Words By Ben Stookesberry
Images By Ben Stookesberry and Josh Bechtel
Part1: A journey to JUNGLE BAY
Before receiving a brief yet fevered phone call from team Pyranha’s Josh Bechtel, my perception of kayaking in the Eastern Caribbean featured rum punch with paper
umbrellas served on an oversized yellow sit on top paddle craft. Maybe that is why it took Josh the majority of the conversation to convince me that he was not inviting me on another trip to the Dominican Republic, but to a similarly named but wholly different island far to the south in the Lesser Antilles. “I thought all of those Islands were too small to have runnable creeks let alone rivers.” Josh affirmed my suspicion that the island was in fact small (roughly the size of New York City), but that Grayson Shaffer (Outside Mag. contributing editor and the expeditions leader) had it on good information that the Island contains has a different river for every day of the year and is littered with waterfalls. Furthermore kayaking superheroes Brad Luden and Alex Nicks had already signed on for this wild goose chase. This was sounding way to intriguing to pass up; and as a result; some 700 precious dollars soon disappeared from my bank account in order to travel to the small Island of Dominica in early October of 2006.
My unfamiliarity with the Caribbean was becoming a bit embarrassing on the flight over as I chatted with the “50-something” middle American vacationers. These club med aficionados assured me that I would be much better off with a kayak in Honduras or Guatemala. They seemed genuinely concerned that I would not be able to use my kayak on any of the Islands of the Lesser Antilles. I assured them that at a minimum I would slide down the side of a steep embankment if there was no running water. Luckily the beverage service arrived and they lost interest in the interrogation. Relieved I turned back to the endless expance of blue that shimmered beneath our noisy little twin prop puddle jumper.
Dominica finally emerged, two hours after leaving Puerto Rica, as green folds of carpet seeming lost at sea shrouded by thick gray clouds. Dominica is the final out post of virgin rainforest in the eastern Caribbean, and it is commonly suggested that this is the only Island Columbus would still recognize today. My anticipation rose as we approached the island and the green fold of rug morphed into an impossibly steep spine of jungle. Getting close enough to see the trees, I could see descent size riverbeds hidden among canopy and cliff.
Despite the Islands small size, by all accounts I was entering one of the wettest places on earth. In the direct path of the fabled West African swells fueled by the westerly trade winds, the Islands rugged western slopes receive 12 feet of rain annually. On top of this October is the wettest month in the Eastern Caribbean so it seemed almost a sure thing that there would be plenty if not too much water in rivers. However to my dismay the rivers that we flew over on our final approach to tiny field looked low and clear. My kayakers alarm bells went off and I feared the worst: “Great just my luck. I arrive just in time for a drought on the wettest place on earth.”
To date there are not less than three major American air carriers that don’t accept “kayaks” as checked luggage… even excess luggage: Continental, Delta, and American Airlines. And with hefty fees and stingy regulations among your other would be choices, transporting your boat through the friendly skies could be the single most challenging logistic of kayaking abroad.
To make matters that much more uncertain, the rest of the group met me at the airport without any other kayaks. They had drawn the stingiest ticket agent at Denver International Airport, and the battle had been an uphill and expensive one from there on, ending in the detention of all four of their yaks in the Puerto Rico Airport. Grayson stayed behind to secure the kayaks arrival for the following day. At that point, I possessed the only whitewater kayak in the Eastern Caribbean (jk rocker).
In high Caribbean style a tall Rasta Man had been sent from Jungle Bay, to pick us up at the airport. Kayaks or not the jewel of the Caribbean was playing host to 5 dirt bag kayakers and I jumped at the opportunity to ride shot-gun for the journey down south to Jungle Bay. But something was wrong and I was sitting in the drivers seat and everyone was laughing. Irvin the rasta-man said “no problem man super Iree, but we be driving on the left side of the road ere in Dominica.” Cool, no problem, but at every blind turn on the steep, wet, narrow, jungle walled roads my senses screamed head on collision. And then we came to a screeching halt and Irvin grabbed fresh what not off the surrounding flora: nut meg, coco, grape fruit, mango, lemon grass, ect. “In America you be goin to da Super Market for your food, but down ere we just step into da trees for ours” Irvin quipped.
