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What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

- Henry David Thoreau

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Travel

Jul 03, 2019

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

The conclusion to a journey down the Usumacinta River, where we're reminded of the ancient past, the recent past, and the present, all amongst beautiful landscapes.

WRITTEN BY

Jack Billings

This is the second part of Jack Billings and Linda DeSpain’s adventure down the Usumacinta River. The first part can be read here

One of our most memorable camps was el Playon, on a beautiful, huge beach somewhere in Guatemala. It is the largest sand expanse of any freshwater setting we have seen. The light at sunrise illuminated a captivating mist that hung over the river upstream and filled the low valleys across the river. The canopy stood in dark contrast on the horizon. Birds began their calls close by, and monkeys joined in from a distance of at least half a mile.

Big beach at El Playon. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

About a third of the way into our trip we were joined by an armed escort in fishermen’s clothing. We knew the outfitter had contemplated this assistance. Both Guatemala and Mexico experienced civil war or violent uprisings in years past. Desperate people were still on the move in the river basin. We couldn’t say whether the escort was necessary, but we were glad for their presence.

On the fourth morning, we came upon a group of children playing on the Mexico side of the river bank, along with women doing laundry. We pulled in to say hello and the number of kids promptly doubled. We had arrived at the pueblo of Arroyo Jerusalem. Caucasians in outfitted rafts are an obvious novelty. As we followed Herman up to the trail to the village, several of the young children guided our elbows, solicitous of our apparent advanced age.

Mother and daughter at Arroyo Jerusalem. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

Efforts to communicate with the children were hampered because their primary language is Chol, a Mayan dialect completely different than Spanish. However, we were able to play string games and pantomime with hand contortions that are universally understood. If children’s laughter is a barometer for the health of the pueblo, then this community was doing very well. While visiting with the locals, Hermann bought a live chicken, which he brought down the river for that night’s layover dinner at Piedras Negras.

String game, Arroyo Jerusalem. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

After a short run to Piedras Negras, we pitched our camp on a terraced 50-foot soft sand bank. The promontory view was worth the effort. We were set to hear rival choruses of monkeys on each side of the river. The recently purchased chicken clucked its way into nearby brush. Before long, it was lured back to the kitchen area by a trail of popcorn seed, then readied for a gargantuan pot of noodles and cabbage. One of the escorts brought us five fish they had caught, and a grille was fashioned to fry them. We joined forces with the makings of a fresh gourmet dinner. We were eager to explore after an easy rise in the morning.

For many, the camp at Piedras Negras was the most memorable. We were literally in the landing area of this great kingdom-city, where its citizens and explorers accessed the river 1500 years ago. A large glyph engraving faced skyward on a boulder next to camp. And, we had the sweet circumstance of a layover day full of hiking, swimming, and long conversations over the campfire.

Piedras Negras is too far downstream from Frontera for day trips. Except for resident park employees and conservators, almost no one visits. Four park rangers came down to chat and to appreciate a break from their own cooking.

Park Ranger at Piedras Negras. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

The ruins here are not as thoroughly excavated as those at Palenque and Yaxchilán. Yet we could see how the design and architecture were every bit as impressive and uniquely influenced. At their height, these kingdom-cities if known would have been wonders of the western hemisphere and would have rivaled or surpassed eastern progress.

Repose at Piedras Negras. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

After recovery from a drenching rain shower, we pushed on. Regrets over soggy gear faded into our next adventure. Even though our rain fly proved too small, at least we had it in place on time. We could count on the fact that we would always be warm!

A couple of hours below Piedras Negras we pulled into a cove with a most spectacular waterfall, Cascadia Busiljá. Coming down a steep canyon, its source stream plunges over travertine-coated rocks and projects into the river. Most of us hiked up a trail behind the falls to see its origin. Others cooled off below in the spray shower that envelops the outcropping.

Cascada Busilja. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

Anticipation peaked when about 15 km below the cascade, we entered the Grand Canyon de San José. Vertical, steep limestone cliffs narrow the river and rise above as high as 1800 feet. Even here, the jungle fills in the river banks and the fissures among the cliffs.

Grand Canyon de San Jose. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

The deep whirling water created many eddies. Maintaining headway in this fickle current was challenging. In many of the small swirls, we began to see bobbing plastic bottles, the tell-tale floats attached to purse-like seine nets. These mini-fisheries were managed by families and friends who collectively checked the nets daily.

Nearing our last camp, as the sun dropped lower in the late afternoon sky, we rounded a bend and found a nice sand bar across from the community of Francisco Madero. As we tied off on the bank, fellows from the village paddled across to see us. The common watercraft here is a low-draft, 12-foot, flat bottomed canoe with a transom. The boatman stands aft and paddles or poles as circumstances require. Because we hoped to camp directly across from the village, we asked permission, which was readily given. The camp area was obviously frequented by local livestock. Our trusty shovel was handy for flicking manure away from tent sites and walkways.

Flat bottomed canoe in the lower canyon. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

The next morning a man and his son came across to ply us with hand-made, wooden artesanias. He told us of his workshop and showed us his cutting boards and spatulas from local wood, melino. We now have a spatula for the kitchen which will always remind us of this trip.

People remain on the move in this corridor. On day one, as we drove to the launch point at Frontera, Herman pointed out migrants from Guatemala or Honduras, small groups of young men trekking in the opposite direction. He identified them through their darker skin, the fact that they were traveling lightly with only backpacks and carried no machetes or other farm-related hand tools.

During our week on the river, we saw several of the shuttle taxis roaring downstream at full throttle carrying a packed group of other migrants. Frequently passing in the night these drivers plied the river without a light, reflecting their knowledge of the river and the clandestine nature of their cargo.  By pooling their resources and hiring the boat, these travelers saved themselves at least a week of hot, humid and dusty plodding along the highway. Both water and overland migrants may not be headed for the United States. Instead, we understand they are willing to take low-paying Mexican jobs in the fields and for a railroad. It is a telling commentary about the desperation and violence of their own communities that these young men would launch themselves over many weeks, mostly on foot, to leave their homes and come by whatever means available.

We foresee how the future of the ancient and mighty Usumacinta is troubled. Its heart could be broken by a dam the Mexican government energy agency wants to build at Boca del Cerro, our take-out point. This dam would flood the river up to Piedras Negras, drown all the rapids in the main canyon, block the flow of sediment and fish, and forcibly remove all the residents along the river, including the entire pueblo of Francisco Madero. Perhaps the new government of President Lopez Obrador, will bring a holistic and existential approach to the preservation of this immense cultural and environmental resource for centuries more to come.

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Travel

Nov 05, 2019

A Flotilla Cruise Through The Inside Passage: From Alaska to BC.

With radios coordinated and quiet water ahead, adventure, whales, porpoises, sea otters, eagles, stunning channels and vista await.

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Shortly after 9 AM, the mist over Ketchikan Marina lifted. The crews of our six motor launches fired the twin diesel engines, loosened mooring lines and coordinated radios as anticipation escalated. One by one the Grand Banks cruisers eased out of the close quarters and bustle of the working fishing port and rallied in the main channel. Our flotilla passed two 10-story cruise ships as we motored southeast. Other maritime facilities, including the Coast Guard station, appeared to port. And then, as though walking through a bulkhead from inside to outdoors, we left urban development behind. We were on our way!

We were offered the chance to join long-time sailing friends, Dave and Janet, for a 10-day, 450-mile voyage through the Inside Passage from Southeast Alaska into British Columbia. Although we had sailed in Desolation and Puget Sounds, motor cruising through the stunning fjords, inlets and channels of the coastal Northwest promised an exciting new adventure. Coupled with the rich marine life of pristine waters, and the opportunity to visit a Kitasloo community, a life-changing voyage unfolded.

As though walking through a bulkhead from inside to outdoors, we left urban development behind.

With Dave as captain, the four of us crewed Thea, one of six boats forming a flotilla led by NW Explorations. (NWE) She was moored among boats of all descriptions. Large commercial fishing operations were mixed with day charters, amid all the sights, sounds and smells of an active marina. We took possession of our new home with a launch due the next morning. Berths secured, personal gear stored and provisions on board for the first days, we bedded down for an anxious night. Compatriots hailed from Florida, Arkansas, Wyoming, California, Washington and Oregon.

