Before It's Dammed

Laguna Caruachocha the Hydrological Source of the Amazon River. Photo by Jake Risch.

The rooster woke me at daybreak. I crawled out of bed in the dingy hostel room in the backwater town of Queropalca, Peru, and made my way down to meet the others for a breakfast of fried eggs and dry bread. The past 72 hours was a blur of expedition preparations, packing and travel. After two days of buying food, sorting out gear and packing in Lima, an overnight bus ride followed by six more hours bumping over a 4x4 track packed into a tiny taxi with three other team members, our kayaks and all of our self-support gear, we made it to the end of the road on our quest for the source of the Amazon River. The next leg of the journey would be on foot, hopefully with burros to carry our gear.

At breakfast that morning, we learned that the gentleman who was to provide the burros for the final push had overdone it the night before and was too hungover to make our 8 a.m. departure. We packed up our gear and shouldered our boats and started the final 10-kilometer slog to the source lake.

Ben Webb, Adam Pedicini, and I are in Peru as part of a larger team making a documentary on the impact of 20 hydroelectric projects planned for the Rio Maranon. The “Paddling with Purpose” Project aims to educate the Peruvian public on the environmental and cultural resources that will be inundated should the Dam projects go forward.  The Rio Maranon is the hydrological source of the Amazon River, and its last free-flowing tributary. Over its 1,700-kilometer length it travels through canyons deeper than and as spectacular as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.

Before starting the film project on the lower canyons, Ben, Adam and I would put on at the source and paddle 400 kilometers of Class III-V whitewater through its upper canyons. The first 10 days would be accomplished as a self-supported whitewater kayaking trip. The second 10 days, we would join up with five other guides and a raft.

During the film project, we will travel an additional 400 kilometers through the lower canyons and be joined by Peruvian activists and a South American film director. 
The town of Queropulca is located at 3,900 meters above sea level, at the foot of the Cordillera Huayhuash mountain range. Our objective was to paddle out of the Laguna Caruachocha, down the Maranon tributaries—the Rio Caruachocha and Rio Nupe—and into the Maranon proper. Five kilometers into our trek, it was obvious that the water in the Rio Caruachocha was too low to paddle. We stashed our boats and continued hiking to the source lake. Laguna Caruachocha sits behind a glacial moraine, surrounded by the towering cathedral of the 6000-meter Cordillera Huayhuash. It’s a spiritual place where one could stay for days in awe of the majestic glaciated peaks towering high above its silver reflecting waters. But we had a schedule to keep, and many river miles ahead of us, so we turned and headed back down the valley to our waiting kayaks.

The Source Descent Team: Jake Risch, Ben Webb and Adam Pedicini at Laguna Caruachocha the start of the descent. Photo by Ben Webb.

We put on the Rio Caruachocha at 4,000 meters and began to scrape our way down gravel races and bounce off of boulders in extremely low-volume Class IV boulder gardens. As we approached the final gorge dropping back into the village, we found an easy exit point, and decided the river was too low and the risk of breaking a boat too high, so we took off and portaged back to the hostel in town.
The next day, Ben organized a truck for us to portage downstream to the Town of Banos on the Rio Nupe in hopes of finding suitable water volume to continue our journey. The truck dropped us off in the middle of the Banos town square. We were immediately swarmed by the local residents curious about the gringos who had just landed in their town with brightly colored boats and strange gear. Lots of photos were taken, the mayor came out to greet us and the whole village crowded onto the bridge to see us off.  

The whole town of Banos came out to see us off.  Photo by Ben Webb.

After 15 kilometers of easy Class II-III paddling, we arrived at the confluence with the Rio Lauricocha and the start of the Maranon proper. A further 3 kilometers—and one Class IV rapid—and we reached our first major obstacle: the Puchaca Canyon.

At Puchaca, the entire river disappears underground for a kilometer. The portage involves climbing 100 meters up the right river bank then descending 200 meters along a steep, exposed footpath back down to the river.  We made our first camp at the base of the portage and settled in for the evening.

