Search for the Frenchman’s Lost Cave

New Discoveries in the Dominican Republic

By Dave Weimer & Lukas Eddy

The ‘Third Nipple Formation’

We have a big problem. 

It was a text from Lukas Eddy in the Dominican Republic. He and his wife, Suhei, had scoured the country for over a month looking for some mythical ‘lost cave’ and apparently–they’d found it. We’d been invited to help with the mapping. 

I texted back: Problem??


We needed a solution fast. I suggested chemical warfare: 

    A couple cans of Raid should solve the problem, right?

   No. That would just make them angry. But, I have an idea… 

So there we were, wearing full-body bee suits while hacking through jungle in the sweltering heat of the West Indies. The humidity was stifling and the suit was like wearing a sweater in a sauna. Worse still, the screen on the hood was difficult to see through and we kept getting caught on vines and thorns, only able to free ourselves by beating the foliage with a dull machete. Lukas, who is notoriously frugal, had a slightly easier time because he had only purchased the hood part of the suit and didn’t have to deal with the ungainliness of walking like a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

Bee suit ridge-walking

   “Be careful,” he whispered. Then he gazed up into the canopy, “They’re everywhere.”

Whether these were the infamous Africanized Killer Bees, or Murder Hornets; or perhaps some undocumented species of vespid–like a ‘Screaming-Torture Wasp’ or a ‘Holocaust Hornet’–he never said. 

I looked to Suhei, who has a more level, demure nature. But she agreed with Lukas,       

   “The wasps are extremely aggressive.” 

I began to wonder if this was some kind of elaborate practical joke. But then I saw them. Blending in with the surrounding foliage were fist-sized nests covered in finger-sized wasps. They were larger than typical wasps, and yes, they looked like the type that could murder. Later, Suhei showed us one of the spots where she’d been stung. On her leg was a shockingly large, purple welt. It looked like she’d been beaned with a softball. 

   “From just one sting,” she said. “And one landed on Lukas’s eye!”

We tiptoed through the minefield of nests and down into a sinkhole. There in front of us appeared a massive, yawning cave entrance––120-feet wide by 100-feet tall.

The unmapped cave.
Ancient bat bones

“At first we thought this was the Frenchman’s ‘Lost Cave’,” Lukas said. “But it’s only about 600-feet long.” 

Finding an unmapped cave of this size is a monumental discovery in itself. But Lukas and Suhei wanted to find something even more extraordinary—perhaps the longest cave in the country, if not the entire Caribbean.

Entering the mouth of the cavern, I craned my neck to the high ceiling. There were stalactites as thick as tree trunks and several feet long.

“How the hell did you find this?” I asked.  

                                                   *       *       *

Their journey began at Phillip Lehman’s stately home on the island’s breezy north coast. Phillip is one of the few cave divers living in the DR full time and is a founding member of the Dominican Republic Speleological Society (DRSS). Lehman––who in the 1980’s was a renowned graffiti artist and later formed and headed several acclaimed record labels––had been cave diving here for over 15 years. 

The Eddys had a question they believed only an expert like Philip could answer. If most of the Caribbean islands are comprised of limestone, and Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba––even relatively small and flat islands, like the Bahamas, Turks, and Caymans––all have well documented systems; why are there so few known caves in the Dominican Republic? How could such a large country with plenty of karst, not be riddled with caves? 

Phillip explained over dinner. Indeed, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of caves. But these were of the underwater variety: extensive, flooded networks found all along the coastline. These systems generally start with a very short, dry passage, then quickly terminate in a sump. In all his years of searching, Phillip has rarely found caves that deviate from this model. He emphasized, however, that the DRSS focuses entirely on cave diving and there are virtually no active ‘dry’ cavers in the whole region.

There have been a few notable exceptions. In 1988, an Italian team descended 1200-feet into a cave in the central mountains that ended abruptly at an underground river. In 2005, another international team re-explored this same cave but like the Italians, were also repelled by the frothing, subterranean rapids. In 2017, a French team explored a 300-foot-deep sinkhole near Pedernales, unfortunately, they found no continuing passage at the bottom. Their efforts were only acknowledged by a swarm of wasps that attacked and stung one member of the team 18 times! This did not bode well for the Eddys .