Thea in Ketchikan Marina. Photo by Jack Billings.

Thea, a Grand Banks classic yacht, was well-equipped for cruising wilderness waters. Designed like a 46-foot trawler, she carried an impressive array of navigational equipment, including GPS guided autopilot, lap-top displayed depth and distance charts and radar. Featuring twin-engine diesel motors, she was most efficient at about 8 knots. There were three berths, two heads, a well-appointed galley with fridge and freezer, an ice maker and microwave, washer and dryer, with a drop-leaf teak table in the adjacent salon. All-in-all, quite commodious accommodations.

“turn where we turn, not when we turn…”

Affable veteran guide Brian Pemberton captained the lead boat Deception (Mother Goose). He was assisted by Jordan Roderick, an encyclopedia of First Nation and European history, marine mammals, other creatures and seabirds. Jordan was aided by Chris Fairbanks, also a marine biologist. Andy Novak, our mechanic and general factotum, rounded out Deception’s crew.

Deception in the van. Photo by Jack Billings

With Deception leading the way, and other flotilla members spreading out behind her, our course was set: Foggy Bay, 38 nautical miles away. Salt spray, the call of seabirds, rugged forest coastlines scalloped by tides and winds heralded entry into the Inside Passage. When a change in course was needed, we received the admonition: “turn where we turn and not when we turn”.

Flotilla rafted at Foggy Bay. Photo by NW Explorations.

By midafternoon we manoeuvred into Foggy Bay, located at the end of a small inlet, a charming pocket anchorage no more than 1000 feet across. Despite its name, sunny skies welcomed us. To arrange for an inter-boat gathering and accommodate the tight mooring, we rafted the six boats side by side. Three anchors and three stern lines kept us in formation. After assembling for hors d’oeuvres in Deception’s salon, sea stories began. Roland Barth’s Cruising Rules applied to food and tales.

Harbor Master, Prince Rupert. Photo by NW Explorations.

Good weather prevailed the next morning out of Foggy Bay, in route to Prince Rupert, the largest city in the northern part of British Columbia. Several bald eagles monitored our entry into Cow Bay Marina.

Our itinerary called for a layover day, to allow provisioning for as many as seven days. The refrigerator had unaccountably shrunk, so we pressed two on-board coolers into service. With the help of block ice and a steady stream of cubes from the icemaker, food stayed fresh for the remainder of the trip.

Returning to Thea the second afternoon, we encountered a boat hand with three large bags of shrimp. He pointed out their boat, docked on the next boardwalk. The captain sold us enough for three meals.

Because Prince Rupert has both rail and highway access to the interior of British Columbia, it is an important shipping hub. The marina is the largest between Ketchikan and Vancouver Island and provides shore power, potable water, Internet access, a restaurant/pub and a large grocery store within walking distance. Its laid-back pace fit our needs exactly.

The sights and pounding reverberating across the waves cast indelible memories.

Rested and fully provisioned, we set our course over the next four days for passage to Newcomb Harbour, then to Patterson Inlet, Bishop Bay and on to Aaltanhash Inlet, a total of about 185 nautical miles. Our itinerary brought us down the narrow Petrel Channel and then across various sounds and reaches. We saw virtually no one except when we crossed the shipping lane at Granville Channel and a few boats moored at Bishop Bay.

The narrow passages into these inlets are quite protected, with tide changes, but little surge. Reflections along the water line strike vivid angles on the glassy surface.

Reflections at Patterson Inlet. Photo by Jack Billings.

Early mornings in these anchorages were magical. Overcast skies meant light emerged slowly, coupled with the first cries of sea birds, and the salmons’ leaps and jumps as they pursued their spawning destiny. Hot coffee cups warmed our hands each morning as we sat on Thea’s bow; remote did not mean sacrifice. Fishing was irresistible and often rewarding.

One sunrise a tall, black timber wolf scampered out dense forest onto a low tidal beach, nose down looking for treats then up again skyward. We held our breath, hoping for more, as it disappeared a moment into large reeds. Then out again, it retraced its path into the trees. This rare sighting happened in a flash before we had time to nab the camera. Within two minutes, silence settled in again, we caught our breath, and the usual world was far away.

