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December 30, 2005

Paddling and Canyoning in the Rio Guabo

And once again, I have procrastinated writing up an adventure that would require many pages to describe in sufficient detail. Unfortunately, by now I have forgotten many of the details; but at least that makes it feasible to write this up in a finite amount of time. So here we go, the heavily condensed version of 3 days worth of surprises.

The Rio Guabo looked like an attractive river for exploration by kayak -- about the right gradient (25 m/km), relatively easy access, and nice canyon topography without ridiculously steep and high walls. So we decided to give it a try.

We put in near the community of El Valle, by hiking in along the very heavily-used trail from the road between David and Chirriqui Grande. It was as easy a hike with kayaks as it gets -- almost all downhill, at the perfect gradient for pulling the boats along (or getting pulled by them,occasionally). After about 20 minutes, we came to the river. It was bony at first, but soon we came to a confluence which almost doubled the flow. From there on, it was very pretty class II paddling, until... well, all that gradient had to be somewhere.

In this case, in the last 2 km of the run. By the time we got there, we had a group of 30 locals following us along the river. We explained what we were doing, but they were still a bit wary of us and warned us many times about the dangers below, telling us it was too dangerous too continue and we would have to go back. So we continued carefully, started scouting more and more and paddled some fun drops. When we came to a reasonable takeout opportunity, we decided to leave the boats behind and continue on foot before paddling any further.We were, of course, told we could not walk any further. When I pointed to a trail and asked where it went, lcoals said it goes nowhere and the owner does not give permission to use it.

So we continued in the river bed jumping off rocks into the water, bouldering and swimming along. After a few minutes, the family who had been following us appeared ahead of us. They had used the trail that goes nowhere, apparently without getting caught by the vicious owner. After further warnings about not being able to continue, and essentially a repeat of the situation, we finally decided to turn back; it was starting to rain and we only had two hours of daylight left.

On the way back (the family decided that the forbidden trail was ok to use, as long as we were quiet, which they weren't), we were told that people had come here before to survey for a dam. They were extremely worried about the possibility of having their river dammed, and apparently some people in the community thought we were there to further explore dam-building possibilities.  We made it quite clear to them that damming is about the last thing we wanted to do with rivers, and told them we would investigate for them what's going on.

When we got back to the boats, we were warned that the owner of the pasture we were going to walk across had "wolf-dogs" and that we could not walk across it; it would be much better if we followed the family back to their house, only half an hour away (or 10 minutes, as they called it). We decided to face to wolf-dogs and the mean cattle farmer, and hiked across the pasture up the hill towards the road.
When we finally made it up to the house and apologized for not having asked for permission to walk on the people's land, they first showed the expected reaction: They were extremely friendly, said it was no problem, showed us where the gate was, and helped us with the boats. 

Then, they proceeded to invite us to stay at their house, as long as we wanted, and insisted that we at least stay for dinner. We did, and spent a couple of hours of nonstop rapid-spanish conversations... a very nice evening even though we only got half the jokes. The accomodations were wonderful, a little thatched hut all to ourselves, and I even had Internet reception, but no power to recharge my laptop. Surreal...

We ended up staying two nights, going on a hike to a waterfall with them on the first day, and building a mud stove with them for their kitchen on the second day. Along the way to the waterfall (which we never reached, but that's another long story) we took a little bath in a creek- notice the hand sticking out of the waterfall?

We went back the Rio Guabo canyon on the second day, and continued downriver on foot. In one spot, we had to use one of the throwbags to rope down a steep slippery rock, and in a few places wehad to jump from rocks a few meters high into water less than two meters deep. We took the son of the family along on this hike, and although he had lived there for 19 years, he had never been in this part of the canyon. It was quite an adventure for him as well.

After about two hours, we made it to the road bridge, and walked back to the house along the road in about 20 minutes.

A couple weeks later, I talked to ANAM -- and before I even asked about a dam, while talking about how locals perceive gringos in plastic boats, the guy I talked to asked if people assumed we were dam surveyors. Apparently, this is pretty common. He is investigating if there are any permit processes for dams pending, and I have not heardback yet.


Posted by rick at 10:56 PM | Comments (0)

Squirting Squid

The third time now, there was a squid hanging out in the shallow water at the dock. This time, I decided to play with it. I stuck my finger close to him, and he put out a tentacle and sucked himself onto my finger. Weird feeling. I pulled back a little, and he let go immediately, and swam a few feet away. I followed, put my hand around him, and pulled him out of the water, throwing him onto the little beach a few inches from the water. He almost slid off my hand as I did this... On the beach, he slowly moved back towards to water... he didn't seem too comfortable, but wasn't suffering all that much either. Apparently squids can spend quite a while on land... When I started pulling one of his tentacles a little, he got pissed off and did what squids do -- sprayed some ink towards me.

You can see the drops flying towards my hand. Now if we could only somehow save the ink to make pasta sauce, that would be great...

A few seconds later, he started moving back towards the water, and we let him go. Hopefully he will come back in spite of this semi traumatic experience.


Posted by rick at 10:20 PM | Comments (0)

Paddling the Rio Peje Bobo

The Rio Peje Bobo was recommended to us by Hector Sanchez, of Chirriqui River Rafting.... he had been wanting to check it out and had not found the time. As far as we know, it had never been paddled.  

It flows roughly parallel to the Highway between David and Chirriqui Grande. One access point is the Sarso Punta Pena, a hanging footbridge. The river has small rapids here, nothing to exciting. We walked across the bridge and upstream for about two hours, to the community of Oriente.

Oriente consists of a number of houses and lots of grass, to the joy of the horses tied up everywhere. In the middle of the grassy town center is-- a pay phone. I used it to make a couple of urgent calls. Because I could.

We put in about 10 minutes further up the river, right above the confluence with a significant tributary from the right. The water was beautiful, clear, and very warm (about 28 degrees). At the low flow we paddled, most of it was class II; at higher flows, there could be some interesting class III rapids. It took about two hours to get back to Punta Pena, going slowly.

From Sarso Punta Pena, we paddled on to the next bridge; at this point, the river is called Rio Guarumo and is quite wide. There was one nice playspot along the way, at higher flows, it could be a lot of fun.

The takeout bridge was a great place to bathe; there were some interesting fishies in the water that liked to nibble on people's legs. Cute.    

A very nice Colombian guy is starting a pineapple plantation near the bridge. He had someone watch the boats for us, while we went back to Miramar to get our stuff, and then we took off towards David.

Posted by rick at 08:20 PM | Comments (0)

December 14, 2005

Building an Outrigger Canoe

My main pretext for coming down to visit Rick in Bocas was to build an outrigger canoe out of balsa wood. When he was in Canada in April we had checked out some of the boats belonging to a Vancouver paddling club. Looking at the boats, he mentioned that it would probably be possible to build a similar model out of balsa wood at his farm in Panama. I was intrigued by the idea, and mentioned that for a while I had been thinking about doing a paddling trip on the Amazon river and would prefer to travel in a paddle boat made of local materials. If only we could use his farm as a home base while building a prototype wooden outrigger canoe that would be able to hold two people and some luggage....

We met again on Oct 10th in Turrialba, Costa Rica to run a little whitewater and then travelled together down to Bocas. Once on the farm, I met the workers and was able to get to know them fairly quickly due to an impromptu session of water trampoline wrestling when they came by to visit with Rick. This was actually quite valuable as I would be working closely with them to build the boat. In fact, the extent to which I would rely on them was considerable.

The main people that I worked with are Man Hing, Emiliano, and Abelardo. Man Hing is the caretaker of the property and lives here with his family. He has a lot of experience building pangas (motorboats built of wooden slats) and cayucos (dug out canoes that may or may not use an engine, up to 42 ft long). Emiliano is his younger brother, who is also good at working with boats and is very skilled with woodworking tools. Abelardo is the chainsaw master, and can turn fallen tree into decent 2X4's using just that one tool.

We decided to use balsa wood because of it's buoyancy and because it would be easier to work with than one of the hardwood trees. Also, this being a prototype boat project, we didn't want to waste good wood. The balsa we chose had a base diameter of about 2 feet and was under 15 years old. It was growing at the very back of Rick's property, in an area overgrown by heliconia (a tall banana-like plant). This area had to be cleared anyway, because the small nispero trees that had been planted there were being overcrowded and there wasn't enough sunlight. 

