Written as a diary….
Today is Sunday, January 17th, 2010
On Thursday at 7am, Dane and I left our house in Rock Island, TN and drove the 1.5 hours to the Nashville Airport where we would start our journey to Valles, Mexico. The purpose of the trip is to take a group of 8 wounded veterans on a kayaking trip in the mountains of Mexico. We have three guys missing legs, one guy missing his core muscles on the right side and ribs, one guy who is mostly deaf, as well as a variety of other injuries from the other guys that have retired them from service.
Ben and Michelle Kvanli live in San Marcos, TX and have their kayak school and coaching center there called Power’s Olympic Training Center. Dane and I flew to San Antonio where my brother in law Scott picked us up with our new Villains. We waited for 4 vets to show up at the airport as well and drove to the home base. Our plan was to leave at mid-night that night and drive to the border, arriving around sun-up. It was dumping rain, getting around 3″ of rain that day, while we wallowed around in the mud loading up the trailer with 16 kayaks, gear, and the van with bags. The mud was thick in the mosh pit where we loaded up over the 3 hours in the dark. At 6pm we loaded in the vans and headed to TG Canoe and Kayak where we got last minute gear needs. Steve bought a new green/yellow Hero, while Robert went Ga Ga over a Mon-Star and Super Hero but decided to wait until after the trip to get one. Dwayne and his family took good care of us at his shop which has been there for a long time servicing paddlers in that area. We will be back next Saturday after the trip to do a clinic/demo at the whitewater park there.
At mid-night we loaded up on time and started the trek. Rains fell for most of the way and we made it to the border right on time, at 6am as it was getting light. We got our Visa’s, and got waved through the guards easily. The Mexican police were nice and helpful.
It was another 10 hours before we got to the first river on the way to Valles and stopped to do our first run. All in all, we had been traveling for 30 hours so far, and that was the case for most of the guys.
We did another 4 hours of driving after the river run to get to Hotel Bella Vista where we’ll stage up for the rest of the trip. Dinner was at a street taco stand, where a local family pulled up in their mini-van and left the doors open and music blaring, creating a nice party scene too. The son was mentally retarded in some form, so had some outbursts that were loud enough that the first one startled all of us. The father clearly not embarrassed and being a great father would do his own loud outburst and make his son laugh. It was just the opposite of what you would expect, where you would think the parents would try to keep the kid quieter. I was impressed and it set the tone. We bought a big beer each (like the size of three) and ate our tacos, drank our beer, talked, and listened to the music while standing or sitting in the taco stand. Our traveling was over after 36 hours. Now, we eat and then sleep.
Sunday- We have five guys that need roll training today, and others that really need a good run down a great river. I am lucky enough to be on the river duty today with Dane and Michelle, and with helpers like Barry and Steve.
We got to the put-in and I got to practice some good trailer 3-point turns as well as a nice seal launch off of the bridge. Our day started with a bang as we rounded the last corner on the first long class 2 rapid and there was a hole at the end of it. It could be run anywhere, if you are straight. We had three people in the hole at one time and three swimmers. Unfortunately one of the swimmers, Talon, dislocated he shoulder and Michelle put it back in. We spent a good 45 minutes getting things organized and deciding to allow Talon to paddle down the rest of the river, verses hiking back out. On the next rapid, we had one of those wonderfully incredibly dumb experiences where the one guy who isn’t going to get to run it, because of his shoulder and because it was overhanging, etc. was the guy who missed the eddy and ran it anyhow, dislocating his shoulder again, and then swimming over a 15 foot water fall after that. I put his shoulder back in with a short swing out of his arm and “pop” back in. He decided to keep going and you never really know about these things. Clearly there is more risk of further injury if you let him paddle out, but there are bigger injuries in life than physical ones and you have to balance it out. Talon wanted to paddle, and was super fired up.
