October 14, 2016
Fleeting Magic on the Río Samaná
The door of the large white van swung open with a loud thud, exposing us to the hectic scene outside. In a small enclosed front yard in the lush hills of Medellín, a crowd of people scurried around stuffing gear in bags, prepping camera equipment, and hoisting kayaks onto the roof of a pastel yellow jeep.
Several photographers from Bogotá huddled on the steps of the messy house, watching a team of workers load dry bags into the back of the van. Victor, a smooth talking, French traveler smoked a cigarette and leaned on a shady wall. In the background a herd of others ran around doing various tasks; two Chilean kayakers, an American, a Costa Rican, a support team of Colombians, and our group of five who just two months ago hadn’t the slightest intentions of coming to Colombia.
I planned the inaugural trip for newly-launched MadebyAdventure and found four others to join me in less than two-months. Like the hectic scene unfolding in the front yard, the idea was borderline chaotic but somehow advanced forward smoothly. With humble roots in internet forums and travel groups, the idea evolved to become a documentary filmmaking, conservation-focused, rafting expedition.
We crammed swimsuits, shirts, hammocks, and bug spray into dry bags, with Jules, our river guide and pioneer of Colombian whitewater encouraging us to pack less and minimize clutter. Stuffing the last articles of clothing in a dry bag, I looked around the group imagining the upcoming week. I had no sense of what lay ahead, but had an innate feeling that we were about to embark on something special.
I could feel a change in the energy of the group as we converged on the river. Descending a bumpy dirt road, we parked the jeep on the roadside when the tracks became too steep, loading the week’s provisions on donkeys for transport to the canyon bottom.
Already late in the afternoon, the sky overhead was dark with murmuring thunderclouds. In groups of four and five, we trudged down the steep valley, carrying paddles, life jackets, kayaks, and heavy backpacks. Passing a few homes and a small school, it took over an hour on donkey trails to reach the roaring river bottom.
At a turn in the trail, I gazed up the valley, captivated by the river. The air was rich with an earthy perfume, punctuated by the smell of sweat soaked clothing. A thin cable-suspended bridge spanned the river; a symbolic gate to the journey on the other side of the river. Vine cloaked trees hugged each shore and the sound of rapids filled the air. The scene was Jurassic Park-esque.
After trudging along the muddy donkey trail for another fifteen minutes, we set up camp along the river amidst a bamboo stand. Our group of seventeen broke into smaller teams to collect firewood and string up hammocks before dark. Many involved had no experience setting up a jungle camp, so the scene was both unnerving and comedic. I struggled with the logistics of fitting four people under a small tarp and cringed at the number of questionable knots I tied.
With a large pot of stew on the fire, we sat on beachside boulders in near darkness, chatting quietly. Night comes early in the jungle valleys. The rising and setting sun enforce a strict circadian rhythm; a concept so foreign in the digital age. Swaying in my hammock, I drifted to sleep, wrapped tightly by the canvas and warmth of the heavy valley air.
The Río Samaná doesn’t show up on the radar of most tourists. Located in a region ravaged by violence from the Escobar era, the tributaries of the Samaná were mostly deserted until recently. Farmers, fishermen, and small-scale gold miners have slowly returned to the region, but the majority of shoreline is untouched. Except for Jules and Expedition Colombia, most people ignore the river as a recreational asset.
Our first day on the water found us maneuvering through tight channels and scraping over barely submerged boulders. Combining rafting and raft-pushing, the first few hours delivered the promise of adventure. Electric blue pools of water crept lazily though quieter sections of the river. Morpho butterflies, the size of small birds, flapped their fragile wings, bouncing gently through the air as if suspended by an invisible puppeteer. On the rocky river bottom, fish darted in and out of sight, through refractions of light and gentle shadows cast by the canopy above.
We stopped for lunch at the juncture of another tributary, basking in the sun on a huge boulder. The scene was surreal. People spread out across various boulders on the beach and napped in the mid-afternoon heat. Several hundred feet above, a drone buzzed through the air, attempting to document the pristine place.
From its source in the mountains to the relentless muddy rapids of its lower stretches, the scenery on the Samaná changes dramatically. Mid afternoon on the second day, we experienced one of those drastic changes as we approached an inlet. Like cream being poured into tea, the opaque orange waters of the Río Caldera swirled into the blue-green waters of the Río Verde. Separate at first, the two rivers, with seemingly different personalities, mixed in the turbulent waters, forming a new murky river. Muddied by human-caused erosion in its upper watershed, this new arrival seemed to steal a piece of life from the crystal river I had come to enjoy.
