Into Papua New Guinea’s ‘Grand Canyon Pacific’

Earlier this week, expedition kayaker Chris Korbulic sent in the following photos from Papua New Guinea, plus a few telling captions fresh off the helicopter scout of a daunting 4,000-foot-deep jungle canyon draining the south central side of the South Pacific nation’s island of New Britain. The photos and words paint a picture of a complex and challenging first descent attempt in the works and a stumped crew left “contemplating the gravity of the river-level situation.”

Ben Stookesberry on the heli scout. The heli scout almost raised more questions than it answered, leaving us contemplating the gravity of the river-level situation for days. Photo by Chris Korbulic
Ben Stookesberry on the heli scout. The heli scout almost raised more questions than it answered, leaving us contemplating the gravity of the river-level situation for days. Photo by Chris Korbulic

That crew reunites Korbulic with his three trip-mates from last fall’s Destination Torngat expedition: Ben Stookesberry, Pedro Oliva, and Ben Marr. On Monday the team set off into the unknown of the Beriman Gorge. Much like #DestinationTorngat this expedition will be documented in real-time with the crew posting updates through a gramwire page and to #GrandCanyonPacific. On Wednesday, Stookesberry posted the following update:

“From just below our current camp we will have to navigate our Way through or around 13 distinct gorges, all at the bottom of a sometimes 3,500 foot deep jungle canyon. Weather is a critical factor as even a tiny rise in water level would mean a huge difference in the difficulty of the constricted whitewater and danger in the vertical walled gorges. From our helicopter scouts, we know pretty well what is ahead, and are feeling confident we will make it to the ocean in just over a week, with continued decent weather and little rain.”

Here’s the full backstory on the expedition that Stookesberry wrote for the gramwire page:

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The Mission

During my first expedition to Papua New Guinea in 2013 along with Chris Korbulic and Pedro Oliva, we scouted what we believe to be one of the deepest, most pristine, and most challenging river canyons in the entire South Pacific. It is spectacular when viewed from the air with an immense 4,000-foot deep, cliff-strewn gorge bisected by an aqua-blue river cascading down 3,000 feet of gradient to sea level in just under 30 miles. At the time, an attempt to kayak this “Grand Canyon” was a kind of riddle we were unprepared to solve. But in turning our backs on the daunting canyon and the river locals call the Beriman, we turned our attention to finding a solution and a logistic that would one day make the dream of kayaking the Grand Canyon Pacific a reality.

Photo by Chris Korbulic
Active volcanos punctuate the island landscape. Photo by Chris Korbulic

Today, after two years of the Beriman burning like a pilot light in our minds, the flame of a real expedition has set ablaze and the logistic that we hope will lead to its first descent is in place. Over the next three weeks our team will travel nearly 10,000 miles back to the other side of the world in pursuit of the intangible and the ethereal goal of a first descent. In the simplicity of this ultimate adventure in the Nakanai Mountains of New Britain, Papua New Guinea the challenge Beriman River, aka The Grand Canyon Pacific, awaits.

Photo by Chris Korbulic
Prepping the heli for a sunrise scout flight. Photo by Chris Korbulic

The Kayakers

Ben Stookesberry – 120 and first descents in 32 countries and counting, I have spent the last 17 years of my life floating between the continents in search of the ultimate river expedition.

Chris Korbulic – Chris is known as one of the most talented Class V expedition paddlers in the world. With a deep wanderlust for high adventure  Chris is almost never in the same place for long and even his home base is best described as a “van down by the river.” Chris is also trying to make a difference wherever he goes most recently spending a month in Northern Guatemala to film, document, and promote an educational NGO in the region.

Pedro Oliva – In March of 2009, Pedro shattered the world record for the highest falls run in a kayak and set the stage for a logarithmic shift in pyridine for the most extreme discipline in kayaking. Since then, Pedro has traveled the globe with Chris and I to film a the world of untested rivers and present these adventures to his home country of Brazil in a TV series called Kaiak that spans 6 continents over 100 episodes.

Ben Marr – “Benny” is one of if not the top kayaker in the world.  From insane big wave freestyle, to big water first descents including the legendary previously untested Site Zed and the mighty Congo; Benny is the best at what he does, but you would never know it meeting him off the river. Last summer Chris, Pedro, and I had the chance to follow Benny down some of the biggest drops any of us had kayaked before over a 3 week expedition to Canada’s Nachvak River. Here in PNG, if anyone can lead the way into the Grand Canyon Pacific, it’s Ben Marr.

Photo by Chris Korbulic
While you might call the whole section of river a gorge, some parts are more distinct than the rest. Gorge 4. Photo by Chris Korbulic

Reel Water Productions 

Bryan Smith and his team including DP Dave Pearson and Tech expert Matt Maddaloni not only join but in many ways lead our logistic on this mission.  In practice they are here to capture an untested expedition in Papua New Guinea, but they will also be a vital lifeline to the outside world in an environment as vertical and remote as any we have ever tested. From first ascents with Will Gad on the gnarliest ice formations on earth to an insane diving mission miles into unknown sea caves, Reel Water makes it’s name on telling the stories that no one else can tell at the highest levels of production.

The Locals

Riccard Reinman – Native to New Britain, Riccard’s family has worked for economic and social evolution of New Britain for generations.  Today Riccard runs two fishing lodges that employs local people and supports educational initiatives of the surrounding communities. On this expedition like our first, he will act as our community liaison contacting remote villages at the rivers mouth to tell them about our mission, and further his education initiative.

Iggy Delacroix – When kayaking legend Tyler Bradt landed on New Britain in his sail boat last fall, he went straight to Iggy’s guest house on the roadless, southern side of the island. Iggy took care of Tyler like he took care of us like he takes care of everyone. He’s the local saint in a sometimes tumultuous land; and in the end, he will be the one waiting at the mouth of the Beriman at our exit.

The village of Beriman – On the remote southern side of the Island, the people of Beriman live at the terminus of the mighty canyon, where blue waters meld into the sea.  Have they already explored the river and it’s canyon? Does the river turn red when the ground shakes walls of the gorge more frequently than nearly anywhere else on earth? What do they think about the logging roads approaching the village from both sides and the greedy eyes that gaze upon the untracked hardwood forrest that surround the river and canyon?

Photo by Chris Korbulic
Gorge 8, unanswered question. “Beautiful, but to a kayaker trying to make river-level downstream progress, it’s a bad Bah thing.” Photo by Chris Korbulic

In the coming weeks we’ll know more and our goal is to share that with you as it happens.  We are set to chart our mission via GPS tracking, text, audio, images, and video via sat modem from the heart of the Grand Canyon Pacific. To share the experience and learn about this one of a kind place on our planet check out as the expedition unfolds.

— Check out more on the Destination Torngat expedition.

— Read about Stookesberry’s first descent of Nepal’s ‘Relentless River of Everest.’

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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