THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY© Christopher Earls Brennen
``Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.''
They had been the worst days of my life. Five months earlier my beautiful wife, my lovely Doreen, had been diagnosed with colon cancer. My daughters and I did all we could to explore medical remedies but the faces of the doctors clearly indicated that the cancer had too wide a hold, had spread too far to have left any hope. Better to allow Doreen to take what enjoyment and peace she could from the few days that were left to her. I think she always knew there was little hope. For me there was a jumble of emotions, unbelievable sadness at the prospect of losing the one person to whom I had confessed my whole being, whom I always believed would outlive me. Anger and shame that I had not done more to get her to medical attention much earlier. Panic at what this looming tragedy would mean for my daughters and grandchildren. Helplessness, anguish and a guilt that I should be doing more to enrich her remaining days.
I remember several moments that are seared into my brain. The first moment when she emerged from the doctor's office to tell me she had cancer. I could barely walk to our parked car - yet I cannot imagine what it was like for her. The moment of anger when we realized that our appointment for a CT scan would be delayed due to our own incompetence in making the right appointment. The terrible moment when we were shown the colonoscopy photos with those huge cancerous growths. And yet there were uplifting moments as well. The minutes in the ambulence that was taking her home to die; in her delight, she joked with the ambulence attendants about her almost weightless body. Her comments to her daughters when they lifted her into a sitting position just a couple of days before her death; "Augh, you naughty children ...". But then, finally, the still, cold and lifeless body that no longer looked like her. The zipping up of the body bag as the mortuary attendants took her out of our beloved Sierra Madre home for the last time. And, for the purpose of final identification, my last glimpse of her on the closed circuit TV screen in the mortuary. It was only a little over a month from the colonoscopy to her final breath. So little time to erase that beautiful life force, that inspirational kindness, those fluorescent blue eyes.
My daughters, Dana and Kathy, and I gave her the private farewell that she wanted; each of us spoke at the gravesite and spoke from the heart with only her sisters and her best friend present. I knew then that if we were to survive this second tragedy, we could only do so with each other's assistance for only the three of us could know how we felt. But each of us also needed to make our private efforts, Dana and Kathy for the sake of their children and me for the sake of them. I had no idea where or how I could possibly find the strength.
For several weeks, friends came by to ensure that I ate. I went to stay with each of my daughters. I tried to busy myself with matters pertaining to Doreen, making sure all her family and friends knew of the circumstances and her wishes. Trying to decide what to do with all her belongings. Learning how to operate the washing machines. Dismantling the structure that contained several of her cats while she lived. And then, when I made the effort to get away from the house and walk in the mountains, I would scream her name across the canyon walls just to hear it echo back to me as if from the grave. But through all this it was too hard to face my own pain; there seemd no way to rebuild myself for it was almost impossible to imagine any constructive future. Yet a chink of hope for the future came at an unlikely place and time.
A number of months before the cataclysmic diagnosis, I had learned that the American Canyoneering Association and its founder, Rich Carlson, were planning a trip to the canyons of Costa Rica. My tentative plan to attend this "rendezvous" with several of my fellow, southern California canyoneers had been abandoned in the maelstrom of the tragedy and I had not given it a second thought. But about a month after Doreen's death when I had just started to function at some elementary level, two of those friends hatched a scheme to persuade me to go on this trip. Randi Poer called Scott Smith and encouraged him to take me to Costa Rica. They knew I would not go unless one of them was to ask me to accompany them. Scott is such a kind and gentle man that perhaps only he, of all my friends, could have persuaded me to go. I knew he would let me be alone with myself, that he would shield me from unwanted attention, unwelcome sympathy.
Descending Lost Canyon Descending Lost Canyon Big rappel in Lost Canyon
So it was that on Sep.1, 2007, with little preparation, I found myself boarding a plane at LAX on my way to San Jose, Costa Rica. Scott had persuaded me that a physical challenge in an unfamiliar but spectacular place would help me find a little distraction even if it could not ease the pain. And that country in Central America is nothing if not spectacular. Costa Rica has a spine of steep mountains and volcanoes covered in dense tropical forest. The rivers and canyons that run through these mountains are magnificent and present very different flora and fauna, a very different visual experience than any in the USA or Europe. Many small companies run guided adventures in this wilderness and we were joining a canyoneering group that had planned a selection of these adventures. We would base our activities in two different locales, spending a few days near La Fortuna in the Arenal Volcano area northwest of San Jose and a few days more in Turrialba southeast of San Jose. In each of these locations, the group had signed up for help from guide services, Pure Trek Canyoning and Desafio in La Fortuna and Explornatura in Turrialba.
Treking to Nonequito Canyon In Nonequito Canyon In Nonequito Canyon
All of these companies had developed ``commercial canyons'' in which they had established anchors and other facilities to aid the inexperienced canyoneer. The defect with these commercial canyons is that they have usually been significantly altered to ease the passage for the guides and their clients. These alterations often include the installation not only of extensive fixed anchors but also of wooden platforms from which to enter the rappels. Some even have steps cut in the canyon bottom rock to ease downclimbs while in other canyons trails conduct the clients from one rappel to the next. Despite these alterations the canyons are spectacularly beautiful with luxurious multi-level canopies of tropical forest and exotic flora and fauna. It is a unique experience for a howler monkey to let loose with its terrifying howl just as you are about to enter a 150ft free rappel!
We spent the first four days at a ranch outside of La Fortuna, in the shadow of the towering Arenal Volcano. At night a continuous stream of red-hot rock could be seen tumbling down the side of this volcanic cone and lighting up the night sky. During the day the tropical heat and humidity matched the surrounding jungle to create an otherworldly stage to draw my attention away from my grief. With this ranch as base we first descended two nearby commercial canyons, namely Piedra Canyon (translated as Stone Canyon but also known as Lost Canyon) run by the Desafio adventure company and Piedrita Canyon (translated as Little Stone Canyon) overseen by Pure Trek Canyoning. The first featured several big rappels (two from overhung wooden platforms) and some downclimbing in a glorious tropical canyon with just a modest water flow. The second involved several big rappels from overhung wooden platforms and descents through quite vigorous waterfalls. On the fourth day, the guides from the Explornatura Adventure Company agreed to show us a more remote, non-commercial canyon in order to exchange skills with the experts in our group. Thus we made our way through thick jungle to the upper reaches of the undeveloped Nonequito Canyon (translates to something like "no take away") and spent the day descending a wild and natural tropical canyon with a beautiful series of rappels and vigorous whitewater. All of these adventures were enjoyable and comfortably distracting though not technically challenging.
The action then shifted to the town of Turrialba, the home base of the Explornatura Adventure Company. There we began with a descent of Puente Vigas Canyon (translated as Rope Bridge Canyon) just above Explornatura's wharehouse on the outskirts of Turrialba. This commercial canyon had been set up with a series of rappels interwoven with three long and exciting zip-line transits through the jungle canopy. Two of these ended high in trees and necessitated a rappel to reach the ground. These zip-line excitements were new to me and certainly entertaining but also well supervised and controlled. The adrenaline flowed but the soul was unstirred.
Scott had to return home and so I was left on my own before the last adventure; but I figured I should try to stand on my own feet. He had shown a special friendship and I was not going to impose on him beyond the marvellous kindness he had already shown me. This last adventure was to be a two-day descent of the wild Pacuare River, a white water rafting trip through some of the most spectacular and untouched wilderness in Costa Rica. The Pacuare has its source in the Cordillera de Talamanca and flows 108 kilometers to the Caribbean. It leaves the mountains just before the town of Siquerries and downstream of this is of lesser interest. The mountain traverse is a popular venue for white water rafting, kayaking and riverboarding; National Geographic named it one of the top 10 river trips in the world, as much for the untouched wilderness as for the whitewater adventure.
The Pacuare River
The rainforests that surround the river are indeed breathtaking, home to exotic species such as panthers, jaguars, ocelots and monkeys. In 1986 a rare black panther was seen about 2 kilometers from the river and jaguars have been spotted near the Haucas River Gorge. Anteaters are common as well as raccoons, river otters, iguanas, Capuchin monkeys, and sloths. Howler monkeys are found on the lower sections after the Dos Montanas canyon. Five species of snakes live in the forest; the poisonous ones include the Coral snake, the Bush Master and the Fer-de-Lance. The Laura and the Sopy Lota (a long black snake that eats poisonous snakes) are also common. The jungle frequently flashes with the bright blue color of the Blue Morpho butterfly, chestnut-mandibled toucans are common and parakeets can sometimes been seen after the Dos Montanas canyon. Other bird inhabitants include herons, hawks, ospreys and vultures.
