My River Trip
by Harry Alschuler

I first began visiting Putla in 1971; I had been to visit a friend in Pinotepa Nacional on the coast, and to return from there to Puebla, my friend suggested a bus which traveled the then unpaved road through Putla and Tlaxiaco, to meet the Pan American Highway, Mexico - Oaxaca. The bus stopped briefly, I got off to stretch my legs, and was immediately struck by the physical beauty of the town, green and tropical, lost in the Sierra Mixteca. I resolved to return with some time to spare, and in fact, did return a month later to begin what would be a thirty plus year association.

Four major  rivers flow into the valley of Putla, the Cuchara, the Copala, the Purificacion, and the Palizadas; they form one river, the Rio de Putla, which exits the valley at the southeast corner, and winds its way through the mountains past Atoyaquillo to join another river coming out of the north from near Oaxaca, and form the Rio Verde.  This is the longest river in the state, and runs south to empty into the Pacific near the Laguna de Chacahua.

It is the rivers which give the valley its miniclimate, morning fogs which keep the valley green, even at the end of the dry season.  It never freezes, nor does it ever see the appalling heat of the coast.  At the time I first began frequenting the valley, the highway was only ten years old, and horses and mules were more commonly seen than wheeled vehicles, which gave the town an old west atmosphere I also found appealing.

It must have been after my first visit to Atoyaquillo in 1977, that the possibility of descending the river in some type of vessel occurred to me.  In the smaller valley of Atoyaquillo, the river flows wide and placid, as in Putla.  It seemed logical to expect that between these points, the river would be equally forgiving, seemingly inviting  a gentle cruise.  Of course, I had no experience of any sort of at descending any sort of river, but the concept seemed simple, point the boat downstream and avoid the rocks.

For a long time this voyage remained a vague dream, until the year 2001, when I again found myself in Putla, this time with money and leisure to consider it as a real possibility.  When in Austin, I purchased a used Dagger "Tupelo", a one man canoe, small and light, with a double-ended kayak paddle and a flotation vest.

Back in Putla, my first efforts at navigation were frustrating and laughable at once.  Set out from the Cuchara bridge to the Honduras del Diablo, about 300 meters and flipped twice in that distance.  Unsatisfied, I decided to try the Copala, from below Tierra Colorada to the new bridge. The only thing I knew about canoe handling was that if one paddles on the right side, the thing is supposed to turn left and vice versa.   Problem was, the canoe didn't react as I supposed it would, and often insisted in plowing straight ahead when I was hoping (and expecting) it to turn. So we made contact with just about every rock and gravel bank in the river.  It couldn't have been more than two kilometers, but at the end, I was exhausted, and suffering badly from thirst.  Rolando Alonso, who had driven my truck to the bridge, couldn't restrain his laughter as I ran into the bridge embankment.   "Why," he asked, "didn't you turn and follow along to where the truck is parked?"  All I could say was that the canoe went where it wanted to go, as it had all morning.

I then proceeded to daily practice sessions at Honduras del Diablo, which is easy to get to by road and offers a run of two hundred meters.  After about a week, I felt emboldened enough to try to get down the river to the main bridge.  Rolando, who had had some experience in kayaks, had successfully made the fifty minute trip, and reported no difficulty.

Therefore, it came as quite a shock, about forty minutes into the trip, to be confronted by a barb wire fence stretched across the river.  Rolando hadn't mentioned a fence, and I assumed that must be because he had no difficulty in passing it.  I allowed the canoe to float up to the middle of the fence and tried to raise it enough to pass under, but the fence caught  the back of my flotation vest and jerked me out of the canoe.  It then dragged me underwater until I realized that I had better remove the vest to free myself.  I surfaced in time to see the canoe floating down river.

I staggered to shore, bleeding from a torn ear and found a road used by a gravel dredging operation and followed it to the highway where I came out about one and a half kilometers from the bridge.  We quickly recovered the paddle, which had reached a point visible from the bridge, and the offer of a reward brought the canoe back that afternoon.  A few days later, I made it all the way to the bridge, passing the fences (turned out to be two) by taking the canoe to the bank, exiting the canoe and passing first the canoe and then myself to the other side of the wire.  It turned out that the fences had been installed in the time between Rolando's trip and my own.  First Lesson:  You never see the same river twice; changes in water level, trees that fall into the river, fences-- all of these can affect your trip.

It had become apparent that the "Tupelo" lacked sufficient freeboard; with me and a paddle as cargo, there was about eight centimeters, and that wasn't going to be enough for passing through the rapids I knew were waiting downstream, so I began searching the internet for a better vehicle.  Rolando wanted to go along, and that made it a choice of a canoe seating two.

Finally decided on a Mad River "Explorer 15", big enough for two, but can be handled by one with a center seat installed.  Ordered from a dealer in Austin, it was waiting for me in March when I went on a shopping trip to Texas.

Back in Putla with the new canoe, decided to go to the coast with Rolando to train on the coastal lagoons.  Quickly developed that Rolando wasn't willing enough to train, and I began to plan on doing the trip by myself.  In July, spent 10 days at Laguna Manialtepec training daily, but knew that I wasn't going to be able to make it in the Explorer.  While manageable enough in the water, portages with a 28 kilo, 4.5 meter canoe were just barely possible with an empty boat on a gentle, sandy beach.

Returned to the valley and began talking to Jorge Alonzo (Rolando's cousin ); he had always displayed an interest in the canoes, and we were soon planning a trip down the Cuchara from San Pedro, a small town north of Putla.

It was the end of July, with the rainy season well underway, when we portaged the canoe down to the river.  We hadn't trained together at all, but somehow we managed to get into the canoe and underway without major problems.  The Cuchara, at that point, is quite narrow, perhaps 4 - 5 meters wide, and after dodging the first few rocks we thought  we were doing well; we even survived a 60 cm. drop without mishap, when suddenly the river came to a looming, stone cliff face; the river made a 90 degree. turn to the left, we went into the cliff.  I tried fending us off with the paddle, but the next thing, we were in the water, with the current pushing the swamped canoe into the cliff, with us between the canoe and the cliff.

The first thing I noticed, when I pulled myself half on top of the overturned canoe, was that the middle finger of my right hand had assumed the unusual position of a forty-five deg. angle from the first knuckle.  I wasn't sure what that meant, but I expected it would hurt once I had time to think about it.  Jorge was unhurt, and after consultation, we decided to try and lift the canoe to get rid of the water.  This accomplished, we floated the canoe and ourselves across the current to a beach, where after emptying what remained of the water, we decided that the best thing would be to relaunch and try to make it to the first bridge, not far below.  Amazingly, we hadn't lost any equipment and were able land successfully and beach the canoe at the base of the bridge.  From there, we walked back to where we had left the pick-up, returned to the bridge and loaded the canoe.

At the clinic, the X-rays confirmed that the finger was dislocated.  The doctor gave it a firm tug and it seemed to be reseated correctly, although it has never (to this day) completely healed.

Jorge and I discussed what happened and decided that the problem was lack of coordination  of effort.  We began going to the Honduras del Diablo daily to practice and learn to better control our handling of the canoe.

A week later, we returned to the bridge where we had hauled out after our crash.  The trip started out with a 90 deg. turn to the right, where we were forced to thread our way between a sunken tree and  the cliff face.  Further on, we came to a shallow section, where at one point, we struck a rock, but we managed to stay afloat, and, 25 minutes after we set out, we landed successfully at the Honduras.

More practice and another trip from the bridge at San Pedro, left us feeling ready to try to make it to Tortolitas, about 15 kilometers down river from Putla, the last town in the valley, and the last place at which we could easily exit the river to return to Putla.  We made  a couple of trips by road to see where we might land, and also to scout out what lay below Tortolitas.  It was on these trips that it began to dawn on us that  this trip might not be as easy as we had thought.