The next morning, as we were packing our gear and organizing for the portage I noticed a burro grazing near our camp. Ben quickly went to inquire with a local farmer whose shack was across the field from our campsite. A deal was struck and we had burros to haul our boats and gear to the top of the portage.

Loading a kayak onto a donkey is not an easy task. You have to carefully balance the boat on top of a platform made of other gear, so the portage required frequent stops to readjust the load and tighten the straps. We settled into a rhythm of running to catch up, pulling and pushing the belly strap to center the boat and then encouraging the donkey to keep moving. The farmer was running up and down the burro line constantly adjusting and re-tying the loads—all while we fought to catch our breath at over 12,000 feet. Still, it was much better than hauling 100 pounds of boat and gear ourselves. The narrow trail down to the river crosses above cliff bands forming the river gorge. We pulled, pushed and carried our boats along the trail where one slip would result in our 100-pound boats pulling us off the path, sending us tumbling down into the river below.

Over the next two days, we passed through a beautiful alpine valley covering 60 kilometers of classic, clear, blue and green Class III and IV whitewater with a few easy river-level portages. We restocked in the town of Cascanga, and then ran into our first signs of dam building, a Portuguese project called Hydroelectrica Morigel. There was a large construction camp established and excavators operating in the river at both the dam site and at the power station site. This project seems to be progressing rapidly. Sadly, the days of the free-flowing Maranon are severely numbered. Seeing this active dam site reinforced the importance of our film project and the work that can be done to stop the subsequent hydro projects downstream.

Construction work ongoing at the Hydroelectrica Morigel power generation site. Photo by Jake Risch.

Ben sorted out a car with roof racks to portage us around the construction site and the next half-kilometer portage, and after a tricky five-pitch boat lower, we were back on the river. Around the bend, we reached our first significant Class V rapid. At Andas, all of the water poured through a narrow channel formed by two house-sized boulders. The line involved a big left-to-right move across a sloping tongue of water, and then a 15-foot plunge into a flushing seam of boiling whitewater. Adam set safety while Ben fired it up. I ran second and set safety for Adam. It was our first test of Class V whitewater as a crew, and everyone passed.
By this point, the river had changed characteristics. The water was now brown from the construction and we were starting to enter the high desert climate of the Andes. We also encountered a new hazard—one I have not encountered on any other river.

The Rio Maranon is rich with Gold sediment, and the Peruvians have developed floating gold dredgers. These contraptions are built on a frame floated by large blue barrels and suspended mid-stream by heavy lines. The operators work the dredges by vacuuming silt off the river bottom and processing it on a conveyor belt, separating out the gold. They set up operation at the top of eddies and in the pools at the bottom of rapids where the river naturally deposits its sediment. In a good season—three months of low water—a dredge can process up to $30,000 worth of Gold. With this profitability, all of the available spaces in the river are filled with these craft, resulting in a spider web of heavy lines crossing the river. Right in the middle of a canyon filled with classic Class III and IV whitewater. 

Jake and Adam discuss the strategy for dodging the spider web of Gold Dredge stabilization lines in the river.  Photo by Ben Webb.

We had two tactics to deal with the lines.  The choice depended on how high off the water the line was.  If the line was a foot or more off the water we would use a paddle flick to flip the line up and over our heads.  If the line was lower a big “boof” stroke would lift the bow of our boat over the line.  At one point I followed Ben down into a Class III wave train with a bouncing line right in the middle of the biggest waves.  As Ben passed the line was at its lowest, he launched off the top of a wave and was able to get over the top.  By the time I reached the wave the line had rebounded up and hit me square in the chest hanging up for a split second on my PFD.  In that moment I feared the worst, hanging up on a mid-stream line can force you underwater, the force of the current holding you just under the surface unable to breathe.  Luckily the line snapped free snagging my paddle from my hands as threw myself onto my back deck to reduce my profile. Luckily I didn’t flip and Adam was able to recover my paddle for me.  I was also lucky that the silly little non-locking carabineer that anchored my waterproof camera to my vest did not catch on the rope.  I removed the carabineer after the close call.