 The trio sat outside in the tropical heat, well past sunset. Phillip suddenly recalled a story. It was just a rumor, and whether it was true or not—he couldn’t say. 

“Two decades ago,” he began, “An old Frenchman moved to a small town in the southeast region and started looking for caves. After several years, he confided to a friend that he’d found a 10-kilometer system.” The old man suddenly died, and the location of the cave went with him to the grave. 

 And where could this hidden gem possibly be located? 

“Head to the town of Boca de Yuma,” he said. “Look for a cross-eyed man named Cruzito. Maybe he can help you.”

 Now this is what Lukas and Suhei had come for. A good old-fashioned Indiana-Jones-type adventure. Find the man with crossed eyes, locate the Frenchman’s lost cave, map and document the longest cave in the Dominican Republic. With supreme optimism and their sights set on Boca de Yuma, they rolled down the windows on their rental car, and pulled onto the highway.

                                                 *      *      *

“He’s full of it.” I told Ashlee as I looked up from my phone. “Lukas says they found the Lost Cave. And get this––he says it’s as decorated as the wild caves we saw in Carlsbad. Ha! They must really need help with the mapping.” 

Lukas was referring to Carlsbad National Park, New Mexico, whose legendary caverns showcase some of the most beautiful, pristine formations in North America. Although I’d never known Lukas to be an exaggerator, a find of that significance seemed highly improbable. But still, the Eddys had found something and their powers of persuasion worked. With bee suits folded neatly in our luggage, we boarded the plane for Punta Cana. This wasn’t going to be your typical Caribbean holiday.

                                                   *       *       *

 Boca de Yuma is a cliffside fishing village surrounded by coconut trees. It has no beaches and therefore, no resorts. Fresh fish is brought in from the sea daily and delivered to the open-air restaurants by the wheelbarrow full. Puerto Rico rests 70-miles away, just beyond the horizon, but felt a world apart. The Dominican Republic is far less developed than its island neighbor and possesses all the rawness  and exoticism of Zanzibar.

Amazingly, the Eddys found the man with crossed eyes. Cruzito had spent his entire life in the jungle and pointed out the location of several caves.

 One of these was a small pit and a former guano collection site. Rotten canvas bags and broken, rusted shovels littered the entrance skylight room. Its location near a common thoroughfare was additionally bad news: it meant that it had probably been vandalized. Imagine my disappointment when the Eddys led us to this exact hole-in-the-ground. This was the mythical “Lost Cave” filled with “Carlsbad” formations? It was more likely to be filled with garbage and graffiti. I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of going in, but we trudged on.

Entrance chamber

Climbing down into the pit, I scanned the walls for whip scorpions, centipedes, and tarantulas. The upper section was three-tiered and mazey. Suhei was first, leading us farther away from sunlight and past the point of their original investigations. Apparently the bats didn’t like going deeper into the cave either as their guano piles receded behind us. Strangely, there weren’t any footprints. No one had come this far in recent memory; not the Eddys, not the guano miners, not even the mysterious Frenchman. 

 The passage opened into a gymnasium-sized chamber. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the large room. Thousands of ivory-colored stalactites oozed from the ceiling like melted wax.

There were delicate broomsticks, soda straws, and drapery. Eventually we would name this the Carlsgood Room. Proceeding down a web of subway-like tunnels, we found rimstone dams that harbored golf ball-sized cave pearls we called ‘cave marshmallows’; we ogled at teetering pillars of orange rock that resembled Dr. Seuss castles. Removing our shoes, we walked across flowstone as white and crystalline as sugar. There were gothic chambers fit for a dragon, and portholes peering into miniature worlds where an industrious gnome could find the perfect workshop. I found myself rushing forward, gripped by the intoxicating high of discovery. 

Cave marshmallows

We had heard that the island’s original inhabitants––the Taíno Indians––had once used the caves as tombs, and it was possible to find ancient artifacts and remains. I rounded each corner expecting to find a pile of fossilized skulls and bones.  If ever there was a sacred cave on the island––it was surely this one. Beautiful and pristine, it was a truly remarkable find.