The first obstacle that we ran into was that Man Hing didn't think that the tree should be cut down for another two weeks because we were at a bad stage in the moon cycle. There is some validity to this - apparently there are certain bugs whose life cycles are dependant on the moon and the amount of light that there is at night. We were just coming into the full moon, and his concern was that the bugs would be more active and would eat the fallen tree more quickly. We spent some time talking to him, and eventually the three of us decided that if we worked quickly on the tree after cutting it down, we would be able to carry it down to the water a few days after it was fallen, so minimal damage would be done by the insects. The tree was cut down the next day.

When the tree had been falled and we were able to measure it, we realized that the main trunk was 2 feet shorter than we had estimated, so the canoe would have to be a bit shorter than planned. Man Hing and Abe immediately went to work taking off the "top" of the canoe. They usually do this by simply making a long flat cut with the chainsaw, but because I wanted to boat to be raised at the tips they used an axe instead. The general idea at this stage was to take as much unnecessary weight off as quickly as possible so that we could drag it down to the waterfront where it would be easier to work on and there was access to electricity for the power tools.

Measurements were made using a string that had been soaked in used oil and the inside of D-cell batteries - it was run down the length of the trunk and then flicked so that it would mark the wood. 

The outer edges were outlined with a piece of heliconia branch with the leaves cut off. This gave it a nice symmetrical curve and was incredibly simple and practical.

Dragging the boat to the waterfront took a lot of effort. Fortunately, most of the distance was downhill and if the trail was clear enough things went well. The uphill parts were pretty tough.

A branch from the same tree was cut off for the ama (the "outrigger" part of the outrigger canoe).

Once the boat had been transported it was time to refine it. Man Hing and Emiliano did most of the work here, using a chainsaw to trim off the rough excess and then working with an adze to smooth it out. It would have been neat to have done this myself, but they're just so good and efficient at it that it didn't make sense for me to do it. Bit of a shame, really - next time I'll insist that I get a turn  =P  As it was, I did a bit of sanding and worked with a hammer and wood chisel.

The original plan had been to leave solid blocks in the hull for the seats and foot supports and the rest would be hollowed out to make the boat lighter. In the end, though, it made more sense to take out the foot supports and replace them with wooden slats that were nailed in. It would also have been better to have done the same with the seat. Not only would that make the boat even lighter, it allows the water to flow and pool in one area where it's easier to bail.

The iakus (wooden bars that support the ama) are lashed to the boat using rope. They sit along a flat wooden surface with a pegs to keep them seated in the right position. The ropes run through holes that were burnt into the hull using a hot piece of rebar. The burning process seals the edges of the hole to make it strong, but most of them are reinforced with a short length of PVC tubing just in case. The danger is that the string, which is pulled very tightly, could tear up through the top of the hole and damage the wooden support (balsa is quite soft, and the string is relatively thin and runs with the grain of the wood).

Lashed together, the boat runs incredibly well. It "feels good" - ie. it tracks well, steers easily (paddle steering, no rudder), and the weight is balanced. The iaku sits nicely in the water and gives plenty of support to the hull.

Man Hing made a beautiful strong replica of my wooden bent-shaft outrigger paddle out of a slice of hardwood. The wood already had the perfect curve in it, as it was cut from the joint where the branch met the trunk.

Before being fully functional, the boat still needs a canvas covering over the ends because even small surf can break over the tips and flood it with water. In this picture where I'm approaching the beach, you can see how the back end is completely full of water and I'm being pushed by the wave rather than surfing it. It's disappointing that I didn't manage to get this completed in time, because the boat feels like it will surf really well.

Another problem is that the sides of the boat are too low, and with the weight of two people it tends to, ah... become a submarine. Which is how at one point, Rick and I ended up paddling out into some big surfing waves, got the boat full of water, and ended up being pushed over shallow coral with the edges of the boat sitting two or three inches below the surface of the water! So next time, higher gunwales, lighter seats, and more bouyancy.

Sooo... Rick has this great idea of doing a 200km hike from Colon to Bocas (or Bocas to Colon), along the Carribbean coastline. MY idea is to do the trip in an outrigger instead. The boat would have to have considerably higher sides and a good canvas covering, but the basic design would be the same. There's plenty of gear space, and it's a very versatile craft. If you want a new, differently shaped ama or iakus, it's just a matter of how good you are with a machete! Boat leaking? Fill it with wood chips and glue! Anyhow, that would be a super-cool thing to do, so if anybody's interested let me know. It would be great training for the Amazon trip....


Posted by rick at 08:22 PM | Comments (0)