The gold dredges were a continuous threat down to the town of Chiquibamba, our last resupply point before entering the crux canyon of the section. In Chiquibamba, we stayed in a hostel and were able to restock our food supply and do a quick laundry. We met a local gold dredger and talked with him about the river and dams. He wasn’t concerned about the dams going in upstream. I don’t think he realized that the dams will cut off the flow of sediment that transports the gold he is dredging down from the mountains.

After Chiquibamba, we battled gold dredge lines for another 15 kilometers down to an un-runnable rapid that marked the start of the inner Canyon. We made quick work of the hazard by running a sneak line through the entrance and then portaging a river-wide sieve. We finished the day with three kilometers of quality Class IV whitewater, reaching the “Big Mama” portage with enough time to establish a camp in a boulder cave halfway through.

Camping in a cave under a house sized boulder half-way through the Big Mama portage. Photo by Ben Webb.

The next morning, we completed the Big Mama portage. At “Big Mama,” the river cascades down a 100 meter drop over a distance of half a kilometer, through a jumble of house-sized rocks. The whole river disappears under one boulder, re-emerging in dramatic cataracts only to disappear again. The portage involved carrying and lowering our gear up, over, around, under and through this maze of boulders.

The Big Mama Portage, a jumbled maze of giant boulders. Photo by Ben Webb.

We battled raspberry bushes, nettles and thick vines as we scouted and portaged the next few kilometers of Class IV and V rapids and made it to the Huari Castillo portage in time for lunch. This portage entailed tunneling through the undergrowth to get the boats up to a grassy slope high above the river level. We then had to shuttle the boats across the steep slope over an exposed cliff above the river. Once across the slope, there was a diagonal ramp back down to the river. We worked in stages to move the boats and gear along the portage. At the start of the ramp, Ben started to build an anchor to lower the boats while Adam and I ferried the boats across the slope. While Adam and I were carrying the last loaded kayak across the grass slope, we saw Ben’s boat and my boat slip off of the perch we were staging them on for the lower. My heart sunk as I watched my boat, food, passport, inReach device and all of my other life-supporting equipment disappear over the edge, certainly tumbling down into the river below. Luckily, Ben had just finished tying them into his anchor, so they only fell one rope length down the slope, a bent carabiner the only casualty. We completed the rest of the portage without incident and put back on.  Four kilometers of Class IV whitewater later, we made camp for the night.

Jake Risch enjoying quality whitewater deep into the Upper Canyon of the Rio Maranon. Photo by Ben Webb.

With the big portages behind us, we entered the best part of the run. During the last three days of the self-supported stage of our journey, we paddled a number of quality class IV and V rapids culminating in the Tamiajalin rapids. Marked on the map as Class V-VI, we began to portage this long rapid at river level on the right bank. After portaging the first drop, I thought I saw a line in the second and waited for Ben to catch up. A quick scout confirmed that there was a line. We started on the left side of the rapid and then charged right through a steep wave train to avoid a big hydraulic at the bottom. The next section involved a blind line through a number of boulder slots before cutting into the main flow over a six-foot drop on the inside of the river’s righthand bend. The third section required a big boof off of a five-foot pour-over rock in the center of the river. I was initially hesitant about the move, but Ben convinced me it was good to go—and it was. The last part of the rapid involved punching a big wave-hole on river left and then scrambling through a 200 meter-long section of Class IV read-and-run. After piecing together the Tamiajan rapids, we made camp 5 kilometers from the take out. For our final day of the self-support, we paddled amazing Class IV boulder-garden rapids down to a bridge and road to Putchka where we would link up with the other guides and begin the second stage in our descent of the Maranon.

The section of the Rio Maranon from the Source at Carhuacocha to the confluence with the Putchka is an absolute classic Class IV/V paddling adventure. The whitewater is top notch, the terrain and scenery is spectacular and the portages are epic. The whitewater is hard but accessible for the working-man Class IV+ or V paddler. All of the Class V rapids are portageable. There are good food stores along the way, so you only ever have to carry four of five days’ worth of food at any one time. It’s best to go in June when the water is low.  Get out there and explore this gem before it’s too late.

On this trip I’m using: