Kayaker Ben Stookesberry, who’s featured on the cover of this month’s Men’s Journal, had his expedition cut short last week when he was stopped and held by a team of rogue elements of Colombia’s rebel FARC army, which for decades controlled large swathes of the country and made kidnapping a cottage industry.
Stookesberry and an international team of whitewater paddlers were in the midst of the first descent of the Río Apaporis, which snakes 700 miles through the Colombian rainforest and drops over seven distinct waterfalls. The paddlers were among the first adventurers to take advantage of a newly signed peace accord between the FARC and the Colombian government, which promised to end a 52-year civil war and open one of the most remote corners of the Amazon basin to exploration.
Unfortunately the rebel faction controlling the Apaporis has decided not to participate. “The situation was a lot more dynamic and a lot less stable than we had anticipated,” says Stookesberry, who is an Eddie Bauer athlete.
The five-person expedition included Jules Domine, a French paddler who has done more than anyone to explore Colombia’s abundant whitewater, as well as Stookesberry’s long-time expedition partner Chris Korbulic, Spanish world extreme kayak champion Aniol Serrasolses, and Jessie Rice, a veteran kayak guide.
The team knew they were taking a chance with dissident elements of FARC and did what they could to avoid them. “We got information about a checkpoint, and to avoid that, we paddled five hours through the night in complete darkness,” Stookesberry says. “But we ran into them the next day in broad daylight.”
The detention would play out in slow motion over the next four days. On Tuesday April 18, seven rebels carrying AK-47s held the kayakers briefly and instructed them to continue about an hour’s paddle to Pacoa Buenos Aires, an indigenous community of about 200 people. That night the rebel leader, a woman named Carolina who had joined the FARC at 18 and risen through the ranks, questioned them at length. The next morning most of the paddlers sat in on English classes at the village school. No one was free to go yet, but it just seemed like a matter of time. That night four of the kayakers camped at a 100-foot cascading waterfall about two miles from the community. Serrasolses stayed in the village, having previously arranged a flight out from the grass airstrip for the next day.
That night the rebels took him.
“I don’t want to say it was kidnapping,” Stookesberry says, “But the FARC showed up in the night and took Aniol.” In the morning the guerillas rounded up the rest of the kayakers at the falls and brought them to a camp upstream, completely hidden beneath the jungle canopy. They interviewed each of them in turn, asking for names and phone numbers of family.
The assault rifles were always present, but the rebels never pointed them at the kayakers. They instructed the paddlers not to use their cameras and to remove the batteries from their GPS units, but didn’t confiscate their gear. Stookesberry carried a Garmin InReach, a satellite communication device that includes the sender’s coordinates with each message. He used it to message his friend Taylor Robertson in California and a local contact in Medellín, Colombia. He described the situation and laid out a simple plan: If Robertson did not hear from him in 48 hours, he was to call the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá and alert Global Rescue, an emergency evacuation service.
The next day the rebels moved them again, and Stookesberry’s contact in Medellín decided not to wait. He contacted the embassy, setting a flurry of activity into motion. In the States, FBI agents met with the team’s family members. In Colombia, an elite anti-kidnapping squad prepared for action.
“The Colombian military was ready to drop in right on us with a team of 200 special forces,” Stookesberry says. “Thank God Tay got in control of the situation and called it off.”
Robertson contacted Global Rescue and the FBI, and told them he had a very clear line of communication with Stookesberry and a firm agreement not to punch the panic button before 48 hours had passed. “As kayakers, we oftentimes set those timetables for rescue,” Stookesberry says. “And especially in this case, if there’s any way the situation can resolve itself, that’s the way to go.”
Stookesberry and his companions had no idea the authorities had been alerted. They did their best to keep things light with the rebels, talking with them, developing a rapport, even telling jokes. The soft approach seemed to work. That second night, the rebel leader told them she’d received orders to let them go in the morning.
Minutes later, a plane started circling directly over their position, and all hell broke loose. “The whole camp of guerillas started going crazy, yelling ‘Who turned on their GPS?’ And about 15 minutes into that, Jessie, who had fallen asleep, gets out of her tent to take a pee and turns on her light,” Stookesberry says. The rebels were freaking out, thinking the light would give away their position. Everyone, rebel and kayaker alike, was expecting the military to arrive any moment.
“That was the one singular point where I thought something could go seriously wrong,” Stookesberry says. “There’s no possible way that ends well if they drop in on us.”
True to their word, the rebels released them the next morning, Saturday April 22, though they kept any electronic device that could give away their position, including cameras, memory cards, GPS units, even a drone. Curiously, the rebels didn’t take their phones or several thousand dollars in cash.
The kayakers paddled straight to the village and arranged a pair of planes to carry them from the grass strip to the regional capital, where a U.S. government jet was waiting with a team of FBI agents and a military attaché. When we spoke yesterday, Stookesberry was holed up at the Marriott in Bogotá, making sense of it all.
“It was a risk we knew was there, and at the end of the day it resolved itself pretty painlessly,” he says. “We had another 20 days on that river that were exactly what we came for, going 300 miles down a big river and seeing no sign of human activity. It was just a really surreal experience on one of the most remote major rivers on the planet.
“That shouldn’t be overshadowed by a two-day stay with the FARC, no matter how dicey it felt at the end.”