Most of the river corridor through this wilderness is first generation rain forest that has never been touched. It is the traditional home of several groups of indigenous people. The Cabecar Indians live in the forest along the east side of the river. They are small scale subsistance farmers and ranchers, growing bananas and plantains. Although they are known to practice "black magic" they are peaceful and friendly. At one time another tribe, the Burucas Indians, lived on the other, Pacific side of the river.
The first known recreational river descent of the Pacuare was completed by Michael Cane in 1975. Three years later Cane started Costa Rica Expeditions to run commercial trips on the river and in subsequent years other commercial enterprises followed including the Explornatura Adventure Company of Turrialba with whom we were to travel. The heart pounding whitewater of the Pacuare along with its remote jungle location and warm water (65 degrees Fahrenheit) have made it a very popular destination with adventure seekers. The mountain traverse is commonly divided into three parts, the Upper Upper, the Upper and the Lower Sections of which the more technical are the last two. The Upper section ends at Finca La Cruz and consists of about ten miles of class IV and V rapids as well as waterfalls. Our goal was the Lower Section consisting of 18 miles between the put-in at Tres Equis and the town of Siquirres. Over this distance the river drops a total of 1200ft through numerous rapids of class III and IV whitewater. It starts with a series of class III rapids but the action heats up as the Pacuare enters the Huacas River Gorge where, in addition to many class III, there are two class IV rapids called the Upper and Lower Huacas. Downstream the excitement continues with at least one more class IV called Cimerones. The Lower Section is sometimes descended in one long day but it is more comfortably completed over two days. For these overnight trips, three campsites with lodges and canteens have been established about halfway through the Lower Section. The river is rain fed so it typically runs highest from May to January, the lowest water occuring in March and April. Though it can be rafted all year round, the hurricane season in late summer can produce enough rain in 8 to 10 hours for the river to reach flood stage; it is then unsafe to attempt to run it.
We left Scott at the hotel in Turrialba; it was sad that he had to head home but I knew I needed to become accustomed to fending for myself. The rest of the group and I travelled by bus along a rough dirt road that dropped down to the Pacuare River at a place called Tres Equis, a name that signifies no more than a beach at which to instruct the rafters and pack supplies into the inflatable rafts. I was looking forward to my second significant whitewater expedition despite my misadventures on the River Kern in California (see "Cataracts of the Kern"). I hoped that this time I would be able to stay in the boat. There were five rafts each with five or six passengers plus one guide who sat in the back, steered and instructed. My fellow passengers were Jesus "Chewy" Guerrero who had guided us on Mexican canyoneering trips; he was accompanied by his wife. Also, sitting in front of me was Costa Rican Mauricio Odio who was a trained adventure guide. Fellow Californian Lauren Jefferis who sat behind me was a long time acquaintance with whom I had descended many canyons. It promised to be a fantastic adventure among some good friends. Though the river was somewhat swollen by recent rains, the guides had deemed it runnable though a little more exciting than usual.
The sun was shining as we set off from Tres Equis and readily negotiated the first few Class III rapids, appropriately called Bienvenidos (Welcome) and then Pelya Oho (Open Your Eyes). Other class III rapids followed in quick succession as we plunged deeper and deeper into the wilderness. I began to feel some competence and some confidence that I could stay in the boat even though I was somewhat reluctant to stick my feet as deeply as I should into the foothold pockets sown in the floor of the boat for precisely this purpose. My anxiety was caused by the possibility that an involunatry movement would torque and therefore reinjure one of my oft-damaged knees. But the day was beautiful, the company was delightful and there were moments when I could allow myself to smile. We stopped for lunch at a rocky beach where a magnificent waterfall tumbles down through the jungle into the Pacuare. Like the other meals this was a feast served on the makeshift table formed by turning one of the rafts upside down. After lunch some of us donned our rappelling gear and climbed up into the canyon above the waterfall. There we found a staircase of waterfalls and devised a canyoneering descent that dropped through some of the whitewater, though we avoided several of the more vigorous hydraulics. After this pleasant diversion we resumed our voyage down the Pacuare, through the Rodeo or Donde rapid and numerous others. Somewhere along this stretch, I had a momentary lapse of concentration while descending a fairly innocent Class III rapid. The boat unexpectedly beached on a midstream rock while I had my back to it and I fell backwards out of the boat into a pool by the side of the river. Though I was quickly hauled back into the boat by my alert fellow crewmates, it was a reminder of my vulnerability to such accidents. However, there was little shock involved and I reclaimed my place with only a slightly damaged ego. The rest of the day was uneventful. We landed in mid-afternoon and made our way up the jungle trail to our overnight campsite. This rustic facility consisted of an array of tents mounted on individual wooden platforms (designed to hold you above the ant-infested jungle floor) and a central canteen and dining area perched on the ridge overlooking a bend in the river. It was a spectacular setting and we all enjoyed an evening of good food prepared by the guides and spiced with lively conversation. The night passed pleasantly with many strange jungle sounds. However, alone in the tent without the need to pay constant attention to the swirling river, I wept quietly for my lost love.
