Rio Marañon Post #3: Christmas Day
Our trip on the Rio Marañon was over Christmas break so that our college student kids could join us. December is the equivalent of June in Peru, so the summer rains were due to begin and the river was due to rise. We began our trip on December 22, and the days leading up to Christmas were wonderful. The canyon was deep and stark, with many-armed cactuses the size of trees dotting the hillsides, and tortured geologic folds in the mountain terrain laid out for our inspection. Beyond the innermost canyon, we could see views of towering mountains dressed in clouds and deep greens and blues. The map showed several places where the canyon was 3000 meters (10,000 feet) deep. The canyon walls were steep, and the current swift, a function of the still-growing Andes through which it cut. Flocks of small green parrots jabbered overhead and argued from the trees. Much of the time it was cloudy, but when the equatorial sun broke through it was instantly almost too hot. Ours were the only rafts on the river, and each night we camped on a huge deserted sandy beach.
Christmas eve we camped at a long beach just above a major rapid called Llanten. We shared a succulent meal of steak and salmon presented with special flair by Joe, Will, and Chris. We set up a Christmas tree using a tripod of paddles from the paddle boat, and wrapped multi-colored garland I had brought around it. Steve had some battery-powered Christmas lights that he donated to the effort. Jane brought out small gift bags for everyone that contained chocolate and other fun trinkets. We brought Santa or Elf hats for everyone, and we all wore them to dinner. The mood was festive and fun. After dinner we went around the circle and everyone told about the Christmas traditions they grew up with. We felt close and warm on this special night—day three on the Rio Marañon.
Christmas day was later voted one of the biggest highlights of the trip by many. We rose early, as we always did, just before dawn. We felt, as a group, that it was good to make the most of the cool morning, and to rig and get on the river before it got too hot. The majority of our group were river guides, so it was a natural routine. The only ones not thrilled with this plan were our Peruvian guides, Pedro and Freddy, but they went along with it without open complaint.
After breakfast, we had a white elephant gift exchange. Each in the group had purchased a small gift in Peru costing no more than five US dollars and wrapped it. We put our gifts under the tree (plus two gifts brought from the US for Pedro and Freddy). Then we went around the circle. The first person took a gift from beneath the tree and opened it. The second person could choose another gift from under the tree or could steal the first person’s gift. If the second person stole the first person’s gift, the first person had to get another one from under the tree. We went around the circle this way, either choosing a gift from under the tree or stealing someone else’s until everyone had a gift. Each gift could only be stolen twice. We had a blast. People had been encouraged to purchase silly, entertaining or unique gifts. There was lots of stealing and laughter, and when it was all done, everyone had a souvenir from Peru. Pedro and Freddy had a good river knife and a rafting logo ball cap. All were happy.
Next on the agenda was the best hike of the trip, up the wash that formed Llanten rapid. The wash became a narrow canyon, almost a slot, with sheer walls that left a strip of blue sky visible far above. A waterfall marked the end of the trek, where several showered and played in the water. Additional highlights included a large fresh water crab and a flock of green parrots with pink crests on their heads.
After the hike we scouted Llanten rapid. It was the biggest rapid we had seen so far. And that was saying something. The river had been rising, and the waves were huge—some taller than the length of our 18 foot rafts. I was fascinated by the character of the river. My experience with large volume rivers was that there was usually a smooth tongue somewhere in the rapid where most of the current flowed. But not on the Rio Marañon. There was no tongue at all. No defined wave train either. Waves were everywhere from bank to bank, building and breaking in different directions, not just downstream. So the object was to miss the huge flipping holes, and try to hit the waves as straight as you could.
For me the most nerve-wracking time is preparing to run a rapid. Once we have pushed off from the shore and are committed to running it, the pressure eases for me. I rode the bow in Joe’s green boat. I love to ride the bow. I stand at the very front of the boat and hold onto the grab lines, then I lean into every wave, letting them break over my head, pushing the front of the boat down. The waves came left right and center, and we came through in fine form, as did all the other boats. We were all soaked and laughing in the tail waves. What a thrill!
But Llanten wasn’t the only rapid on that magical Christmas day. Samosierra was a series of rapids that stretched over six kilometers! The first in the series was the biggest, and the current pushed into a wall at the bottom. Joe and I managed to catch the eddy on the right side and avoid the wall, as did Ethan in the orange boat, and the paddle boat. But Dude, rowing the blue raft, did not make the eddy. He avoided the wall by a very slim margin, but couldn’t eddy out before the next rapid, so Joe and I chased him. Then Steve missed the eddy in the cataraft and narrowly missed the wall, floating on into the next rapid. Ethan pulled into the current to chase him. That left the paddle boat to wait for Larry in the yellow raft. We heard later that Larry got caught by a large hole while trying to avoid the wall, and nearly flipped, but came out upright and recovered before the next rapid. Steve managed to find an eddy after the next rapid, but Dude couldn’t get pulled over until after the entire six kilometers. He was recovering from a bad reaction to one of his pre-trip vaccines, and was still weak—too weak to overcome the power of the steadily rising river. Joe and I chased him all the way, me riding the bow, of course. We all came through intact, and finally regrouped with smiles and stories at the end of Samosierra. Looking from face to face, I could see we were all falling in love with the Rio Marañon.
We camped that night on a huge elevated beach near a farm where a Peruvian family lived with six kids. We mostly kept to ourselves for the evening, tired and elated from the exciting day. We would visit the family in the morning. Pedro served cocktails, while we gathered around the fire and shared an eclectic meal that resembled chicken a la king, with turkey gravy and corn and rice. We couldn’t have hoped for a more eventful Christmas or a more amazing place to share it.
To raft and/or help protect the Rio Marañon, contact SierraRios at www.sierrarios.org.
Read more entries in our ten-part series about the Rio Marañon.