Cunha River

By Jesse Coombs

Location: Brazil
Gradient: Unknown


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 are featured in the film: Hotel Charley: No Big Names 4
( You can view the trailer for Hotel Charley here ).

Thursday, January 26, 2006

We had heard about the Rio Cunha, which was supposed to be mostly class four with a portage around Cunha Falls, a massive multi-tiered drop. We weren't sure if Cunha Falls would be runnable, but the river sounded fun with the possibility of a big drop, so we decided to check it out.

I had been having an especially tough time with my stomach illness ( from juice I drank in Colombia ) which had been seriously hurting my energy levels. I would basically be a zombie in the car until we reached a destination, then whoever was sitting next to me would elbow me in the ribs and say we were there. I would then stumble out and shuffle over to the river to check it out.

No matter how sick I was, each time I saw a new river the thought of missing out on kayaking in Brazil would give me a burst of energy which would propel me into my gear and onto the water..

We put on the Cunha and when we arrived at Cunha falls, we got out and pondered the enormity of the task that lay ahead. The first part of the falls was a tricky lead-in to a twenty-five footer that careened off of a jagged rock face, which led to a low-angle slide, which led to a small eddy above a monster slide falls which had a piton rock halfway down and a pile of wood on the left side and undercuts on the right..

I remember thinking: Wow.. This thing is HUGE!

Scouting the first tier of Cunha Falls.
photo by Ben Zupo

After scouting the first falls for awhile, I came to the conclusion that the drop presented some significant technical challenges. It had a tricky lead-in to a VERY dicey triple-bounce start to a long free-fall into a pool the size of a stamp.

The problem was, you had to keep your speed down so you didn't overshoot the pool and crash into the rocks.

However, just keeping your speed down wasn't enough, because you also had to angle your boat to the right once you got past the three entrance bounces so you landed in the 'friendly' part of the pool, avoiding the shallow spots.

Assuming you did all of this right, the river immediately flushed into the low angle slide below that turned left at an undercut boulder, which led to a small boiling pool above the final monster slide which had lots of hazards..

I decided to go first, and as I contemplated the first falls I decided that I would cross the small micro-eddy at the lip which would slow me down so I wouldn't overshoot the postal-stamp sized pool below. I also could see the three bounces I wanted to follow on my way to the free-fall at the end. I decided I would count the bounces and on the third one change my boat angle to the right.

After some mental rehearsal, I headed back upstream and got in my boat.

As I dropped in, I counted: One bounce.. two.. three.. change position!, and I was sailing right for the pool with right angle, landing mostly flat in the heavily aerated water.

I could not have hoped for a better line. I hit the water perfectly and my forward momentum drove me up onto the rocks I had just landed short of. I did not want to get turned around for the next slide that would take me past the undercut boulder, so I leaned back and put a strong back sweep stroke in on the left to unweight my bow and get it over the rocks as my boat was swept into the slide.

I was thrilled, but I couldn't celebrate for too long as I had the final monster slide waiting just downstream..

Jesse Coombs probes Cunha Falls.
photo by Ben Zupo

The final big slide was a lesson in trade-offs. On the far right of the big slide the water piled into the wall with some undercuts and was extremely questionable. We agreed that the line just left of this looked pretty good, but it had a tough entrance.. If you were in the middle then you were headed right for a piton rock three-quarters of the way down the slide, and then on the extreme left was the deadly 'Prudential Rock' at the base of the falls that had a pile of wood jammed up against it.

Ben Stookesberry was pulling safety between the two drops and I remember flying past him down the low-angle slide leading up to the final drop. I went left with the main flow, lining up to thread the needle between the piton rock and the wood pile.. I hurtled down the face of the falls, accelerating to an incredible rate until finally I blasted into the pool below, emerging upright and smiling!!

My body was flooded with adrenaline as I paddled across the pool at the base of the falls.. what a great waterfall!

Jesse Coombs probes the final tier of Cunha Falls.
This drop was tricky because you had to thread the needle between the piton rock in the middle three-quarters of the way down, the wood pile near the 'Prudential Rock' visible below me..
photo by Ben Zupo

Ben Zupo decided to go next.

He started well on the first falls but then pitched to his left on the third bounce and was headed toward the bottom half way over. Luckily he managed to partially right himself in midair, landing well. When he arrived in the small pool above the big slide he chose the far right line, which led to some more aerial acrobatics and a huge splash landing!

Ben Zupo gets airborne as he heads for the vertical part of the first falls..

Ben Zupo racks up the frequent flyer miles as he gets airborne again at the bottom of Cunha Falls

Next Ben Stookesberry was ready to run the two drops. He and I talked about lines and I told him what mental process I used to run the top one. Ben set off to run the drop and started similar to me. He went after the drop with more speed and started turning his boat to the right a bit earlier. Ben did a great job of recovering from this and running the low angle slide to the pool above the big slide.

Ben has an amazing affinity for steep tall bouncy drops that I am not sure I will ever attain. I will see these huge things that to me look like a complete roll of the dice and he will be all about it. He chose to run some even bigger falls later in the trip and on this day he liked the left line that had those rocks that to me looked like they wanted to pitch the boat left or right on its side.

This is one of the great things about paddling with such strong boaters is that we all see drops differently and have different types of drops we like. I am always learning more and more with my paddling friends and it is great how they stretch my reality of what is possible and show me lines I would not have seen on my own.

Ben picked out his meat line and ran it absolutely perfectly. Great to see such a clean line through such a big slide!