Soon after leaving Patterson Inlet we crossed through Otter Passage and into Squally Channel. Our flotilla came upon a pod of feeding humpback whales. We slowed to idle and spread out, maintaining a respectful distance. The whales were fishing by concussing, slamming either their pectoral fins or massive tails on the surface, stunning the small fry below. The sights and pounding reverberating across the waves cast an indelible memory.

Then, without warning, two whales seemingly the size of Thea surfaced next to us, almost within reach.

Humpback at Squally Channel. Photo by Jack Billings

Apparently unconcerned about our proximity, with the sweep of a fluke, they are gone.

Humpback fluke with resident barnacles. Photo by Jack Billings

Out from our snug mooring at Aaltanhash Inlet, we set our course down the Princess Royal Channel toward our rendezvous with the Kitasloo village of Klemtu. Deception reported a small school of Dall’s porpoises feeding along the port side. As Thea came forward, several swam over to investigate.  Incredibly, they fell in with our bow, matching our speed of about 9 knots, crossing from one side to the other. Then, in a flash, they lost interest and were gone.

Shortly beyond, Klemtu came in view on the western hillside. We passed the community and made anchor in a small bay called Clothes Cove. We took the dinghies back to the village where we were given a tour of their magnificent Long House by Shane, a hereditary chief. Ceremonial uses were heralded by the lightly acrid smoke in the air. Built with massive cedar beams, its spectacular carved lintels at each end represent the four families of this Kitasloo village: eagle, raven, killer whale and wolf.

Long House at Klemtu. Photo by Jack Billings.

Since at least the retreat of the last ice age, indigenous peoples have lived, fished and hunted in the stunning, rich waters and islands of what is now southeast Alaska and the Pacific coast of British Columbia. The arrival in mid-1700s of Spanish, English, and Russian explorers brought deadly disease, slavery, and overt debasement of their cultures. The Canadian government later established residential schools, for which students were forcibly removed from their families and beaten if they spoke their native languages. Today Klemtu’s 450 residents struggle to regain lost cultural sovereignty. With a determination steeled by centuries of survival in an often-harsh environment, the people of the village persevere.

By the next morning, several boats were running low on provisions and fuel, so our destination changed to Shearwater, about 38 miles distant. Here we found the only large boat haul-out facility in a wide area. Its pub restaurant brought a break from on-board meal preparation and clean up. Fussy kingfishers patrolled the marina. After dark, a full moon, bright enough to walk by, cast mirrored reflections on the water and forest silhouettes against the horizon.

Full moon at Shearwater. Photo by NW Explorations

Not long after we departed Shearwater, a large raft of sea otters appeared. Mothers sometimes wrapped their young in floating kelp beds, leaving them on the surface while they dove for food. Sea otters were hunted almost to extinction during decades of high demand for their pelts. While their numbers have rebounded across two-thirds of their historic range, they have not returned to their earlier abundance.

Raft of Sea Otters. Photo by NW Explorations

As we prepared to leave Shearwater, the Deception crew advised that weather was building ahead of us, over Queen Charlotte Sound, to our southwest. Our course would take us down the Fitz-Hugh Sound, still protected by an outer island, but then out into the open Sound, directly off the Pacific. The likely rough seas prompted a change in plan, to turn southeast into Queen Charlotte Strait, and Blunden Harbour, 83 miles and 10 hours away.

As we entered the Sound, winds held steady at 20 knots, Thea bounced and tossed in four-foot swells and scattered squalls. Though the boat was well-designed for rougher seas, the open passage required our constant attention. In gathering darkness, the flotilla eased out of the strait and into the anchorage. After a quick meal, we called it a day and thanked the star-filled sky.

The next morning brought our last day on the water. Our destination, Port McNeill, British Columbia, was now nearby after yesterday’s long run. We left Thea, and Dave and Janet, as three new passengers were set to embark on the next 10 days down to Bellingham, Washington.

Returning home, we were refreshed by memories of marine life seen up close in native surroundings, stunning fjords cut into the pristine forest and First Nation resilience and renewal. Great fellowship, discoveries every day, gourmet meals and more. It was truly a trip of a lifetime.

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