Throughout our four days on the river, we observed various threats to the river’s health, with increasing and cascading negative effects. First, small-scale gold miners, who dredge the bottom of the river using homemade rigs, sucking and sifting for gold. Undoubtedly altering the immediate ecosystem, these sustenance miners operate in a minimally impactful way, by returning the silt to the river in an output hose. Locals of the valley, they live with a respect for the river, jokingly referring to the river as “el patron” or the boss.
Traveling further down the river, we encountered illegal gold mines. Often connected to paramilitary groups, these operations use a different technique which involves scraping entire shorelines with heavy machinery. In search of greater return, they move hundreds of tons of material and destroy the first 10–20 feet of extremely biodiverse shoreline.
We slept downstream from one such operation on the second night. Scrambling over a pile of driftwood, I side-stepped bustling ant highways, to look for suitable trees to string up my hammock. With a few remaining minutes of sunlight, I swam out to a large boulder at the base of a cascade in the river. With my feet in the foaming water, I watched lightning flicker in the distance and enjoyed a solitary moment on the river.
As breakfast cooked the next morning, we tried our skill at mining using some hand tools left by recent miners. Though futile, it was an enjoyable way to pass the time as we waited for the group to rally. By mid-morning, the group assembled around the waiting rafts. With the habitual helmet and life jacket check behind us, we jumped in the raft and slid into our self-assigned places.
Around mid-afternoon, we approached a large metal bridge, rattling with the passing of heavy trucks. Armed military guards, scrambled from their post in the shade to watch us with great amusement, drop one last rapid before taking out the rafts. We lunched on fried fish, plantains, and sugarcane lemonade in the shade of a local home. Worn down by three days of the expedition, we succumbed to the stifling heat of the afternoon and napped on the dusty patio of the front porch.
By the fourth day, the Río Samaná was picking up steam. Even in low water the river was impressive, smashing against rocks the size of truck trailers, churning powerfully in spots, drifting quietly in others. Known to rise and fall up to 30 ft in a day, I was content with the steady flow of the drought-parched river.
After avoiding several large rapids, lady Samaná flashed her strength. While charging one particularly strong rapid, our guide Victor took an errant paddle to the face and broke his nose. Screaming “Adelante! Adelente!”, he urged us to shore where he spat out blood and held his nose in disbelief. After several hectic moments, the scene calmed down as he stuffed gauze into his nose to slow the bleeding. Peering out from behind a massively swollen nose, Victor heroically climbed back in the raft and prompted us to continue. Like any good outdoor guide, he broke the tension by cracking a joke about the quality of plastic surgeons in Medellín, a mecca for implants and nose jobs.
As the day passed, we portaged several more times to avoid dangerous rapids. With sunset approaching, we pulled off along a rocky bank and began unloading the contents of the raft. Wrapping up our fourth day on the river, we moved and acted differently as a group. More confident and assertive than before, the group quickly and fluidly unloaded the raft, hauling the gear up a brushy hillside to a small grassy pasture. While not a novel observation, I’m always impressed how shared outdoor experiences can bond a group of people.
The final night setting up camp was markedly different from the first. No longer stressed and unsure of ourselves, we spent the last hour of daylight swimming in a nearby waterfall and picking fruit from a nearby citrus tree to make lemonade.
Stuffed with pasta and fried pork, we lounged around the fire sitting on logs, laying in the dirt, or standing in groups talking quietly. Eventually, flashes of lightning ushered us to bed. I climbed awkwardly into the top hammock of our double stack arrangement, standing on a mossy stone, falling precariously into the taut canvas bed. The trees swayed gently with the approaching thunderstorm, rocking the hammock in an unpredictable way. A pleasant breeze circulated through the tarp enclosure, washing away the smell of moldy clothes and insect repellent. Sometime in the night, a storm passed over, dumping a quick shower of rain, but I was too tired to notice.
Our last day on the river saw us rafting through the proposed home of the reservoir. “Here we would be 30 meters underwater” and “here we would be 60 meters underwater”, noted Jules as we paddled downstream. Despite being knocked senseless just an hour before, when we overturned and smashed into a rock, I couldn’t help but feel sad for the Samaná.
There is a complex irony in rivers like the Samaná. They are bone-crushingly powerful and exceptionally fragile. With expectations or resilience, we pollute and trash rivers without a second thought. Unappreciative of their raw impact, we dam them for hydroelectric power and the recreational benefits that idyllic reservoirs present.
Throbbing lower back pain and bittersweet feelings framed my last day on the river. At noon, we took out at the exit flowage of an existing hydroelectric project. Escorted by a security guard, we hauled the gear up a steep embankment and loaded it onto the jeep waiting to pick us up. Rattling down a bumpy dirt road, we drove towards the small town of Narices for lunch and beers, leaving behind the mighty, but endangered, Samaná and a week of incredible adventures.