A Packraft Journey along a Nameless River
Words & Photography: Chris Brinlee Jr // Photography: Priya Mareedu
Immediately, the scenery took a dramatic shift from what we had experienced beyond the rim. Everything was more luscious. Greens replaced browns. A cascading waterfall formed a centrepiece for the scene. We camped just downriver; the next morning we inflated our packrafts, and began the process of paddling out.
A flock of fluorescent green parrots cavorted above the canyon rim, 1,000ft above the river we paddled. There must have been 30 of them, juking in the sky, but as quickly as they had arrived and begun their aerial display, they were gone. The canyon itself was a rainbow of jungle hues: crimsons and ochres, citrus yellows and pea greens, sunset damask and ocean blue, all cocooned by a sylvan canopy, the shape of which redefined itself with every bend in the river. What never changed was how sheer the walls were as they stretched up towards the sky. Our packrafts – and the visual perspective they provided – served only to remind us how truly small we were, trapped in this canyon for the next seven days.
Just getting to the canyon itself had been something of an adventure. First a flight from Denver to Mexico City, before continuing to Tuxtla, Chiapas, where we rented a car and drove for an hour into the park where the canyon’s access point was located. A hike with 1,000ft of descent led us to the river. Once we started down the river, there was no turning back. And returning to Tuxtla at the end of our trip was going to prove more adventurous still. Exiting the canyon required ascending a 20m fixed line, which would have to be prearranged with a Spanish-speaking guide, before hiking for three hours uphill to a village where a local might be hired to shuttle us back to the start in the back of an old farm truck.
Jacob Moon had organised the trip and had the logistics nailed down as best he could. He had paddled this river, to remain nameless, only once before but at a much-accelerated rate. Though he’s a mountain man at heart, he once described this canyon as his favourite place on Earth. Now he wanted to return in order to explore it at a more leisurely pace. His last-minute invitation, and my penchant for agreement, had landed me in Chiapas, Mexico, two days after filming a project in Quebec. After 10 days of being hustled around by clients, I was ready to unwind. A week paddling through a canyon with like-minded folk seemed like the perfect way to escape the bustle of the city and my work. My partner Priya and I joined five others, including Jake. Priya and I had gotten to know Jake on an expedition to cross the Southern Alps in New Zealand. I had introduced two others, Taylor and Hayley, to alpinism 18 months earlier in Chamonix, but hadn’t seen them since. This trip would provide a chance for us all to reconnect. Jeff had paddled the river with Jake the first time around, but was back for more with his neighbour, Kavic, in tow.
We spent the first couple of days gathering supplies and tracking permits before hiking into the canyon. Immediately, the scenery took a dramatic shift from what we had experienced beyond the rim. Everything was more luscious. Greens replaced browns. A cascading waterfall formed a centrepiece for the scene. We camped just downriver; the next morning we inflated our packrafts, and began the process of paddling out.
From the start, I was at the rear of our caravan, with a 105l waterproof duffel full of two people’s food, an ultralight tent (complemented by equally light, but oh-so-comfortable camp chairs), and half of the group’s gear awkwardly strapped to my bow. Distributing the weight evenly inside my raft using the cargo fly was not an option, as I’d soon discover. Research conducted before accepting the trip invitation, via an archaic guiding website, had revealed that this particular river was a destination for whitewater rafting. High-volume flow, with lots of big, class-four-plus rapids. Those trips, however, are typically run in October. After the rainy season. We’d be paddling the river in April, before the rainy season had even begun. This meant that there were a lot of features that create rapids, but without the water volume and hydraulics to traverse them. But this trip’s timing created a lower barrier of entry so that even less-experienced paddlers could participate. As an added bonus, there was a plethora of sandbars that made for incredible beach campsites.
In reality, though, it had begun to feel more like a raft-dragging trip than a packrafting trip: for the first couple of days we hauled, heaved, and portaged our boats over more rapids than we paddled. When we encountered rapids that did have enough water to paddle, the low flow made them extremely technical; combined with the unwieldy load distribution of my gear, it seemed like I was swimming on every one. Not being able to cleanly run a line, when I had paddled much more committing whitewater before, was incredibly frustrating. Each rock I got stuck on, each time I flipped, gradually eroded my patience until I was not sure if this was fun any more. This was amplified by the fact that I was the only one having any problems getting through. For two days, I endured. My mind wandered in an effort to escape the painfully slow process of descending the river. I lived everywhere except in the moment. Despite the spectacular scenery, and despite the wonderful company, it was a constant struggle.
On the second night, we camped across from a turquoise cascade that shimmered like some otherworldly veil. It moved so easily, constantly, and without hindrance or interruption – the precise opposite of my trip so far. I wondered if it was sending me a message. Perhaps it was; the next morning it proved to be my salvation. The river’s volume had increased. My load distribution had not improved, but for the first time since we had first put in, I was able to paddle through a rapid without getting completely beaten up. The third day faded into the fourth and, with each stream we passed, conditions on the river improved. My boat continued to handle like a fat pig in water, but I had finally begun to be present in each moment. Then, as though the universe had been waiting for me to come around, to make my own way from darkness to light, we rounded a bend; there lay a place like no other. Paradise found.
