Monday, March 12, 2012

Paddling the Pacuare

“BACK PADDLE, BACK PADDLE, BACK PADDLE!” screamed our guide Roberto as if it was a matter of life and death. We were going through our first Class IV rapids, which he called the “cemetery”, down the Pacuare (pah kwah ray) River in Costa Rica. The inflatable raft in front of us, carrying a Dutch family, was stuck in a “hole”, a whirlpool that was sucking it under. And we were in the rapids right behind them. If we landed on top of their raft, well, that wouldn’t be good. We were able to back paddle enough that somehow Roberto stepped out of the back of our inflatable boat onto a boulder and single handedly held on to it by the straps, stopping it from colliding with the nether raft. Once that boat was free, then it was our turn to go through — there was no turning back. Roberto yelled again, this time, “FORWARD PADDLE, FORWARD PADDLE, FORWARD PADDLE!”
But, we were novices and unable to power through it. The river was clearly winning. Then there was chaos. I was catapulted across the raft into my husband, Ashton, hitting my helmet protected head into his life vest covered chest. Now, we were in the middle of the hole, the cemetery...the toilet, as I preferred to call it. We were tossed, turned, swirled and nearly sucked into the hole. Ashton’s side of the raft was being pulled below and I had visions of my husband getting flushed under.

This was not how I had envisioned our first full day in Costa Rica. Ashton and I had just flown into San Jose’s Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaria, from Miami, the day before. We were on a much needed vacation from demanding jobs. Even though, at the time I traveled for a living—approximately two weeks out of the month—Ashton and I were overdue for an actual vacation and quality time together.
I was a corporate inflight manager in the private aviation industry. It was my job to accompany my billionaire boss, his family and guests on his private jet, a Gulfstream V, and to organize the in-flight portion of the trip from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. To an outsider my job and schedule seemed ideal; however, I was nearly aways “on call”. My cell phone never left my side and never got turned off, much like a resident ER doctor on call—only I wasn’t doing anything as lofty as saving lives but catering to the wealthy and powerful’s whims. In addition, their demands required perfection. It was taking a toll on me physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and most importantly on my family. 
I was ‘married’ to my job—and my job came first. My husband was well aware of that. I was more familiar with the owners’ preferences that those of my own family. In addition, my mother, who was 82 years old at the time and lived with family in California, had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Dementia. This was after having major back surgery at the beginning of the year. I was the only child, and didn’t know how I could continue to balance my responsibilities. I felt like a pressure cooker ready to explode. I needed a vacation to unplug, decompress, and figure out my life.
But, now we were in the ‘hole’ and I was struggling in an altogether different way. Somehow my leg had gotten stuck under the middle inflatable divider—I couldn’t move it out. I had visions of the boat flipping and becoming fresh water fish food.
The guys asked me, “Are you alright?”
I yelled something to the effect, “Nooo, I’m not alright—do I look like I’m alright?”
I was finally able to wiggle out from under the inflatable divider, but suddenly noticed someone was missing, “where’s Monica?” I looked around for our Canadian rafting partner, imagining her desperately struggling for her life under the raft, fighting for air, or worse—head banging the rocks.
“She’s alright, she’s alright,” Philippe , her boyfriend answered. “They’ve got her,” he said, meaning the safety rescue kayakers.
After a few more terrifying seconds the river suddenly freed us. We were resurrected from the cemetery, spit from the hole, plunged out of...the toilet bowl.

Paddling the Pacuare
(Please note: Images by Tico's River Adventures)
(Also: slide show best viewed by clicking on YouTube)

We paddled over to a river bank on the right, next to the other raft, and picked up a terrified Monica who was having difficulty breathing after her sudden dunking. This episode had been exactly what she had feared when signing up for the trip—what we had all feared. We were beginners what had we been thinking?
“The Pacuare River, just east of the mountain coffee growing town of Turrialba, is renowned for having some of the best white water rafting in Central America.” Ashton and I had read online while doing research for our trip. But, our travel time was limited and the Lower Pacuare where white water rafting companies conducted day trips, were class III & IV rapids. Now, I had read and watched enough adventure stories to know that the levels run from I to V, the latter being the most difficult, and VI supposedly being impossible to run.
“Maybe this is too advance for us,” I voiced my concerns to Ashton on the morning of our trip—perhaps a little late. “Have you ever been white water rafting?”
“Yeah, once...about twenty years ago!” he admitted. It had dawned upon us recently that we were now considered “middle aged”; where you realize that events happened 15, 20, even 30 years ago. “And you?” he asked.
“Huh, once in New Zealand...17 years ago!”
“SHIT!” We could be in trouble.
Promotion and advertising had won out over common sense on the previous evening and upon our arrival in Turrialba we had booked the trip. Now, in the early morning, it didn’t seem like such a good idea. Our river guides, however, didn’t seem too concerned with our lack of experience. Due to the current relatively low water level, they said, the majority of the river was actually a Class II. We took comfort from the knowledge that our fellow rafters were also inexperienced. Why that should make us feel better is not a question that can logically be answered.
Our guides also seemed very safety oriented having the required gear—life vests, safety helmets—and one guide per raft, four guests to a raft. In addition, there were the guardian angels, the two rescue kayakers, always near the rafts. This gave us that warm and fuzzy feeling we were looking for in an adventure rafting trip.