The group paddled really well, with Kevin, Mike, and Talon the only three vets on this run (the others are learning to roll with Ben at a flat section of river by the hotel). I stayed with Talon and we made our way down one drop at a time. We came up to a nice pourover drop that requires a boof and a hard stroke to get over and while driving up to the lip, he took one hard stroke and yelled “shoulder” and stopped paddling and just floated and plugged into the hole, backendering over and back in and then out. I rolled him up as he just sat there. Shoulder was out again, number three. I popped it in and handed his paddle and off he went. At this point he is just impressing the hell out of me. Not a complaint of any kind, including pain, or how much of a bummer it is that his shoulder pops out over nothing now even though it never popped out in his life before. He had my immediate respect as a guy who can deal with adversity by dealing with it and moving forward, doing what he had to do to get the job done, with no complaints. I didn’t get to hang out with the other guys too much, but watched Kevin do awesome in his Hero. He has it outfitted for his stump and keeps his leg in the back. You would never know he has one leg when paddling, until he gets out. Dane is an incredible helper and really is impressive to watch in action. He knows what the group needs and how to direct people and be in the right place. Barry and Scott are both there being a big help as well and offer both safety and logistical help. Susan was fun to paddle with also but had a big of a rough start to the trip in terms of her confidence and roll.
Talon fell over one more time and dislocated his shoulder for his fourth time in one day. I was there and put it back in again. We set up a better system where from now on he lets himself drop in and tucks forward instead of doing any hard strokes and avoid the dislocation. It worked and he made it to the upper take out where Scott and Susan walked him out. He ran the entire run, perhaps the hardest thing he has ever run, with a dislocated shoulder on the first rapid, and then three more on the way down.
We got to the sweet restaurant overlooking the big falls there for lunch. It was getting late for a second run, but Sean 1 (one legged sean) wanted badly to go and got his roll down with Ben. Dane and I ran up with him and we did a bombing run down. Sean flipped and needed a rescue (hand of god) on the first rapid. We got him out above the second rapid which was a little sketchy for him. He “bear clawed” up the hill and I decided to seal launch him in (10 feet) right above the first waterfall. He did it well and didn’t flip (I was there for his landing and dane pushed him in) I showed him the line off the first waterfall but he managed to flip above it and run it on his side and swim. We got him back in his boat quickly and were going for time as it would be dark in 45 minutes and it took 3 hours to do the first run. We did a practice roll and he was starting to feel good. The rest of the run he styled. The next big waterfall he let out a battle cry on the way down and stuck it and that was the theme for the rest of the run.
We got back to the hotel to find out that Devin, Shawn, Ed, Robert, and Steve all got at least one roll.
Dinner was good at a cool little outside restaurant where the bar stools are old saddles. We played pool and drank a few beers.
Monday- January 18th.
Monday, Day three of the paddling, we did the Micos section. Everyone but Robert and Ed put in at the top of the river. We started with laps on the first waterfall and people really loosened up after one or two and became quite good at it. Shawn 2 (two legs) did a cool side grind down and still stayed in his boat. I had Talon in the front of the Dynamic Duo. Dane thought he would surely blow his shoulder due to the front person taking a bigger hit on waterfalls. Instead I figured he could tuck into a safe position on each one and not try to brace or paddle hard. It worked and we did laps on most rapids and went deep where possible on the falls. Everyone really stepped it up and paddled well. Steve (helper steve), Steve (one legged steve), Mike, Sean 1 and 2, Kevin, and Devin all had great paddling days. My brother-in-law Scott, Barry, and Steve all worked on Boofing and did some good ones, as well as paddling out and away from drops. Ben taught them to land on a stroke and pull out away from the hole. It was great advice and worked really well for the both to have an active brace, but also to stroke out and away to where they want to go.
We ate lunch 1/2 way down at a cool little resort thing on the river. Ed and Robert met us there and paddled from there to the take out. Ben took them down and I didn’t see them paddle but heard they did great. During lunch I started hand feeding a few ducks. Hand feeding as in hold the tortilla as hard as you can and have the ducks bite and peck it out of your hands. It doesn’t really hurt and is fun to do. I was able to catch one and hold it. It became a game for everyone and one duck had a curved and sharp beak that did really hurt. We also started getting ducks biting our legs. I thought it was quite fun.
The rest of the run went really well, and Talon did a great job paddling and his shoulder loosened up and felt better during the run.
We decided to do a second run and Ben, Michelle, Dane, Barry, Scott, Kevin, and I all went. I paddled the Dynamic Duo down with Michelle. She was very powerful and energetic and wanted to sprint a lot, and do fast turns, and play slalom paddler with me. It was really fun. We got a good workout and had a good time too. Everyone styled the second run and we did it in 45 minutes.
Dinner was at Valles and we all ate a ton of food. Sean (1) and I asked the waitress what her favorite was and she recommended something on the menu and I just said, “perfecto”. Sure enough mine comes out smothered in an incredibly spicy green salsa , and Steve’s is smothered in a red salsa. We took one bite and realized that the waitress gave us the spiciest things on the menu. You could tell by her giggling that this was her idea of being funny. Well special forces Sean 1, and EJ were immediately in a race to eat it all up. I took my hat off and my hair was soaked in sweat 1/2 way in. Everyone in our group was laughing at how much I was sweating. While Sean 1 didn’t sweat he was clearly pushing himself to continue eating. I got behind at first but realized that I would prefer the pain to end faster and that every bite was adding more burning on top of the last bite. I doubled my pace and quickly got to the last two enchiladas. It was almost impossible to swallow each bite now, but with a Coke I pulled it off and finished two enchiladas ahead of Sean 1. He kept at it and on this last two bites, he decided to “sprint to the finish” and added some of my green spicy salsa on top of them in good form. We both downed some water and both girls behind the counter were quite proud of themselves and couldn’t stop laughing at us on our way out.
Ben’s van was acting up and we tried to get a new headlight and fix a bad ball joint, all at 10:30pm. No luck. We pulled in at midnight (it is 12:38 am now and I am writing this)
Tomorrow Dane and I are looking at Mecca Falls. Dane really wants to run it in the morning. I’ll go with him to scout and decide if I’ll let him run it, and then if I want to run it too, or not. It is about a 20 foot slide into a 60 foot vertical with not too much water and turn right above the lip. Higher water would be better, but it looks doable from the bottom.
Dane and I have our new Villains and have been letting our group try them. Ben paddled one today, and Dane and I yesterday. Barry tried mine today too for the second run. It is everything I wanted. I am so fired on this boat. Easy, fun, fast, stable, and really well outfitted. Awesome.
Well it is bed time! I am glad I am volunteering with Team River Runner through Kayak Instruction, Red River Racing, TG Canoe for this trip. Today Devin said at lunch, “this is the most fun day of my life”. That was quite a statement, and it makes me very happy that I did this trip for them. Honestly, of course, I am having a great time paddling here too, so I can thank them for giving me a reason to be here right now.
Tuesday Jan 19
Woke at 7:30 am after about 6 hours of sleep and went to eat breakfast. Ben has the van at the shop trying to get the ball joint readied for more action. Dane has his full face out and ready for Mecca Falls. I didn’t bring one but don’t think I would need it for this drop. Our plan today is to do a run on Micos and then head to the Hot Springs. We would be doing the big drop first thing. I haven’t had internet since I left the house.
We drove to the put- in and Dane and I ran up to the falls (with Dane leading the way) to scout. Standing at the top of an 80 foot drop and being another few feet above the lip is an impressive view and is a little out of the normal human experience in terms of something you innately are born to look for. Dane was committed to the run and I was 60/40 in terms of running it until Dane clearly wasn’t excited about the idea of somebody but me taking photos of him running it. Which meant being at the bottom, not the top. That swung it the other way for me and I was fine having Dane run this drop and me not having done it. It is good for him and fine for me, as long as I don’t make a long term habit of it.
