sarapiqui was also Class III for the first day, and again, shallow and full of rocks. The character of the scenery is a bit different here. The river is wider and the surrounding land flatter and more open, but full of birds and other wildlife. We saw monkeys in the trees and identified lots of different birds on the trip.
A few of us spent a second day on the upper Sarapiqui while the others suffered through an intestinal distress. The boys all started on the Class IV section. Since I am basically a chicken, I opted to start further down and meet them. Big mistake! One guide and I started on a small side creek with no water and bumped and scraped our way down to the meeting place. It made Class IV look like a walk in the park. I’ll know better next time. The rest of the trip was more bouncy Class III. We scouted one drop and I got back in my boat to head down and immediately flipped over while leaving the eddy at the top. Luckily, I rolled right back up and made the line. Definitely not a place I wanted to by upside down. Butch and John were quite relieved to see me come back up as there were no guides left at the top.
The guides were all terrific and very friendly. I especially liked our videographer, Steph. She’s from Canada, an awesome boater and really encouraging and supportive. She really helped me calm my nerves about being in a new place and encouraged me to go for it. I made a special effort to smile every time I saw her out on the bank with the video camera.
We spent the last three days on different sections of the Pacuare, starting on the Upper and ending on the lower, while by-passing the Class V section in between. It was incredibly beautiful, with steep mountains on both sides, waterfalls rushing down to meet us, birds flying, lush greenery everywhere. I got so wrapped up the beauty that sometimes I forgot to look where I was going. We stayed overnight in the jungle camp on the riverbank, just watching the birds and enjoying the view. I found the famous frogs of Costa Rica when I turned on the shower in the morning. They jumped right out of the hot and cold knobs. (It was a very short shower for me).
One of the awesome and special things about paddling in Costa Rica for me was the wilderness and emptiness of the rivers. Most days we were the only boats on the river. On the last day, we probably saw 10 rafts go by. Ten rafts in a whole week! That’s a big change from paddling in the Northeast. The rivers seemed more continuous and had more gradient than I usually paddle. I did have a bit of trouble learning to handle the steep walls and sharp turns. They got me every time. The Mamba turned out to be an ideal boat for this style of river. It was maneuverable, stable and punched holes well. I’d better be careful when I get back in my boat. If I try to punch holes in that one I will spend a lot of time upside down.
Would I go back? Yes, absolutely. It was a great experience and I think I would enjoy it even more the second time as the nervousness that I experienced this time would be gone. I’ll probably spend even more time enjoying the scenery instead of gluing my eyes to the guide in front of me.
Here is a link to the video of our whole trip.
Enjoy and join us next year![vimeo]

Winter in the Shahola gorge

The mid afternoon January sun sends shafts of sunlight streaming into the gorge from the upstream entrance as John and I sit in an eddy waiting for the rest of the group. Above and around us, solid rock walls rise straight up from the narrow river bed, climbing 30′ or more to reach the snow covered floor of the hemlock forest above. Giant icicles hang from the sheer rock walls, gleaming brightly when the catch  the penetrating rays of the sun. Its magic, and both John and I, having never paddled the upper gorge,  are enthralled by the beauty surrounding us.
It was still fairly cold when I had arrived at the put in. I had gotten in touch with the group through the PA Creekers Facebook site but I had never paddled with them. We had agreed to meet at 11am but I, wanting an opportunity to scout the gorge, had arrived early. In addition to my kayak and gear, I had also loaded my ski equipment into the car, with some kind of vague plan to go skiing should the trip not pan out, or to hit the slopes once we had completed the run through the gorge.
Scouting the gorge must be done from the top of the canyon as the river fills the narrow slot from wall to wall, leaving no room to walk the banks. It occurred to me that my scouting trip might just be more treacherous that the boating as I clutched trees, roots and rocks in an attempt to keep myself from slipping in the snow and plummeting over the edge to start my river run sans boat.  It doesn’t look too bad down there, the level is fairly low today and the enormous, terminal ledge holes that I have been told can form at higher water seem relatively benign.  At last I reached the pool that marked the end of the upper gorge and turned around to trudge the 1/2 mile up the snow laden trail back to the put in.
It took a while for the rest of the group to assemble. I introduced myself to the rest of them as they arrived. Last to arrive was DJ. At last, someone I had at least met before having paddled the bottom Moose and Independence with him at the fall Moosefest. DJ was the only member of the group that had actually paddled the gorge before so we were all glad to see him.