At the ‘put in’ Roberto gave us lessons on the basics of white water rafting. He instructed us on his verbal commands and made each one of us individually practice. Finally, after practicing as a team, we were ready to conquer the river, or at least to ping pong down the river, bouncing from boulder to boulder. At the appropriate times we proudly raised our oars, smiled for the photographer ahead, and continued bouncing.

The initial Class II part of the river was gentle, quiet, lush, and tropical. We paddled lazily observing the densely vegetated gorge. Everyone was jovial except for Roberto who was very professional and serious, and becoming increasingly annoyed by Philippe's inability or unwillingness to follow his commands.

“Dude, this is serious stuff.” He scolded Philippe, “pretty soon we’re going into the Class IV rapids and we need everyone, man. People get hurt out here.”
Philippe would actually just hold his oars at times, without bothering to paddle, happy to let the rest of us do the work.
“Is it really going to mke a difference if I paddle?” He asked a visibly exasperated Roberto, who now just sighed.
Just prior to going through the ‘cemetery’, we pulled up to a trailhead and hiked up about 30 minutes to a waterfall. At one point there was a smooth granite slope where not even the traction on my expensive—gotta have them—lime green Keens, could prevent me from slipping and falling on my Portuguese bottom, which did not in any way soften the landing. Swimming under the cool waterfall, however, was worth the hike even though I spent the next couple of days sitting down very gently.

“Okay, are you guys ready for this now:” Roberto asked us after we got back into the raft. We were heading into our first Class IV rapid. “I really need you guys to follow my commands and paddle as hard as you can. Here we go!”

At first we didn’t understand the situation up ahead, but it quickly became clear to us.

We got sucked into this 'hole' called the 'cemetery'
and were spun around as if in a washing machine.
Somehow, thankfully, the hole spit us back out.

Shortly after the ‘cemetery’ experience we thankfully stopped for lunch but everyone was unusually quiet. The guides prepared sandwiches and sliced fruit while we observed the nature around us. I realized that there was something missing on this trip. Ashton and I had read about, “abundant wildlife viewing opportunities.” There was a mention of monkeys, sloths, ocelots, toucans and even jaguars. But, apparently someone forgot to tell the celebrities that they were scheduled to make an appearance. Such is wildlife viewing. So far the only animals interested in visiting us were the three to four inch fish which came up and curiously nibbled on our toes and fingers. 
After lunch, we resumed rafting, with the knowledge that there were more Class IV rapids in our future. Now, even the irreverent Philippe was obedient to Roberto’s instructions. We all had a new respect for this river and understanding of its reputation.
Monica now ducked into the raft in the ‘safety’ position, which Roberto had taught us at the put in, every time we went through another rapid. I didn’t blame her—the rest of us were just thankful that it hadn’t happened to us. Lesson to self: no matter what the company guides tell you, start off with baby steps...maybe a class II or so. 

Finally, at our ‘put out’ near the town of Siquirres, we enjoyed a hard earned cold beer and spoke about the ‘incident’—even laughing about it, as one can only do in retrospect.
Paddling down the Pacuare provided a great start to a week filled with adventure, decompression, learning to ‘go with the flow’, and epiphanies. It was during this trip to Costa Rica that Ashton and I realized we needed to make some important life changes. My life was seriously out of balance and needed drastic adjustment. I was going to have to step up to the plate and care for my mother. There was no way this was going to be possible with my job--I would have to quit my jet-setting job. I was going to need to “Forward Paddle”, accept the challenge, and move on to another phase in my life. 

Please note: This trip took place in August of 2007. I have changed the names of the couple that were with us, since at the time, I did not know that I would be blogging about it in the future. I have also blurred their images. 

I am in no way receiving compensation from Tico's River Adventures (wish I was), nor is this blog post an endorsement. It is merely for entertainment purposes. 

Also note: Most images were taken by Tico's River Adventures. 

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