Excursions: River madness

Up close and personal with the most challenging whitewater rafting run in the world, at the head-waters of the Amazon.

The weather should have been our first clue. As four friends and I endured a winding six-hour bus ride from Quito to Tena, a small town in the heart of Ecuador's steamy jungle, the rain was fierce. It was still coming down when we arrived in Tena, at 8:30 a.m. the following day, at the headquarters of the adventure company that was to take us rafting.

Our plan was to attempt the Río Misahualli, a river with Class 4 and Class 5 rapids. Class 5 is deemed “expert” for its long, violent rapids, which can make for a dangerous ride. (Class 6 is “unrunnable,” with a likelihood of death.) Because of the huge amount of rain, the guides cancelled the trip and sent us to the Upper Río Napo instead, a river with intermediate, Class 3 rapids. (Class 3 has strong currents and is challenging enough to require skilled paddling.) Locals call it Río Jatunyacu, which means “big water” in the indigenous language, Quichua.

Clue No. 2: our tour outfit informed us that one of our guides couldn't make it. Lars, our lone leader, a tall, sturdy redhead from California with a fondness for the word “dude,” greeted us energetically: “Dudes, you ready to do this? Let's go!”

At the river, groups ahead of us were turning around–with the heavy rain and the river much higher than normal, their guides were nervous. That should have been my third clue. After three, I stopped counting. I suppose I had more pressing things on my mind, like estimating how long I could hold my breath under water. And calculating how many strokes it would take to reach land if I fell out.

With the headwaters of the Amazon River running through it, Ecuador has one of the highest concentrations of rivers per square mile in the world. Some whitewater enthusiasts say Tena offers the best rafting in the country, because of the clean, scenic waters that surround the town. So when my friends suggested we head out to the jungle to raft for a day, I jumped at the opportunity.

I was also the only novice in the crew, so when we leaped into the raft after a few brief instructions, I deliberately sat in what I figured would be the safest spot: the back of the boat, next to our fearless guide, Lars. Pushing away from the bank, we were off.

The water, like the sky, was dark grey, and it was running high. As we paddled, I admired the huge trees lining the banks. That is, until some of them, torn out at the roots, started hurtling past us on the river.

“Wow! I've never seen the river like this, dudes,” said Lars. “Holy shit! Look at those waves. When I say paddle, paddle!” He was preparing us for an upcoming stretch called the Rock Garden: rapids littered with big boulders requiring careful manoeuvring.

Because the water was so high, Lars couldn't tell if we were approaching waves or boulders. We found out soon enough, when our boat hit a rock. Everyone went flying, but no one fell out; I collided with the lunch cooler in the middle of the boat.

We continued on for an hour and a half. The rain was almost blinding; the waves intense. “Dudes, paddle hard!” said the expert. Apparently we didn't paddle hard enough, though, because when we hit an especially large wave, the back of the boat was sucked under and Lars and I were pulled out. We held onto each other as we careened down the river, much faster than the boat. Though I was terrified, I had to laugh when I looked back at the wide eyes of my four (suddenly guideless) friends.

Once they'd caught up with us, Lars suggested a short adventure on land. By this point, land was looking good. So we left the boat untied on a narrow strip that separates the Napo from a parallel ditch with a trickle of water running through it. We jumped off, hiked through the water and came face to face with one serious canyon, known locally as the Temple of Spirits. With its towering, rugged walls covered in vines, spiders and bats, this canyon would give Indiana Jones the chills. To get through it, you must walk against the flow of an ankle-high body of water. And on the hike out, we were greeted with a surprise: the water was up to our knees.

Lars, ever the leader, calmed us with talk of a flood. When we reached a waterfall, my leg got jammed between two underwater logs. The water rose. Visions of noble sacrifices crossed my mind (“No, really, save yourselves”). It took two men pushing my body against the current to get me out.

By this point, the raft was looking pretty good again. We reached the canyon's entrance just in time to see the boat floating on a layer of water that was immersing what was left of the embankment.

Lars dove in and rescued the raft. Then, one by one, we swam across the ditch. If we didn't make it–if our hands didn't reach Lars' outstretched hand in time–we'd be swept into the Napo. Hello, Amazon. Thankfully, we all made it across.

I guess the Napo had its fill of us–it let us navigate the final stretch without incident. I thought about a rafting brochure I'd seen in Quito: people laughing amid friendly, white waves, their handsome guide steering the boat. Then I looked at us: tattered and torn as we battled the muddied waters, our guide almost as helpless. We finished the trip an hour and a half faster than normal–the surging river was eager to spit us out.

That night, we made our way to the one hot spot in town, a dance club. A guide there said he'd cancelled his trips that day because “the water was too damn crazy.” Oh, really? We hadn't noticed.