Guyana Packrafting

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“Will the piranha bite my boat?” I asked our Makushi guide who’d led the 7-hour trek through the jungle of southern Guyana. The man eyed the inflatable packraft perched on the muddy bank of the Kwitaro River.

“Maybe,” he said. “Don’t dangle things in water.”

With that he was gone, leaving Paul and me to the adventure at hand: Traversing one of the planet’s last great tracts of unbroken rainforest, a two-week trip on the Kwitaro and Rewa rivers. The black water flowed lazily through a jungle corridor of impenetrable vine and vegetation.

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I’d heard about the Kwitaro from Libor Zicha. Libor had paddled many remote rivers in Guyana, most often solo, and he recommended the Kwitaro as being one of the most pristine. In fact, he’d been attacked by a jaguar on that very river. He was making camp for the night when he heard the crashing of branches and mistook the sounds of a running jaguar with that of a falling tree. Libor ducked and the jaguar leaped over the top of his crouching body. You can imagine his surprise. The big cat continued to approach aggressively but Libor dissuaded the beast by throwing sticks and sand. He was lucky.

Our plan was to float a portion of the Kwitaro and then portage over to the head of the Rewa River. The Upper Rewa is protected from upriver travel by a series of falls and cataracts. The area is so remote, it’s said the animals there have no fear of man, not necessarily a good thing considering Libor’s story but a place I wanted to see regardless. True Amazonian wilderness!

While floating the Kwitaro we spotted a giant river otter devouring a stingray the size of a bicycle tire.

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I was thrilled to see such a rare species in its native habitat, but Paul’s attention was riveted on the stingray. He was wary of the rays, especially when dragging the boats over sandbars. Now he treated every shallow section like a hostile minefield.

At the end of each day we made sure we were off the water by sunset so our paddling activities didn’t overlap the nocturnal feeding habits of the black caiman, a larger Amazonian cousin of the alligator.

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We strung our hammocks, roasting fresh-caught piranha over hot coals as the jungle came alive with an orchestra of bird, frog, and insect calls, all competing to be loudest. The unearthly roar of the howler monkeys eclipsed them all.

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We were traveling during the dry season, so we began the portage to the Rewa by following a small tributary. This was much more difficult than we imagined as the jungle near the creek was extremely thick, the banks a combination of sand and slippery clay.

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Using our brand new machetes we hacked through the undergrowth until we were well away from the creek.

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Once inside the primary forest traveling was easier. Unfortunately, the canopy was so thick my GPS couldn’t get a satellite connection, rendering it useless as a navigational device. Also, we worried about the lack of water. We couldn’t rely on rain during the dry season and the heat and humidity was sweltering.  We used a compass to try and get us back to the creek but once again we ran into thick vegetation. We seemed to be going in circles which our compass confirmed. Getting lost in the jungle was a bit unnerving, as you might imagine, and we used a compass bearing to head straight back to the river.

We decided to continue heading down the Kwitaro, portaging over to the Rewa where the rivers come closer together.

The next couple of nights were a bit daunting. First of all, morale was not exactly high since our little foray into the woods and we were eating very little. One meal, called Tsampa, tasted of rusty nails. Then Paul accidently cut himself with the machete. With the light of my headlamp I could see the wound on his finger was deep. There was blood all over the leaves. We cleaned and superglued the flesh together. A large creature thrashed in the river all night. I tried to pretend like I wasn’t worried, but I was.

After a few days floating the Kwitaro we portaged the couple miles over to Rewa River. Every 30 seconds we’d check the compass so we didn’t go in circles. There are magnificent trees in the jungle, some the size of redwoods.

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We could tell we were nearing the river when the jungle grew thick. I found myself hacking at the brush, swinging the machete like a baseball bat as an army of biting spiders crawled up my pant legs.

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When we got to the river we began a grueling upstream paddle. We eddy-hopped for 10 miles until the freshening current bested our efforts and we took to the jungle again.

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We portaged our lightweight crafts up the rapids to Corona Falls, where the river becomes a torrent of froth and mist as it cascades over a plateau.

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We saw capybara (a rodent of unusual size) and tapir (something like a pig with an elephant trunk), but no jaguars. The trip’s wildlife highlight was coming across a 20-foot anaconda sunning itself on shore.

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With our palms sweating, we paddled as close as we dared. As a kid I used to love to catch snakes. I’d use my socks as snake bags much to my mother’s horror. Seeing that monster face to face was a thrilling experience. It also made me want a bigger boat.

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Now back home, I’m still processing everything we saw in Guyana. Those two weeks brought such a barrage of the strange, the primordial, and the unexpected. I can finally take a bath without thinking of piranha, and Paul no longer dreams of stingrays. Or so he says.

Yukon, Before You Go! Part 3

Sea Kayak on a River

There are a hundred different ways to paddle the Yukon. Since I was solo and wanted to be light and fast, I decided on a sea kayak. Other soloists I met used canoes and did quite well, so its just a matter of preference.

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I used a plastic (polymer) 17′ Necky Looksha. It was a great boat. The seat was comfortable and I never once got a hole despite all the rocks I dragged it over. At first I thought it was tippy but I just needed to learn how it handled. It was a little short, however, for my 6′ frame. I wasn’t able to use the rudder as my legs were much longer than the peddles. But I managed. I bought the kayak from Kanoe People in Whitehorse. Speaking of Kanoe People; everyone there was very helpful, both on the phone and in person- even going so far as to pick me up from the airport. The cost of the kayak was about the same as it would have been in the states and I didn’t have to pay to ship it from Colorado. Another advantage of buying from Kanoe People is the store sits directly on the bank of the Yukon! So, get all your supplies and groceries in Whitehorse, head to Kanoe People, drag your boat to the river, AND LAUNCH! Easy.

