Their accomplishment hasn’t earned them fame or fortune, nor have their names appeared in any sort of record book. Even so, the group of six kayakers, three of them from Durango, will forever remember the time they accomplished something nobody else ever has.
Ben Luck and brothers Matthew and Nate Klema of Durango, Matt Wilson of Telluride, Evan Ross of Salida, and Ryan Casey of Hailey, Idaho, recently became the first-ever kayakers to navigate the upper-reaches of the Rio Huallaga, a tributary of the Amazon River in Peru.
Back in Durango, the Klema brothers and Ben Luck recounted their adventure to The DurangoHerald.
Over the course of three days in early October, the group paddled more than 60 miles through the steep and narrow gorges of the Pongo de Aguirre stretch of the Rio Huallaga as it makes its way down from the eastern slopes the Andes Mountains into the Amazon River valley.
“You have to go into canyons, which you may not be able to get out of, and you don’t know what’s down there,” Matthew Klema said. “The jungle and the terrain makes it very, very difficult to scout or see what’s below you.”
Two earlier expeditions by other groups were forced to turn back early and make difficult hikes out.
“Food was usually a factor in all their decisions to hike out,” Matthew Klema said. “They didn’t bring enough.”
Taking a lesson, the group packed enough food for 12 days on the river. But staving off hunger was but one small aspect of the trip. Just getting their kayaks into Peru proved challenging.
“You can’t really fly with kayaks unless you can pass them off as a surfboard, which is risky,” Nate Klema said. “We sent them down to Lima in a big shipping container.”
After arriving in the Peruvian capital, Wilson spent the next five days standing in lines, filling out paperwork and paying the 20 percent import tax required to bring the kayaks into the country.
“Trying to get the boats out of customs, pay the import tax and then get them from the shipping company was quite interesting,” Matthew Klema said. “That ended up costing some money, just paying people off, some legitimate and some probably not so legitimate. ... The trip would have been pretty cheap other than that.”
The group spent their five days in Lima fine-tuning their plans, surfing, eating, getting to know each other and sampling local beers. In an online account of the trip on Colorado Kayak Supply’s website, Matthew Klema wrote that the group adopted the name “Team Beer,” “because drinking beer was the only thing we seemed to be doing regularly except waiting.”
Kayaks in hand and itching for the river, “Team Beer” departed the capital city and headed for the town of Huanuco, where they finally put in on the Huallaga.
While calm waters marked the beginning of the first day, the group soon plunged into canyons thousands of feet deep, filled with Class V rapids. After days spent waiting for the trip to begin, the group paddled furiously for more than eight hours.
“We were so sick of being in Lima (that) by the time we actually got to go kayaking, it made us go a lot faster,” Nate Klema said.
At the end of the day, they had traveled nearly as far as the entire 2007 expedition had before turning back, a journey that had taken that group four days to complete.
“We tried to put in a really long day, and we paddled probably eight or nine hours. ... We were just trying to move really fast,” Luck said. “The (2007) group got bogged down the second day, shooting pictures and video.”
But on Team Beer’s second day, the group was about to enter uncharted territory.
“The first really intimidating gorge we got to, the river went into this slot and went under a big chalkstone in the canyon, suspended above the river,” Nate Klema said. “That’s where the (2007) group hiked out.”
The canyon proved to be much more challenging mentally than physically, though like all the canyons that lay ahead, they approached it with extreme caution.
Luck recalled: “Dropping into that gorge was probably the most intense experience because nobody had been past that point. It ended up being really easy. It was just nerve-wracking dropping in.”
By early afternoon, they had come to another canyon that looked nearly impossible. According to the map, Nate Klema said, the river dropped about 1,000 feet in less than a mile. Wanting to ensure plenty of time to tackle the canyon, they once again set up camp and waited for morning.
Like so many of the group’s challenges, the canyon’s bark proved much worse than its bite.
“It was definitely steep in there, but it wasn’t as steep as it looked like it was going to be,” Matthew Klema said. “The surveying may not have been that good. ... Looking at the map, the way the survey has it, the river goes uphill at one point.”
Rockslides were a factor throughout the trip.
“Yeah, there was a lot of erosion going on,” Matthew Klema said. “We never saw a really massive (slide), but there were definitely big boulders rolling on at random times with no warning, just off the cliff walls, so that was a little interesting.”
Nate Klema defined big boulders.
“We were kind of in this slot, 70 to 100 feet deep, and I was looking upstream at Ben, who was behind me, and about 50 feet behind him, a car-sized boulder fell right in the middle of the river,” he said.
Partly joking, partly serious, Matthew Klema said there was a plan for falling rocks.
“The theory was, just roll over as fast as you could,” he said. “You still might get hit, but maybe it wouldn’t be as bad.”
They also wore helmets.
By the end of the third day, they had reached the calm waters of the lower Huallaga and the end of their adventure. They sold their kayaks and much of their gear, hopped on a plane and flew home.
While certainly proud of their accomplishment, the Klema brothers and Luck agreed their true motivation for taking the trip was the experience of spending time with friends on a challenging river in the middle of nowhere. Pride and prestige had not factored into the decision.
“We all just wanted to do it for the love of doing it, you know, just to go explore,” Matthew Klema said.