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A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

- John James Audubon

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Travel

Jul 03, 2019

Rafting The Usumacinta River: Highway of the Maya – Part One

The Mayan ruins, largely abandoned by 1000 AD, were left to moulder under the engulfing jungle. Today, the descendants of these ancients remain on the move, the Usumacinta is their river of life.

WRITTEN BY

Jack Billings

Jack Billings has previously featured in The Outdoor Journal, and more information can be found on his contributor page. On this occasion, the below article and adventure was shared with Linda DeSpain married since 1981, having enjoyed their first river date in March 1978. A world traveller across all hemispheres, she continues to focus on her writing what she insists others portray in theirs: capture all of the senses. Linda currently dips into adjunct teaching with a college of education students. Meanwhile, she captures her wanderlust for excursions

For aeons untold the Usumacinta River of Mesoamerica has been the easiest way through the dense jungle to transport people and goods. As the source of water, irrigation, and food for the entire basin, it remains the connection between present and ancient. The river has connected sophisticated regional centers with millions of citizens who shared and fought over commerce and territory. The most-developed restorations boast of regal architecture, intense cosmological ceremony, irrigated agriculture and astrological observation – all from peoples who built immense stone monuments without beasts of burden or metal tools. The Mayan ruins accessible today, largely abandoned by 1000 AD, were left to moulder under the engulfing jungle. Today, the descendants of these ancients remain on the move and the Usumacinta is their river of life.

Imagine a seven-day 88-mile rafting excursion on the frontier between Mexico and Guatemala. Combine serenades by howler monkeys while crocodiles bask on rocks near the water’s edge. Squadrons of small, blunt-faced green parrots called loras chatter overhead. The marvelous waterfall at Cascada Busiljá propels itself over travertine boulders into the river, and an epic adventure is borne. Add the chance to visit two abandoned, ancient Maya kingdom-cities, accessible only from the river, and you have the rafting trip of a lifetime: Usumacinta, the Sacred Monkey River.

The Usumacinta rises in the western Guatemala highlands, and the mountains and high ground in southern Chiapas, Mexico, forming part of their common boundary. This aquatic highway that supported the rise of Mayan civilization then flows north-northwest until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico and one of the richest fisheries in the world.

Map by Victor Hugo Ramos, Wildlife Conservation Society, Guatemala.

We found this trip on outfitter Rocky Contos’ Sierrarios.org website months before and were instantly excited. Contact with other boating friends very shortly assembled a group of 11 experienced rafters. Our rallying point was Palenque, Mexico, near the magnificent Maya ruins of the same name.

A temple at Palenque. Photo: Jack Billings

Though an important state, at least two other major kingdoms located on the Usumacinta rivaled Palenque and dominated the river’s vital trade route: Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras. Today, much of these ruins have been hacked out of the enveloping jungle. Far more are unrevealed.

The Mayan civilization reached its zenith during the classical era from 300 to 1000 AD. Recent, revolutionary technology known as light detection and ranging (LiDAR) allows scholars to remove digitally the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape. The ruins of a sprawling pre-Colombian civilization have emerged that were far more complex and interconnected than most researchers had supposed.

Assembling in Palenque, our group joined the three guides, Herman, Fernando and René. All our personal gear, coolers, and other supplies were loaded into a large trailer, pulled by a nine-passenger van that carried most of our group. On the morning of February 20, we departed Palenque for a five-hour drive to the launch site at Frontera Corozal.

At Frontera, the river is wide, slow-moving, a deep, emerald green. With the help of the guides and a few local fellows, we inflated all five 16-foot self-bailing rafts with hand pumps, together with two catarafts and three inflatable kayaks. By 4:15 PM, with a few quick strokes, we pulled into the current and began our journey downstream.  We went only about five km when the fading afternoon light urged us into camp at an unbroken expansive sand beach on the Mexico side of the river. We were on our way!

Running at about 28000 cubic feet per second the water was a very comfortable temperature, unlike other rivers we have run. Almost immediately after launch, the howler monkeys took up roaring and bellowing across the river. Theirs is the quintessential sound of the jungle. The voice is deep, loud and hoarse, something like a gigantic sea lion or a small T-Rex. From perches high in the canopy their distinctive sound carried through the river corridor.

Full moon over Guatemala. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

That night the full moon rose over Guatemala, directly across the river. For a time, it was obscured by a large cloud with beams shining both up and down toward the river. As it got dark, an impressive frog chorus sprung up across from us. There seemed to be two groups, calling and responding to one another.

The next morning, we resumed our passage to the Yaxchilán ruins, located within a large horseshoe-shaped bend in the river. Though not as extensively excavated and restored as Palenque, this site is particularly known for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels set above the doorways of the main structures. A large plaza overlooks the river and the lowlands beyond. Yaxchilán was often in conflict with its downstream rival, Piedras Negras, and went to war with Paleque in 654.

Because the Yaxchilán site has been excavated and restored well up the hillside, trails through the jungle bring you to sunlight. Everywhere were new scents, some sweet, others spicy, still others earthy. The density of the jungle at the margins of the ruins reminded us that it never sleeps and is always growing.

Grand Plaza at Yaxchián. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

An active water taxi service brings tourists from Frontera every day. These 25-feet long, narrow, wooden boats are powered by 60HP motors and are outfitted with an awning over the middle to provide shade and rain protection for travelers. While most of the visitors spoke Spanish, we also heard French and English.

The river flows by, mostly silent, an omnipresent force dividing the jungle canopy. Some riparian banks are sandy and brush covered. Elsewhere is a continual jumble of limestone rocks and slabs, often fluted from aeons of tides and sediment. An insect chorus calls constantly out of the dark.

Dense jungle lines the river corridor. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

We breathe freely on the water while the jungle seems impossibly dense. Shimmering curtains of strangling, suffocating vines line both sides of the river. The diversity of canopy layers is striking. A flowering tree springs forth while mysterious scents waft across the river.

A welcome relief from the heat of the day and exertion of rowing awaits us at a cascading travertine spring not far downstream. It beckons the chance to jump off a 15-foot ledge into the deep, cool water.

You can read second part of Rafting The Usumacinta River: Highway of the Maya here.

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How-To

Sep 09, 2019

How To Choose A Safe Whitewater Rafting Company

Whitewater rafting is a unique experience in nature, filled with adrenaline and excitement. Recently though, we have been reminded of the real risks involved.

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WRITTEN BY

Benjamin Baber

Last year, headlines from around the world were plagued with tragic river accidents. Four Americans passed away on a rafting trip in Costa Rica. Two Australians passed away in separate kayaking incidents in Nepal. The southeast U.S. alone had four separate whitewater kayaking deaths. And these examples are only a small sample of the river tragedies that occurred in 2018.

While some accidents are unfortunately inevitable, there are many situations where an accident can easily be avoided. Unfortunately, most countries lack standardized rules that you might expect from within the whitewater industry. This is more common in less economically developed countries. However, it’s important to stress this doesn’t mean that all companies in less economically developed countries are unsafe. You just have to set a few basic standards, and know how to pick the best one! No matter where you are in the world, there are a few basic things to look for in a rafting company to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable whitewater experience.

Rafting in Morocco. Photo: Ben Baber

Leader to Participant Ratios

The whitewater industry has general safety standards for guide-to-participant ratios on commercial rafting and kayaking trips.  

A safe industry standard on a fourteen-foot raft is one guide to every six participants. Most companies won’t live up to this standard, but if you want the safest experience – this is it! Ask your company what their leader to participant ratio is! 

It all boils down to this – any raft can flip. When that happens, one guide is expected to rescue the raft, re-flip the raft, then save each participant. If you are one of those participants, do you want to be the sixth person to be rescued or the ninth? The better companies will reduce the number of people in the raft to keep the weight balanced, the trip safe, and to maximize the rafting experience.

