Standing at the bottom of canyon walls that tower hundreds of feet above the river, staring at a maelstrom of whitewater knowing that it would be the biggest rapid we had ever run, and having been told that there was no way to walk around the exploding chaos named Shapalmonte, we studied the rapid intently while walking back to our kayaks.
About the author
Drew and Christie Eastman are Hood River residents and longtime kayaking enthusiasts. Drew works as the executive director of the Columbia Gorge Ecology Institute and Christie is an occupational health nurse and pro kayaker.
Once at our kayaks, we tightened our life jackets and slid into the flooded river above a rapid larger than anything on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. After splashing my face with water and energizing myself, I looked at my wife Christie and said, “We have the skills to do this, we know our line, stay on my tail, fight for vision, and paddle hard. You ready?”
With a nod of her head Christie indicated it was time to go, so we began paddling into the largest class V rapid that both of us had ever attempted in our paddling careers, each of which span well over a decade. At that moment, we had no idea that neither one of us would make it to the bottom of that rapid safely until the next day.
Spending a week on the Rio Maranon in Peru, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Amazon, with just my wife was an experience chalked full of hardships, lasting memories and endless smiles.
When Christie and I first became friends in 2008, I recall her sharing a desire to visit Peru on a whitewater adventure. Having heard stories from friends that had visited the South American country, it seemed as though any adventurous whitewater kayaker should include Peru in their travel plans. Due to other commitments as well as financial and time restraints, it wasn’t until the fall of 2014 that we were able to fulfill our dream of kayaking in Peru.
Knowing that we would be in Peru during a time that the majority of the country experiences a rainy season, we knew that the typical kayaking destinations of the Colca Canyon, the Apurimac and Cotahuasi Rivers would be out of the question due to dangerously high water levels. After doing some research, we decided that our adventure would lead us to a six-day, five-night expedition on the Rio Maranon, which is the mainstream source of the mighty Amazon River.
The Rio Maranon receives water from glaciers on the highest tropical mountains in the world, with elevations over 20,000 feet; our trip began at an elevation of about 7,000 feet. The arid canyon that squeezes the Rio Maranon into its valley is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, and contains rapids that rival anything on that iconic rafting trip of the U.S.
Beginning our trip in the mountaineering town of Huaraz, located at the base of the second highest mountain range in the world, we were about an eight hour drive from the river. After the first ride we had arranged decided the roads weren’t good enough and it was too far, we managed to find a different ride to the river, at an agreed upon a price. The drive was incredible, taking us over a 13,000 foot mountain pass and near sites of Inca ruins. We were in awe of the beauty of the country.
Our driver was pleasant, even showing us points of interest along the way. But the mood chanted quickly when he suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere and demanded a couple hundred dollars more if we wanted to continue and threatened us if we did not pay. After nearly thirty minutes of arguing on the side of the dirt road, we foiled his attempted extortion scheme and continued the drive. Although it was an awkward ride, luckily we weren’t far from our destination, and when we arrived our driver wished us luck by exclaiming “Buena suerte!” before speeding away.
After paddling the first Class III rapid on the river, we immediately felt the power of the water; the sheer volume of the river took some getting used to. Living in the Columbia Gorge and regularly paddling the Hood River, along with other local stretches of rivers in the Gorge, we are used to flows of about 2,500 cubic feet per second. The Rio Maranon boasts flows of over 10,000 cfs in December. The second day, Christmas Eve, was littered with many class IV rapids, sunshine and surf waves. There was even one section where the river boiled its way through a narrow canyon no more than eight feet wide.
Having an amazing day on the water, we arrived early that afternoon to our campsite, which was on a huge sandy beach. The sun was hot and the water was cool so we went swimming and worked on our tans while enjoying the serenity of our private getaway.
The next day was Christmas! After a delicious breakfast we began our float. Our Christmas included a couple of really cool side hikes to ruins and waterfalls; we even found some mango trees and enjoyed some of the delicious fruit.
Mid-way through dinner on Christmas night, our merry excursion began its morph into an epic adventure as I found myself having a sudden urge to dig a hole — the kind of hole used to bury one’s normal morning routine.
I’ll spare the details and will simply say that I experienced a very uncomfortable and restless night. In the morning Christie began her fight with the same symptoms that had struck me. We weren’t sure if it was our breakfast, the water, the mangos or something else, but we knew that we were days away from help and in a precarious situation.
