4 July, 2011. Barton Creek Outpost, Belize. A friend told me that in 2 days he was going on a three day expedition into one of the most remote areas of Belize and asked if I
wanted to come along. My wife chimed in, “You should go!” I should? I did.
Find a way down 1300 feet from the Baldy Beacon area of Belize’s Mountain Pine Ridge to the Roaring River.
Deploy inflatable kayaks into Roaring River’s white water.
Find the tributary that comes from Belize’s famous 1,000 Foot Falls and hike up to the falls, then back to the kayaks.
Ride the whitewater out of the mountains and back to relative civilization extracting near the Achtun Tunichil Muknal cave.
Ajinder Garcha (AJ), Seakunga Adventure Center , Placencia. Age: 50’ish Experienced kayaking guide with extensive jungle experience, Indian (Punjabi)
Tony Hovis. Rosa’s Hotel . Age: 41 Extensive canoeing experience. Neither cowboy nor Indian.
Me, Age: 46 Questionable background and unverified experiences.
After driving an hour past anything I recognized in Belize’s Mountain Pine Ridge we parked the truck and started the hike into possibly the most dangerous and exhausting day of my life. Arran had scouted the beginning of the route from the mountain top the
day before and we set off with good maps, a good plan and full of confidence. We
each had packs on our backs slightly differing in weight but mine weighed about
60 lbs. Two Belizean “porters” had been hired to carry the two deflated kayaks down
the mountain to the river. The kayaks weighed about 60 lbs each.
After the beautiful mountaintop scenery and carefree hiking of the 1st hour we got to hike into some eyeball high grass, lovely. We then found ourselves descending in head high grass down a slippery 45 degree slope. Tony and I agreed to count the number of times we fell on our butt, however, after we found that it was often easier to simply slide down the hill, like sliding into third base, we quit counting. The grass started getting taller than us about the time we decided that we needed to move laterally across the face of this
slippery mountain for about 2000 yards. While taking a breather (and by
“breather” I mean “I’m swirling around the drain, I need to lie down”) in the
middle of this wonderful activity I learned two things.
We were all nearly out of water and still far away from the river below that would supply us with more.
The porters could not hang. They were too tired and quitting, going back. Reneging on the deal and leaving us with another 120 lbs of gear.
Oh, happy day!
We took our 5 minute break there and then we started moving,
I immediately realized that 5 wasn’t nearly enough so I collapsed and took 15
more, valiantly fighting off the vomit that was threatening to further
Revived and reasonably sure I would live for another leg of the trek we moved out and sure enough found the “spine” we had been looking for that would take us further downward to our doom, I mean, the river. Walking down the spine of a mountain is like walking down the spine of a cat. It is not ideal but it beats what is to the left and right of you. Around us we saw other spines on other mountains that went from “spine” status to “600 foot cliff”
status in a hurry. We were hoping for a good spine all the way down to the river so that
there would be no more traversing across the face of the mountain or, God forbid, having to go back uphill some distance to find another route. We climbed and slid down the slippery spine, making our way from tree to tree which was the only thing that kept us from uncontrolled slides down the rain soaked grass & mud surface. The extra weight of the kayaks we were now hauling along was more of a nuisance than a real hindrance and we got pretty efficient in the tree to tree method sometimes making use of the ropes for the more difficult areas. Arran had done a good job of getting us on a descendible spine and we finally made it to the bottom. There was never a doubt in my mind.
Laying out the kayaks, our intention was to inflate them, paddle down the most dangerous water I’d ever been in and find a spot to camp. We immediately learned two things.
The kayak pump had been broken on the trek down the mountain.
The water was rising at an alarming rate.
As Tony put it, “I’ll camp here until our provisions run out and then die of starvation before I climb back up that mountain!” Like the ancient Greeks, who burned their boats upon reaching an enemy’s shore, turning back was not an option so while Arran proceeded to blow the kayaks up by lung power we tore the pump apart to see if it could be fixed. Tony has a great, analytical mind for this type of thing and identified the problem and a workable solution which of course involved duct tape. I love duct tape! By the time we got the boats pumped up and gear strapped down the river had risen a foot or so. We briefly discussed camping where we were but instead got into the big water in the interest of further progress and a better camping spot.
