Altos de Copalita -- Carnage in Five Acts

Brown Water.
The kayak floated out, but I still couldn’t see Ryan. “Fuck the boat!” I yelled to Matt, who was still in his kayak. He floated in the eddy, alert. I threw my heavy boat on shore and scrambled up through vines and loose dirt and spiders up to a cliff outcropping. I was on the wrong side of the river, but on river left where I had last seen Ryan, there was nothing but sheer granite, and I didn’t see any way to get out of the river over there. I hoped, at least, that I might be able to organize something from this side.
A moment ago,
Ryan was chocked up against the river-left wall, upside down. The heavy boil from the steep, narrow rapid buried his kayak, then receded. I tried to pull his boat free as I was flushed down behind him. It didn’t budge. The current swept me downstream. I saw him pop up, swimming, free from the wall. Then he disappeared again.
This was the beginning of our misfortunes on the Altos de Copalita—the first day, the first real rapid. It was late. In this part of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, the pine-oak forests that descend out of the cloudy mountains meet; here, jungle, but becoming a desert coastline in only 40 miles. It had just started to rain, hard and lucent, like at the beginning of a heavy storm. The water was already brown, but hard to tell if it was any browner than when we put on.
I was feeling useless, wrapped in thorny vines, trying to squeeze myself up through a dark crack to get to where I could come up with a plan, when I heard Ryan’s “Yipp”. He had made it up onto the gorge wall on the opposite side of the river. His kayak had gone through the next set of rapids, and we wouldn’t find it until the next day, after Ryan had hiked through the night to catch a ride back to Huatulco.

Eddies are a critical part of Expedition style kayaking. For the next two days, there were very few eddies where one could both get out of his kayak and get out of the gorge to scout or portage. In one such eddy, we found Ryan’s boat, its nose split wide open.

Another was a very small Last-Eddy that Evan and I got lured into. He stood waist deep in the water and held our boats, trying not to get hit by the falling rock I let loose as I climbed up the ravine. The rapid was unrunnable, but for a while we clung to our hopes of escaping the canyon that day. First, Matt lowered me on live bait to check out a river right semi-portage that was hazardous but possibly much quicker than the ravine route. That being no good, we made an intimidating ferry back across to Evan, who held a throw-rope that was small comfort. After two hours of hauling up the ravine, we were cutting beds into the jungle mountainside with hands raw and pulpy from rope-hauling our heavy kayaks. We left ourselves just enough light to find a spring in the ravine, and filled our bellies with water.
That night, in the dark, much was left up to the imagination; the jungle was as loud as the rumble coming up from the river. During the day, I wore a drytop and pants tucked into socks. I spend my days hot, but heat never attacks like ants. Similarly, to sleep, I zipped up tight in my bivy-sac and traded heavy sweat for unmolested skin.

Henrys 5 Star Accommodations

When we woke up in the jungle, it was late when we broke from the jungle camp—it took a long time to do the little things like make coffee and take shits when vines impede every movement.
On our way back down to the river, we were rested, and in the light the first thing I noticed was the life: there were these amazing spiders, with brilliant colors, and especially brilliant webs, which were gold and iridescent. There were caterpillars that to the naked eye couldn’t have been told from a stick, and some that look like what kids make in art classes, clownishly huge and colorful. There were ants that had a fiery yellow on their backs and behind, and Evan—in a loud panic—had to pull one of those from his neck.
Toward the end of the day, we had another very hard portage. We had been running some heavy but very good whitewater when we got to a rapid in which up, through the jungle, was the only option. There—or at least at that elevation—it wasn’t just that the vegetation was so thick—it was the vines, which grabbed feet and necks and paddles. They made you trip and drop your boat, and some of them had big hard thorns that made you bleed, and some had little ones that left your hands with fifty little prickers that stayed in until they festered and swelled. At the river we ran a big rapid that we wouldn’t have if we could have kept portaging. It was a big hole. Trashing
likely, we count on our heavy boats for momentum. “Fire it up, Edog!” I said to Evan, trying to convince myself as well. Matt and I ran out front, together, and we both get hammered—but the good kind of hammered, the getting out of the hole-hammered. Evan did the same.

Gringos Perdidos.

One omitted detail here is that the previous parties to kayak this stretch of the Copalita—at least two—have done it in one, long day, with unloaded boats, and—we think—at much lower water. We had packed for three days just in case, but really were fixing on two. After our third night in the gorge, we had plenty of food, but we were getting late for our pickup, which we hoped Ryan had gotten out to.

Matt Willson trying to get himself and his 90lbs watercraft, back to the water. On one of many hellish portages

Our plan was to call on the satellite phone. This was the kind of trip where plans go to die—the phone didn’t work.
Early the next morning, we emerged from the gorge, and found our friend Ariel bushwacking upriver with a machete and a partner. Ariel was one of a group of river guides from the Rancho Tangolunda that had come out to help Ryan look for us. The Rancho guides work the Alemania stretch of the river just downstream, which was still way too high for commercial trips.
Waiting by the river, I found myself staring at the river and making up forms. Every butterfly turned my head, and I heard voices and yelps coming from the rumble of the river. I pulled ticks and brushed flies to pass the time, and hung out with the group of guides, and Lino, one of the owners of the raft company. We ate tostadas and sardines by the big concrete structure and a big tube that came out of the river bank, with two thick powerlines coming down the hill from above. Lino took Ariel and the others back that night, and left us with our Suburban, to wait for Ryan and company.

Palo Malo.
The next morning, we were sitting in the suburban. Matt looked over at me, his face ballooned from either bee stings, which he had gotten setting safety the second day, or else the mysterious palo malo—the bad tree whose shadow, the locals say, is enough to infect the skin.
Matt said, “I’m going to start it up.”
I said, “OK.”
Matt said, “Just to see, you know.”
The suburban wouldn’t start. The fuel pump was bad, which we didn’t know, but we did have reason to believe we were out of gas. Later that morning, as I was failing at catching fish in the muddy water, two electrical workers showed up in a new white Ford. At the little compound at the top of the hill, where we were buying our food now, Matt borrowed a mangera—a hose, and they let us try to siphon some gas. On the first few sucks, the acrid fumes went straight up the hose to my brain. Mexican Fords have a little grate to keep out siphon hoses. I kept trying, and got a big mouthful of gas, although not enough to get a flow. I coughed and spat, but saved a little face by smiling and saying how sabrosa es la gasolina—how tasty. The electrical workers, who came to the pumping station once a year, thought this was hilarious.
It wasn’t long after the white Ford left that the Ryan, Guara, Gabo, and Burre—the rescue party—came into view at the upstream bend in the river. They had hiked into the bottom of the gorge and had spent two days walking down the river—much like we had only nonstop, no kayaks. Together, we drank all the beer the old lady in the tienda would sell us, and ate them out of their green-corn tortillas, eggs, and sardine cans. In the middle of the night, Lino arrived with a mechanic, who got our gas going in the dark. Ryan drove out the suburban, to meet us the next day at the Alemania-section takeout, where we could get Matt and his swelling skin to a hospital and our team and all our ticks, parasites, and blisters, back together again.

Story By: Henry Munter
Photos By: Evan Ross

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