We hauled, heaved, and portaged our boats over more rapids than we paddled. When we encountered rapids that did have enough water to paddle, the low flow made them extremely technical; combined with the unwieldy load distribution of my gear, it seemed like I was swimming on every one.
We initiated an easy boulder problem to climb out of the water and up onto the overhanging blocky platform. We found another level to climb to, which allowed for an 8m leap. Three… two… one… and we all jumped, soaring through the air like the parrots from the canyon rim.
A great rapid beckoned to me. After scouting the line, we discovered that it was the first one that had enough volume and hydraulics to cleanly run. We entered it from the shore one at a time. A 3ft drop led into a pool. From there a quick right turn led to another rapid before emptying each paddler out into the most perfect oasis. Excited about the prospect of finding proper whitewater, and about the opportunity to put the boat I chosen (a new offering from Alpacka) through as tough a time as possible, I ditched my duffel on a boulder field, climbed into my boat, and secured my spray skirt. It was time to send.
On exiting the eddy, my boat and I were immediately hauled into savage violence. The drop thrilled me. Gravity took me in its inescapable grip and sucked me downwards; air suffused with spray stung my face and pressed against my chest. The pool below rushed up to meet me, an uncontrollable force seeking to drag me in and envelop me entirely. The cold water shocked me, disorienting for a moment, but I had just enough time to recompose before the next rapid. I rounded the corner like a man possessed, and was thrust out the shoot and into a flat, calm pool where the rest of the group waited, beaming as much as I was. They all seemed content to wait some more, relax and watch the show. Perhaps to explore. I wanted to go again, to delight in that magic, so I portaged back to the start to run it again. Then again. By my third run, Jeff and Kavic had positioned themselves atop a blocky, overhanging cliff band 20ft above the water. As the final rapid shot me out of the line, they both leapt towards the sky and rotated backwards for as long as gravity could be defied. Time slowed as they sailed over my boat and landed in the deep emerald waters to my right. I ran the rapids two more times before I parked my boat.
The pain and frustration of dragging boat and kit for two days bled into a faded grey memory in the light of that perfect line. I was fired up. The potential for some cliff jumping sweetened the afternoon still further. I beached my boat and swam across the river to join Kavic and Jeff at the edge of a craggy, moss-strewn limestone cliff. We initiated an easy boulder problem to climb out of the water and up onto the overhanging blocky platform. We found another level to climb to, which allowed for an 8m leap. Three… two… one… and we all jumped, soaring through the air like the parrots from the canyon rim. For a moment we hung there, seemingly motionless, until we plunged into the shimmering pea-green water and kicked off the sandy river bed. Then we climbed up and jumped again. It was magical.
Across from the cliff, where we had parked our boats and where most of the team relaxed, a thought began to unfold in my mind. I swam over and examined the ground. A plan clarified. There was a series of flattish, elevated, blocky platforms just large enough for tents. A rock peninsula jutting out into the river created two small bays. It was the perfect place to park the boats and hang out in the middle while cooking dinner. Above was a breathtaking view of the 500m canyon wall, its horseshoe curve enveloping the river’s arc on both sides.
High on life like I hadn’t been for a long time, I told the team that this ought to be our camp for the night. It was bliss. Unlike anything I’d ever seen. My idea, however, was met with scepticism: this wasn’t a sandy beach. But with free-standing tents and thick air pads, I remonstrated, there was no reason we couldn’t pitch on the rock – we had all done it many times before in alpine terrain. My enthusiasm might have been persuasion enough, but Priya and I began to pitch our tent before anyone could say no. The rest followed suit.
We ate dinner by lamplight, and Priya and I turned in early to fully appreciate our elevated sleeping platform. With the fly off, we gazed at a panoramic vista that seemed only to be ours: the moonlit canyon walls, silver and smooth, and the glittering, star-strewn sky. Bats darted around us, screeching. Insects chirped. Frogs croaked. The night was alive, dancing and singing to nature’s music, and together we drifted into comfortable, relaxed sleep.
For the next few days, until the end of our trip, the canyon evolved continually. It became increasingly dramatic as its walls seemed to grow inexorably, stacking one on the other. The river narrowed. Water volume increased. Hydraulics eddied and spiralled. Paddling improved, and although my awkwardly distributed load rewarded me with swim after swim, they no longer bothered me. Each day was spectacular and somehow different from the one before, each campsite more beautiful and dramatic. Yet nothing captured the essence of play like that beloved oasis. I longed to return to it, but river trips mimic life. They play out best when you simply give in to the flow, but pause to appreciate the fleeting moments before they disappear.
This story was first published in Sidetracked Magazine Volume 15.
Water volume increased. Hydraulics eddied and spiralled. Paddling improved, and although my awkwardly distributed load rewarded me with swim after swim, they no longer bothered me. Each day was spectacular and somehow different from the one before, each campsite more beautiful and dramatic.