The second day dawned with another fine meal. Soon the rafts were reloaded and we resumed our whitewater descent. Almost immediately, we passed Double Drop waterfall on the right side of the river, a signal that we were entering the Huacas River Gorge with a whole series of Class III rapids and two notorious Class IV, the Upper and Lower Huacas. I braced myself for what was to come. Several times we seemed to fly through the air only to plunge down underwater and then be jerked back to the surface. We crashed through Upper Huacas, raising our paddles into the air to celebrate that successful passage. Downstream our still-water passage passed beneath the towering Huacas waterfall that drops vertically over 100ft down a cliff on the right. Then into the roaring whitewater yet again as we surged through the Class IV Lower Huacas rapid, perhaps the most difficult of the Class IVs because of a tight move against an undercut cliff face. Soon we stopped again for lunch and I began to feel that I could complete the Pacuare adventure without any further mishap. After lunch we entered a lovely quiet section where the river meanders quietly between 100ft cliffs. An old suspension footbridge overhead reminded us of our imminent return to civilisation though even that seemed to lack many of its rungs. Most of us slipped into the river to drift along with the rafts in the lovely jungle sunshine. We also took advantage of this quiet section to take lots of photographs, perhaps to remind us of the combination of simplicity and beauty that marked this adventure. Our descent of the Pacuare was almost complete. I felt envigorated and somewhat cleansed.
Cimarones Frame 1 Cimarones Frame 2 Cimarones Frame 3 Cimarones Frame 4 Cimarones Frame 5 Cimarones Frame 6
Downstream of the narrow, graceful gorge the rapids resumed. Upper then Lower Pinball came next with technical moves between numerous rocks. These were followed by Guatemala Rapid as the violence of the whitewater increased. Ahead lay the last big challenege, the last Class IV, the notorious Cimarones rapid with its huge hydraulics and a great black monolith in center stream that claimed one life in the year that just passed. Ahead we could see other rafts fly into the air and then plunge out of sight. All seemed to make it, skirting the black monolith through the awesome chute to its right. Then it was our turn. Once we rose into the air and then plunged into the whitewater. Up we flew again. And again as we raced toward the monolith. Then, just before the chute, we dived again but unfortuntely not centered on the hole. I fell backward with the raft and as we crashed into the bottom of the hole, my momentum carried me out of the boat into the thundering maelstrom. The whole misadventure was captured by a series of still photos one of which shows what might have been my last moment, a single leg sticking up out of the water beside the crashing boat. What happened next I simply do not know - except that somehow I hung onto the lifeline that is strung along the side of the boat - and, somersaulting over this, managed to haul myself back to the side of the boat as we shot down the chute, missing the black monolith by a matter of inches. I do remember not knowing what way was up and struggling to find air and the riding along the side of the boat as my friends hung onto me and we made it through the rest of the rapid. This time I was badly shaken. And yet, through all that struggle, I remember thinking that it was not time for me to die, that I needed to survive for many people, some of whom had already suffered too much. It was a genuine epiphany, a moment that would always separate my past from my future. Not that I recognized it at the time for shock held my perspective to a very brief window of the future. If I were a religious man, I might believe that Doreen was telling me something important. If so the message was clear.
There is not much left to tell. Through the mists of my shock I dimly recall the last few Class III rapids: Indian Rapid with its undercut features and many channels on the right hand side but which we snuck by on the left; Dos Montanas, an "s" curved rapid that feeds right into the steep and narrow canyon by the same name that was at one time going to be the site of a hydropower dam and then the final rapid known as "Graduation" or "Boats to the Wall". We landed at Siquirres and began the long trip home, benumbed by what had happened and yet excited about the future. Though a piece of me died several months before and a piece had been exorcised in Cimarones, there was much left to live with and hopefully much left to enjoy.
Last updated 9/1/00.
Christopher E. Brennen