A story about the beginners kayak school....
TAKING IT TO THE EDGE IN ECUADOR
Like most things you end up regretting,
it all started with a drink. And then a bet. A simple bet, made over a few pints
late one night, one that really should have been forgotten about the next morning, but this time someone had proof - a
hastily scrawled note signed legibly enough with my moniker. Yep, this was it. I had foolishly proclaimed that I could get
from uncoordinated landlubber to fully in control whitewater kayaker within a week.
I mentally resolved to quit the evil drink before I found myself in even more trouble. And thus began my task to find
myself a worker of minor miracles an instructor with enough patience, tolerance, experience and a big enough sense of humour
to get me over my monumental fear of running water. Could it be done?
My chums, already seasoned kayakers
who found my predicament laughable to say the least, suggested that learning their sport would be much more enjoyable in warmer
climes, so thats how I came to be on the first flight out of the London fog, heading for the small country of Ecuador. Straddling
the Equatorial line in South America, Ecuador boasts an impressive numbers of amazing rivers from calm blue class II, ideal
for nervous beginners like me, right up to the hairy, big water and expert class V.
It is fast becoming the preferred playground for kayakers of all standards looking for fun and adventure in tropical
surroundings, and offers a huge variety of extra adventure sports for those who cant get enough of their adrenaline fix from
kayaking alone climbing glacier capped peaks, rafting big water, mountain biking down active volcano slopes, jungle treks
to caiman lagoons, surfing, roof top train rides- and the list goes on!
Arriving in Quito, the capital, is not for the fainthearted - it feels like the plane wings could touch any number
of the many snow-capped mountains of the Andes when we finally began our steep descent to land in the narrow valley that contains
the sprawling city. Quito stands almost 2 miles high, that is to say an
impressive altitude of 2,800m asl which literally takes your breath away. I couldnt wait to leave the pollution and noise
and escape to the small jungle town of Tena, some 5 hours away by bus.
Waiting to meet me at the bus station was my would be salvation, instructor, guide and founder of the company
Rios Ecuador, Gynner Coronel Paris, a good looking Ecuadorian, with an infectious smile, even more infectious laugh and a
passion for his sport that would soon rub off on the entire team that was the kayak school.
Over a cold beer that night Gynner introduced us to our second instructor, another smiling and enthusiastic
Ecuadorian called Tarquino. Gynner explained to the 8 of us how he had set up his company some six years ago. After spending
many years abroad instructing in Costa Rica, Peru, Canada and the US, and competing in the US whitewater rodeo circuit, he
had returned to Ecuador to visit his family. Amazed to discover a largely unexplored whitewater paradise literally in his
backyard he decided to devote his time to running these new rivers. He is now widely considered to be the most knowledgeable
guide for this country. The attraction of the area became evident as we learnt
that within one hour of Tena alone there are seven different rivers, all with at least two different runs offering every possible
combination of class of water.
We arranged to meet the next morning
after breakfast and set off towards Cavernas Jumandi. These, we found out, are extensive grottos of caves in the mountainside,
with a swimming pool fed by freshwater streams at the bottom, where we could learn how to control and handle our boats in
a safe and comfortable environment.
So, surrounded by monkeys, parrots and
wild pigs, we all listened as Gynner and Tarquino explained to us the rudiments of kayaking. Of river and personal safety
which would be vital over the next few days, and of course, what to call the various bits and pieces of paraphernalia that
surrounded the boats and us. Its a paddle not an oar. You dont fall in, you swim. The rolls are Eskimo, not Mexican (how on
earth I managed to get that so wrong I will never know!)
Finally we were allowed in the boats.
We squirmed. We squeezed. We breathed in, and we contorted. Well, its not as easy as those two guys made it seem, but eventually
we were all tucked up and comfortable inside our kayaks, and with a quick forwards shove we bounced into the water.
