Fumaca de Fumaca
The first known descent of the 'Falls of Smoking Smoke' section of the Rio Preto
By Jesse Coombs

Location: Brazil
Gradient: Extremely high


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: www.bzphotos.com

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 ).

There is little information available on steep creeks and rivers in Brazil, which meant we had to get creative. One of the main ways we found new rivers was to search the internet for websites advertising waterfalls for sightseeing and tourism.

We had heard about some potential waterfalls on the Rio Preto, but the information was spotty at best. We had also heard about some other potential rivers in the area and decided we could check out several in one day hoping we would find something good.

We drove for two hours, making our way from the town of Resende ( pronounced Hesenge ) on some dirt roads with no signs. Ryan MacPherson ( Mac ) did an excellent job of navigating, but the first two rivers we found weren't what we were looking for.

One was too flat and the other too low volume without any big drops. We had gotten used to doing a lot of driving with little payback, so we weren't too surprised when our hopes were dashed.

We decided we would head back toward Resende via the Rio Preto and check it out on our way out of the drainage. We crested a range and could see a lot of flat water on the left as we began driving downhill.

The dirt road starting winding down through a section of switchbacks when Ben Stookesberry practically jumped out of the jeep, yelling: "LOOK AT THAT!!"

We all turned to our left and could not believe our eyes. It was the Camanducaia, Cachoeirihma, and countless other Brazilian waterfall extravaganzas all over again!

The ENTIRE hillside was sliced by one huge whitewater slide after another as the Rio Preto abruptly dropped off the face of the earth. I think that Ben Zupo and Ryan MacPherson ( Mac ) were initially skeptical, as this thing looked like it was practically vertical and all the drops fed one another.

Driving along Rio Preto
photo by Ben Zupo

As we stood there looking at this incredible river, we didn't know whether to be excited or soil our pants. It was actually quite intimidating. My optimism prevailed for me, and I sought to bolster the group's general excitement. I turned to Ben Stookesberry and said: "If even one third of that thing is runnable we have HIT THE JACKPOT!"

A first look at Fumaca de Fumaca

Clearly Ben Stookesberry did not need any convincing as he looked at me with a huge smile, like a burglar who was just given the keys to the Swiss Bank and 24 hours to do with them what he pleased. Mac and Zupo also were game, so we scouted this monstrous set of falls from the road before turning back uphill to find a place to launch our boats and our excitement.

We found a dirt road leading to the river and quickly realized this was a local farmer's driveway, so we drove to his house and had a conversation with him about the river. Mac is a talented videographer and it is hard to ever catch him without his $8,000 camera in his hand. Mac took video of the farmer while he asked him about the falls, and to Mac's credit he knew exactly what to ask the farmer to get the information we needed:

Mac: "Are there falls down stream?"

Farmer: "Yes, and they very large. They are called the Falls of Smoking Smoke."

Mac: "Are they dangerous?"

Farmer: "VERY, VERY DANGEROUS. Many people have died in there. I DO NOT suggest you go in there."

Mac: "Are there trails? Is there room to walk next to the falls?"

Farmer: "No. There are absolutely no trails, and the jungle is very thick, all around and comes right down the river. It is basically impossible to hike down the falls. I don't know about you guys and your boats, so I don't know what you guys can do. But I suggest you do not go in there. You better be professionals, because you could die in there."

Well, that was quite the conversation, and it had our group even more excited about exploring this section of the Rio Preto. You can find this exact interview in Hotel Charley, and I believe it is one of the many powerful aspects of the movie.

We happily paid the farmer some money to allow us to use his farm for our put in and drove our jeep next to the river. We took our time getting our gear together and packing up our boats and then put on the flat water that lead to the falls below.

There is something eerie about a bunch of flat water that leads to such huge falls, and all my senses were on high alert. I knew that my first whitewater paddle strokes were going to be class 5/6 and I did my best to warm up on the flat water.

Stookesberry and I were ready first, so we began the flat water drift and talked about how unbelievable it was to have found this section after all the other amazing whitewater we had found on this journey. We soon came to a class 4+ rapid that led to a horizon line, so we got out to scout.

Well, the Rio Preto wasted no time.. The class 4+ rapid had a very small and marginal eddy on river left and then the whole river was sucked under a huge rock with wood in it. Very scary and certain trouble!

After the river surfaced on the far side of the huge rock there were several class five drops with huge boulders and then the river took a right turn and dropped out of sight.

The opening salvo of class V and VI on the Rio Preto. I took this photo while standing on a boulder that the entire river flowed under..

We could only see the first third of the long slide, so we could not put in until we saw that we could get back out at some point. Ben Zupo and Ben Stookesberry hiked down river right and Mac and I got across to river left. Mac worked hard and got his boat down river left to see that area better. I followed and once I saw the slide I knew this entire section was runnable.

