April 11, 2013
In March, my team and I traveled to Mexico to kayak the Usumacinta River again. We returned to the Usu because it’s as an easy winter training ground. Getting there is simple, just fly to Houston and then to Chiapas, Mexico. It’s relatively safe—there haven’t been any kidnappings since the 90’s. And it’s a high volume river that is good practice for the Grand Canyon. The Usu is also quite the contrast to the Colorado River because it cuts through a very dramatic limestone gorge with steep walls that rise up higher than El Capitan and you are surrounded by jungle. The Grand Canyon is deep but it’s also much wider and you are in the middle of a desert.
When we ran the Usu last winter, the river was running at about 90,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), which is about three times the volume of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. This meant that we had to contend with huge whirlpools that rose up out of nowhere and could gobble kayaks. One time I was paddling as hard as I could to escape and was getting sucked backwards—I barely survived and was mentally trashed the rest of the trip. In fact, I was so destroyed that I gave up on my kayak for a portion of the trip and rode on the rafts.
This year the river was running at about 40,000 cfs, which is still significant but the whirlpools were smaller and the rapids were more defined. I paddled every inch of the river and made it through all the rapids, including a III+ called San Josécito. In addition to the river being friendlier, we had a couple of other advantages on this trip. The first was a new kayak guide, Harlan Taney, who has a lot of experience running the Grand Canyon. He was a great asset to our team and I look forward to working with him in the future.
The other major asset is we finally found a radio system that works! If you’ve followed my blog, you know this was a major dilemma that was holding all of us back. But a great company in Britain, Neptune Developments, makes intercom systems for the ocean environment. These worked incredibly well!
With all of our previous radio systems, the sound was garbled to the point of being useless. But with the Neptune comms, I could clearly hear the instructions from my guides and we could actually have a real conversation. This not only gave me a lot more information about what was going on but also to learn and understand what was happening. Sure the river was about half the volume of the previous year but I’m calling this trip a victory! It took a lot of time, training, and frustration to get to the point that I could paddle the entire Usumacinta. I even got flipped in one whirlpool that also flipped one of my guides and I rolled right back up. So I’m feeling much more confident about paddling big water. Now onto the Grand Canyon! Erik PS thanks again to Rocky Contos at Sierra Rios for organizing our trip!