Campo Belo River

By Jesse Coombs

Location: Brazil, Itatiaia National Park
Length: 2 miles
Class: V
Gradient: 550 fpm, pool-drop

Copyright © 2006, Oregon Kayaking and Jesse Coombs. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of the Oregon Kayaking webmaster and Jesse Coombs.
Many of the photos on this page were shot by Ben Zupo. Check out more of Ben's paddling photos at:

This and all of our other South American kayaking adventures will be featured in the upcoming film: Hotel Charley: No Big Names 4, which debuts in the U.S. in April 2006 ( you can view the trailer for Hotel Charlie here ).

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The first significant river we ran in Brazil ended up being the first ( and only ) descent of the Rio Campo Belo in Itatiaia National Park. We were very lucky to be able to paddle this river, because under ordinary circumstances no kayaker would be allowed near it. ( For those of you who have poached illegal runs in the states, you can't do that on this one; there are guards stationed all throughout the park! ).

Luckily for us, the park management knew our driver Felipe as he does some rock-climbing guiding for them. After Filipe's intro, Ryan MacPherson was able to come up with a plan that met the officials' approval. Our group would kayak the river as a recreation study, and from this they would decide future use.

When we arrived the park officials told us that it was very unlikely they would ever allow anyone paddle the river again. This made us more determined than ever to run this section, knowing that it might be the only chance anyone would ever get!

A slow driver we encountered on the way to the Campo Belo
photo by Ben Zupo

Wednesday, January 18, 2006 - Exploring Itatiaia National Park

When we arrived, the park authorities were very accommodating. They gave us a house to stay in that had three rooms, about forty bunk beds, and a good-sized kitchen with a working fridge and gas stove. This was quite different from most of our sleeping arrangements on the trip so far!

We scouted the river from the lookouts and hiking trails on our way in the park, and it was clearly too low to run. This was okay for the moment as it afforded us the opportunity to figure out the river.

There was a little tension in the air because we only had a four-day window in which we were allowed to be in the park and run the river. It rained hard later that day, but we had seen this kind of rain before in South America and our hopes were tempered. Sure enough, the rain did not bring a change in river level the next morning.

Jesse Coombs and Ryan MacPherson check out some typical Campo Belo drops at low water.
photo by Ben Zupo

Thursday, January 19, 2006 - Scouting the Campo Belo

Ryan was busy all day working with the park management on logistics and permits, so rest of us spent the day hiking the Campo Belo to find out what lay ahead. The park authorities told us they were not sure of all that the river had to offer because most of them had only been to the parts that had hiking trails.

We hiked down the entire stretch of unknown river and came to the conclusion that most of it was runnable if the water level would rise sufficiently. We had a great time climbing all over the rocks, scrambling through the jungle, and swimming through the warm, clear pools.

Ben Zupo and Ben Stookesberry working their way down the river at low water.

When we returned from our scouting mission we learned that the head of the National Park was dealing with an unexpected problem.

A local Brazilian television station was trying to get into the park and question the administration about why they would allow a group of Americans to run the river and not Brazilians. He knew he was in a no-win situation and that the news crew would tell whatever story was the most sensational.

Much to our surprise, he told the guards at the gate to not allow the reporters in without proper permission. ( Of course they did not have proper permission, because only the park administration can grant permission! ) This was very different than what we were used to back home ( not the media, but the power that the park service exercised ).

Just before sunset the water came up dramatically. There had been no rain that we could see, but we assumed that there must have been a strong rainstorm significantly higher in its tributaries, and we were thrilled that we were going to be able to run the river.

We did not get any rain during night, and even with an early start the water was clearly not as high as it had been the previous night. Luckily the water was still higher than when we first arrived, and we decided there was enough water to run the river.

We got an early start, because it was obvious that the river was dropping fast and we knew this might be our only window of opportunity. We put in at the upper bridge and ran the first big drop, a beautiful cascading falls..

Ryan MacPherson makes the first known descent of the uppermost runnable falls on the Campo Belo.
photo by Ben Zupo

Below the first waterfall was another big double falls that we all ran with without difficulties.

Jesse Coombs runs another super fun waterfall just downstream of the put in on the Campo Belo.
photo by Ben Zupo

Next we came to a class four section that led to the lip of a very large, tricky falls, which we all got out to scout. This falls consists of two drops. The first part of the falls was somewhat dangerous because the right side ( where the current was pushing from the top ) falls onto rocks. The problem was that to make the left line you had to ferry at the lip of the falls where the current was strong and not get rejected by a large undercut rock on that side.

