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White water in Costa Rica paddles novice kayakers


This could hurt.

That's what flashes through my mind just after a rapid on the Pejibaye River flips my kayak. The swift water turns me into a human dredge, my helmet churning up stones on the shallow river bottom. My right hand slams into a rock. My lungs are nearing empty.

I finally get my paddle extended and roll up. I have just enough time to think, that wasn't so bad, when my shoulder hits the boulder to my left, flipping me back into the froth.

A few more bumps and I roll up, gulping air. Blood runs down my fingers. My shoulder throbs.

I'm in Costa Rica with my wife, Nicole, and our friend Steve Umansky to test our limited whitewater kayaking skills. A tally of the carnage suggests we are failing miserably. Nicole was temporarily sidelined with a knock to her head. Steve's knees and elbows look like a Rorschach test, the bruises running together in elaborate patterns. And a close encounter with a rock left me with a gimpy leg.

We try not to pay much attention to the injuries, even if the rivers are treating us like chew toys. Once in a while, we get a dose of paddling nirvana, that sweet spot where we tap the river's power, instead of fighting against it. The feeling, no matter how brief, inoculates us against the pain and keeps us after more.

"Wanna take a break?" our guide, Kristin, asks as I float into placid water, shaking the ache from my bloody knuckles.

She doesn't need an answer.

We paddle on.

The addiction began a few months earlier when Steve lured us to North Carolina for a two-day clinic at the renowned Nantahala Outdoor Center. With very little whitewater in Florida, we hope to satisfy the craving during seven days in Costa Rica.

We're novices in every sense. We can see the correct route through the rapids but don't have the skills to stick to it. We know how to roll — in a swimming pool. Throw in some moving water and an unanticipated capsizing and it's better than 50-50 that we'll have to abandon our kayaks and swim.

We are in the experienced hands of Costa Rica Rios, an adventure travel company with a cozy 11-room guest house in the bustling agricultural hub of Turrialba, where the bars close for three days around elections and every third store seems to sell shoes or underwear. Tropical fish swim in the running fountain in the open-air courtyard. The roof deck provides a view of the Turrialba volcano. Each morning starts with a hot breakfast and pitchers full of juice from whatever fruit the cook decided to squeeze that morning: oranges, mangos, pineapples, guavas.

The first day, we set out for the river on the company bus. The air smells wet and clean. Eucalyptus trees shade the coffee plants that grow on the hillsides. The locals call them "gringo trees" because they grow tall, turn red in the sun and peel, says Sean Bierle, our head guide.

Bierle's a dark-haired, affable 20-something with a thick build and a degree in entomology from the University of Florida. Our other two guides are his wife, Kristin Bierle, and Costa Rican Marco Mendez, who seems to know everyone we meet. The only other guest is an engineer from Ottawa, who looks like he has spent a lot of time behind a desk. But after he effortlessly runs rapid after rapid, we nickname him Mr. Smoothie.

We slide our kayaks into the Pejibaye River (pronounced peh-hee-BY-ay) below a small rapid. The wave is barely a ripple. Still, it takes me only a minute of warming up to flip and mess up a roll, forcing me to swim to the bank.

"Awake now?" Kristin asks as she checks on me.

Awake and embarrassed. It would be that way all day.

That afternoon, we scout the last section, a long rapid rated a Class III on the six-level whitewater scale. Unfamiliar Class III rapids intimidate many novice kayakers. They remind me of my first dates: I was confident I'd survive but sure to bungle something along the way.

Marco explains how to angle our boats to stay away from a rock that juts from the right bank. We start off single file. But the three of us bunch up like 5-year-olds playing soccer. Steve flips in front of my bow.

"Paddle left! Paddle left!" Kristin yells from behind me. Kristin is girl-next-door good looking with Southern manners and an easy smile. But when she sees a paddler headed for trouble, she's as subtle as an Army drill sergeant. "Paddle harder!"

I take three strokes but can't avoid tangling with Steve's boat. I flip, bail out of the kayak and start swimming. My right leg slams into a submerged rock. For a split second, I wonder if I've cracked my femur. I feel sick. I let out a tumble of curse words that would make George Carlin blush. Onshore, I pull up the leg of my shorts to inspect the damage. It's red and scraped, my muscles are in spasm.

"Oh yeah," Sean says. "That's an early contender for best bruise of the week."