When we had discussed the trip with people who live along the river, they had often expressed skepticism, saying that there were some very bad parts.  We weren't sure how much credence to give their reports, as none had ever used a canoe (not that we were exactly experts ourselves).  About half a kilometer below Tortolitas, the river makes a sharp left turn, and reduces from 50 meters wide to 10.  The locals call it "El Torno", and it is there that the going gets tough.

After exploring the first half kilometer from El Torno down river, it was clear that this was not going to be a walk in the park.  While we didn't see anything that really scared us, we could see that this was going to require precise handling and a bit of luck to negotiate.

Our first canoe trip to Tortolitas went well up to the point where, about 15 minutes from our destination, we found that the river was partly blocked by a fallen tree.  We were forced by rocks to come closer to the tree than we might have wished,  a branch caught the canoe, and before we could react, the canoe flipped and we were swept downstream about 50 meters before we were able to beach.  After emptying the water, we resumed the trip and made it to the town.  We carried the canoe over a swaying, suspended footbridge into the town to the amazement of the residents.  A couple hours later we were on our way back to Putla in the back of one of the trucks which makes the trip twice daily.

Several more such trips ensued, only one of which was notable.  In that trip, on a stretch that we had traversed without incident on various occasions, we discovered a rock which unexpectedly dumped us, once again, in the river.  This time we were carried about 200 meters before we could beach, an unpleasant reminder of just how badly things can go.

Jorge found that the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica Geografia e Informatica was the place to obtain maps, and at the end of September, when I had to go to Mexico D.F. anyway, I went by one of their offices, and, to my amazement, they had very detailed (1 : 50,000) maps covering the area of the river.  This had been one of my worries, as it would be impossible to scout the whole river, and a good terrain map would at least inform as to the location of falls and the general geography of the river course.

Through October we continued training; the rains of September and October are the heaviest of the year and the river was as high as I have ever seen it.  This made the parts of the river above El Torno much easier to travel as the most of the  rocks were buried under several meters of water.  The plan was to wait till the end of the rains (expected around early November), and give a couple weeks for the river to clear up and the current to lessen.  Unfortunately, my papers had come due for renewal, and the waiting to for the renewal was beginning to cut close to the time we wanted to start the trip.

Found a site on the internet which actually gives a weather report and prognostication for Putla, and I began checking that, to be sure we weren't surprised by any storms.  We were now approaching December; my papers would expire December 5 and I had yet to hear from the lawyer that they were ready.  Finally, decided to go to Mexico D.F. (again), where, on Dec 2, I finally got my renewal.  Still waiting on the car papers (Jan 6, 2003), but that's another long story.

Finally, back in Putla, I was ready to have a try, but now Jorge was embarked on a project he wanted to finish; we decided to set our departure for a Friday, December 20.  This would give us ample time to get everything ready.  We even found time to practice a bit, and at the end of our last session, Jorge had the idea of getting three inner tubes and inflating them under the seats for a bit of added flotation.  (White water canoes are fitted with airbags shaped to
fill the bow and stern, which add buoyancy and displace water; I had only learned about this after returning to Mexico, and this was the best we could do.)

The morning of December 20 found me waiting for Jorge at the shelter at which we stored the canoe.  I had a mild cold, and between the neighbor's dog and my anxiety over the trip, had hardly shut an eye the night before.  When I mentioned this to Jorge, he offered to put off the trip until I was in better shape, but I told him that I feared that to postpone the trip yet again, might
mean that it would never happen.  So we loaded the canoe onto my pickup and with it securely lashed, set out for the main bridge south of town.

Parked by the path that leads down from the highway to the river, we unloaded the canoe and equipment and carried it all below to the beach where we would load and launch.  Jorge took the pickup back to Putla to leave it and I remained to start loading.  We weren't taking much; we figured to do the 40 kilometers from the bridge to Atoyaquillo in two days maximum, so we had some granola and powdered milk, canned sardines and totopos (fried tortillas as in the corn chips served in Mexican restaurants).  We each had bedding and a change of clothes, a machete, and two yokes used for portages.  We each wore flotation vests
and bicycle helmets, khaki pants and sandals.

