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White Water Rafting on the Wild Pacuare
by Auriana Koutnik
Breakfast was delicious and plentiful; a mix of Costa Rican and international fare: scrambled eggs and gallo pinto, fruit bowls, toast and jam, coffee and fruit juice.
"River rafting?" I thought, "After this meal I'm ready to go back to bed and take a nap."
But by the time we reached the Pacuare River two hours later, after a beautiful bus drive through tropical scenery down a steep hill to the rocky riverbed, I was ready to go. The river was waiting, rushing hurriedly by the bright blue rafts waiting on the shore, enticing me to run with it through places I'd never been before, places filled with vibrant wilderness and crystal waterfalls.
The Pacuare, as any tourist brochure will inform you, is known as "one of the five most wild and scenic rafting rivers in the world." Originating in the Orosi Valley, the Pacuare flows eastward to the Caribbean, offering Class III and IV sections readily available to visitors and Class V sections for experts only.
I was about to embark on a raft down a 32-km. (20-mile) stretch of the Pacuare's Class III and IV rapids with rafting outfitter Aventuras Naturales and I was ready. The sun was shining and two busloads of people were gathered around a very large pile of life jackets and safety helmets. Everyone got a bright red jacket and helmet. I put on my life jacket and fastened it snugly. It felt like I was wearing a corset.
"It doesn't have to be that tight," says a nearby guide, who I would later learn was named Steve and considered by some to be one of the best among this group of experienced river guides. He went on to help someone else with their jacket and I fastened my helmet around my head, grabbed a paddle from the pile and joined the group for the safety talk.
Safety guidelines are an inarguable aspect of river rafting. I strained my ears to hear the guide's every word over the loud bubbling of the river. He was talking about the protection afforded by the helmets....
"... when they are used correctly. The helmets must be on the right way. Don't put them on your head backwards, with the Aventuras Naturales logo on the front. The logo goes at the back. Don't put it on the wrong way, like her," said the guide, pointing his finger over in our direction.
I looked around, then realized that everyone was looking at me. It was me! I had my helmet on backward! So much for blending in...So much for trying to act sophisticated and experienced...So much for bluffing my way through my virgin river running experience. Now everyone knew I was a first-timer!
The guide continued. One of the most important aspects of this safety talk is the explanation of the command terms used in the raft. For example, if it is heading toward a large boulder with a wave rolling over it that could easily flip the boat if it were to get stuck on the rock. In that case, the guide—our team leader—would yell "High Side," and we would all have to rush over to the highest side of the raft as rapidly as possible, to try and balance it out, meanwhile, you're trying to avoid hitting someone in the face with the thick end of your paddle. Well, I guess I was in for some excitement!
"Paddle" and "Stop"—obvious commands. "Back" means paddle backward instead of forward. "Back Left" means the left side paddles back while the right side continues forward. "Paddle Right," vice-versa. Instructions followed on what to do if you fell out of the raft, how to help rescue a fallen comrade, how to use the safety rope and the proper way to get rescued by the safety kayaker who would be with us throughout the trip. I listened carefully and began to relax.
After the safety briefing we climbed into our boats, which held three people on each side plus the guide in back, and I tried to get comfortable. All too soon, we started floating down the river...straight for our first Class III rapid!
Class III, as described by the American Whitewater Affiliation's International Scale of River Difficulty, are "rapids with high, irregular waves often capable of swamping an open canoe. Narrow passages that often require complex maneuvering."
Water splashed up into my face, soaking my hair and nostrils and eyes and glasses (tied to my head with an elastic string). I nearly fell off the side of the raft as I tried to paddle harder and harder because I thought I heard the guide say that's how you keep from tipping over when you're going down a rapid. Complex maneuvering...
Part of my mind was screaming, "Get me out of this raft!" Another part of my brain remarked sternly, "Shut up! We're past the point of no return." A small corner of my brain was calm and observant, relaxed and energized by the white-water thrill.
Adrenaline began pumping through my veins and during the course of the next few miles that small relaxed pleasure corner grew so large it just about wiped out the fear and resignation that had briefly dominated my mind. It faded away until only a small healthy fear remained, one of those that help you keep your wits together in an emergency.
I needn't have worried so much, really. We had good equipment, knowledgeable guides, and had all been briefed on the safety and rescue tactics. Besides, the life jackets could keep objects up to 500 pounds from sinking, and I sure don't weigh that much!
And there were plenty of calm moments as we sat just drifting down the river, admiring the waterfalls dispersed along the steep green walls of the jungled canyon. We were floating through a visual paradise whose theme song was a rich blend of rushing water and bird songs, interspersed with happy people's excited whoops.
More than 10,000 rafters ride the Pacuare each year, according to estimates, including international kayaking teams who come to Costa Rica to train for international competitions.
"Too bad the Costa Rican government wants to dam it," I thought to myself as I slid out of the raft with the others and floated along slowly through the impressive Dos Montañas gorge, site of the proposed hydroelectric project. I admired the steep, moss-covered walls of the gorge, said to be carved by the river over an earthquake fault line. My mind drifted to the dam proposal.
Construction of the Siquirres dam was originally scheduled to begin in the year 2003, but late last year it was reported that design flaws would delay construction from six to eight years. The delay was applauded by white-water enthusiasts, conservationists and environmentalists who have long been involved in the movement to "Save the Pacuare," and still have hopes that the entire project will eventually be abandoned.
"It could go either way. It has about a 50 percent chance of happening," said our guide, Steve, after we floated out of the ravine and helped pull each other into the raft in time for the next rapid. He hopes it won't happen, and thinks lack of money might halt the project.
According to the Fundación Rios Tropicales, an organization opposing the Pacuare Project, construction of the dam would cost between $800 million and $1 billion. The foundation's slogan is "The Pacuare River—Worth More Than a Dam." If funding is obtained, it will most likely be from international sources.
White water rafting is an important, low-impact source of tourism revenue for Costa Rica. Rafting here is different than anywhere in the United States or Canada for several reasons. First, the water is warmer and therefore safer. Second, there's the wild virgin jungle and tropical wildlife. Third, it's estimated that Costa Rica has more rafting rivers per square mile than any other country in the world. But will it stay this way?
The Angostura dam, under construction on the Reventazón River near Turrialba, could be completed as soon as a year from now, essentially wiping out river rafting on the most commercially run section of this popular river.
The Pacuare and the Reventazón are the two main rivers run commercially in Costa Rica, although others are being explored as dams threaten both these popular rafting rivers.
If you'd like to try your hand at paddling down river rapids amidst tropical scenery, Costa Rica Outdoors can help you plan a trip that's right for you. Regularly scheduled runs include one- or two-day excursions on Class II, III, IV or V rapids on the Pacuare and Reventazón rivers. The two-day Pacuare excursion covers the same 32-km. (20-mile) stretch of river as the one-day trip, but allows more time for you to get used to rafting if you're a beginner. It also allows you to enjoy the pristine tropical rain forest and wildlife around the lodge at a much slower pace than is possible in the quickly moving raft.
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