It is a testimony to the skill of our
instructors that after just 30 minutes or so we all had our boats turning where we wanted, and we were advancing on to the
paddle use, and the various strokes we would use over the next few days. Next we had to learn to exit our boats in the event
that we flipped it over. Ha. In the event. What were they talking about we all
knew we would have to do this drill at least once, so we listened in hard and plucked up the nerve to tip in. What words can
there be to describe the feeling of total disorientation, not knowing where your left and right was. If you were up or down,
and where the surface was. It really was a strange and rather unsettling feeling but after just a couple of exits we all knew
the drill. Tip in. Tuck up. Take off. Get out. Easy. But tiring so it was a keen group that Gynner addressed when he told
us that we didnt need to always get out of the boat, that in fact we could do a move called a T rescue. Basically where you
bang your hull until you feel the bow of a colleagues boat draw close, use it for light support, and with a quick snap of
your hips you can be facing the sun again. Bliss. And the very important basics of the soon to be learnt Mexican roll. Doh,
make that an Eskimo roll.
The day ended with a quick debrief,
a review of what we had learnt, and a run through the next days itinerary. Out onto a river. It felt good, it felt right,
and we wanted to do it....
The lower part of the river Tena is
a class II ideal for learners, nice smooth water, with occasional features that are easily run, but that make for great lessons
on what we could face in the future. New words rolled around our tongues like
exotic tidbits. Hydraulics. Pourovers. Holes. Edging. Put ins. Eddies. We tried
out our paddling; we learnt how to find sections of water where we could stop, relax, talk and recover. We discovered the
thrill of running small rapids and of course we all practiced our T rescues and swimming skills. But it was fun and we were
keen to try some more.
Day three saw us moving onto a higher
section of the same river to try our skills at some easy class III, to learn some new paddle techniques and to work some more
on the Eskimo roll. The whole time we felt that our two instructors were pushing us at just the right speed not always easy
when you have eight very different people, with different abilities, speed of learning and differing approaches to picking
up new skills. We had a great team that helped, and everyone worked together,
encouraging and supporting those who needed it, and applauding those who achieved personal successes.
Later that night over a pizza we all
agreed that in just three days we had learnt an amazing amount and that there were at least six of us, if not more, who planned
to continue with their learning. What a conversion rate! For me I still couldnt believe that what had all started from a drunken
boast was fast turning into a new found passion and that my life long fear of fast moving water seemed to be fading, overcome
by the desire to learn more about this thrilling sport.
Maybe I spoke too soon. Day four, and
we moved onto the Misahualli, a beautiful river, surrounded by lush green forested banks, and one of the main tributaries
of the great Amazon itself. Parts of the river provide rafters and experienced kayakers with thrilling class IV+ adventures
but the section we were heading for was straight class III. You could feel the tension in the truck as we saw our put in point.
Could we do it? Yes we could. We knew we had the skills. We trusted GynnerŽs evaluation of our abilities and we had to face
up to this next level of river.
Well, I confess. I couldnt. I saw the
river felt the power of the rapids, watched the whitewater tumble and fall around the rocks, making waves and troughs that
filled me with a knee trembling desire to run away and hide. I cried. I begged. Heck, I would have gone down on my knees if
I thought I would have been allowed to go home and seek solace in a cold beer. I
was still afraid of this type of river. It was too fast. It was too big. They
say that the real skills of a teacher are borne out when faced with almost hysterical pupils! This was the moment when I knew
I had made the right choice of school Gynner sat me down and we talked. Boy, how we talked. It was all so irrational, and
I knew it. But arent most fears irrational? I had passed the first three days
in a state of euphoria - it was fun. I could do it, you know what, I had even enjoyed it, so what had changed now?
Well, faced with my fear of the water,
or the fear of the ridicule I knew I would endure if I returned home without having run this section, I made my choice. I
got in my kayak, I tried to relax, and I paddled off with Gynner in front of me, reminding me to smile and ENJOY! You know
what? He was right. It was fun, I could do it. I didnt swim. I learnt that my kayak ploughs straight through those waves,
that I can even choose to have some fun in them on the way down. That the river does run fast but by reading it well, a skill
he taught us from the very beginning, I could always choose a spot to stop and relax. Above all I learnt that I could trust
myself and others to be part of a team, the very essence of the kayaking world. Its a friendly family.
So would I do it again? You bet. Am
I doing it again? Well, actually, yes. Its a strange one its a high unlike any other I have experienced a challenge, a sport
that requires thought and patience, but that provides fun, thrills and adventure. I doubt IŽll ever have a first descent.
I doubt IŽll ever manage a 40 ft waterfall, or class V rapids but I do know that I am capable of more and that I want to learn
how to play in those waves.... and of course I really need to stock up on the after river bar tales...!