By the time Jorge reappeared with my landlord, Foncho Alvarez and Foncho's son, every thing was loaded and tied down, and after a couple photos, we climbed into the canoe and were off.  It was 9:35 AM and still a bit chilly, and I joked to Jorge that I would appreciate it if we could avoid flipping until the sun burned through the morning mist.

We had traveled this bit several times and had no surprises; at one point we made a probably unnecessary portage, but we found ourselves approaching the footbridge at Tortolitas right on schedule.  Foncho had driven to Tortolitas, and was waiting below the bridge to see us off, so we stopped to shake hands and have a cigarette.

It was about 10:30 when we launched again, and I, at least, was apprehensive as we floated the half kilometer from the bridge to El Torno.  We knew we would be making a left turn, which would be followed immediately by the obstacle of a tree trunk which had lodged itself in the rocks at an angle.  When we had seen it in August during the rainy season, we had believed we could pass it on the right, but with the river now much lower, what would we find?

We made the first turn without a problem, took one look at the trunk, and Jorge yelled out, "Playa!"  ("Beach!").  We turned to the left, and slammed the canoe into the rocks as there was no place at which we could land.  We managed to grab ahold  of the rocks, and I slid into the water and steadied the canoe so Jorge could dismount.  With the canoe pulled partly out of the water onto the rocks we surveyed the situation.  Jorge suggested that we could, with some difficulty, go back to Tortolitas, but neither of us was prepared to abandon the trip so easily.

 One could describe what followed as a portage, but  it really was lifting and dragging the canoe (loaded weight, about 40 kilos) over the boulders that line the river to a point below the trunk where we could relaunch.  I wish it had been as easy to accomplish as it was to write this down, but we were soon floating again.

We ran through the part we had previously scouted without contretemps, and it seemed that we had seen the worst.  Suddenly, a rapids appeared before us, much worse than anything we had seen in our brief experience.  I don't know if you who read these lines have ever been in a canoe flip, but what happens is that one second one sees that the craft is taking on water, and the next, one is in the water.  I don't know how far we traveled holding on to the inverted boat, but we were finally able to beach on the left bank.  Not easy, as diverting the course of a canoe filled with water is like trying to move the entire river.

With the canoe emptied of water, we caught our breath and prepared to relaunch.  Back on the river, I can't even guess how far we got before coming to another rapids, as bad, or worse than the previous.

I was in the water, floating along the left side of the canoe, holding on to it with one hand, when (don't ask me how) I suddenly found myself under the inverted canoe.  Since the flotation vest was pulling me up into the canoe, I had to push myself down and to the side to free myself from this trap.  On the second attempt, I popped up on the right side of the boat, and, gasping for air, grabbed ahold of the canoe.

Swept along by the current, I was beginning to despair of getting the canoe to either bank; at one point I found myself floating ahead of the canoe, and as I didn't see Jorge, I presumed that he had dropped off somewhere.  I determined to abandon the canoe and try to make it to the side, but after a few seconds without any progress shoreward, I again grabbed the canoe, where, to my relief, I found Jorge still hanging on.

 Finally we managed to get the canoe to the left bank, where we hauled out onto the rocks.  Exhausted, we just sat sprawled on the rocks until we were able to consider our position.  Which, to put it succinctly, could be described as down s--t creek with plenty of paddles, but no real hope of making forward progress.  It was becoming clear that this was more river than we had bargained for.

We were still unhurt, and the canoe was scratched up but still quite usable, but it was clear that the next rapids might not be so gentle.  We had food for three days, bedding and camping equipment, and a fair idea of our location.  Our first thought, since we were on the east bank of the river, was to try to make it back to the suspension footbridge back at Tortolitas.
Jorge got out the machete and began to look for a trail that would take us up the mountain, but failed to find any sign that man or any domesticated beast had ever made it down to the little cove where we had landed.