Cave bacon

 In a five-day siege, we mapped 4000+ feet of passage, stopping at a tight lead that would require breaking formations to pass. Ashlee and I were thrilled with what we had seen and accomplished; but for the Eddys, this was a far cry from the fabled 10-kilometer system they’d hoped for.

 Lukas is reluctant to admit that the Frenchman’s story might have been just that—a story. But, he says, “What I do know is the DR is possibly the least-explored limestone region in North America, and the potential for numerous long, deep, decorated caves here remains high. The golden age of Dominican cave-exploration is just beginning. The future will surely bring countless entrances, passages, systems, and sumps.”

 “And,” he continues with a smile, “Probably bees and wasps, too.”

Video of our trip can be found *HERE*

Jungle Camping (Suriname)

Gear List and Lessons Learned

Lessons learned:

—Eyelash viper, Bushmaster, Coral, and other venomous snakes are mostly peaceful creatures. However, the Fer-de-lance (French for spearhead) is camouflaged and will strike unprovoked. It’s a nasty little bugger that needs to be watched out for. Never step over a log without knowing what’s on the other side and remember, they can be hiding in the trees as well. I looked into buying antivenins but they are extremely costly and you need specific concoctions for specific snakes.

—Sharp tingling sensation on the body that flares when hot or sweating is likely a byproduct of fungus growing on clothes. Washing clothes with soap and water seemed to resolve the issue. Antifungal cream (Tinactin) was applied to affected skin as well. Tinactin saved my feet in Guyana from a debilitating case of Jungle Rot. (See pic below)

Trench Foot and Jungle Rot are terms often used interchangeably but are different maladies. Trench Foot is a term coined by the men who fought in the trenches of WWI. This is an immersion issue. Wet feet kept in damp, cold environments (like combat boots) for long periods of time can cause the flesh to die and sluff off. Simply drying your feet at the end of the day will prevent this. Jungle Rot, however, is a debilitating fungal infection which drying alone won’t cure. At first it feels like a severe case of Athlete’s Foot: tingling and cracking between the toes. The issue progresses rapidly until it feels like you are walking on broken glass. Look HERE for good advice on preventing Jungle Rot.

—Rocks are a good deterrent against overly curious caiman (alligators). Carry them in your packraft while floating. Flare gun might have been useful to scare off the jaguar we encountered. Maybe. Whistles on the other hand seemed to excite him. The shrill noise may have resembled the screams of an injured animal.

—Once away from the riverbanks where foliage can grow thick, primary rainforest is fairly easy to walk through. It’s not like bushwhacking, as the shade from the canopy prevents thick undergrowth. Mostly. But it’s very easy to get turned around. On the Rewa River, Paul Smotherman and I went in circles and didn’t believe our compass. GPS doesn’t work under thick canopy so be careful. If venturing into the jungle, don’t lose sight of the river.

—Machetes are required and so is the skill to use them. A file to sharpen the blade is also a must. I’ve bought cheap machetes and the metal is worthless. Might as well bring a good one from the states. Be aware that a self-inflicted machete wound could lead to a disastrous situation in a remote environment.

—Always find camp well before dusk and the nightly feeding frenzy. Caiman are nocturnal, not a good idea to be paddling at night. Camp well away from the water’s edge. Start looking for your campsite around 4pm.

—Campsites are best found in the jungle, not on the beaches. This is opposite from what most river runners are used to. Ashlee and I used hammocks and the Eddy’s used a tent. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages. It takes much longer to set up a hammock and you need to find two sturdy trees. But if the ground is sufficiently wet or it rains hard, the tent will form pools of water inside that make for an uncomfortable night. Because I am tall, I prefer a double hammock which allows me to sleep in a more horizontal position. I prefer the mosquito netting attached instead of the ‘wizard sleeve’ set up. We sprayed the bottom of our hammocks and hammock straps with permethrin to keep the mosquitos, ants, and ticks off. We found permethrin at Tomahawk (the REI of Suriname).

 At first, the jungle at night is unbearably hot. The hammock campers will be glad to have air circulating around them. At about 1am, however, the temperature drops and due to the high humidity, it becomes surprisingly cold. Then the tent campers will be glad they chose their particular shelter. Either way, everyone needs a lightweight sleeping bag. Pro Tip: Clear the leaves and foliage away from your hammock and tent. It will be easier to see creepy crawlies and ants won’t like it. Also, ants are attracted to the salt in urine, so pee well away from your camping area.