Having not paddled in a few weeks, most of the group elected to pass on running the first drop, Shahola Falls, a series of ledges, slides and waterfalls that drops maybe 70′ in total. To run river right, the boater must navigate several small ledges in the 6′ range and run a slide down into a mid level tier before dropping a 20′ waterfall into a deep pool below. There is also a tricky center line that puts you behind a curtain of falling water before depositing you in the main flow coming from river left. I elected to run the river left line, following the current down a steep bumpy slide.
We put in at the base of the dam and paddled across the flat water towards the horizon line looming ahead of us. My plan was to pass just to the right of a large rock at the top of the 1st ledge and drop into the shallow pool formed by the tier below. I wanted to angle my boat to the left to avoid landing on the flat slab of rock to my right. Not far enough left, I boofed the ledge but my stern landed hard on the rock. I heard a crack and was concerned that I had broken my boat.
I didn’t really have a lot of time to be concerned about that as I had to paddle hard to my left to set up for the next slide. The water was shallow in the pool and not being able to grab much with my paddle. I was worried about slipping over the ledge and running down the middle line sideways. I finally reached deeper water in a large eddy on river left and turned to run the slide.
Paddling forward, I dropped off a blocky ledge onto a sort slide, my bow kicked slightly to the right at the small wave formed by the tier below and I was off, hurtling down the huge, chunky main slide.
It’s steeper than it looks and I started to lean back, away from the fall line before reminding myself to sit forward and attack the slope. My boat bumped and banged wildly as it accelerated down the cascade, I’m not in control of anything now, going wherever the boat and water decide to take me before finally dropping off the final 6′ ledge into the calm waters of the pool below.
The pool is remarkable, bowl shaped, big, round and deep. On the other side, away from the falls, sheer rock walls rise up from the water’s edge. The main current coming down the river left slide slams up into the wall and banks hard to escape the bowl on the left. Some of the water breaks to the right to navigate the bowl in slow, lazy clockwise circles. Remembering the crack I had heard while boofing the top, I popped my skirt and looked to see if I have taken on any water. To my immense relief, the boat is dry and there is no crack. The few of us who had decided to run the falls spent our time knocking icicles off of the walls, creating mini icebergs as we waited for the remainder of the group to carry their boats down the steep trail and put in at the pool.
We paddle aimlessly about the pool for a while. Nobody seems to want to be the first to enter the outlet of the pool and lead the group through the gorge. I think about heading off but , in a rare show of good sense, decide to wait and see if someone else will step up. Finally DJ has had enough, he paddles over and drops into the current racing towards the yawning mouth of the canyon. I wait as a few more boaters follow and then turn downstream to join them.
The walls close in as the water picks up speed and hurtles toward the first ledge. I have fallen behind the lead boater and must rely on my own instincts to find the line. I paddled left around a large rock then back to my right before finally booting left again and punching through the hole at the bottom of the drop.
What follows is a series of 4′-5′ river wide ledges and slides through a narrow, boulder choked canyon. Eddys are infrequent as the water has nowhere else to go and has to push its way through, over or around any obstacle in its path. Encountering a strainer could easily be life threatening as there is no place to get out of the surging river.
We’ve picked a good day for our inaugural trip through the canyon. The water level is low so the ledge holes aren’t grabby and the entire creek has more of a class IV feel. Still, I am surprised as a few members of our group decide to take a swim every now and then, getting a thrashing as they bang over the ledges, down the slides and into the holes waiting hungrily below.
I peel out of the eddy that I had shared with John while enjoying the scenery and am in front of the group now, most of them have pulled off into whatever small eddy they can find and are leapfrogging their way through the maze of rock. Looking ahead as I paddle to my right and start down a longer slide, I am surprised to see the pool marking the end of the gorge, It has been a quick trip through and I am full of adrenalin and ready to push on. But it’s a long carry back if I go past this point so I paddle over to river right and get out of my boat.
I follow the footprints I had left behind in the snow while scouting and begin the climb back to the parking lot at the put in. The path is snow covered and slippery and occasionally have to slow and pick my way cautiously around a few spots where the path comes right to the rim of the gorge. It’s a little unnerving to think about sliding over the edge.
My boat is starting to get heavy and a couple of the younger guys pass me as I leave the path, cross Route 209 and head up the road to the put in. It has warmed up to the upper 30s and I’m sweating as I at last reach the parking lot, drop my boat and sit on the snowbank to wait for the remainder of the group.