Dane gave us the thumbs up and dissapeared as I get the camera lined up. Less than 2 minutes later he appeared sliding down the 20 foot slide into the 60 foot drop. He kept his body in good position and ran it well, going over vertical more than he wanted to, but not so much that it was an issue. A quick roll up and lots of cheers from the vets and very little ‘to do” from him. We quickly switched to teaching mode, having the vets to take down, with lots of weaning this time, rolling on their own.
The group is really gelling and making great progress as paddlers too. They have learned the lines on the Micos section and are running new ones on the drops too.
We got to the take out and Talon who didn’t paddle today (dislocated shoulder) was not happy and, well, was clearly not happy about not paddling. I think he’ll be on the water tomorrow, two days after dislocating his shoulder 4 times (for the first time in his life).
Robert and Ed had a great day with Ben and paddled really well today. Kevin, Devin, Sean 1 and Shawn 2,and Mike all had great runs on the river today and ran new lines, got better boofs, etc..
We went from the take out to a hotel with hot springs. We ate dinner first where I borrowed a phone and called kristine. She is doing well, but KC has some kind of ear issue and can’t sleep and is in pain.
After dinner we headed to the hot-springs where we started off by soaking and then, of course, it became a competition. Sean 1 is special forces and has been in combat in 5 continents, and part of his graduation was a water test of swimming under water for 2 minutes. Talon was quickly in, Dane was, of course administering the comp, and so it went. We decided to play the rock game where you walk or swim with a rock underwater for as far as you can and the one who makes it the furthest wins. Well, this hot springs was just that, a dark (10pm) pool that was cement for about 25 yards and then was a giant hole that went really deep and was quite mucky a the bottom. Sean and I went to the spring part and dove for rocks to use. He got 2 and I got three.
We all got staged up on the edge and on “GO!” we began walking until only my lips were above the water and I took a big breath, letting the weight of the rock take me to the bottom and I crawled along it, pulling and kicking, slipping on each kick. I went until I got to a big drop off that went from maybe 10 feet deep to 25 or so and dropped down, swimming across the muck until I hit a wall. Knowing that it wasn’t the end of the pool I swam up and then along the bottom until I hit the next wall and popped up. Nobody wanted to be the loser so there were 4 reasons why we should do it again. Instead we did a “breath holding comp” and we all went down with mike timing us. I am good for 2 minutes on these without stressing and have only lost one coming up at 2 minutes before. I am also quite good at knowing how long 2 minutes is. I came up at 2 minutes and 2 seconds later Barry came up! Barry, who is one of the elders on the trip held his for 2 minutes and 2 second! I was quite impressed with Barry’s performance. Talon went over a minute.
Dane brought his foam boats to the pool and there was a little waterfall to play in with it. We stayed in the water for 2 hours at least and I never felt like it was time to go.
Tomorrow we split into two groups on two rivers. Tampionne and Salto section. I am taking Steve 1 in the Dynamic Duo today. He wants to have the same kind of experience as Talon did two days ago, where he got to feel what the boat is supposed to do. Zipping in and out of eddies, the right boat leans, angles, etc.. Staying upright would be the unique experience Steve is looking for here, I think. 🙂
Ben is off working on the van, again, for the third day in a row. Ball joint, Misfiring, engine light… Check. Getting it fixed… not sure yet. 205,000 miles on this van with a bunch of those miles being bad roads means anything can break at any time.
We woke at 6 am today and broke into two groups, a group to the Tampaon and a group on the Salto. Dane and I split up this time. I loaded a Dynamic Duo for Steve 1 and I. Barry took my Villain, Doug in his Super Hero, Susan in her Perception Sonic (like an Oldsmobile, no longer manufactured, but remembered), Sean 1 in a Fun, Steve 2 in his Hero, Ben in a Hero, Talon in Dane’s Villain. We got to the put-in at about 1:30 and were finally on the water at 2pm on a 4 hour run. Steve 1 (one leg) did great in the bow of the Dynamic Duo and started leaning with me instead of fighting me on peal outs, etc. after a few rapids. This river goes into a canyon that has one wall that must be 1,000 feet. There is a super cool natural bridge too that looks like a cave at first until you get right under it and then you ca see trees through the hole. This river is higher volume (1,000 cfs) and the holes and waves are big enough to create a different type of havoc. People were flipping a bunch and some where rolling, and the rest waited for us to tip them up again. The rapids were long enough that we were rescuing people in the middle of rapids and the tops of the next one. We hiked around a travertine dam, surfed some waves, and made the take out before dark. At this takeout is a spring that bubbles about 100 cfs out of the wall and creates an incredible natural swimming pool. I skipped some rocks, swam, and tried to make friends with a cool dog that was faster than a racing dog, it seemed.
We made our way back after the river, eating at another taco stand and buying some big beers for dinner. By the time we pulled into the hotel it was after midnight, two nights in a row! Time for sleep!
Thursday, January 21st- wake at 6:30 am.
Ben and Barry drove to a river about 3 hours away to the Santa Maria River, which is too difficult for this group, but perfect for Barry. We did another run on the Salto River. We ate breakfast and were at the take out where Mecca Falls is and Dane was scouting in his gear with his boat at the lip of the drop deciding to run it or not. He was suited up and ready and committed to the run. It is a big double drop and it is low water. All of the lines had a big reconnect on the way down the second drop and none looked particularly appealing to me. Dane liked the far right line on the second drop which would be about a 25-30 foot vertical onto a slide with three ribs in it that would create quite a bouncy ride and a hip check on the right. I swam across the river to where I could help Dane scout it better and it was a reasonable line if you made it to the final part right side up before taking the hip shot on the slide. The slide is a good 50 feet or more tall. After looking at it some more, Dane decided that he would not run it that day at that level. I was not encouraging the run at this level and could see how it would be much better at higher water on the second drop for sure. The top drop was perfect at this level. We loaded back in the vans and went to the put-in. It takes us a little time to get our boats in the water as we have three guys with one leg hobbling to the river over rocks, using their paddles as a crutch. Once in the water you would never know they were missing legs. The other guys had injuries that didn’t slow down their walking, but made their paddling more difficult. Lots of shrapnel injuries from bomb blasts, as well as one guy being mostly deaf from 50 cal machine gun fire in his face, etc.. Everyone has permanent injuries from being in the Army and being hurt in one battle or another. My opinion on any of the wars, or battles that these men have participated in is not important to this trip, as this is about the people who are asked by their government to put themselves in harms way. I am not afraid to offer my opinion, as I believe everyone in the USA should do so, independently, and collectively, at the voting booth, as well as in any conversation. I believe that before any president should be allowed to send an Army into battle for any reason other than being attacked directly, they should have to be on the front lines, and remain in the battle until it is over. That would make them think a little longer before using our military as a tool, like a gardener with a can of Raid trying to exterminate a few bugs eating their vegetables. Enough said, this is a kayaking trip. It happens to be with a group of people that are quite passionate about what they have done, and rightly so. Nobody is worth a grain of salt that isn’t “All In” in their primary purpose in life. Some of these guys have permanent injuries from several continents, none of which were voluntary assignments that they created for themselves. Now, they are paddlers, running hard rapids, waterfalls, and pushing their physical and mental limits again, in a way that gets them back in action, and reminds them that life is still in front of them. They are not resigned to a life of inactivity as amputees, etc., but are able bodied enough for paddling, and can use their mental toughness to be highly proficient paddlers, where nobody would know they are injured until they get out of the boat. This is the beauty of Team River Runner, and of the people who make it happen. Joe Mornini is the man who started it all and makes it happen all over the USA. Volunteers and sponsors make it happen in real life. Ben and Michelle are the leaders of the San Marcos/San Antonio Chapter that has these 7 men here from Oregon, St. Louis (2), South Dakota, Washington, Texas (3).