Jorge then began clearing a path through the thick brush on the lower slope (and cursing me for failing to sharpen the machete), and as he ascended, and the brush became sparse, digging footholds as he advanced in a straight line for the summit.  I followed along behind, and so it went for about two arduous hours as we inched our way up the slope.  I had almost reached the top (and my physical limit) when Jorge reappeared and announced that we had to get back down- that he could find no way down that would take us where we needed to go.  To get down without falling off the mountain we had to slide on our butts, braking by grabbing at the few trees we encountered on the upper slope.  Half an hour later we were back at the canoe and I was too tired to do more than crawl into my sleeping bag.

As night fell on our campsite, I felt able to discuss our possibilities for the next day.  We decided we would have to get down the river a bit further to look for a trail that would take us out of the river canyon to a town or road.   With that decided, we settled down to an uncomfortable and anxious night.

The next morning we were up early and began packing up.  Jorge was examining the bank opposite our campsite, and thought he saw the burn marks of a campfire.   We decided to make that our first stop, and after dragging the canoe over the rocks to a point we could launch, we paddled across and landed.  The burn mark turned out to be a black rock, and there were no signs that anything other than raccoons had ever visited this beach.

So its back in the canoe, braced to try and make it a bit further down river.  We had hardly gone 300 meters, when we saw another rapids roaring in front of us.  We quickly landed on the west bank, and Jorge went forward to see what we could do in that direction, while I worked my way back upstream to see if I could find a path.  We had no luck locating a trail, and decided we would try to line the canoe through the rapids.  We had a length of rope, and with that tied to the canoe, I went downstream to wait, while Jorge played out the line and eased the boat down the rapids.  We had never practiced this, and to our amazement, the canoe came right to me like a faithful dog, full of water, but right side up.

After emptying the water from the canoe, we climbed in and set out for a point about 200 meters down river where we could see a rapids.  What we didn't see was a 60 cm. drop,  70 meters before the point we planned to land.  When we did see it, it was too late to do anything but straighten our course to cross at a 90 deg. angle to the drop.  To my amazement, we managed it without flipping, and landed as planned above the rapids.

Jorge returned after a brief scout to announce that he had found a trail.  We filled our canteens, grabbed the items we planned to take, and set out to follow the path to the top of the ridge that we expected would leave us above either San Miguel Reyes or El Carrizal, two towns set back a few kilometers from the river.  The trail was faint, apparently unused for some time, but after two hours, we found ourselves atop the ridge and looking down at San Miguel Reyes, perhaps two kilometers distant.  After a rest, we tried to find a path leading down to the town, and wandered along the ridge until I spotted the trail.  We followed it down until we came to some fields with horses and cattle grazing, and an irrigation ditch.  We then came to a stream, where we were resting, when a woman came along.  Jorge asked her if she was going to S. Miguel, and when she replied that she was, we got up and followed her to the town.

Jorge knew a resident, Pedro Bautista, and we were soon drinking cold beer and eating some mole at Pedro's house.  After some time to rest and recount our adventures to Pedro and his family and neighbors, we climbed into the back of Pedro's pickup and an hour later, were back in Putla.

I had told Jorge that if he wanted the canoe he could have it, and a few days later, he and Pedro and some other men from S. Miguel walked down to the river by paths known to the local residents and carried the canoe out.

A couple of weeks after that, Pedro guided Jorge and me on a photographic trip to see the river below where we had abandoned the canoe.  The parts we saw have convinced me that it is impossible to get down that river in any kind of craft I can imagine.  At one point the river is reduced to about two meters width, with sheer rock walls 8 - 10 meters high on both sides.  When I first returned from the trip, I was seriously considering trying again with some other type of vehicle, but what I have seen and heard since has made me abandon any such notions.

I'm pleased to have tried, and elated to have survived, but this was the hardest thing I have ever done, and at my age, I doubt I will again tempt fate.

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