Kayaker runs 127-foot waterfall in Brazil
April 4, 2009
When Pedro Oliva got to the edge of the Rio Sacre in central Brazil and looked at the big falls, there was no doubt in his heart that he would climb into his kayak and paddle over the edge ” all 127 feet of free-falling drop into the mist of the pool below.
He and a team of kayakers from the United States and Mexico had already run eight big waterfalls, looking for one that would give them a world record for Ben Stookesberry’s latest extreme kayaking DVD, “Hotel Charlie Vol. 4, At your Own Risk.”
And two days earlier, Pedro’s mother had called to say she had a dream where she saw him safely do it.
“My spirit is so content, excited,” the cinematographer and model from San Jose Dos Campos, Brazil, said from New York City, where he and Stookesberry recently appeared on the “Today” show. “I am so confident. I also have so much fear, no? And the ‘confianca’ inside. Half side is fear. Other side is ‘confianca.’ “
Ten days earlier, Stookesberry, Chris Korbulic of Rogue River, Ore., Jesse Coombs of Corvallis, Ore., and Rafael Ortiz of Mexico City had flown into Brazil and met up with Oliva, a paddling pal of Stookesberry’s since they met at the 2007 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships in Canada.
Stookesberry and his crew had recently made the second descent of the Indus River through the Rondu Gorge in northern Pakistan, and gone on to run the Menas River through India, Bhutan, and back into India again.
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They returned to Brazil to try to make a clean drop of the Anaconda, a 100-foot waterfall that Stookesberry had run last year, but not without being ejected from his boat, making his descent unsuccessful in the unwritten rules of kayaking.
Kayakers don’t rely on Guinness World Records, instead keeping their own list of world records on blogs and in periodicals. By that accounting, Paul Gamache of Seattle held the top mark by running 108-foot Cascade Falls in British Columbia in 2008.
Stookesberry wants to shift the focus on world-record waterfall runs from Canada, where the most recent ones have been, to Brazil, where there is so much unexplored potential in the Amazon Basin.
“We were trying to push the sport beyond the spot where running tall waterfalls would result in some sort of fatality,” he said. “The myth that the height you can run a waterfall in a kayak has already been reached ” to break that myth and push that particular end of the sport forward.”
After remeasuring and running the Anaconda, Stookesberry’s crew knew they needed something bigger.
They started looking on the Internet, where communities often post photos of local attractions, including waterfalls. Coombs and Ortiz had to return home, but Stookesberry, Oliva and Korbulic stayed the course. They spotted one that looked good, and when they got there heard of two others ” the 127-foot Salto Belo and one even higher downstream on the same Rio Sacre.
On March 4, after driving for hours through soybean fields with two local guides, they got to Salto Belo, drove their light SUV with their kayaks on top onto a raft floated by wooden barrels, and pulled it across the quarter-mile wide river by rope to the edge of the falls.
They tied a climbing rope to a bag filled with rocks and lowered it to the bottom, then measured off 6-foot lengths as they pulled it up. It was 21 lengths plus 1 foot ” about the height of a 12-story building.
“I was still pretty unconvinced I was going to make that descent,” said Stookesberry. “But I thought it looked doable. I didn’t see myself being able to maintain a vertical angle going in. It was going to be 28 feet higher than anything else I had run in the past.”
Korbulic had run big stuff before, too, but didn’t like the way the water went straight down, leaving the kayak to tumble off vertical.
“I just thought we were going to look at a big beautiful waterfall,” he said. “Pedro got there, and we looked at it, and right away he said he wanted to run it. Ben and I ” it’s a huge waterfall ” I think it was out of both our comfort ranges.”
The trio scouted it for three hours, picking out the tongue of green water Oliva would follow to the lip and to the spot in the pool below that had plenty of air in the water, vital to cushioning his 70-mph entry into the water, without so much churn that the water would hold him down to drown.