Within 30 minutes or so Arran and I had been tossed from the kayak twice and the second time I found myseIf in a bit of a pickle. While Arran was swept clear of the swirling, foaming, vortex of death I had been kept in it. I found out this is known as a “keeper”. I learned a couple things while in The Keeper.
My heavy boots that had served me so well on the treacherous hike down were not the same asset in a keeper. They were threatening to pull me to my demise.
If you’re planning on being in a keeper, keep the boat with you and hang onto it with all that your worth. It can save your life.
I am 46 years old, have seen my better years physically but I’m still pretty active and I’m born to the water. Sitting here now considering it I’d say there is no way I could drown
in that situation. The Keeper, however, reminded me of how fragile life is. Thank you Lord for allowing me to see another day and thank you for reminding me how much I love my life. I am grateful.
We pulled in a short while later and settled for a spot in the jungle that Arran hacked out. We strung our Hennessy Hammocks, Arran chopped firewood, made a fire and an amazing meal, his “Cowboy Dinner”. The night before he had taken about 6 pounds of ground beef and mixed it with sliced potatoes, onions, green pepper, cho-cho ( a local vegetable) and seasoning. He divided it in four parcels, wrapped it in aluminum foil and froze it overnight. The packages were now set on the hot coals of our fire, cooked and then consumed by 4 hungry adventurers. Delicious. He credits his mother with the dish, she used to pack it for him when he was but a wee cowboy, adventuring on his own.
After eating we climbed into our hammocks to recover from one of the most physically exhausting days I have ever had. The much anticipated arrival of the sandman was delayed, however, when Arran announced from his hammock, “I’m covered with ticks.” In the cocoon of our hammocks we all started our self inspection to discover that small “seed ticks” had attached themselves to each of us by the hundreds. Arran and I stumbled through the night jungle and down to the river to see if we could wash them off. No such luck. As soon as I was back in my hammock I’d discover another hundred on me and was back out again to trying to rid myself of those little cusses. Arran, Tony and I were covered
but AJ, inexplicably , claimed to have none. As I lie in my hammock picking ticks, listening to Tony cuss and Arran giggle I finally drifted off to dream about The Keeper and being eaten alive by small ticks.
After a terrible night’s sleep I awoke in the misty jungle to greet another day. We had granola and milk with coffee and paddled off to find the tributary that comes from 1,000 Foot Falls. Arran and I adjusted the weight in our kayak a bit and found we were more maneuverable and handled the river much better. After a couple hours on the most beautiful river I’ve ever seen Arran identified the tributary we sought. We pulled in, consolidated some gear and started hiking. Still wearing our helmets & life jackets we
carried climbing gear & our lunch all in one pack weighing about 60lbs.
The terrain was difficult, uphill, with lots of climbing and we were in & out of the tributary’s waters (mostly in) constantly. We were always aware of the hazard of even a small injury becoming a very large issue so we proceeded carefully. Out exit plan for the injured was to pack the individual to the kayaks and battle the river back to civilization, 2 days away. Not a pleasant picture.
Deep, crystal clear pools nestled in dark rock formations became so commonplace that I had to remind myself to try and appreciate each one. The pristine surrounding jungle lent a quality to the whole situation that I can only, feebly say, “Reminds me of a movie”. Arran efficiently led the way as we tried to find the easiest path up and over large and small waterfalls and deeper into the jungle, looking for the base of 1000 Foot Falls. Three hours in, and after climbing a number of increasingly large waterfalls, we found the most beautiful jungle pool I have ever seen. It was surrounded by towering, granite cliffs and fed by the giant waterfall, still a short distance up the mountains. The water was emerald green and the mist from the falls, jungle and rain gave it a dream-like quality. I wanted to climb down and bask in it but at that point we made the determination to turn back, resisting the urge to push higher up the falls. The rain, the late hour and our provisions dictated that we turn back despite AJ’s joking recommendation, “Let’s ignore everything we know and push for the summit!” He was referring to the numerous deaths on many expeditions that are attributed to “summit fever”, ignoring what you know to be the safest course of action to make the summit.