—Campfires are wonderful. But the rain and humidity can make them difficult to start. I found bringing cotton balls dipped in vaseline is a great firestarter. Don’t build your campfire directly on the ground as it will absorb the water and extinguish the flame. Instead, split a piece of dead wood and light atop the two dry halves. You will need about an hour of daylight to collect enough firewood for the night. Even with a good headlamp I found it difficult to find usable firewood at night.

—They sell a few different stoves and fuel types at Tomahawk but we found their isobutane/propane canisters were unthreaded and weren’t compatible with our Jetboil-type screw-on stoves. At the last minute we bought a large Coleman style stove, which was heavy and not fun to portage with.

—Bathing: By all means, swim in the river. But not at night! And if I were you I’d keep my trousers on. The red-bellied piranha are small and it takes a lot of them to do much damage. The black piranha, however, are conniving (and cannibalistic) and large enough to bite your dick off. I met a villager in Guyana with a baseball-sized chunk missing from his leg. He said a piranha did it. Also, women should not bathe while menstruating for obvious reasons. Also the candiru, a toothpick-sized parasitic catfish, has a fondness for swimming up an unsuspecting person’s anus, vagina, and surprisingly—even a man’s urethra. Once inside, it flares its spines and feeds on the resulting blood. The fish must be surgically removed. 

—Sunblock is a must. Large brimmed hat helps to prevent sun burns. 

—The airstrip at Raleighvallen (Foengoe/Fungu Island) is overgrown and not currently safe for landing fixed-wing aircraft. There is apparently no way to contact anyone at Raleighvallen as they do not have a satellite phone or InReach. There is no food to buy in Raleighvallen (or much of anything else) but the few locals there will sell you warm beer.

—To treat river-water, our group used a combination of SteriPEN and Aquamira. Silty water can make the ultraviolet light of the SteriPEN less effective. I’ve tried various filters (pump, gravity) to remove the silt but they clog easily. Another way to remove silt is to boil the water hard for a few minutes, then let the water cool. The silt will separate from the water as it cools. Afterwards, pour the clear water off the top into your bottle. The boiling also purifies the water. An MSR Dromedary is nice if you find a clear water stream. Fill it up and carry the silt-free water with you.

—Statistically, you are most likely to die in the jungle by being struck by a falling tree. Massive, healthy-looking hardwoods rot from the inside and can fall unexpectedly, especially after a hard rain. Choose your campsites well. Cody Dial, from Alaska, ventured into the jungle of Costa Rica and disappeared. Most suspected foul play. Two years later his skeleton was found; he’d been crushed by a falling tree.

In summation: Careful of snakes, falling trees, and dick-eating fish.


Paddle Gear 

  • Packraft
  • Paddle (four piece)
  • Bow bag
  • Twinky Tubes X2
  • Inflation bag
  • PFD 
  • Large Backpack
  • Duffel
  • Drybags

Repair kit

  • Duct tape
  • Tyvek Tape
  • Tooth floss + needles 
  • Packraft repair patches, etc.


  • Hammock w/mosquito screen attached
  • Hennessy Hex Fly
  • Hammock straps 2X10ft
  • Carabiners X4
  • MSR Ground Hog stakes X10
  • Extra parachute cord (clothes line)
  • Lightweight sleeping bag 
  • Small 2ft X 4ft ground tarp (for getting in and out of hammock)
  • Inflatable pillow (luxury)
  • Stove (could not find jetboil screw-on canisters at Tomahawk)
  • Fuel 
  • Aluminum Pot
  • Pot grabber
  • Mug X2 (used as bowl as well)
  • Spoon X2
  • Knife
  • Headlamp + Batteries (+ spare headlamp)


  • Rain jacket 
  • Long sleeve synthetic button down (primary)
  • Underware X2
  • Quick dry pants
  • Fleece Pants
  • Dry camp shirt
  • Crocs
  • Socks for river
  • Waterproof dry bagX 2
  • Buff
  • Wristwatch
  • Belt (not leather)
  • Tennis shoes for river


  • Waterproof Maps
  • Compass
  • iPhone, Gaia/Earthmate/CalTopo (CalTopo seemed to be the best)
  • iPhone case
  • InReach


  • X4 Days Dehydrated
  • Beef bullion
  • Tomato bullion
  • Spice kit
  • 8 days food
  • Variety of pre-dinner soups for each night.