“I stand close to the waterfall for 10 minutes,” Oliva said. “I am thinking it is perfect. In a moment I organize my stuff. I call for Ben, ‘What do you think?’ He say it’s a good idea for me to go. He take the camera, organize the guys for rescuing.”
After he picked his line, Oliva memorized every ripple and current he would follow, and visualized every stroke he would take, so he could do it without thinking.
“Last year he looked at other drops that were world records as well,” Stookesberry said. “He only made the decision to run this one because he felt it was the perfect time, the coming together of a team he believed in, a place he believed in, the feeling everything was coming together at the same moment.
“Two days before he had talked to his mother. She had a dream. He had descended a world record waterfall. She was content he would go over the waterfall and he would be all right. There were so many things that came together. It was a crazy thing.”
Going over the lip, Oliva went into a tuck, his paddle parallel with the boat, his body flat against the front deck, his head down, his eyes open. Halfway through the free fall, the boat went past vertical, and Oliva was falling upside down, his boat horizontal instead of vertical.
The descent took less than 3 seconds, but felt like 30. Oliva was concentrating on staying tucked, no matter what. Then he hit the water, upside down with the boat parallel to the surface of the water.
“It was so soft,” Oliva said.
He felt a quick jerking motion. His paddle was sliced off by the boat deck. His head hit the deck, too, but the helmet protected his face. Then he was under water.
Oliva figures he churned in the pool for 5 to 10 seconds, then waited 10 more seconds for things to calm down. At the surface, he felt a rock bar on his side and used it to pull himself upright in the boat, and was surprised to find himself behind a curtain of water.
Through Stookesberry, Oliva said it was the strangest experience of his life.
“The sun was coming directly through the curtain,” Stookesberry said. “For a couple of seconds he was confused and thought he was in heaven for a second. He thought he hadn’t made it. He quickly realized he was behind the falls.”
Oliva said the wind was howling, and when he got out of his boat and walked along the rocks, he was confronted by two boa constrictors. He slipped and fell, cutting his leg. He eventually walked out through the curtain of water to the shore of the pool, where Korbulic and one of the guides were waiting to help him.
“He said that when he was thinking about what it would be like before he did it, to break a record, he thought he would just be ecstatic, cheering his face off,” Stookesberry translated. “But when it actually happened he was pretty calm.
“Other than a couple of fist pumps and a couple high-fives, he was pretty calm about the whole thing.”
Korbulic said he believes that Oliva stayed in his boat, but with no one else actually seeing it, there will always be doubters.
“I think he’s a genuine person and he’s not out to ” he wasn’t out to fool anybody,” he said.
Stookesberry figures if you can’t enter the water vertically, upside down may be best, so your spine will not be compressed by the shock. Highly aerated water is a must to cushion the blow.
They are already planning to go back and look at the bigger falls downstream, which the locals say is nearly 300 feet.
Hucking big waterfalls is not Stookesberry’s main focus, but pushing the envelope of kayaking is. He pores over Google Earth looking for remote rivers no one has run. Next year he plans to run the Sang Po in Tibet, going farther through the rocky gorge than the last expedition, which hiked out.
Though they get financial help from gear companies, most of the money for these expeditions comes from their own sweat and savings. Stookesberry, 30, does cement work for a construction crew in Mount Shasta, Calif. Korbulic, 24, worked construction at Lake Tahoe last summer and plans to go to nursing school.
The kayaking world is split over running falls, with some excited over the “Wow!” factor, and others wanting to avoid being labeled as another Mountain Dew extreme sport, said John Weld, owner of kayak gear maker Immersion Research in Confluence, Pa. He also sponsors the Vacation to Hell, which sends teams of kayakers to unexplored territory.
“In my opinion, there is much more depth of interest in running a river in Pakistan that has never been run,” Weld said. “At the end of the day, all you can say (about running a waterfall) is, did you swim or not. Which is just not that interesting.”
“I don’t want to belittle it,” Weld added. “He still has to go to the top of that waterfall and put the skirt on.”
And in the end, running the 127-foot waterfall got a call from the “Today” show.