NRS: Read and Run – First Cataraft Descent 2


It was impossible to stop for a scout at the top of “Unscathed”. We had to scout from our boats at the entrance into the rapid. The top section of the class IV rapid had many flipper waves and just when I made it through the tough upper section, I went careening into a blind right hand turn to see many more tricky maneuvers just split-seconds ahead. Running rapids, without scouting beforehand, was an awesome test of my whitewater abilities. Here I was in month four of a nine month boating odyssey (see Part I and II).  I learned to love the thrill of dropping into big gnarly rapids without knowing what lay ahead.

Colorado river through the Grand Canyon

My journey began as a western United States whitewater river circuit, continued into Mexico for multiple first descents, and was capped off in Guatemala with a hostile hostage situation. The adventure started out in May of 2011 in northern California for the Smith and Cal Salmon. We then traveled to Oregon for the Rogue and Owyhee, continued into Idaho to do the Payette and Boise, and moseyed over to Colorado for the Cache La Poudre and the Arkansas. Next we joined a group in Utah for the Green, and completed the US circuit in Arizona with a sixteen day Grand Canyon trip. Over those four months my boating skills improved drastically and I discovered I most enjoyed testing my skills of “read and run.”

I continued on this remarkable journey by crossing the US border into Mexico with my trusty 4×4 Toyota Tundra with a camper full of boating equipment. Inside the camper were two small catarafts, one sixteen foot cataraft, eleven oars, and all the equipment needed to run multi-day trips. The camper roof rack held the large catarafts frame and two kayaks. The back bumper had a rack for the two small cataraft frames. 

In Mexico I met up with kayak explorer Rocky Contos. Rocky has been running first descents in Mexico for the last thirteen years and has written a guidebook titled Mexican Whitewater: Norte. We began our Mexico river circuit in the northern state of Sonora and ended in the southern state of Oaxaca. I completed over eighteen rivers in Mexico, twelve with Rocky, including lots of first and second descents. Most had never been boated, such as the Baluarte, Tlaplaneco-Mezcala, Atotonilco-Santa Catarina, and the Atoyac to name just a few. Most astoundingly the majority of these rivers were multi-day expeditions ranging from three to eleven days.

Remembering the Mulatos River, few rapids compare to the adrenalin rush of “Dos Mas.” It took intense focus and constant alertness as I was suddenly pulled into this long rapid unable to see the bottom. During the top section of the rapid I would shoot out of one big wave and be tossed right in line to smash into a rock, wave or hole. It took constant action on the oars to stay upright. At the lower section of the rapid my cataraft was pulled by the swift current, aimed directly for a humungous pour-over. I pulled on the oars with all my might just missing the rock as my left tube was yanked into the steep drop created by the enormous rock. At the water levels we had, the river was continuous class IV read and run fun!

Erik Weihenmayer rowed through big class III rapids – www.sierrarios.org

One of the highlights of my journey was coaching the blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer on the Usumacinta River. He is in training to be the first blind person to kayak the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. On the last day of the Usumacinta trip I was honored to be asked to coach Erik through some of the big water (80,000 cfs) class III rapids. I positioned myself behind Erik, sitting on top of gear, with Erik in control of my cataraft. Directing him through the turbulent water reminded me of being a paddle boat captain; I used similar commands. To make a right turn, I suggested, ‘right back, left forward, right back, left forward”, Erik quickly got the boat turned. As we approached boat eating whirlpools, I verbally prepared and directed him, “about to hit a whirlpool, brace, hard forward, give it your all, push with both arms, hard forward”. The rapids were big enough to flip us, but we didn’t tip over because of Erik’s determination, strength and ability to follow commands quickly and perfectly.

Probably the most challenging whitewater occurred during our multi-day first descent on the Atoyac River in the state of Oaxaca. Unable to scout several rapids and with nowhere to portage my cataraft, I nervously rowed into the whitewater. The majority of the run turned into pure bliss as I crashed through multiple big drops with the occasional unintended surf. Fortunately, there was an eddy at the top of the last big rapid, so we pulled over to shore and hopped out for a quick peek. “No problem” I thought to myself. As I smoothly made a boof off of a rock, lined up for the turn – whoops – the cataraft plopped into a deep reversal, not a mild wave. At that moment I realized I should have scouted the bottom of the rapid, not just the top! Suddenly my boat was on top of me, I was upside down with my head and entire body deep underwater in the hole. I was about to swim when unexpectantly the boat flipped back over. I found myself upright, still seated on the frame, entire body soaking wet, hands still clenched to the oars. I began laughing with delight. I had expected to swim, but the boat had other ideas – it performed a sideways cartwheel! These river tales are a small sampling of the astounding adventure I had and the remarkable people I met along the way.

Playa Grande on the Usumacinta offers an excellent gigantic beach camp – www.sierrarios.org


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2 thoughts on “NRS: Read and Run – First Cataraft Descent

    • Administrator

      Sorry for the delayed response – yes, I have been very busy guiding all over the western U.S.A and Mexico. Last spring I did a bit for AB, and a bit up in Idaho, and then a ton in Mexico. Just got back from Mexico. We will be heading back to Mexico late summer/fall of 2013. I will be posting stuff on this blog – stay tuned, maybe you can join.