Upper Rio Lempa.
May 31 & June 1, 2014
After my recent run on the Upper Rio Lempa, Central America paddling expert Greg Schwendinger of MayanWhitewater.com (MW) informed me mine was the first run down this river since his last descent in 2003.
That led me to ask how such a quality canyon could go unseen by kayakers for more than a decade.
Several things combine to make this one difficult to tackle. Unfortunately for my visit, all the cards were stacked up in my contra. I think I redefined “off-the couch.” While I’m active, surf daily, and take my boat out into the ocean every so often, I hadn’t paddled on a river since July 2013 when I left my beloved state of Washington for surfing and a business venture in El Salvador.
It wasn’t long before I pined for the river. Having Washington paddlers like John Ehlinger and Brad Xanthopoulos visit me in the tropics reminded me that I can’t hide out down here forever. Not only did Brad show up in El Salvador with a suitcase full of microbrew, but he also helped me weld my cracked Nomad with the quality welding strips Jeremy Bisson donated before I crossed into Mexico last year. With a welded boat, an impending rainy season, and beta from the MW site, my eyes focused on two particular runs:
1 - Rio Jiboa
2 – Upper Rio Lempa
My main interest in the Jiboa run (other than its quality confirmed by Greg Schwendinger and Rocky Contos’ descent in 2010) is its proximity to my house. However, the level on the Jiboa seemed less cooperative while the Lempa sat just above what Greg described as a good flow. Lempa Time.
Mayan Whitewater's river description of Upper Rio Lempa:
A lot has changed in El Salvador since 2003. Along with increasingly crowded surf lineups, there is also a sick new highway that makes the Upper Lempa takeout a breeze.
After reviewing MW’s listing , I decided that a more practical shuttle route was available. Considering that I had never run ANY of the well described sections of Lempa, I decided to tackle the entire 26km stretch starting from the Citalá bridge at the border with Honduras all the way down to the “new” takeout at the bridge in the town of Santa Rosa Guachipilín. The existing shuttle suggested several hours of driving on rugged roads. I decided I would rather spend extra time on the river versus in the car. Using Google earth, it appeared I was only adding ~6km (3.7 miles) to the run.
|Shuttle Route for Upper Lempa|
I might be the only whitewater paddler in El Salvador, so unfortunately this descent included just one kayak. I took the day off on Friday to ensure I had everything ready for the trip. I adjusted outfitting, corralled my dry bags & carabiners, and put together a list for the hardware and grocery stores. I arrived at my girlfriend’s place on Friday evening and we took it easy so I could rest up for the big weekend.
Saturday morning was ominous in San Salvador. Steady, heavy rain blitzed the city from all angles. The weather report I had seen for the region of El Salvador where I would paddle looked favorable, so I remained optimistic. After the 1.5-hour drive to the takeout, the report was confirmed. Blue skies and a nice, low first-time level. The gauge read just under 1.1 meters on May 31, but the river at the takeout looked low, and scrapy. After confirming our take-out meeting spot was legit, we then left in the same vehicle for the put-in. 20 minutes past the famous alpine town “La Palma” sits the Citalá bridge. I was disappointed to find that what absolutely HAD to be Rio Lempa bore no sign on the bridge to confirm. I didn’t want to risk putting onto some nearby tributary (levels were low and scrapy at the put-in too) so I asked a few locals if indeed I was gazing into Rio Lempa’s waters. “Cabal, ese es Rio Lempa”. 3 people told me I was in the right place. The last person told me that I could cross into Honduras without waiting in line. Boom. that was the confirmation I needed.
|Early on Lempa Flats. Just below Citalá bridge.|
Eugenia left me at the put-in at 2:30 pm and I started my descent. According to MW, I had 1.5 hours of class III paddling before getting to the “Ruta del Jaguar” class IV section. Not taking any chances, early on I scouted 2-3 times. The first rapid, a distinct boulder garden, required scouting to pick a clean route through its channels. That one was manky and shallow. I then continued down for approximately 1 hour until getting to second scout. I couldn’t tell from upstream, but there was a very cool passage through the river right side, cuddled against the canyon wall. After paddling (err scraping) down the center to left line, I noted from downstream that river right was good to go.
Soon after second scout came third scout, which appeared to be the rapid MW discussed as having the “blind left curve”. On hard river left sat a nasty undercut shoulder dislocating fanglike beast. That side was quickly identified as undesirable. I had to spend several minutes here getting a clear view of river right and what lay after the “blind left curve”. The line was center to hard river right, and then around the blind curve. Opting instead for the 90 degree left turn, I later saw that I missed a nice boof, up against the large boulder 10 feet downstream of the turn. This rapid was fun, class IV, and not too pushy.
|Some Beta on Third Scout|
One drop down from third scout came “Left Boof”. This rapid channeled river left onto a sweet launching pad into a clean pool within constricted rock formations. The center line on this rapid looked manky.
From there I continued downstream in uninterrupted fashion for approximately 2 hours. There were maybe 2 scouts between “Left Boof” and where I camped for the night, still above the harder canyon section. Both scouts I encountered after “Left Boof” turned out to be clean, simple, good-to-go Class III+ or IV- rapids, but with limited visibility from upstream.
|Lempa Rock Formations|
|View from Downstream on river left after scouting. There was limited visibility upstream on this one. Boat scoutable.|
|This one was simple but should be scouted. There are undercut rocks on river right. Stay center.|
I passed a few decent looking spots to camp, but nothing really jumped out at me. I wanted to get as far down the canyon as possible to ensure I had enough light the following day. Without doubt, I started my descent on Saturday too late. We lost time on Saturday with our insurance stop at the takeout to make sure we had an agreed upon meeting point, finding the put-in, and we just left home too late. Typical.
I had enough light after making camp to forge a rain shelter, organize gear, and get a spread ready. I used my paddle to shovel nearby sand and create a flatter sleeping area under the tarp. Dinner consisted of pre-cooked chicken sausage, an apple, cheese, water, an orange, and a PBH (Peanut Butter & Honey).
Sure enough, after a day of bluebird skies and 4 hours in a kayak where a splash of water was no detriment, it began to rain. It was light but somewhat steady. Enough that being outside the rain shelter was uncomfortable. With dry clothes on, I wasn’t cold. I had a thin rain shell jacket to keep me dry but avoid getting hot. My rain shelter was pretty close to the ground and uncomfortable for anything but lying down. Using my boat as a backrest, I ate dinner in the rain-free zone and it became completely dark just before 7:00 pm. I hadn’t worked hard enough to fall asleep that early. Fortunately the rain stopped. Safety meeting. I puttered around the campsite for a few hours, checking out the awesome rocks near the shoreline and was alerted by the presence of two large spiders whose eyes blazed with the peripheral glow of my headlamp.
It started raining again around mid-night, after I had fallen asleep. My rain shelter was in the flattest area of the campsite, but it certainly wasn’t the widest. A large rock wall angled around 30 degrees created one extreme of my sleeping area while the roots from a large nearby tree marked the other. Rain splashed off the side of the rock like faint mist that was just damp enough to irritate me. I changed positions to place my head at the opposite end of the shelter. That side was getting splashed a little now too due to the wind, but I was wearing my hooded rain shell and that side appeared better than the opposite end. As the wind fluxed, I restlessly attempted to sleep comfortably, all the while kicking up grits of sand onto my therma-rest. I forgot to bring a ground cover. Typical. I remember saying to my self repeatedly that “it could be so much worse”, which was true. I was dry with the exception of a minor dampness either near the top of my head or my feet. If I wouldn’t move around, I could keep sand off my sleeping pad. But it was hard to sleep. I thought about the potential of the river level spiking,. The rain was still relatively light. I made a few trips outside of the rain shelter to adjust its angle and allow less rain to enter.
I dosed off for a few hours before waking again. The rain was harder now, and the wind was vigorous. Although I was dry and warm enough, sleeping became a significant challenge. Then I heard a low rumble that became louder, followed by the obvious sound of increased water flow at the nearby stream feeding into Lempa. Headlamp on. Shoes on. WTF. I responded quickly and eyed a location to move boating gear. Water from that stream came within 15 feet of where I was sleeping before the sound grew weaker and the water level ebbed. The scare lasted close to 10 minutes. Miniature flash-flood.
At cockcrow the river level was notably pumping. The place where I had pulled my boat out of the river the night before was now completely underwater, along with the 3-foot rock that was sitting atop that bank. I remember not panicking, but immediately shifted from thoughts of an awesome Sunday to a “game-on” mentality. First task was getting sleep. The rain had completely stopped, I was still dry, and after a rough night I was able to fall asleep and remain that way for nearly 3 hours.