A family comes by with a young boy in tow. They had been looking at the falls and ask if we planned on running them. We tell them yes and they decide to wait and see the show. A couple of the big dog Pocono paddlers show up to join us on our 2nd run while we wait. I recognize Jeff from my 1st run on the Raymondskill but I don’t know the other guy. Our group keeps straggling in as two young women come by and also decide to wait and watch the run. Finally a pickup truck pulls up carrying the last of our group and their boats. Out pops a young guy sporting a mullet, his girlfriend, another young couple and a dog. Mullet asks if we are planning on running the falls and excitedly claims that he has been waiting his whole life to see someone run the falls. I’m thinking that he has led a very sheltered life but keep my mouth shut and tell him that his prayers are about to be answered. They go off happily down the trail to join the growing contingent of spectators as we finish our beer and get ready for our 2nd run.
A few of the guys have decided against a 2nd run and are also waiting to watch the rest of us run the falls. I follow DJ past the large rock remembering to stay further left and boot over the 1st ledge, no problem this time. DJ elects to pull off and scout the slide so I am the first to start down. I follow the line I had previously run, paddling over the edge and then settling down to enjoy the ride. It’s kind of like riding a sled down a very bumpy hill, hold on, enjoy the ride and hope you make it to the bottom without falling off.
I come off the last ledge a little unbalanced and even a quick brace cannot stop my slow roll into the icy water. It’s frigid down there as I set up for my roll and pop back up, thinking that I screwed up in front of all the spectators. It doesn’t matter to Mullet. He’s going crazy at the top of the rim above me. Screaming at the top of his lungs about how awesome that was and that I’m his hero. It’s funny and cool at the same time.
One of the big dogs decides to run the river right line and plunges over the last 20′ ledge to drop into the pool next to me. Mullet is going berserk. Jeff decides to run the center line known as the white room. There is not much water flowing there and he has to push of the rock with his hands to drop off the ledge and enter the white room behind the curtain of falling water. Mullet is beside himself with excitement as Jeff joins us in the pool. We can’t see him from where we are but we can certainly hear him. We are all finding it rather amusing.
One of the open boaters flips at the 1st ledge and we have to hold up to recover his boat and gear. It takes a little while to find an eddy big enough for him to get back into his boat. Our pace slows down as we proceed further into the gorge. Everybody is tired from the 1st run and is taking a little longer in the eddys before proceeding.
I paddle in front of the group at the last ledge. It’s pretty big and you have to paddle left around a boulder, turn back right over the ledge and the paddle hard down the river rift side of the small slide to punch the hole at the bottom. My paddle catches on the river bottom as I pass the big rock and I flip in the shallow water above the ledge. I really don’t want to run over the ledge and down the slide upside down but it’s too shallow to roll. I push up hard off the river bottom and the ledge helps me roll up as I drop over sideways. Halfway down the slide I realize that not only am I facing upstream, but my paddle shaft has snapped and I am only holding one blade. I wonder what will happen when I hit the hole at the bottom.
It goes pretty much as I thought. I flip in the hole and am now trying to roll with half a paddle. I almost make it up on my 1st attempt but don’t do as well on my 2nd. I’m almost out of air when my 3rd attempt fails and I ineptly paw for my sprayskirt loop with my mittens. I experience a slight moment of panic when I can’t feel the loop through the mittens but settle down, grab it and punch my way out of the boat.
I drag my boat over to a ledge and while dragging it up to empty it discover that there are disadvantages to paddling a 90 gal creakier. The darn thing is heavy and I am really struggling. Luckily, nobody has seen me swim and I am out of the boat and assembling my breakdown paddle by the time Jeff and his friend paddle by. They think I stopped because of the broken paddle.
It takes a while to assemble the paddle. But at last I am done and can finish out the rest of the run. I hate that the rest of the group had to wait for me but it doesn’t seem to bother any of them.
I’m exhausted as I plod my way back up the trail. I have to stop and catch my breath numerous times. My shoulder aches from carrying my boat and my legs feel like lead. Everybody passes me as we make our way up the trail. It seems the trail will never end as I trudge onward. At last I reach Route 209 and start up the paved road to the parking lot. It’s not any easier plodding up the hill but at last I make it to the parking lot. Everyone else has already gotten out of their gear. Maybe the 2nd run wasn’t such a good idea. Three times up that trail and I’ve had enough. There will be no skiing for me tonight.
I strip out of my drysuit, say goodbye to everyone and drive home where I promptly crash, unmoving onto the couch in front of the TV. My wife asks me what is wrong with me. Sometimes I wonder myself.