A Perilous Kayak Excursion Through the Colombian Amazon

A story about kayakers attempting two of the world’s biggest un-run rapids should be easy to write. The problem is, there’s so much more to this story than those two rapids. So where to start?

Yes, the mission brief includes first descents of two massive rapids in an exotic and isolated part of the world, so that needs to go somewhere near the top. And yes, both rapids have similarly exotic names in the languages of the people who hold them sacred, though each is unique in its beauty and the challenges it presents, so you can hardly lump them together …

Jules Domine stares into the pit of the Anaconda’s Nest, the sacred waterfall called Jirijirimi on western maps. Photo by Chris Korbulic/C&K Magazine

And sure, the last time this group of paddlers – who, I should add somewhere, are among the very best whitewater athletes in the world – went to scout the big-water freight train called the Macaw’s Nest, one of them picked up a flesh-eating parasite that consumed a good part of his face.

And yes, it’s true that when they paddled 500 miles to get a look at the Anaconda’s Nest, they were detained for four days (‘kidnapped’ is too strong a word, they all agree) by a force of ex-guerrillas, so-called because they didn’t join their comrades in signing the peace agreement that was supposed to end the country’s 50-year civil war and finally open these pristine and sacred rapids to exploration.

All that should go in the intro, though really the details are superfluous because chemotherapy got rid of the parasite and the ex-guerillas have moved on, it seems, and what really matters is that the boys saw a line – maybe even, at the right level, an aesthetic line – through the whitewater.

So of course they’re going back to try the rapids, and of course it will be an historic accomplishment if they manage to run one, or both. But this expedition is not really about the rapids, or even the film, though that’s what the GoFundMe is for – and, by the way, I need to disclose somewhere that I pledged a few dollars and hope you will too, once you’ve read their remarkable story – because in their GoFundMe they say, “This is the first kayaking movie that isn’t about kayaking.”

The film project encompasses history, anthropology, literary review, botany and art, among other things. The team will collect new plant species to help researchers better understand how the massive rapids cleave the rainforest into two distinct ecosystems, and film the elders as they retell the ancient legends of the rapids.

They will combine all of that – the research, the stories, images of the sacred falls and their own bold passage through them – into a feature-length film.

Such a project requires a grand vision, and talent, and obsessive devotion. So I guess the story starts with Jules Domine.

Jules Domine on the Río Apaporís in 2017. The team paddled more than 500 miles, mostly flatwater, to reach Jirijirimo Falls. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Korbulic/C&K Magazine

Born and raised in the French Alps, Domine made his name as a kayaker in British Columbia, where he made the first single-day solo descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in 2016, and in Colombia, where he has lived and explored rivers since 2012. Now 27, he runs a thriving adventure-sport business near Medellín, spins memorable quotes in three languages, and thinks more or less constantly about the two giant rapids waiting deep in the Colombian Amazon.

On Western maps, the Anaconda’s Nest is called Jirijirimo Falls and is located on the Río Apaporís in a remote corner of southeastern Colombia. The Macaw’s Nest, Araracuara, lies about 90 miles southwest on the Río Caquetá. Both rapids play a profound role in the ecology of the Amazon, and hold deep significance to the indigenous people of the region.

“Those rapids are sort of the convergence points of their whole sacred belief system,” Domine says. “So the big job is to go there and find what they call the abuelos, the most ancient members of those communities that hold the secrets of those beliefs.”

Domine speaks with one of the guardians of Jirijirimo, the jungle waterfall he plans to run, and whose legend he wants to share. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Korbulic/C&K Magazine

Domine has made multiple trips to the region, including three since the team’s tense, but strangely amicable, sojourn with a group of ex-FARC guerrillas in 2017.

This month he’ll return again, kayaking alone from village to village to make arrangements before the film crew arrives in February, and fellow kayakers Aniol Serrasolses and Tyler Bradt come in March. Domine has established close ties in the indigenous communities and believes one reason for that is because he and his friends first arrived in kayaks.

“Usually when indigenous people see Westerners coming they’re on a plane or on motorboat, and they seem a little bit like aliens. But we come by the river. No Westerners have done that before, and because of that they have a very different perspective,” Domine says.

The visits have given him an idea of what to expect when the abuelos share the old stories. Local people believe the rapids serve as omens, or “a sort of radar,” as one indigenous friend described it to Domine.

“If any kind of change is coming, the rapids will reflect the change before it happens, and they also act as meeting points and places where the divinities express themselves,” Domine says.