Ben felt confident that we could make this sketchy last-second ferry move and we agreed I would give it a shot. Sure enough, Ben was right. We both caught the eddy above the falls and made a strong ferry below he undercut rock, then pivoted at the last second as we started to go over the falls, driving left to avoid the rocks in the landing. It worked beautifully and Ben and I had great lines.

Ben Stookesberry runs the third falls. The right side of this one falls onto rocks and required a tricky move at the lip to get left..
photo by Ben Zupo

Jesse Coombs runs the third falls.
photo by Ben Zupo

Next came a drop which proved to have the thinnest line of all the drops on Campo. When we hiked the river the previous day this falls had stood out, and it had stayed on our minds ever since and generated a lot of nervous energy.

As soon as Ryan and Ben Zupo saw this they packed their boats for the portage. I too was extremely skeptical, but Ben Stookesberry seems to have a special ability to make the unrunnable look runnable when we talk things over. Ben Zupo heard us discussing the drop and asked us in an exasperated tone if there was ANYTHING we would not consider running.

We all laughed and agreed this one was a bit ridiculous.

The falls cascades over three tiers. The first falls poured onto a rock slab. In the middle of the landing zone slab is a two-foot wide 'deep spot' where the water is about ten inches deep. This leads immediately into a steep cascade, followed by a very fun looking twenty-five foot dome-shaped falls.

Scouting the difficult 45-foot triple falls. The first drop falls onto a rock shelf, followed by a short cascade, followed by a nice twenty-five foot falls just visible downstream.
photo by Ben Zupo

As we contemplated the first falls and the shallow landing, Professor Stookesberry ( Ben has a Ph.D. in Gnarology ) started spouting all kinds of boat physics and fluid dynamics theory, such as:

"If you enter the water at a 45-degree angle the bow of your boat will take most of the hit on the rock, transferring the impact energy to the hull, which will flex, absorbing the energy before it reaches the paddler.."


"If you hit your line perfectly with just right speed and angle you could hope to put your nose just past the pool so when the boat flattened on the rock your bottom would push out the ten inches of water.."

Which could be summarized as: "If hit your line perfectly.. hope.. a lot of the hit.. flattened on the rock.. "

I thought: No way, he's gotta be kidding! It's only ten inches deep!!

But no, he was totally serious!

Well, somehow Ben eventually got me to actually believe that this drop was runnable. I studied the first part for awhile, because the 'deep' part was only two feet wide, so I had very little margin for error. Finally I headed back up to my boat to probe this sketchy mess.

I remember that as I dropped over the lip and all I saw was rock everywhere, but I let my bow drop and plummeted into the 'deep' water. I braced for a tremendous impact but I could not believe how right Ben was. The nose deflected much of my downward force and my boat flattened out in the ten inches of water, in a slot not quite as wide as the boat. My landing was amazingly soft, which was truly surprising as I had braced myself for a big hit.

The second half of this drop was a cool angled drop and then it led to the slide, which was all gravy after the first part!

Jesse Coombs enters the cascade below the sketchy shallow falls
photo by Ben Zupo

Ben entered the drop perfectly and got an even better boof stroke than me. Unfortunately it worked against him as this created more separation and a flatter boat. He took the full impact on the bottom of his boat and said later that the hit was harder than he hoped. From the viewer's perspective though the line looked absolutely perfect and he cleaned up on the whole series having a really cool line on the slide at the bottom after cleaning up the top. Ryan seal launched and ran the bottom slide and we headed down to the next horizon line.

The final big vertical drop on the Campo was a great thirty-foot slide below a ten-foot falls. We all had great lines and a lot of fun on this one. I followed Ben over this one, but the current pulled him out ahead of me and I worked hard to catch up and get on the right as he would run it on the left, and we both dropped over. My bow got kicked to one side, and I landed sideways next to Ben. Fun stuff!

Ben runs the last big drop on Campo Belo
photo by Ben Zupo

When we reached the take out we were all celebrating to have the amazing fortune of being in Itatiaia National Park, getting a good water flow for the river and running a first descent on the Campo Belo. When we took out we learned that the park officials had actually closed off access to the public, so no one would see us running the river!

We felt very fortunate to have been allowed to explore this river, and we were amazed at how much of it we were able to run. Truly a great way to kick off our search for first descents in Brazil!

After we loaded our gear we thanked the Park officials ( again! ) and headed off looking for adventure. We had heard about a creek with some huge granite cascades up in the mountains, but there were no roads, so we started investigating whether we could hire horses and ride in, but that's another story..