Adding to the complications, it began raining that night and the river came up to an estimated 15,000 cfs. Having few options, we packed our gear and made our way downstream. After several large rapids and more great scenery, we made it to camp and hunkered down in the rain. Christie suddenly experienced violent shivering and more vomiting as we both continued to combat the sudden illness. Observing the rain become stronger throughout the evening, our concern continued to grow. In the morning we noticed the river had come up again, this time several feet. Now we had flows near 25,000 cfs and the largest rapids were downstream.
Arriving at the first of the “big” rapids, which were supposed to be two class IV rapids, we were faced with one long and difficult class V. We managed to find a good route through the exploding whitewater and made it to the bottom safely, albeit humbled by the power.
After rounding a few corners and enjoying some large waves, we made it to Shapalmonte, the largest rapid of the trip, and the only rapid that we were told we could not portage. After spending an hour or more scouting and discussing possibilities to get through the rapid, we found ourselves uncertain of the best option. There was just so much happening in the rapid with a large hydraulic at the top on the right, several unpredictable features in the middle, crashing waves throughout, and a scary hydraulic at the bottom on the left, which happened to be boxed in by rocks.
All of the water was pushing to the left into that scary hydraulic. We knew it would be a tough rapid. We knew that it would be the biggest rapid we had ever paddled. We knew that paddling this rapid with just the two of us was not an advisable move, but we didn’t have another option. After taking a moment to collect ourselves, we attempted to run the rapid. After making it through the first few waves, I looked back and saw that Christie had flipped over in one of the crux sections at the top. After I passed the large hydraulic that was on the right, I looked back again to watch as Christie went into the aforementioned hydraulic upside down. Fearing the worst, I made the decision to get to shore and prepare to rescue Christie by throwing her a rope.
On my desperate scramble to shore, I noticed Christie had miraculously made her way out of the hydraulic, rolled her kayak upright, and got to shore quickly. I managed to stop my kayak in the last possible spot above the scary hydraulic that lurked at the bottom of the rapid on the left. After catching our breath, we walked back upstream to the top of the rapid and began weighing our options. After feeling the power of Shapalmonte, we knew that attempting the rapid again would be a roll of the dice. With rain beginning to fall again, we were aware that waiting for the river level to decrease was a pipe dream. We made the decision to portage.
Attempting to portage a rapid that has previously been determined to be “unportageable” is a daunting task. At first look, we thought the portage would go pretty well, but after beginning our climb out of the canyon with our 80-pound kayaks, we realized we were mistaken. The soil was rocky and loose and a few hours into our portage, the sun began to beat down on us. We had grown exhausted and had run out of water. Being several hundred feet above the river level and becoming increasingly dehydrated, we didn’t have any way of accessing water.
As I sat in the minimal shade behind a cactus, I decided to cut into the water bearing plant. The cactus produced zero water. Still sitting and thinking how I could rehydrate, I decided I was going to urinate on my shirt and ring the liquid into my mouth. Thankfully Christie saved me from this rash decision. She came into view from above me and exclaimed, “I found a trail over the saddle and back down to the river!” With this new knowledge we left our kayaks behind, took a few essentials, and scurried over the pass and down to the river on the other side of the canyon that we had been climbing. After filling our water bottles, twice, we trekked back up to where our kayaks were and decided to leave the boats for the night.
At this point it had become dark and we had been working on the portage for seven hours. We took all of our camping gear back down to the river where we set up camp, ate some much needed food and developed a plan to retrieve our boats in the morning.
At first light we went back up the canyon wall, over the pass and down to our kayaks. We set up a pulley system to make hauling our kayaks easier, and within three hours we had our kayaks and all of our gear safely at the bottom of Shapalmonte.
After sharing a brief sense of relief and reflecting on our portage that required ten hours of teamwork, we happily resumed our trip downstream. With the river still at flood stage, we could hear rocks rolling on the stream bottom as we made our way through the remaining twenty kilometers of our trip, much of which contained fifteen foot tall waves. We once again experienced a sense of relief when we saw the bridge that marked the end of our river trip and the luxury of a hot shower, a warm meal, some antibiotics and, yes, a toilet!
We still had another week to enjoy Peru as more typical tourists. We visited the ancient town of Cusco, explored the ruins at Machu Picchu and walked along the beaches near Lima.
Our trip on the Rio Maranon strengthened our ever-growing love and respect for the natural world, in particular rivers. I don’t know that we’ll ever return to the Rio Maranon, or even Peru for that matter, but we’re incredibly grateful to have had such an epic adventure that provided us with a few trying hardships, so many lasting memories and, most importantly, the endless smiles.
Like our driver exclaimed after dropping us off at the beginning or our journey, “Buena suerte!” to all you kindred spirits.