Ben Stookesberry lines up on the final tier of Cunha Falls
photo by Jesse Coombs

The rest of the river was class four as advertised, and we had a great time on it. All of us were flying high after the big falls though, and we celebrated that night.

Exploring the Aiurouca river valley

We had heard about a river that had some huge granite slides way up in the mountains, but there were no roads accessing the area. We were determined to explore this remote river, so Ryan arranged with some locals for us to get horses to ride in and a horse shuttle to the top of the river, and we were all set.

We loaded up and piled in the jeep and left early, and we scoped out the Aiurouca valley on our way to the river. When we arrived at the river and the house of the people from whom we would rent horses, they had the horses ready to go.

Scoping out the Aiurouca river valley

We got our stuff packed in the boats for three days and three nights and the two guides loaded up two burros with two boats each. The mules wore padded wooden racks that were held on by leather straps. I felt bad for the mules because they were laden with two awkward boats and about 80 lbs. of gear each.

I couldn't decide if they looked more like burros with two boats and tons of gear tied to the top of them or if they looked more like upside-down gear rafts with burros tied to the bottom. Of course, considering that the other horses were each carrying one of us, each of these fellas actually had the easier task..

Ryan and the two Bens rode horses and I rode a mule. The horses were a bit faster and more nimble, but my mule was more consistent and sure-footed. I thought I would prefer riding a horse, and I got my wish later, much to my regret..

We headed up the narrow and tricky trail with one guide in front with a burro and one guide in back with the other burro. The sun was beating down relentlessly and we all wore hats to protect our faces, but we had a very enjoyable ride that included several stream crossings and a lot of steep hills on our way to the top.

It was amazing to see how we ascended out of the valley and our views were absolutely spectacular. The trip to the top took us three hours with a couple short breaks.

We stopped in a grassy field where cows and wild horses were grazing and had lunch with the guides. They shared their rice and beans and very sweet coffee and we shared our chocolate and bread.

Finally we arrived at the old shed that was to be our new home for the next couple of days. The guides departed and we grabbed a boat and some gear and our cameras and headed for the big slide above. After about forty minutes we came to the base of the five hundred foot multi-tiered slide and immediately saw that it was not runnable. There were no lines to hold and the pool was WAY too small.

Riding up to the Aiurouca river valley
photo by Ben Zupo

So now we had two strikes: The river had no water, and the biggest drop was a no-go. Undeterred, we headed upstream to see what lay above and check out the headwaters. Ben and I followed Mac up the side and the slides above were no more runnable than the big one below. Ryan ( always the optimist ) continued on upstream and Ben and I relaxed at the slides to enjoy the scenery and our circumstances.

Ben Stookesberry stands in the riverbed overlooking the Aiurouca valley and hopes for rain.
photo by Ben Zupo

The local weather predicted lots of rain in this area, so we determined to wait for the rain to fill the riverbed. We had an enjoyable evening at the shack in the field and enjoyed some good conversation and fun laughs.

This is where we stayed while we waited for the rain to fall on the Aiurouca.
photo by Ben Zupo

That night and the next day there was no rain in sight. We spent the night in the shack again hoping for rain. Luckily the shack had a very good topographic map of the area. We all spent several hours poring over the map and considering locations and options. The sky clouded over and we hard lots of thunder, so we were extremely optimistic.

We awoke to no rain and no water. I was ready to hike out and go find some rivers with water, but the team decided to give it one more day. We were low on food, so Ryan took the trail down and hiked for about four hours to get us food and schedule horses for the hike down in case the rain never developed. What a trooper!

After Ryan left the Bens and I hiked the entire river to get a good look at exactly what was in store. To our disappointment, the drops that were supposed to big, were not nearly as big as we hoped, and the rest of the river was fairly mellow with two huge boulder garden sieve sections that were mandatory portages.

We had a great hike and fun time hiking down the river and it was WAY better than sitting in the cabin. Unfortunately the summary from the hike was that the river was not worth running, and could be dangerous with lots of water and no good way to get out above the mandatory portages.

Scouting the upper river, which turned out to be less runnable than expected.

It took us approximately the same time to hike the river as it did for Mac to hike down, hike to the store and bring back food to the bottom of the river. Luckily we found him before he headed back up. Without much conversation we were all of the same opinion. We needed to go find a river with water!

We packed up, and this time I got my wish and had a horse to ride, which turned out to be more dangerous than I could have imagined. My horse was very young and only knew two speeds: walk and full on gallop. It was crazy. The stirrups were too high and I am not a practiced horse rider, and he probably sensed this.

The second I got on him he took off like a shot and I was getting whacked in the face and chest by low hanging branches, hurtling down the twisty single-track trail at a full gallop. I was bouncing all over the place in the saddle and trying to hold on yelling for him to slow down and all the while my boys are getting beat to a pulp on the hard saddle.

I eventually got him to slow down but he kept trying to speed up and get me beat up by the low hanging branches. The rest of the way, about another fifty minutes was intervals of walking through the sketchy footing sections and full galloping through the rest.. It was a crazy but memorable ride!

We arrived at the house a little before 8 p.m., and our ride home was scheduled to arrive at 9 p.m. We ate and relaxed until our ride arrived, packed up our stuff and headed back to Itamonte. Despite the fact that we did no paddling on the Aiurouca we quite the experience and fun hiking the river, and we were all glad we had the opportunity to explore the valley.

Looking back at the Aiurouca river on the ride out.
photo by Ben Zupo

Once we were out of the valley we decided we didn't want to take any risks with water anymore, so we headed off to the Socorro, which had plenty of water and some huge drops, which was exactly what we needed after getting skunked on the Aiurouca..