Water treatment

  • 5L MSR Dromedary 
  • Aquamira 1 oz bottles (treats 30 gallons) X2
  • SteriPEN Classic w/ Nalgene bottle prefilter/adapter


  • Passport
  • Cash $300 US + $6000 SRD
  • Print out entrance waiver 
  • Wallet
  • Covid vac card
  • Yellow Fever Card
  • Masks
  • Bug repellent(Ben’s 100% Deet)
  • Headnet
  • Sunblock
  • Permethrin- bug dope applied to underside of hammock and hammock straps
  • Cotton balls dipped in vaseline (firestarter)
  • Lighter/matches 
  • Toothpaste/brush
  • Machete/file
  • Soap
  • Extra Ziplocks
  • Fishing pole + tackle 
  • Small tackle box: lures, steel leader wire, bobber, hooks
  • Leatherman
  • Toilet paper
  • Water bottle
  • Camp towel (never dried)

First Aid Kit

  • Blister kit
  • Nasal strips
  • Duct tape
  • Band aids (variety)
  • Stretch bandage
  • Aspirin/Ibuprofen
  • Antifungal-Tinactin
  • Iodine tablets 
  • Antihistamine eye drops
  • Benadryl/Loratadine
  • Tweezers
  • Neosporin
  • Imodium
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • One course of amoxicillin (antibiotic)
  • Pepto Bismol (chewable) 

Camera Gear

  • GoPro
  • GoPro batteries X3
  • iPhone/cable
  • Portable charger/cables
  • Waterproof containers


  • InReach
  • Charger cord

Savage Paradise

By Dave Weimer

“I don’t even like to fly over that canyon,” said Dan Reynolds, the bush pilot and hunting guide who was flying me to the headwaters of the Tatonduk River––an obscure ribbon of whitewater I had obsessed over for the better part of two years. The canyon in question was the crux along our paddling objective. It was the reason why people didn’t go there.

Dan owns a massive hunting concession which extends from his cabin near Dawson City, Yukon Territory, all the way to the Alaska border––6000-square miles of some of the most remote, pristine areas of North America. Our goal, the Tatonduk River, flows directly through it. 

Ueli and Oli loading the Super Cub

“I take 12 hunters out a year,” Dan said. “That’s what the land can support.” As we flew over the area in his Super Cub––a one passenger, supercharged monoplane, with cartoonish oversized tundra tires––I realized that everything below us, the forests, rivers, mountains, all of it, stretching into the horizon––is all Dan’s. And I was a little curious why he had limited his clients to so few. Wealthy, big-game hunters from all over the world want to hunt moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and even grizzly bear on his concession. A guided moose hunt, for instance, averages $23,000 US dollars per client. With prices like these, Dan’s backyard is a veritable goldmine. However, he didn’t seem to care about this. His interest lies in game management. “It was a hard winter for the Dall sheep,” he mused. “There are half as many as there were last summer.”  

Dan Reynolds flying his Super Cub. Smokey haze from forest fire (not nearby).

Dan has a small cabin with a primitive airstrip on the bank of the Tatonduk. His father owned it before him, along with the hunting concession, and he’s been coming since he was a child. As we neared, I saw a huge trail leading down to a grassy meadow beside the river. It was a game trail, or perhaps a game highway, the Dall sheep had rutted-out over the centuries. This was where the ewes came to give birth. Dan banked the plane hard to avoid the area and startle the animals. The river had recently flooded and took out half the airstrip but Reynolds maneuvered the Super Cub expertly and lands in an area small enough for a helicopter pilot to be proud of. He dropped me off, then flew back to retrieve my two friends, Oliver Amann and Ueli Staub. The plane, as well as the airstrip, is only big enough to fly us in one at a time.