Back to paddling, and the trip… We did 1.5 hours of Strokes and Concepts and Rolling and Bracing training at the put-in today and then off down the river with the first real rapid being the largest waterfall. Dane and I ran boats down through a narrow slot rapid for those not ready for it (most of them) and staged their boats up for the falls. Each of the guys ran the falls today and there were some great runs. Some didn’t get far enough left and went deep into the seam popping up a few seconds later in the hole and then swimming out. Not bad, just a bigger experience. Three of the guys are still not rolling in whitewater yet.
We continued down the river, with Dane on the lip of each drop showing the line with his paddle and me at the bottom ready for rolling people up that can’t roll, or spotting the rest. I Michelle would coach them from the top. We had other helpers who helped with safety and picked up pieces if we had a swim. My brother in law, Scott, Dr. Steve, and normally Barry, but he was on another river with Ben.
At the take out, I took Talon and Steve 1 to the lip of Mecca Falls on river right, where you have to jump and swim down to it. Beautiful place and a great view of the falls from the lip. The rest of the crew got their boats out and walked down to the restaurant there and got us a table, some beer, and chips. When we got up van people were on the overlook for the falls which is a good 70+ feet over the river and were talking about jumping off. Dane was the first in his shorts and I had to remind him to get his life jacket. I got mine and it was game on. Dane jumped first and had a perfect landing in the run out of the falls that is still aerated. I followed, with Michelle taking photos. A nice big step out and a long drop. It is a good impact on the legs at the bottom, but landed right is not painful. I had a good landing as well and enjoyed the freefall. Steve 1 and Michelle suited up as well and Steve made the jump with his one leg. His other leg is gone up to the hip with a little flab hanging down so not much to protect his balls. He wanted to hold them on landing but I am pretty sure we would rip them off that way. I suggested trying to “cross his legs” the best he could and he agreed. He did the jump and it made a nice “slap” on the landing. When he resurfaced he didn’t celebrate for about 30 seconds and finally said, “my ass!” Another minute and he was happy ,but it looked like it hurt. Michelle went next and it took three tries before she committed. She almost went for it on the first try but backed off. Talon took the “shame her into going” approach but she wasn’t having that and threw it right back at him. I took the “fun you’ll want to have” approach and in the end, she just decided to go. She had a great drop and clearly was glad to have done it. We got our first margaritas of the trip and they were really good. I got a Ribeye steak and it was incredible. We ate well at that restaurant to finish off a great day of paddling.
Today is Friday and we start the long drive home. Ben is working on the van again, hoping it will make the trip OK. We have a few guys flying out tomorrow at 8am from San Antonio. We are hoping to do a quick run down the river today as well, but I am not sure we’ll be ready on time, as it is 10am and no van yet. I have my fingers crossed to be able to paddle the Dynamic Duo with Dane today on this run, or my Villain. I have paddled the Duo twice already, but not with Dane yet. The villain is a hot commodity and I haven’t had it to use in three days. Barry took it yesterday and has already ordered one after trying it once. Crazy how much people like it already. It has been passed around already. I might have to put my foot down and take it back today. I am sure Nick, Stephen, and Clay have been going nuts in theirs. I haven’t talked to anyone at home yet, other than Kristine. She is my proxy in the business when I am gone and if anything comes up that requires me to weigh in on she just asks me and passes it along. Sending off the Villain plug and calling the R+D process over was one of those decisions, and a very easy one. I am so fired up to finally have the leading creeker/river runner that has everything I could possibly want it to have in it. It looks great, paddles great, is safe and strong, easy to roll, easy to paddle, and is ready to take people on the hardest runs they have ever been on, or simply make the runs they do much easier. This is a winner. I can’t wait to get one out of the aluminum mold, with the final logos on it. A finished Villain will be a piece of art. Sorry, I am just a little excited about it.
We just finished the long overnight drive to San Antonio, TX. I am leaving for a demo/clinic for TG Canoe this morning in San Marcos and then we are heading back to TN where we have high water!
See you on the River!