From the Airport in the north to Jungle Bay in the South, was a distance of only about 30 miles as the crow flies but the “highway” makes a major detour deep (5 mile) into the islands interior. First crossing the Melville Hall River, the size of Washington’s White Salmon, then turning up the Little White sized Pagua River, towards the center of Island to the countries longest river the Lyou. High up in the mountains (2,000 feet) it began to sheet rain and the Lyou’s many tributaries were suddenly swollen. Josh, Brad, and I were all pasted to windows planning our first first descents when the kayaks arrived. As quickly as it has started the deluge broke, and the clouds parted to reveal the countries second highest peak: a strata-volcano called Morne Trois Pitons elevation aprox 4600 feet.
Dominica is so rugged and thus distinct from the other Island in the Caribbean because it represents the apex of the Lesser Antilles Volcanic arc where the Caribbean plate is being subducted by the South American plate. Of the 17 active volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean, Dominica is formed by the proximal confluence of 9. Although, there have been no major earthquakes since Columbus landed, signs of past and present volcanic activity are seen every where the torrential rains have washed away the jungle and Irvin comments “up in da mountains be an entire lake set a boil by da fire in da mountains.”
As we turn away from the Trois Pitons, and back towards the Rugged Atlantic Coast we descend into the Rosalie River, one of the countries largest. Irvin points back towards the mountains at the headwaters and we see the major challenge to accessing the steepest portions of Dominica’s Rivers: slot canyons guarded by impenetrable virgin jungle. “We need a helicopter,” comments brad, but Irvin assures us that he can get us into some of these places “but maybe not dat one… the Rivine of Two Gods. At 6:00 pm our 12 hours of tropical daylight had faded and we continue on into the darkness following a convoluted slot of pavement towards jungle bay. All told it takes 2 hours to traverse 2/3rds of the length of island and a dozen major river drainages, and we are all reeling from excitement, Jet lag, and motion sickness.
Part 2: First attempt, Sea Kayaking
Alex Nicks greets us on arrival having arrived earlier in the day, and is veritably un-phased by the news that we have only one of five kayaks in tow. News travels fast on a small Island, and he and Sam Rafael (the brain child and owner of Jungle bay) have already made alternative arrangements for the following days activities: a first attempt to sea kayak from the resort to grand bay 10 miles to the south.
We learn that earlier in the day, Alex had horrified the locals by leaping from nearby sea cliffs into a surging shark infested channel of Jungle Bay. Alex assures us that the sharks are of minimal concern and that he is thrilled to make the journey. For Alex this new type of sea fairing adventure has become par for the course. Since branching out from his ground braking offerings to the world of Big Water Expedition Kayaking (The Wicked Liquid series, Jehovah’s Wetness, and Tweaking The Nose of Terror), Alex has been filming sea kayaking epics for National Geo and PBS in places like Bolivia, Croatia and South Africa. Thus leaping into supposedly shark infested, walled in waters of Jungle Bay was nothing compared to be chummed off the side of a fishing boat without a cage in order to film a feeding frenzy of 600-pound tiger sharks in Baltic.
Grayson arrives early that morning to find the rest of us preparing for the voyage south. We find out quickly why Sam has not attempted this costal traverse from Jungle Bay. Three to six foot waves crash directly onto a beach of 20-pound football sized cobbles. Sam and Alex probe the beach exit first with Alex pushing off the stone beach balls and Sam paddling like hell to get beyond the brake between the sets of waves. Brad and Lizzy follow suit and make it look easy. Beyond the brake we all relax a little and I go over board to check out the sea life with some snorkel gear. Aqua marine, ultra clear water reveals all the usual suspects: Colorful schools of fish, sea turtles, and huge sub-marine rock outcroppings.