The rapids are on separate rivers 90 miles apart and present radically different whitewater challeges, but both are essential to the rainforest ecosystem, and both inspire sacred legends. Photo: Courtesy Amazon Icons/C&K Magazine

Domine has enlisted artist Eliana Buenavida to conjure visual interpretations of indigenous spirituality, and the film will feature the revered Colombian author German Castro Caycedo, whose classic I Leave My Soul to the Devil is set in the Amazon, and ethno-botanist Wade Davis, author of One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest.

Over the last six years, as he’s explored more than 100 rivers throughout Colombia, Domine has collaborated with some of the heavyweights of Colombian botanical science to discover 13 new species of rheophytes, aquatic plants that grow in the strong current of flooded rivers.

No one has ever collected such plants from the Araracuara Rapids, so it’s almost a certainty that the kayakers will discover new species there. It’s also likely that those plants will tell us things we don’t yet know about the ways development and a shifting climate are affecting the Amazon. The rapids, after all, have always served as harbingers of change.

Aniol Serrasolses studies his river notes in Pacoa Buenos Aires, the nearest settlement to Jirijirimo. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Korbulic/C&K Magazine

All of that, plus the first descent of two monumental rapids, will somehow have to fit into a 90-minute film. The project’s scope is true to the broader experience of expedition kayaking, says photographer Chris Korbulic, a veteran of the 2017 Apaporís expedition who will be part of the four-person film crew.

While river-running is central to any kayaking expedition, it’s only a part of the larger experience. “So much of a kayaking expedition happens off of the river,” Korbulic says, and Domine’s vision is to somehow convey the totality of that experience, as viewed through the eyes of thoughtful, curious paddlers. For that, he is the perfect ambassador.

“Any time you spend with Jules, you get wrapped up in his excitement to do whatever it is he wants to do,” Korbulic says. “It’s not that he is trying to convince you to do anything. He’s just genuinely psyched, and it’s easy to get folded into that.”

The kayaking team includes 27-year-old Spaniard Aniol Serrasolses, a member of the 2017 Apaporis exploration who recently set a new high-water and speed record on the Stikine, which he accomplished solo because nobody else wanted any part of that river at such a level.

Aniol Serrasolses on the Río Apaporís, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Korbulic/C&K Magazine

Serrasolses has been part of the Amazon Icons project from the inception, having been present that night in 2015 when the Macaw’s Nest first revealed itself to Domine in a dream.

The kayakers were deep in the jungle during the first descent of the Río Putomayo, and they’d reached an impasse. “We were completely exhausted, stuck in a canyon in between 2,000-meter walls, with no ropes and probably a 10-day walk if we decided to hike out. And there was this locked-up canyon that we couldn’t see through – it could be death or it could be life, we didn’t know,” Domine recalls.

“And then during the night I had this crazy dream where I saw this cataract with the yellow light of the sunset on a big canyon with white walls.”

Araracuare, the rapid of Domine’s dream. Photo: Courtesy of Jules Domine/C&K Magazine

At first Domine thought little of the dream, but back home in Medellín he traced the course of the Putomayo on a map, and saw that it came very close to another massive, un-run jungle river, the Río Caquetá. Domine, who studied hydrology of the University of Lyon, saw that the Caquetá carved a path through the Chiribiquete geological formation. “I looked at the pictures and said, ‘This is what I saw in my dream.'” It was Araracuara, the Macaw’s Nest.

Domine felt he should approach his dream rapid with the utmost respect, which meant paddling more than 600 miles from the headwaters of the Caquetá to reach the Araracuara Rapids. His partner on that 2016 quest was American Tyler Bradt, 32, who had recently arrived in Colombia on a sailboat loaded with kayaks, surfboards and sundry adventure gear, on which he’d sailed around the world.

Bradt, whose bonafides include navigating the world’s highest-volume rapids (the Congo’s Inga Rapids at more than 1 million cubic feet per second) and running the highest waterfall ever landed in a kayak (Washington’s Palouse Falls at 189 feet), is typically up for anything.

Bradt, left, and Domine chose one of the wettest seasons on record for their 600-mile first descent of the Río Caquetá in 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Jules Domine/C&K Magazine

He and Domine reached the rapids on the 18th day of their planned 10-day expedition, only to find it flooded. The white-walled canyon was full of tormented water, a sight for which Domine, who is renowned for his prowess in big water, could find no frame of reference.

“I remember the water doing things I had never seen water do before,” he says. “It was just exploding in such a way that you could tell it just couldn’t bear the energy that it was forced to accept, and was creating hydraulics that were just … just crazy. There’s no other way to describe it.”

Attempting the rapids at that level was out of the question, even if the paddlers had been at full strength. The trip had worn on them, especially Bradt. He was suffering from malaria, and somewhere on the descent had picked up the flesh-eating leishmaniasis parasite that in the months to come would very nearly kill him.