Oli with caribou antler

It was my third trip to Tatonduk. In 2015, while floating the Yukon River, I stopped at the confluence to get a glimpse of the surrounding area. In 2016, Mike Cragen and I embarked on an off-trail, 150-mile loop on the edge of east-central Alaska that toured the most remarkable, yet least visited areas bordering Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. We named this ambitious circuit “The Borderpatrol” and it centered on exploring the Tatonduk. The route went across the Canadian border, down the Tatonduk River with packrafts (which, as far as I could tell, was the second descent of the South Fork) and back across the U.S. border. What we found did not disappoint. The geology in the valley was completely unusual to the subarctic. Hidden amongst the cliffs were several natural arches, slot canyons, caves, and even a miniature volcano which “erupted” in 2012.

And to top it off––the Grand Canyon of the Tatonduk––which has vertical walls rising hundreds of feet to either side. It seemed unbelievable, but the gorge narrowed into a slot so tight––game animals could leap across it in one jump.

The valley was a geologist’s dream and a paddler’s nightmare. The area was so unique, I believed it could, and should be incorporated into some kind of natural preserve––just like Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve across the border. If it were, the two areas would be interconnected, protecting a huge swath of wilderness. So I brought my friends, my cameras, and my naiveté, and set out to document one of the most unusual and spectacular valleys in all of Yukon Territory.

                                                            *         *         *

The sun was beating down at 11pm––T-shirt weather in the land of the midnight sun. Dan had offered the use of his hunting cabin for the night. It was spacious, clean, but not exactly mosquito proof. We considered erecting our tents until we spied a guest book. The last two entries were dated a year ago.  

Sept. 15- While scouting the west-ridge for moose, 

we glass a huge, 10-foot grizzly on the tundra below… 

                                                 Tom S.

Sept. 18- Griz dead and in camp. Measures just 

7-foot 6-inch. Tom needs to see more bears. 

                                                 Greg M.

We chose to sleep in the cabin. We weren’t ready to deal with the bears just yet. The comfy but primitive abode reminded me of legendary trapper Dick Cook, who homesteaded on the lower section of the Tatonduk. His exploits were documented in John McPhee’s classic book, Coming into the Country. Cook built his log-home by hand and lived there for nearly four decades. He had dealt with the threat of bears on a daily basis, it was all normal living for him. In 2001, Cook, who was then 70-years old, accidently swamped his canoe and subsequently drowned in the frigid waters. His body was found floating near the mouth of the river; proof that bad things can happen to even the most skilled, seasoned outdoorsmen. If it ain’t the bears that get you, I reasoned, it’s the river.

                                                             *         *         *

The next morning we inflated our packrafts and began the descent. The contour lines on our map pinched together, revealing the canyons ahead. But first we had to cruise past the meadow where the sheep were sleeping.

Dan never hunts this area and asks us not to disturb them. As quiet as we were, they smelled us. Thirty white sheep stampede for the river, splashing across in front of us, and quickly climbed the striated canyon wall until they were high above. Large rocks ricocheted down the cliff, cannonballing into the river around us. Was this an accident or were the sheep purposely trying to kill us? I also wondered––when was the last time these sheep had seen people?

                                                             *         *         *

In June of 1980, Jerry S. Dixon was working as a Fire Management Officer for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Eagle, Alaska. He had been a smokejumper––a highly trained wildland firefighter who uses parachutes to access remote and rugged areas. But then he had an accident. Jerry is among the few smokejumpers in history to have survived a double parachute malfunction. Afterwards, unsurprisingly, he decided to stop jumping out of airplanes. 

Jerry was the only BLM representative for an immense tract of public land around Eagle. The establishment of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve had been proposed but not yet implemented, and in Eagle, there was almost unanimous opposition to the park. The idea that the government was now going to control the wilderness and demand permits for things like mining and hunting did not sit well with the residents. Store owners posted signs that read: PARK SERVICE NOT WELCOME HERE.

Although many of the townspeople thought of Jerry as ‘one of the bad guys’, he was outgoing, amicable, and he had something in common with most of the residents: he loved the Yukon wilderness. 

