I’ll be the first to admit that its hard for me to sit still. Even though I have a comfortable way of life with an extensive security network, I often find myself restless. This feeling of restlessness urges me to step away from the ease of my daily routine. Often times it pushes me to do things that are physically difficult or more risky than everyday life. Over the years, I’ve had a hard time grappling with this artificial introduction of hardship and increased risk of injury and death. Why does my gut so often push me towards situations that are less safe and more challenging? Like traveling the world to go kayaking on difficult risky rivers?
Exploring Eastern Mexico by Kayak
In October of this year, I attempted to satisfy this urge by exploring the jungles of Eastern Mexico in a Whitewater kayak. I traveled to the provinces of San Luis Potosi and Veracruz with fellow Wet Planet raft guides and kayaking instructors Jeff Clewell, John Abercrombie and Devin Kuh.
We deliberately sought out remote rivers that would present logistical challenges and would test our abilities. We paddled difficult, consequential whitewater and, while none of us ever truly verbalized it, we all knew that outside help would not be available if something happened. In the event of injury, lost gear or worse, the only things that would help us would be our collective judgment and skills and the survival gear we packed in our boats. During this trip, I had some time to reflect on why we decided to deliberately put ourselves in these situations. I came up with a few reasons.
We seek to broaden our cultural perspective and make connections with people.
In an era where we as humans seem to define ourselves by our differences, the importance of broadened cultural perspective is heightened. The best way to experience and understand another culture is to travel. While any sort of traveling is great, I’ve found that kayaking trips allow for deeper cultural exploration in that they take you to places that are off the normal tourist circuit. This exploration helps us learn about the world we live in and our place in it.
The most important connection we made on our trip was with Mexican kayaker and raft guide, Carlos Castillo. He goes by Xharley (pronounced “Charlie). When we first spoke with Xharley, we were a bit skeptical. He had offered to guide us down a river for a fee. We didn’t know anything about his skills and we felt comfortable figuring out our own way down the river so we politely declined.
When we spontaneously ran into him a few days later, we weren’t exactly sure what to think. He was about to go swimming with a bunch of European backpackers who had clearly been drinking. We decided to give him a chance and came up with a quick plan to paddle the Micos right that moment as the light was fading away. Moments later, we found ourselves giggling as we were padding off twenty-five foot waterfalls into warm water as the moon was starting to come out. When we got to our campsite, it was completely dark.
That night, we made plans to paddle the Santa Maria together the next day.
On our way to the Santa Maria the next morning, we stopped for breakfast in a small town. We went into a small shack and found an older woman who was cooking. She was sixty-eight years old and a mother to eight children. She was short, but strong and muscular and her mannerisms suggested a wisdom that could only have been gained through hardship. When we asked her for her name, she said she had been so busy working for others her whole life that she had no time for herself and couldn’t remember. She proceeded to feed us one of the best meals I have had in my life. Her sense of selflessness and simple kindness will always stick with me.
After breakfast, we continued to the river and had our first real day of paddling with Xharley. It became clear during that Xharley was a special person. While his paddling skills were certainly competent, it was his generosity and infectious enthusiasm that blew us away. With the exception of our core crew, Xharley ended up becoming the most influential person on our trip. We slept in his home and he taught us about Mexican culture. His charisma kept us all motivated during tough times.
Getting to know Xharley was a good reminder that first impressions are often misleading. It takes time to get to know people. We never know who will have a positive impact on our lives. Almost all of the people we met in Mexico were kind and extremely generous. By connecting with people and experiencing Mexican culture, we were able to break down our own stereotypes and false expectations. These connections we made will continue to enrich our lives and help us gain a more realistic view of the world.
We seek to test our skills and stamina in order to learn more about ourselves.
Human beings are amazing creatures and our capabilities are astounding. We have a desire for progress that pushes us forward. Still, there are clear limits to our capabilities and we seek to explore and push ourselves to those limits.
On our Mexico trip, we paddled a lot of difficult whitewater and I can honestly say that I was at the edge of my capabilities a few times.
The day that particularly tested me was the day we paddled the Big Banana section of the Alseseca. This famous river section has a reputation for being difficult, remote and extraordinarily beautiful.
In the days leading up to running Big Banana, a pre-existing rib injury from two years before had started to bother me after I had a poor line off of a thirty-foot waterfall on the Rio Verde. The pain was clearly there, but it was manageable and I decided that I would try to ignore it and continue paddling. After all, it wasn’t every day that I had the opportunity of paddling these amazing rivers.