And so they portaged the rapid they had sacrificed and risked so much just to see – a whitewater gauntlet that begins with a nearly straight, walled-in corridor and then, just as the canyon begins to fan out, drops 100 or 200 meters in a kilometer-long ramp. It was a long, bitter portage, Bradt recalls.

Bradt on the Río Caquetá, 2016. Photo: Courtesy Jules Domine/C&K Magazine

“Jules vowed to return,” Bradt wrote in a recent Facebook post. “I vowed that if I ever got out of there alive I would never go back. Not for myself.”

Not for himself. Hold that thought.

The sight of the flooded Macaw’s Nest had only tightened its grip on Domine’s imagination, because somewhere, amid all that tortured water, he saw a line. Just listen to him describe it:

“The right channel is definitely the big, big line with an incredibly powerful entrance, giant holes and giant waves. They are probably 10 meters tall, so some of the biggest waves I’ve seen. And then it has the second stage where it slides down this massive slab into rows of giant waves that finish into a huge foam pile,” he says. There’s a left line too, a little trickier with more rocks, giant slaloms and massive pourovers.

As Domine speaks, I remember Korbulic describing the quiet magnetism of his passion, of how easy it is to get folded into whatever project has fired the Frenchman’s imagination. I’d felt the gentle tug as Domine spoke of botany and mythology and the delicate, slipping balance of our natural world. But when he spoke of the whitewater the pull was almost overwhelming.

And so Bradt is going back, with Serrasolses and Korbulic for that matter, who is sold on the larger project if not the whitewater (“I’m not going there to run those rapids,” he says.

“Maybe parts of them,” he adds, and pauses. “I do think there’s a line.”) Bradt, in his Facebook announcement, says he’s returning “to help one of the few remaining peoples of this world who still exist as we truly are as humans: a part of these jungles, forests, canyons and rivers; innately and completely one and the same with this planet … and for my brothers who I would never ask to shoulder this task without me.”

The 2016 journey to Araracuara was full of flooded Class V first descents, though Domine and Bradt were forced to leave the Macaw’s Nest for another day. Photo: Courtesy of Jules Domine/C&K Magazine

The approach won’t be as grueling as the two previous missions, both of which involved long self-supported river descents to reach the targeted rapids. There’s a new airfield less than a kilometer from Araracuara, and a strip a few miles upstream of Jirijirimo too. The crew will arrive on an old DC-3, and stake out the rapids for as much as a month, collecting plant samples and waiting for the perfect water level.

Domine says the Macaw’s Nest is definitely runnable at very low water. But he doesn’t want merely to run the rapid any more than he wants to make a normal kayaking movie.

He and the other kayakers are determined to run Araracuara at the perfect aesthetic level. “We’re going to aim for mid-flow, simply because we might want to see if we can find some giant waves to surf to get some extra special images,” Domine says.

“So much of a kayaking expedition takes place off the water,” Korbulic says. The Amazon Icons team wants to present a fuller account of their expedition experience, and the deeper meaning of the rivers they explore and the people they meet. Photo: Courtesy of Jules Domine/C&K Magazine

The Anaconda’s Nest is a completely different piece of whitewater. While Araracuara is a runaway freight train mined with exploding waves and bottomless holes, Jirijirimo is a sudden plunge into a complex series of slides and vertical falls.

The left side is “sort of just a giant slide with some really tricky moves into it, which should be good to run at almost every level,” Domine says, almost dismissively.

“But depending on how low or how high we get it, there might be a really cool right line where you have sort of this double-stage vertical drop where you could send a really nice boof into the first one and then boof into the second one,” Domine says. “That could be a really really sexy move if that’s a go.”

With Domine, Serrasolses and Bradt on the case, and nearly a month to stake out the ideal level, don’t be surprised when it does go. Nor should we be surprised if the film lives up to its outsized ambition.

Amazon Icons may be unique in its eclectic mixture of whitewater, scholarship and myth, but it won’t be the first kayak movie to plumb the sport’s deeper meaning.

The idea that kayakers are just another breed of thrill-seeker, or that all kayaking films are simply endless huck-reels, has never been true. Kayakers have always struggled to express in film, or in any form of narrative, the depth of feeling they experience on rivers.

No boater, certainly none at the level of Domine, Serrasolses, Korbulic and Bradt, needs to be told about the sacred power of moving water. But all of them wish to tell about it.

Jeff Moag is the former editor of Canoe & Kayak. More information about Amazon Icons project can be found at the project’s GoFundMe page.

Starstruck: Domine at Jirijirimo, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Korbulic/C&K Magazine

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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