Dixon was also a whitewater kayaker. During this time, he had accomplished a daring, solo first-descent of the North Fork of the Tatonduk River, was mesmerized by the area, and wanted a shot at the South Fork too. This time he implored his paddling friend from Idaho, Ron Watters, to join him in the adventure. Having flown over the South Fork and seen the canyons for himself, Jerry knew there would be some monstrous portages to contend with. The pair decided to use Spezi inflatable kayaks, which were heavy, but easier to portage than the typical 13-foot fiberglass hardshells of the day. The Spezi’s, however, couldn’t quite fit in a backpack. They also had a nasty reputation for wrapping around boulders, trapping their occupants. Packrafts would have been ideal, of course, but they had yet to be invented.

Jerry described the trip in his book Wild for Alaska. The duo named the many topographical features along the river which I have adopted for this article. Sadly, Jerry died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010 and I was never able to speak with him about the accomplishment.

                                                       *         *         *

It was our second day on the river and we were having a blast. We felt like explorers discovering an untouched land for the first time. There was no trash, no footprints on the gravel bars, no evidence of logging, no incessant whine of airplanes flying overhead. The valley was ours and ours alone. This awareness was especially poignant for Oliver and Ueli who live in Switzerland. “In our country, every tree is accounted for,” said Oliver. “If you walk through a forest in the Alps, there are no fallen trees lying on the forest floor, they are harvested long before they ever touch the ground.” 

“Camp fires are illegal too,” said Ueli. “You need a special permit, only certain people can get them, and it’s only allowed once a year.”

I looked at the healthy stands of black and white spruce and tried to imagine what it would be like to account for each and every tree. Oliver continued, “You can’t do a trip like this in Europe, every river is dammed. You can paddle short sections, portaging the dams, but camping is forbidden.”

We continued our paddle towards Mother Bear Canyon. I knew from Dixon’s book there was a hidden, river-wide, 25-foot waterfall somewhere along our path. Now, I like whitewater just as much as any river-runner who considers this type of hobby ‘fun’. But I am also conservative. Admittedly, some might say that I am annoyingly conservative. So yes, the idea of running an unknown canyon containing a hidden waterfall somewhere along its length––scares the hell out of me. However, the waterfall didn’t seem to bother Oliver or Ueli one bit. They were both keen to hit some real whitewater.

It should be noted that my friends’ first language is Swiss German. Their English is superb, however, some common phrases and idioms were simply lost in translation. So, I wasn’t sure if either of them had completely understood me. “Guys!” I said a little louder, “Do you know what I mean when I say waterfall? I don’t mean whitewater, I mean waterfall––the whole river going over a cliff.” I gestured with my hand to imitate a boat plummeting over a lip to certain death.

“Yes, yes, we understand.” They laughed, “We will scout from the river.” They jumped into their packrafts and sealed their skirts. Not wanting to be left behind, I nervously followed. We paddled out of the swirling eddy and dropped into a canyon with granite walls. It was tight and claustrophobic. I kept listening for the telltale roar of a waterfall. Would I hear it? The powerful current pushed us along through a series of wave-trains and splashy rapids, nothing difficult, but a flip could have proven serious.

Rounding a large bend, just 50-yards away, I saw the river disappear over the horizon. I yelled, “There it is!” We paddled quickly to a large eddy and exited the rafts. My mouth was dry. A great relief washed over me. 

It was a hard portage with all our gear and boats to the base of Mother Bear Falls. The river cascaded 25-feet, ricocheting off polished conglomerate, and culminated in a cloud of mist and spray. It was a beautiful, tranquil spot––worthy of a roadside attraction in any National Park. But the hordes of tourists were thankfully missing, no network of roads or infrastructure there to support them, no array of port-o-potties leaking their stench into the landscape. The area was lonely in the best way possible; pure, unbridled wilderness.

The next two canyons, Thunder and Merganser, were more fun than frightening. The river felt small, splashy, like a flume ride at an amusement park. Scattered along the cliffs above, we spotted a series of natural bridges. Jerry and Ron named the most prominent which look like the gestures of a giant hand: OK Arch, Knuckle Arch, and Thumbs Up.

Arches rarely form in the Far North due to the slow dissolution of limestone during the long and cold subarctic winters. Even when these natural oddities have formed at high latitudes, they are usually destroyed by repeated glaciations. Just another example of how the Tatonduk Valley is a unique and special place. But it wasn’t the formations that had captured my imagination––it was the gorge ahead.