Kayaking carries greater risk than rafting simply due to the fact that the participants are in control of their own boat, rather than a trained guide. Instead, the guide is usually in their own kayak telling you how to manoeuvre from a separate craft. Industry standards recommend a ratio of one guide to every four participants for kayaking and canoeing. However, this ratio may decrease and become 1:3 or even 1:2 as the whitewater gets more challenging and consequential.

Read next on TOJ: A veteran river runner turns 70, and heads off into the Peruvian wilderness to raft the Rio Marañón, the headwaters of the Amazon.

Safety Boats

Safety boats are your best friend on the river. If a participant falls from a raft, they run the risk of being swept away by the current. This is when the safety boat shines. It will pluck you out of the water and give you a safe ride back to your raft or shore. It is a recognized industry standard to never have a single-boat trip. If there are only enough customers to fill one boat, then there should always be a safety kayak or safety raft along with the participant-filled raft.

With multiple rafts on the river, there should always be a safety kayak or safety raft to support the trip. This may pose an extra financial burden for the rafting company, but it is a small price to pay to increase participant safety. Problems sometimes arise when companies try to cut corners, perhaps deciding to take a guide off the water and undercut the competition by 5 dollars. If your company doesn’t have a safety craft, find out why.

In some locations, it has become standard for single or half-day trips to not have a safety boat when they have 2 or more full rafts. The theory here is that the other boats on the river will provide safety for one other. This is a debatable standard, but in some locations, you might not be able to find a company that uses safety boats for shorter trips. Certainly for multi-day trips, no matter how many rafts, there should be a safety boat.

Rafting in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

Cut-Off Levels

Every river rises and falls according to snowmelt, rainfall, or changes in upstream dam release. It can happen with the changing of the seasons, or it can happen in ten minutes with changing weather patterns. Companies should have a set cut-off limit for each river they operate on. This cut-off level should be based on their own expert knowledge of that river.

One good way to double-check a company is to find out the cut-off levels for several other companies running that river. Call them up, send them an email, check their website – whatever you need to do to find out. If your company’s level is much higher than the competition’s, ask why! Is it because they have more experienced guides and provide more safety kayakers or rafts? If not, it may be a money-motivated decision that could translate to a dangerous experience for customers.

Equipment

Properly maintained and up-to-date equipment is a vital part of whitewater safety. All participants should wear a Personal Floatation Device (PFD), closed-toed shoes, and a helmet. If the guide hasn’t checked that your equipment is fitted correctly, don’t get on the water.

The shelf-life of most outdoor gear is around 10 years. You can use this as a guideline when deciding which equipment will keep you afloat and keep your head intact.

All PFDs from the United States must be approved by the United States Coast Guard. They will be marked to show they have been through a standardized testing process. You will see this written as “USCG Type V.” Any product from Europe must have a certification “EN ISO 12402-5 / 12402-6.”

Find out more information on IOS standards relating to PFDs here.

For Helmets, look for the CE standard CE EN 1385. This ensures your helmets is suitable for whitewater and has been tested accordingly.

Further reading:

Buying a canoeing & kayaking helmet – what does the CE mark really mean, and Sweet Protections guide to Helmet testing.

Whitewater Kayaking in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

Alcohol

It is forbidden for guides and participants to consume alcohol on the river. Intoxicated participants can pose as much of a threat to the safety of the trip as an intoxicated guide. Take note of the company’s alcohol policy, and if you have any concerns that your guide or another participant may be intoxicated, make sure to raise those concerns.

Qualifications

There are various different qualifications for whitewater guides. From the British Canoe Union, to the American Canoe Association, to Rescue 3 International. The trouble is that certifications cover different skills according to the river and country in which the certification process took place. However, no matter how much the certifications vary, every guide should have a minimum of a swiftwater rescue certificate, a First Aid/CPR certification, as well as some sort of whitewater guide certification and/or in-house whitewater training.  

Conclusion

Whitewater activities are risky. There is no way around it. However, with proper training, skill, equipment, and experience, this risk can be mitigated. Take the time to research the company you go with, and make it a lasting memory for the right reasons.

Rafting in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

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