Kayak touring is like lightweight backpacking- you have very limited room to pack all your stuff. So before you leave home, make sure you have exactly what you need and not a smidgen more. I had to paddle with a backpack strapped to the outside behind me. It worked, although self rescue would have been more difficult.

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Lets talk about water purification.

We all know about Giardia- the dreaded “Beaver Fever”.

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I used Aquamira which is a two part solution you mix together. It tastes great and kills everything. I boil the water I use for dinner so no Aquamira used there.

Here’s the issue you’re going to have; the Yukon is dirty! Not dirty as in poopy, dirty as in silty. Silt won’t hurt you but dirt in your food isn’t very fun to eat. I used a six liter, MSR dromedary. When I came across clear creek tributaries, I’d stop and fill up my dromedary and water bottles. This gave me enough water for a couple days of silt-free cooking. Easy. On rare occasions you might not find a clear running stream. If this is the case, just boil some silty Yukon water, then let it sit for an hour. The silt will naturally separate from the water. Pour the clean(er) water into a bottle for use later and dump out the silt which now sits at the bottom of the pot.  I’ve always been told you can just let the water sit in a pot and it will naturally settle. This is true but it takes days! You need to boil the water, then let it sit! Boiling is the key to make the silt separate!!!

Bears! Oh My!

Camping in bear country can be scary and exhilarating. I prefer to be exhilarated. Plan ahead and you too can be exhilarated!

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Photo credit: Oli Amann

 

Canada does not allow the possession of pistols and getting a rifle or shotgun into the country can be a pain. Instead, get bear spray. You can acquire it in Whitehorse at Canadian Tire. Yes, they sell more than just tires! Actually, Canadian Tire is the best outdoor store in Whitehorse! Who knew?! Anyway, you will have to ask for the spray as it is locked behind a glass case. They will ask if you plan to cross the border into Alaska. The answer to this question is ‘NO’ as they won’t sell it to you if you say ‘YES’. By the way, no one in Alaska gives a hoot if your undocumented bear spray sneaks silently across the border.

Bear Barrels. I hate these things. They’re heavy, won’t hold more than seven days of food, and they sure as heck won’t fit in a sea kayak. I’ve used Ursacks before but they are expensive, and I feel like a bear would just squeeze my food out like toothpaste. When I’m traveling alone, or in areas of high concentrations of bears, I don’t cook where I sleep. I’ll stop about 5pm, cook a meal, then head downriver for another hour or so and camp there. In my opinion this is the best advice. Don’t cook where you sleep and keep food smells to a minimum! Bear barrels were designed to keep the bear from getting your food. But then bear gets hungry and decides to eat YOU instead. Wouldn’t it be nice if the bear ate the food instead of you? I sure think so.

Yukon, Before You Go! Part Two

I used a Goal Zero portable solar panel with a recharger to power my inReach, iPhone, and camera. It worked well for my needs. The best way to use the solar panel was to put it in a clear dry bag and paddle with it on the deck of my kayak. It even charged on cloudy days.

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If you intend to paddle solo as I did, I would suggest bringing music and headphones. Its wonderful to listen to the sounds of wilderness but after a month of hearing silt hiss against the hull of your boat- you’ll be glad you brought something else to listen to.

Here’s another suggestion- buy brightly colored kitchenware or spray paint it before you go. I’ve lost more spoons, knives, lighters, and tent stakes than I can count.

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This spray painting idea was good in theory but didn’t work as well as I hoped. I used the spray that had paint and primer in one can. Cause I’m lazy. I was constantly walking around camp with orange hands. But at least I didn’t loose my spoon. Instead, I broke it, and had to carve another one out of a log, as usual. Then, I simply transferred the paint on my hands to my new wooden spoon. Perfect.

Lets talk about tents. I started my trip with a Black Diamond Megamid. It’s been recently replaced by the Mega Light. Same Same.

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Megamid

 

I love this tent! It weighs less than a pound and the center pole can be replaced with a paddle to make it even lighter. It doesn’t have a floor (which you don’t need) but it’s nice to sew some strips of nylon to the bottom edge as a way of keeping the mosquitos out. One problem with this tent- it doesn’t do well in strong wind. On the Yukon, camps are almost always set up on islands and areas exposed to wind. This is good because wind keeps the mosquitos down. Unfortunately, if the Megamid isn’t protected from wind it will act as a sail.

I went through THREE tents on my Yukon trip. Sand destroyed the Megamid zipper and gnats got in and ate my hands. In Dawson, I bought the only tent I could get my hands on which was a cheap “World Famous” dome tent.

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My World Famous tent protected by a driftwood windbreak

Surprisingly, this tent did very well but also had issues with wind and the zipper (sand again). Note: The sand and silt on the Yukon will destroy most zippers. Even the one on your coat. So its best to have as few zippers as possible. I found adding a little clean/clear water can save a zipper, or at least improve its functionality. Anyway, I accidently ripped the “World Famous” tent (my fault) and had to get yet another tent sent to me. This time I borrowed my friends Mountain Hardware, Room With a View. He sent it to me in the mail. Its from the late 90’s and STILL works great.

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Mountain Hardware, Room With a View

 

Two other items I wished I brought along but didn’t- sturdy tent stakes like the ones below, and a mallet for pounding them in. I used those cheap aluminum stakes which do well on tundra but can’t break the surface of a hard gravel bar. Trust me, bring a mallet (a rock isn’t a good substitute)and tough stakes. I think MSR Groundhogs are the best for gravel bars but those expensive Cyclones look pretty badass, albeit longish. Nothing worse than seeing your tent blow away while doing dishes.

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