The word Tat-on-duk comes from the Hän Athabaskan word which roughly translates to Broken Rock. That might be the best description of the gorge we were about to encounter. Imagine a mountain that has split in half, the entire river forced through the crack. Ron Watters sent me this vivid description of the canyon as he remembered it. 

“The walls are smooth and vertical, sometimes overhanging. The water is slow at the beginning and it’s strangely inviting. You can almost hear the Sirens inviting you in. It might be tempting to paddle a short distance––just a short distance––to see what it’s like. But if you did, it would be a black widow’s embrace. You would be there for the duration––however short or long that might be. Once in the gorge there would be no way to climb out from river level. And what might you encounter?  Walls closing in. The river beginning to hurtle downward. Then the black widow herself: a mass of logs forming a narrow spiny plug extending 30 feet or more above the surface of the river.”

The ‘spiny plug’ Watters is referring to is every river-runners worst nightmare: a strainer of monolithic proportions. Years of debris piled together to create a natural dam capable of purifying the river of any unfortunate soul brave enough, or dumb enough to get near it. I have paddled a fair share of rivers and have never seen a strainer able to form in a river with such high volume. It was impressive and terrifying at the same time.

Jerry Dixon straddling the ‘Black Widow’. Photo by Ron Watters.

I had tried to circumvent this obstacle by portaging down the left side of the canyon with Mike Cragen in 2016. This was a mistake. After an hour of hiking with heavy packs, on scary precipitous ledges, we were cliffed-out and forced to retreat. This was the same cliff that Oliver, Ueli and I had brought climbing gear for. Our objective was to reach the Eye of the Needle––the largest arch in the valley––it stood like a sentinel on the canyon rim overlooking the gorge. There was a distinct possibility that no one had ever been there before.

Oliver and Ueli are expert mountaineers and have climbed all over the Alps together, so I was more than happy to relinquish the rope to them. At the base of the 40-foot cliff, Ueli took the lead. The rock was flaky, unprotected, and looked more difficult than I had remembered. At the start of the climb, there was a small tree which had grown out of a crack in the rock face. If Ueli had fallen just above this, the rope might have caught the tree and arrested his fall. But he had climbed above this point-of-safety and was traversing far out over the void to find better holds. If he slipped, he would have fallen past us and hit the boulders some 70-feet below. No one spoke. Oliver grew silent as we watched his brother-in-law make the final, delicate moves to the top. Soon, Ueli had an anchor built and was belaying us up. 

Ueli on lead

At the Eye of the Needle, we took photos and ate sardines. There was no evidence that anyone had been there before us, and we made sure to erase any evidence of our own passing. The following day, we would see a Dall sheep standing on top of the arch; seemingly to mock our efforts. In the distance we spotted another natural bridge, this one undocumented. You would only be able to see the hole in the rock from our vantage point. I decided to name it Swiss Arch, in honor of my two friends, who had travelled halfway around the world to share this adventure. I might have come here without them, but I was glad I didn’t have to. 

Eye of the Needle

Inside the gorge, the river hurtled down into a fissure and disappeared. We couldn’t see the black widow herself but we knew she was there––right where the canyon was at it narrowest. A faint game-trail led towards this spot and then continued on the opposite side. It was true, game animals could leap across the gorge in one jump. Downriver, there was an adjoining valley with sheer walls rising to either side. It would take ropes to access. Had anyone ever been there? I believed, with good reason, the valley would remain unexplored until our return. 

The Tatonduk Valley has remained pristine because very few people know of its existence. For a long time, I debated writing this article for that very reason. Simply publishing these words could reveal it to the wrong people, perhaps those who would rather profit than protect. However, if no one knows of its existence––no one is likely to care about its defilement either. Luckily, the remote location and subarctic winters will keep most people at bay. Most.

Author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” It is a lovely but often misrepresented statement. Thoreau wasn’t writing about the wilderness; he was talking about the wild spirit within people. When visiting Tatonduk, I felt that wildness. How could I not? It inspired me to do what I could, however little, to protect this savage paradise. For now, I rest assured that as long as Dan Reynolds is managing his hunting concession, the area will remain protected and wild indeed. The only question remains: For how long?