Running the Sacred Monkey River

In January, I reunited with my friends from Expedition Impossible, the Modern Gypsies, for an exciting whitewater kayaking adventure in southern Mexico. As you may recall, Taylor Filasky, Eric Bach, and John Post won the month-long adventure race in Morocco while my team, No Limits, came in second place. I hate losing but, if I must, I’m happy it was to people I truly like. Joining us on this paddling trip were some other good friends including Rob Raker, Chris Weigand, Skyler Williams, and my little brother Eddie. Since none of us had been to this river before, we contacted Rocky Contos at SierraRios Trips. Our goal was an 88-mile long section of the Usumacinta River—“Sacred Monkey River” in Mayan—that is on the Mexico-Guatemala border. The largest river in Mexico, the “Usu” normally runs around 40,000 cubic feet per second in the winter, which is the dry season. However, when we arrived, it was running about 100,000 cfs. For comparison, the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon averages around 25,000 cfs. So we are talking a major volume of water! The trip began when we met Rocky at the airport in Villahermosa and then had an exciting drive to the put in the next day. The first couple of days on the river were fairly mellow as we drifted through the jungles; the screeching of howler monkeys sounded like tyrannosaurus rexes from Jurassic Park. There were also intimidating 9-foot crocodiles that we were assured are the “reclusive kind”… yeah right! There were occasional easy rapids in this section but the real surprise was massive, boat-eating whirlpools that appeared out of nowhere and just as quickly disappeared. They travel back and forth across the river, lurking about six feet under the surface and suddenly boiling to the surface, where they spin you around violently and try to suck you down. I had some frightful moments but John had a terrifying swim when he couldn’t roll his kayak and was in the water for almost two miles before he could be pulled into an eddy by Rob. For some of the rapids, John was hanging on to the back of Rob’s kayak but the water got too rough, and a few times, he had to let go to prevent pulling Rob into the massive canyon walls. Rob said John’s head submerged once and didn’t reappear until about 100 feet down river. Also, along the river we hiked up a side tributary and jumped off a 35-foot cliff into a beautiful pool of water. It reminded me of the big jump I did with Jeff during Expedition Impossible, but this time I was solo. Our fourth day was a layover where we got to explore the Mayan ruins of Piedras Negras (Black Rocks). This extensive ancient city is largely unexcavated but what has emerged from the jungle is a tantalizing glimpse at a major civilization. After the trip, we also visited the extensive ruins at Palenque. The next day was notable for the numerous incredible travertine waterfalls of Busiljá. This side stream cascades into the Usumacinta and gave us the unique opportunity to run our kayaks over a five-foot drop. But it was the sixth day of our trip when the river unleashed its might into a series of major Class 3 rapids. With the huge amount of water flowing through, these are indeed powerful and unpredictable with massive surging waves and chaotic eddy lines. Despite being relative novices, the Gypsies did really well; Taylor in particular was a natural who unlike me, always made his rolls and never swam. On one rapid, a converging wave hit me and flipped me. Under the water, I was banging my head and elbows against rough rocks. I managed to roll myself up, but my paddle wedged between two of the rocks and was pried out of my hands. So I found myself going down a rapid sideways which flipped me again. This time, I didn’t roll up and took another swim. Rob said afterwards, I should have paddled with my hands. Darn! Wish I had thought of that at the time. All in all, it was a great trip with great friends. I was humbled but survived. I now know that I need a lot more practice before I’m ready to run the Grand Canyon. The running joke after I was flipped by a massive swirly and swam through another rapid was, “Guess there’s a reason why there aren’t many blind kayakers.” This spring, I’ll head to the National Whitewater Center near Charlotte, West Virginia so I can train in a less stressful environment.