• • •

Steve is good at holding his breath, which helps keep him from becoming a paddling statistic on Day 2. After a few hours on Rio Sarapiqui, he crashes into a standing wave and capsizes. He struggles with three unsuccessful rolls before Kristin gets close enough to help him up, 150 yards upriver from a Class III rapid swollen from the day's rains.

Steve flips again as the swift water carries him into the rapid's jaws. We see only his helmet and long black hair in the spray. The current pulls him under.

He disappears.

A second passes.

Then two . . . Three.

It's easy to hold your breath for a minute or longer in a swimming pool. For a tired kayaker who takes an unexpected capsize in a raging river, 10 seconds can seem like three days.

Four . . . Five.

His head finally pops back up.

"It was a quiet place," he would say that evening as we soaked away our aches at a natural hot spring. "A dark place that I don't want to return to anytime soon."

• • •

Not all the close calls come on the river.

In the jungle, we see toucans, macaws, sloths, otters and several enormous butterflies. I wasn't listening when Marco explained which frogs are poisonous and which aren't, so I give them all a wide birth. Some animals we only hear. The howler monkeys make a sound like a whale getting a prostate exam from Godzilla.

But it's a cow that nearly reduces our numbers.

Driving to the launch site one morning, a bull, its gray belly sagging, blocks the dirt road. It's nearly 2,000 pounds of muscle and indifference.


No movement. Not even a glance.

Sean hops off the bus to do his best to move the bull along. It's a bad idea. Muddy road. Large beast. No red cape.

Maybe it is the way Sean waves his arms or maybe he just looks like better eating than the weeds in the middle of the road. The bull spins around and charges.

Sean's first step digs into the mud and he nearly tumbles over. He catches himself with his hand, grabs the door of the bus and swings inside, as the bull rumbles by. Everyone is laughing, as several calls of "El Matador" echo through the bus.

• • •

The next morning, in the first long rapid, Nicole catches an edge. As she reaches her paddle to the surface to start a roll, her head wallops a rock.

The first time novice kayakers smack their head underwater is often the exact moment they decide to quit forever. Hitting your head on a doorway or the light that hangs over the kitchen table is disorienting enough. Now think of doing it upside down, underwater, pinned in a kayak, floating down a Class III rapid in the jungle of a faraway country.

She struggles to reinitiate a roll. Then her left foot cramps. That's enough. She breaks free from the kayak and gets her head to the surface. But her foot is stuck in the boat, which drags her over rocks.

I want to help. I'm so close, but I can't paddle straight up a Class III rapid. I could try to cut into the still water behind the rock she's clinging to, but it's a tough move for a new kayaker across some angry whitewater. If I flip, my wife will have to sit on that rock while the guides chase after me.

My ego leaks away.

Sean eventually throws a rope to Nicole and pulls her to the river bank. The bump above her eye is growing. Sean makes the wise decision to pull her off the water for the rest of the day.

She's shaken up and a bit scared. Mostly, she's ticked off about missing a half day on the river. Marco escorts her through the jungle, up a steep hill and through a field of high grass to the dirt road, where he finds her a ride to the bus waiting a few miles away.

As we paddle on, my mind is on my wife and the goose egg on her head. I wanted to go with her, but she was in no mood for my chivalry.

The rapids are barely Class IIIs, with easy lines and no obstacles. Experienced paddlers could run them backward with their eyes closed.

To me, they all look like Niagara Falls.

I flip again, eject from the kayak and swim hard into a deep pool near the river's edge. I float for a moment catching my breath. I'm tired and wet and worried about Nicole. Water clogs one of my ears. My boat drifts in behind me, nudging my neck like a rambunctious dog trying to coax its owner back out to play.

Steve is lying on the river bank, beaten equally as badly. This would be an easy time to quit. It might even be the smart thing to do.

But two minutes later, we are back in our boats. We know paddling nirvana is somewhere downriver, maybe just around the next bend.

Graham Brink can be reached at


Costa Rica

Costa Rica Rios leads kayaking, rafting and other adventure trips in Costa Rica that start at $1,599 for a week. Find itineraries and other information on the company's Web site:

Many major airlines have regular flights from Miami and Orlando to San Jose, Costa Rica's capital.

White water in Costa Rica paddles novice kayakers 06/12/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 11:49am]
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