On the hike out we jumped off many of the same falls we had painstaking climbed on the way in. When possible, we floated down the creek that we had powered our way up and we appreciated the overall downhill attitude of the land. It only took us half the time to get out and Tony the Mule humped the heavy pack the whole way back. We reached the kayaks in about 90 minutes, reloaded and shoved off.
After an hour and a half of river time we chose a picturesque rock & beach camp. Dinner was pasta with tomato sauce, coffee, nuts and raisins. Cuban cigars, man-talk and ape-like grooming followed as we spent a couple hours picking hundreds more small seed ticks off ourselves & one another. I found that the 80 grit sandpaper from the kayak repair kit took off the most ticks at one time. Duct tape is effective as well unless they are burrowed deep in your skin. I think AJ might have had 30 ticks, I had several hundred on me with Arran and Tony hosting a few hundred as well. Sleep was a welcome relief yet once again
accompanied by at least 100 of my tiny traveling companions. I should start a tick circus, I have seen several jump.
Awakened to the smell of campfire coffee prepared by Arran, we had oatmeal, nuts and raisins. We loaded our gear and prepared a full day in kayaks. Day three promised to be a long, tiring day with plenty of challenges but nothing compared to the difficult hiking and big waters of day one & two. I was looking forward to it.
I have spent a lot of time in canoes, I live on a popular canoeing creek and have owned probably 15 canoes in the last 10 years. I have paddled in the La Ruta Maya, a 170 mile, 4 day canoe race twice. Arran is an accomplished kayak guide and La Ruta Maya veteran. It was a pleasure to share a kayak for three days with this young man that I have great
respect for and is like my brother. Tony, my other brother from another mother, is a veteran of three La Ruta Maya races and knows his way around a canoe aplenty.
I’d paddle the river Styx with either of them. The master of the kayak though, is
AJ. Watching him approach white water, setting the kayak up and then slipping
into the rapids is a lesson in itself. Then, the slight course adjustments made
with a gentle sweep of his paddle is like watching peace amongst the chaos.
“Making it look easy like Michael Jordan”, I commented at one point. Ticks
don’t stick to him either.
We started our third and final day in the mountains where the amazing scenery continued with towering, sheer cliffs and rapid drops in elevation resulting in just a few more big’ish rapids. The terrain started to level out after a few hours but we still found plenty of smaller rapids to keep our focus and help make it fun. We eventually got down into jungle with cohune palms on the riverbanks, iguanas in the trees and AJ even hollered, “Look, a Tapir!” This of course scared it off before the rest of us could see it but we did get to hear it running off through the bush, terrified by the thunderous voice of Ajinder Garcha, wildlife guide. There were lots of laughs, kayak battles (“Prepare to be boarded!”) and an epic nautical engagement fought with figs. We abandoned our fig battle at the extraction point where we pulled our kayaks out lit more Cuban cigars and hitched a ride to the highway.
Two days after all that I sit here covered with itchy tick bites, sore muscles and fond memories that I am trying to recapture like a fading dream. It is always that way with adventures, everything alive and vivid as it occurs but as I settle back into home life the memories start to seem far away. This trip showed me a side of Belize I had never seen, a side of each of my friends I had not seen and of course a side of myself I had not seen. I am
pleased with all sides and grateful for the glimpse.
Here is the video I made documenting the trip.
Be sure to check it out if you liked this story.
Multiple day kayaking expeditions can be scheduled with Cowboys & Indians Expeditions, the fledgling endeavor of two very experienced, competent guides, Arran Bevis and AJ Garcha. Contact Arran through www.metbelize.com or AJ through www.seakunga.com . Seakunga Adventure Center also runs trips throughout Central America and Cuba.
Its a great trip, I did nearly the same yrs ago and hired Arran, who I've known since he was a lee cowboy, to help us carry our gear down to the bottom of the 1000 ft falls. A fire had obliterated any trails from top to bottom and took us 3 attempts going up and down, before we found our way to the bottom. We paddled from there straight down to Teakettle and pulled out a few miles past ATM cave. Also saw an unfazed tapir between atm and pull out, who we watched and paddled past. It was an amazing trip. Gorgeus jungle, lovely gorge, semi challanging river kayaking. I'd do it again in a flash. Working now on another trip putting in 30 winding miles upstream from the dam. Ain't life grand?