Looking back towards the Island, thousand foot sea cliffs are bisected by cascading waterfalls and fringed with thick greenery. This may have been the first voyage around the point to Grand Bay by leaving the cannonball coated beach at Jungle Bay, but we are certainly not the first adventures to make the journey into these rich waters. We spot local fisherman surfacing closer in with spear guns and a leash full of fish. We get close enough to watch these stealthy swimmers go under for minutes at a time descending almost beyond site to make their catch.
This adventure not withstanding, sea kayaking is for… well sea kayakers, and I was suddenly jonesing to see what the Islands rivers had in store for us. Irvin must have noticed this, yelling over from his yack “Titou Gorge is just over that mountain dere. We’ll be goin dere this after noon.”
Part 3: The Titou Gorge
By default the Titou Gorge is probably the most well known waterway on the Island since it marks the beginning of a 3 hour trek to Dominica’s most famous landmark (The Boiling Lake). However, the mouth of the Gorge is probably all that most people see of this one of a kind water way since the Boiling Lake trail snakes up and into the Jungle and away from the sound of its cascading water. Would be explorers of the Gorge are forced off trail and into the virgin forest to locate the crack in the earth that is the Gorge.
Dawning protective clothing for the Jungle’s numerous would be adversaries (poisonous insects, lizards, amphibians, snakes, spiders, and plants) I see Irvin rush ahead in bear feet and a pair of swim trunks. Although the locals of these Jungles and many others throughout the world have developed special adaptations to such inhospitable environs, the people of Dominica have a special advantage: This island ecosystem is completely devoid of anything poisonous. As I was soon to find out, there was barely a single thorn in this G-rated jungle. Enjoying a virgin jungle with no protective clothing is a luxury that might only be experienced in Dominica.
Aproaching the gorge after a 100 foot ascent on the boiling lake trail, we veer off towards the sound of a muffled roar of a thundering flow. By the sound of the river, the rim of the gorge wasn’t far off yet there was absolutely no indication of it in the crowded jungle ahead. No more than 15 feet ahead Josh hollers “holy shit” and woops with excitement. The gorge is narrow enough to jump across and more than 80 feet deep at our first vantage. Below us there is bearly enough light to see down into the insane crack in the earth, but everything that we can see appears to be runnable. After another 2 hours of scouting along the Canyon rim, we are satisfied and agree to return early the following day to make the 1.5km descent.
After a 45 minutes of yanking kayaks through the tangled forest, we arrive we descend to the river through a chink in its other wise unbroken gorge. As an effluent of the Country’s two principle freshwater lakes, the Titou contains a relatively constant flow of 70 cfs of the purest drinking water in the Caribbean. Unacostomed to the savage combination of heat and humidity, I am face down drinking my fill decreasing the flow by at least a few cubic inches per second.
Downstream the run is boney, and another 3 inches of water would have made it amazing
but impossible to stop. 4 rapids down, I am the last one enter an extremely narrow slot and I leave my beloved red Werner behind. Without hesitation Nicks makes like a spider in an effort to retrieve the forlorn blade. He snapped this shot of the paddle impossibly wrenched in between the canyon walls. This is certainly a testament to the strength of the classic Werner fiberglass blade and shaft!
The canyon is tunnel in the earth with long, rectangular skylight. In one particularly deep recess in the canyon wall we eddied out above sheer notch. Josh drop his boat a bit on the rock bank creating a thundering echo with another far more chilling shrieking noise. Within seconds the air was peppered with frightened bats, who spend the first few minutes of their frantic flight indecisive as to whether to flee upstream or downstream. Eventually the cloud lifts and we are able to scout downstream. Peering through the notch the canyon roars with as much noise as 50 cfs can create. This is the final section the gorge and the only part that we were not able to scout from above. We are 100 feet inside the chasm and it might be nice to have a head lamp to run the next 4 drops that will lead to our freedom. The last drop is a vertical 20 foot shoot that will require a hard left move to avoid the left wall.
In classic lemming formation we riffle through the final part of the Gorge. And complete our fist descent of the trip. The water runs supper deep and placid for another 100 yards before we reach Irvin where the Gorge finally opened into dense tropical heat.