First descents. In most countries they start out with the most obvious runs– roadside boating, the runs that have access, the runs that have the most potential; eventually goals are set on those that have a drop that looks the best on television/ in a magazine/ or for setting a record. And to all those who have chalked up any of the above, way to go!!
But once upon a time–and still once in a while a first descent is done for the joy of exploring a new river; for the gratification of challenging oneself on a run that is inaccessible, remote, not known and not for the glory or the media attention but just for the thrill of paddling down a river that no one has ever been on. What a thrill. Brian, Abraham and Brandon have the bragging rights to a first descent down the 50+ mile Cofanes River in northern Ecuador. But since they were too modest to brag about it, we will do it for them! After some cajoling we got the beta from them about their descent down the Rio Cofanes. Read on!
All right guys: Where did the idea of the Cofanes come from?
Brian – Abe had been staring at it for a year or so, wondering if it was possible.
Abraham – The idea of running this river started 2 years ago when I accidentally found this rare deep gorge while I was scouting other areas on google earth, I was just checking this new road that drops to the Amazon jungle in the north of Ecuador following the border with Colombia. Afterwards I got the topographic map and had to really think about it for a while after taking a look of it, (2 years) …the very first thoughts were that it would probably be impossible and it was left into the dream box, but it was just fascinating to look at it once in a while and then later on finding out that its elevation loss was pretty steady gave me a different perspective about it. But you can only hope that a canyon this big, deep and so remote does not have an unrunnable feature in there because of the potential that there is no where else to go but down river.and you were deep in there, not just into a canyon but deep into the ecuadorian Jungle in the deepest canyon we could find…like we figure on our second night at camp when we literally figured were in deep $#it too … talking about commitment…
So what about this run caught your attention?
Abraham – I had the pleasure of meeting Brian a couple weeks prior to this trip, when we paddled together for first time in the Quijos Valley, and we started to talk about doing some expeditions and stuff… a few days later Brian sent me an email asking me if I would like to go do a first descent of a river on the central part of the country (towards the east side dropping into the jungle). I was not very sold on it since I have not been paddling for the last 6 months prior to it and also we figured the distance we would have to paddle and the drop in elevation. I figured it would take us a little longer than the time frame we had to do it, Bottom line: I was not into it, and instead sent Brian a map of the Cofanes to see what he thought about it even though I had in mind to do it maybe the next year…. Brian’s answer to my email was LET’S DO THE COFANES!!after checking some maps it looks very DOABLE. I will never forget his words. After two years of thinking that it would not be easy chance to find someone that would want to get in there without insisting on a whole bible of questions and aerial photos or prior scouting etc…. I was blown away…It took me less than 24 hours to say yes. The weather could not be better, I wasn’t just dreaming any more, or by myself anymore… my injured wrist was holding pretty good (I found after a warm up padde on Papallacta and Jondachi ..
Brian The reasonable gradient, and more specifically, the fact that in its steepest sections the river paralleled the fault line of the Andes.
Fess’ up: Anything special done to prep for the trip?
Brian – Pretty much just standard stuff – shopping for food, packing out boats, and going over bailout options. Oh yeah, and making 6 days worth of trail mix.
Abraham: more than physical, my training was very mental after paddling only a couple of times before the trip, so I was pretty freaked out… We also needed at least one more paddler. Three is a good number for a first descent. And we lucked out finding Brandon. 22 years old and from Alaska, he had not even checked a map of the area where we were headed in until the first night we were camping at the river!
The Rio Cofanes. What was the duration of trip/miles paddled?
Brian: We tallied the length at 80-85 km, or 50-52 miles. It took us four days with almost all of day one spent in the car.
Abraham – yep, 4 days, +_ 50 miles paddled
So thinking back on the trip, what was your best moment on the river?
Abraham: It was definitely the afternoon of day two; getting out of the 12 km long gorge, running the unscoutable, must run 20 foot waterfall, 300 meters before getting to the confluence with EL DORADO and then seeing the whole sky opening again…
Brian – Coming to the confluence of the El Dorado and seeing the sky again.
Thinking back on the trip, what was your favorite piece of whitewater during the trip?
Abraham: My favorite section was the entrance to the 3rd Gorge. We named it the Canyon of Angels. It was a pool drop section, with big rapids and little waterfalls pouring into the river everywhere you looked. When we were in the pools we could look around enough just to know how far down we really were in between two canyon walls; in some places the trees came together on both sides, 300 feet above our heads. It made me feel really small and vulnerable—especially where the walls in some parts were totally caved in, with black basaltic rock creating the most amazing cathedral-like sized caves in the sides.
Brian – That’s a tough one. The whitewater was unbelievable from start to finish. To pick one section, I would say The Netherworld. It comes right below Arana Camp on day 3. It’s a mile of claustrophobic, gut wrenching whitewater that still gives me the shakes at night.
It all sounds so good! Were there any tense moments during the trip?
Brian: Two moments really stand out. The first is The Wardrobe. It is a huge unscoutable, unportageable rapid that guards the entrance to the Narnia Gorge. Here, the entire river (~2000cfs) pours through a narrow cleft and over a 5-meter falls. The entry is solid IV-V. The right side of the drop slams into a boulder. The left side drops into a frightening vortex. Behind it lurks two more must-run class V rapids (The Witch and The Lion) and a mile of walled-in whitewater. All you can do is go deep and hope for the best.
Abraham – I agree, NARNIA (the second and most committing Gorge). We called it Narnia because when you came through the first drop (The Wardrobe) you are into another world where there is no return–that’s why we called it Narnia. Then there is “The Wardrobe.” This is a rapid that totally swallows you before spitting you out 30 feet below. It was way bigger than what it looked from above and was almost not scoutable.. The next drop down was the Witch, and then the Lion. Big and scary, hard to scout rapids… to go back to the put in would take us about 2 days from this point, it took us over 3 hours to scout and decide if we would run this or not. the options were:
*PORTAGE = 1 + day of ropes, pulleys and machete action into steep jungle terrain.( not very good option)
*HEAD BACK = 2 + days… hardest part was to climb up hill until we find a supposed trail on river left and then walk back for 10 + KM.
*RUN the $#it!!!! and that was what we were there for.
Brian – oh yea, the other particularly tense moment was lying awake all night in Arana camp, listening to the rain and the rapid downstream grow louder and louder. I just kept waiting to hear the wall of water come tearing down from above.
Four days self-support: what was your first real meal at the end of the trip?
Abraham: a big cold PILSENER and then Dona CLEO Merienda (translated as the “Dinner menu”) It was noodle chicken soup and pasta.
Brian: The “merienda” at Dona Cleo’s restaurant. I don’t remember what it was. I just know it wasn’t trail mix.
Okay guys, what’s next?
Brian – Go home, save some money, and plan for the next adventure.
Abraham: I have my sites on the Palora River–or another one of the list. Not sure and yet maybe another country too!
Well guys, thanks for sharing. What a great trip! Hey—trail mix is on us. And we look for to more on your trip. J