With our kayaks on our shoulders, we hiked about a mile to the river through cow pastures and thick jungles and arrived at the base of Big Banana falls, a spectacular one hundred and thirty-foot waterfall that falls out of a small box canyon into a large pool below. The view was breathtaking. We took a short moment to enjoy it and then started to paddle into the gorge below the falls. We had been warned that hiking out of this river gorge was impossible in many places due to the overhanging sheer cliff walls and, where it was possible, it was not advised due rumors of drug cartel activity in the area.
The river surpassed all of our expectations. The scenery was unique and absolutely breathtaking and the whitewater was superb. As we worked our way downstream through difficult boulder gardens and large waterfalls, my rib injury began to worsen. At one point, it seemed like every paddle stroke I took would make it worse. The pain was excruciating. Still, I knew that my only option was to continue downstream. I pushed the pain to the back of my mind and continued. At the takeout, I struggled to carry my kayak to the car, but I felt a sense of accomplishment. I had tested my limits and made it back home safely.
We experienced many other hardships during our trip including illnesses, broken boats and physical exhaustion. However, testing our limits gives us increased self awareness by showing us the extent of our capabilities. It also gives us an invaluable sense of how we will respond in tough situations.
We seek out situations where our decisions really matter.
We make so many decisions on a daily basis and, while many of them seem stressful, they usually don’t really matter. What we decide to eat for dinner tonight and what we watch on Netflix does not really affect the outcome of our lives. However, when paddling hard whitewater in remote settings, the decisions we make could have huge consequences.
In Mexico, I was lucky enough to be paddling with a stellar group of boaters with years of unique experience and strong judgment. I am happy to say that we made wise decisions for the most part. As usual, I did not come home with regrets about the rapids that I did not run.
The one serious incident that our crew experienced happened on a day that I did not paddle. It was the day after our trip down Big Banana and I had barely slept the night before due to the pain in my ribs so I chose to help everyone run shuttle on the Upper Jalacingo. A crew of international paddlers joined Jeff, John and Devin making for a group of ten paddlers. As I understand it, the size of the group led to some communication issues which resulted in an Argentinian paddler colliding with a log in the middle of a long slide. He was ripped from his boat and rendered unconscious in the pool below. Rescue efforts were initiated immediately and the paddler regained consciousness quickly but it was clear that he could not continue with the group. After hiking out and a short trip to the hospital, he luckily ended up being completely fine but it was very clear that he was extremely lucky.
Had the paddler known about the wood, it is likely that this event could have been avoided. It was a clear reminder that group dynamics, decision making, and communication in these settings have very real consequences.
However, it is this type of consequence that defines paddling difficult rivers in remote places. While making the right decisions is extremely rewarding, the wrong decisions have the potential to be devastating. When our lives are literally on the line, our sense of mortality is heightened and we gain a greater appreciation for life and health.
We seek out spectacular beauty.
Without a doubt, paddling has brought me to some of the most amazing places in the entire world. It is difficult to understand or quantify the value of experiencing beauty, but it seems to put us in a mental state that allows us to be more connected to the natural world.
In Mexico, there were many times where I was totally blown away by the beauty. But, one moment particularly stands out. At the takeout of the Santa Maria, the Gallinas River drops three hundred and fifty feet over cliff walls into the river at Tamul Falls. The water is white and turquoise and the power of the water is palpable. Standing on shore next to this monster waterfall, I was in awe. I felt the mist against swirling in the air and I entered a meditative state that put my mind at ease.
Certainly there is value to raw natural beauty and seeing it first hand allows us to understand the importance of preserving it.
As human beings in developed countries, we have evolved into a fairly comfortable lifestyle. Somewhere in this evolution we seem to have lost touch with a few things that will always be important to us. Community, personal connections and self exploration seem to have become secondary to technological and economic progress. If we hope to continue to evolve and survive as a species, we need to prioritize these values by exposing ourselves to the world outside of our computer screens. While we can do this in our everyday life, traveling to remote, and challenging places forces us to tap into these things. Connecting with people, testing ourselves, making consequential decisions and seeking spectacular beauty are all core to our being as humans.
I am grateful for my experiences in Mexico. I would encourage everyone who has the means to find an adventure that matches their personality, ability level and interests. While most of us have limited time and resources, it is important to remember that extraordinary experiences are far more valuable than material goods. Connecting with people, testing ourselves, making consequential decisions and seeking spectacular beauty are all core to our being as humans.
So go out and explore. Get to know other people. Learn more about yourself. Find places that are more beautiful than anything you could ever imagine. You won’t regret it.
Author Dave Seal is Wet Planet’s River Manager for rafting and kayaking, Rescue 3 Instructor, and resident banana. His third favorite thing about kayaking is watching the morning light during dawn patrols. He is an avid connoisseur of all things cheese.