My original plan was to wake up early on Sunday, and start my descent as soon as possible. It was 9 by the time I had my gear together, food ingested, and was ready to start. Before gearing up, my teeth chattered, but I wasn’t cold.
|Increased Flow on Day-Two. Citalá Gauge - 1.4m.|
The first hour of paddling was awesome. The river remained wide and the flow was powerful. In my head I repeated the advice from Mayan Whitewater: “Crux Move: patient scouting”.
Remember when I mentioned redefining “off the couch”? Let’s go ahead and review this list. I hadn’t been on a river for 10 months, I was descending a new river solo, in a class V canyon, the flow was significantly higher than recommendable, l was low on drinking water, tired as fuck, in a loaded down boat.
I scouted. And I scouted patiently. No chances. I found MW’s overall description to be accurate: “The upper Lempa is classic Central American class V creeking in a steep secluded canyon. The scenery reminds me of California. The pool-drop rapids are varied and high-quality, with some drops getting quite big. When boat-scouting, I recommend doing so extra-defensively since I found several rapids drawing me in a little too close for comfort. The river provides some challenges to everyone, yet when it gets too challenging there is always a portage option over the boulders…. the drops seemed to get bigger and trickier towards the end of the canyon.”
I had to portage 3 times, and 2 of the three were extremely difficult and tiring because of the weight of my boat. On the first portage, I scouted from the wrong side of the river. I had already hiked all the way downstream and back before realizing that I would not run the rapid. and needed to first get to the other side.
The rapid I just described is the one pictured in the MW listing. Here is a look at the same spot on June 1, 2014:
|Another significant rapid. View from the Scout|
|View from the boat|
|More cool rock formations from Day 1|
|This one looks burly in the picture but it was the best rapid on the run. It has a straightforward toungue right down the middle, its clean and it went smoothly. You just have to get past this entry wave first..|
Just as described in MW, the rapids were more challenging closer to the end of the run. Since I didn’t know where the end of the run was, I maintained absolute focus for each horizon line, each ledge, and each river bend. I took water at regular intervals, and had an orange at lunch. I came to a rapid that I later described in photos as “A long road to a big hole”. This one was a clean big-water style rapid that would be an absolute blast if not for a massive hole on far river right below the crux of the drop. Unfortunately all the water feeds into that hole and feeds into it quickly. I decided to run the rapid, and in real-life it was as just as hard to get left of the hole as it looked while scouting. In the video clip, you can see me skirting just left at ~ 01:15.
There were several significant rapids below there and the final rapid of the canyon, which was the steepest of the entire run. After portaging it, I was able to get a clearer picture of the canyon walls at the bottom of the drop and now consider it to be runnable even at the high flow.
|Last Rapid in the Canyon Section|
Immediately after that last drop, the scenery changed and I appeared to have reached the end of Lempa’s most challenging section, unscathed. My hopes were confirmed when I saw typical El Salvadoran street dogs running along the banks of the river barking at me. I passed a couple fishermen bearing looks of disbelief and saw people herding cows on the hillside.
The fun continued in Class III+ to IV- fashion all the way to the takeout. I passed several quality surf waves and one with large eddy service. Pleasantly surprised, it only took me around 30 minutes to get from the end of the canyon section to the bridge where Eugenia was waiting for me. Along the way there was a hammock bridge with a small store on river right. You wouldn’t know it was a store, but if you have my luck, you’ll see people down by the water and they can point you in the right direction. I only had a 10 dollar bill with me, and without change the owner donated two small plastic bags of Agua Cristal to my cause (In El Salvador we drink out of sacks). I guzzled them down and thanked the owner for her kindness. She asked me why the school buses with rafts never came anymore.
At this point morale was at an all-time high for the trip. I had survived the canyon, I was hydrated, and according to the locals I had not far to go for the bridge at Santa Rosa Guachipilín. They told me that from their small village of Caserío Lempa it was a 30-minute drive to the take-out bridge. A few fun surf waves down, I caught sight of a cell-phone tower and sent a text to Eugenia that I made it out safely. I celebrated with a safety meeting.
The take-out bridge at Santa Rosa Guachipilín was 2-3 river bends down from the view of that cell-phone tower, and it marked the end of my trip.
In a show of excellent character, the car had 3 cold beers waiting for me, and I got to sip them on the way home while Eugenia drove. I was only 15 minutes late for our scheduled meeting time.
Now that’s boom.
Adrian Wigston, reporting for Fluid: As a Lifestyle, from El Salvador.