We came from Quito to Tena for the sole purpose of getting in some kayaking. Coming off the Andes into the Amazonian watershed we had been told by several people, including one person on Couchsurfing, that Tena was the place to go…it had rivers and actual locals who kayaked.
Before arriving in Tena I had only ever ejected from my kayak 3 times. The time first, another boat was on top of my paddle (we have photographic evidence) stopping my roll and the second second time was when we we stupidly went out to little falls on the Potomac while it was at flood stage and to this day we are still thankful we made it out alive. So really those two swims were more dumb luck than actual swims…
Imagine our surprise when on our first morning in Tena, as I was about to go out to one of the local outfitters to see about renting equipment, the owner of the hostel we were at come knocking at our door asking if we could be “safety boaters” for the day and follow a raft down the river. I point out that we’ve never done this river nor have any equipment with us (save for some very valuable noseplugs, thank you Ponch!) to which he offers to provide the equipment and says its OK that we’ve never done the river before. This marks our first day of “employment” since February…albeit a little bit sketchy.
After today my total number of “wet exits” from my boat stands at 10. Recall it was at 3 before the day began and that Jill and I were the “safety” boaters of the day.
With a few moments to ourselves before the raft is ready to depart, we practiced our rolling in the river. Jill came up no problem; I didn’t. Nothing. Not sure if the problem was with me, the paddle (which I initially blamed), or the boat (which I ultimately blamed), I was less than pleased with my chances for the day. I should also note that despite the fact we were kayaking in the headwaters of the Amazon River, these waters were glacier fed from the Andes and were quite cold…especially given that my cold water gear is safely stowed away in Pennsylvania.
We begin down the river. The water is pushy. The water is very pushy in every direction. The water is bigger, pushier and more chaotic and powerful than anything I’ve done yet. The river is a Class III river, and I’ve paddled Class IV but that was with my own gear, with the sun out, in far less pushy (more technical) water. Basically, I’ve done much more technical stuff, but this was something very different and something I just wasn’t prepared for.
We enter the first rapid. I see a large wave and somehow end up right in it. I flip over and manage to roll right back up. Fantastic I think, I came up and I wasn’t expecting it. I flew right into another large wave and, screaming obscenities, I survive…but as I’d just been under water I didn’t see the really big one coming up next. I went over. One roll attempt, two roll attempts, three roll attempts. My paddle is slicing right thorough the water as I’m trying to roll which means it’s not “catching” the water to roll me up to all that nice beautiful air just mere inches from my face. I panic. I eject, blaming the paddle. The water is cold but luckily this is big water so there aren’t many rocks to hit. I pull myself to shore where Jill and the raft are waiting for me.
I’m cold now, a bit shaky, but surprisingly OK for the length of the swim. I get back in and make it through the next rapid. Nothing major happens there but after the rapid Jill discovered a frog in her boat. I only mention this because seeing her scramble out of her boat at shore was rather hilarious. After that we had a couple more good runs of rapids and then a lunch break, where Jill fell out of her boat because the very poisonous Amazonian poison dart frog that was still in her boat was attacking her. We had just learned about the poisonous frogs in Quito and so this just had to be one of them. The local kids on shore got the frog out of the boat and made a new pet of him…not so poisonous after all.
The problem with lunch breaks when playing in cold water is that the water is always colder after eating. This means you’re a little bit less “responsive” to the challenges ahead. Almost immediately following lunch I flipped over again. Tried a roll, maybe two, who knows, and went for a swim again. This was a big rapid…not so much fun to be gasping for air while going through huge huge huge waves.. What made it worse was that between this rapid and the next one the river was very wide, very shallow, and very fast. This made it impossible for me to get to shore while being dragged along the bottom. Ow. Swam the next rapid from start to finish, as I’d not had an opportunity to get back into my boat. This rapid was called the Rock Garden. Ow. Made it through with Jill paddling beside me giving me support. Have I mentioned lately that I have an awesome wife? This swim, two rapids long, was at least a kilometer, maybe more. By this point the cold water and the rocks had both taken a pretty serious physical and mental toll.
I really don’t remember what caused the next swim…but swim I did. It was right after the previous swim through the rock garden. Generally once you start a day like this, it finishes like this. Somehow Jill ended up swimming too. I think because I was already in the water she panicked and missed her roll. Now we were both floating with not much time before the next rapid. The raft pulled us both in and got both of our boats onto the raft. While hanging onto the raft, about to be pulled in, we went over a rock, with me serving as the cushion between the the raft and the rock. Although this likely hurt, I was mostly too numb to notice. As I got pulled on board Jill was getting into her kayak and was launching off. As I was getting into my kayak the raft guide, Harry, said you have 30 seconds to get out before we enter the next rapid. He lied. I had more like 10. I was out in probably 12 but it was too late. I was going over again. This time though the raft had a bit of trouble (likely from being so close to the rapid with me and my boat still on board) so most everyone got to swim this time. Jill, the remaining safety boater (remember, we were working today) managed to tow one of the rafters back to the boat. We all take five after that.
My fifth swim occurred when I bumped into an upside down Jill. As she came up from being upside down I went over. I swam. While recovering from this one I started to shiver a lot. Too much time in very cold water. The next swim was when I bumped into right side up Jill. She goes over and I see her come up again as I go over. Since the water was smooth, and I still couldn’t roll, I decided to try to wait for her to come to get me since I saw her roll back up. I began counting slowly underwater. One, two, three, slow down, four, five; I made it to seven before ejecting. When I did finally eject I found that she was out of her boat as well (her second swim, my 6th) so I’m glad I didn’t push it to ten. That was all I was glad about. When recovering from this one I discovered that all the rafters thought my hands along the side of the boat (me calling for Jill to come and get me) was me drowning. They were quite freaked out. More fun.
After this we take a break to visit a small little Amazonian canyon. A nice break where Jill gives herself a mud facial. No picture of this because Jill had the camera and would not allow me to take a photo. Please post angry comments telling her that you want to see what she looks like with a mud facial. After this I swam once more. I didn’t even bother trying this time. My boat went over a rock and into a decent sized hole. I ejected and thankfully the raft came right over the top of the same rock to knock my boat out of the hole.
Not a banner day for me, that’s for sure. Hence, Ibuprofen was in the cards…mostly because of that really, really long swim with the really, really shallow water. The raft guide (who was actually the person from Couchsurfing who told us about Tena) told me that the problem was not my paddle, as I’d suspected, but probably the boat. He encouraged me to try it again in a different boat, not knowing if I’d be ready or willing, I pondered the idea…