Zupo worked his way all the way down to the bottom of the slide while Mac, Stookesberry and I prepared to run and portage the river to the bottom of the slide. Mac and Stookesberry did a seal launch past the first big drop falls, but I decided to give it a try.

The seal launch was tricky and the current put me right into the heart of a tough folding section with big boulders in each side and an airplane tongue on the left. I fought through this one, stayed upright and then worked my way down to Mac who was above the big slide. The big slide looked chunky and long and had big water moves in it.

For me, the key to running big water class five is to stay relaxed, do your best to use the power of the river to move downstream, stay upright, and pull yourself into and through features you cannot avoid. One of the concerns about this slide is that there was a big undercut on river left toward the bottom, so it was important to stay upright and on the right side even though half of the current was going under the left wall.

The chaotic slide with the undercut left wall that I decided to run after careful study..

I dropped into this slide and took some big hydraulic hits as the water surged then stopped, then surged-stopped, through the many features of the slide. As I worked through the hydraulics I always kept part of my attention on the undercut downstream and made sure I took every opportunity the water gave me to stay right when possible. The line worked out really well and I easily missed the undercut.

What a fun drop! I love big water kayaking. After the undercut I had a couple more features and then the slide led to a pool on the left where I could get out and look at what was next.

The next falls was a big meaty drop that started with a seven-foot drop onto a u-shaped hole. This boil and current from this hole then funneled into an eighteen-foot folding falls that closed in on itself. There was not much to really like about this drop other than it was big and the consequences did not seem too terrible if you could ignore the bottom left ( the bottom had a room next to the falls and the left rock was undercut.. )

Stookesberry and I looked at this one for awhile. I determined that I could ignore the consequences, because the chance of ending up in the bad spots were slim, especially if I kept with the main current and slightly right. I ran the entrance class 4+ rapid, planning on running the seven foot ledge on the right. I would then use the tongue above the eighteen foot falls to take the current to the right, over the falls.

I ran the entrance well but couldn't get to the right due to an unexpectedly strong left-driving current. I entered the seven foot ledge on the left, and my boat rode up onto the boil, which pushed my bow to the right. At the same moment, the downstream current carried my stern to the left, which spun me around backwards just above the big falls.

I knew I was going to run the big one backwards, but I stayed calm. I knew best chance of success was the stay with the main current and keep my momentum. With this in mind, I put a back stroke in to keep the boat straight and create downstream momentum. I went in with the main current, got pulled deep underwater with the folds, and surfaced at the bottom. It was not the line I intended, but it worked out well ( this sequence is shown in Hotel Charley, and the film does a good job of capturing the chaotic nature of this rapid ).

Looking upstream at the eighteen footer where I went to the bottom of the river..
We have great video of my run in Hotel Charley but unfortunately no still photos.

The next drop was a breathtaking monster cascading falls. Words can hardly do this drop justice.

The far right was a long and technical narrow slide with questionable results. The middle had a narrow technical dropping falls that would push the limits of the most skilled kayaker. The right side was the 'meat of all meat' falls! A kayaker in this line would drop fifteen feet into a hydraulic only to fall another fifteen feet into another hydraulic only to do it all over again.

Then the kayaker would have to deal several class five moves into the slide below. All of these lines then led to a massive rolling, boiling, folding slide with the whole thing pushing up against the left wall.

The breathtaking cascading falls just downstream.

The top of the drop was incredible on it's own, but it's location above the bottom cascade made it even more mind-boggling. We all chose to portage the top of this drop on river left, which left the bottom half of the falls to consider.

Ben Stookesberry decided he liked the bottom cascade and we all got in position to take video, pictures and run safety. After scouting carefully, Ben seal launched in and something happened with the angle of the seal launch and the current of the water that flipped him as soon as he entered. I was really worried for him that he was going to take some big hits in the shallow-looking water.

He attempted a roll half way down the slide, but the currents worked against him, and he stayed upside down for the entire slide. His boat looked like it was getting jostled by his body hitting rocks, and all we could do was hope he was okay. Ben got to the calmer water below the slide and rolled up. He looked shaken but good to go. I talked with him later about it and he said he hit no rocks at all, I was so glad!

Ben Stookesberry runs the monstrous cascading falls.
photo by Ben Zupo

The same photo as above, zoomed out..
photo by Ben Zupo

The next drop was even more huge and mind-bending, and only Stookesberry considered it. This gigantic cataract dropped over rocks and at the bottom piled into a boulder. I did not even see a line until Ben pointed one out to me. He suggested starting left, bouncing and falling left of center and then peeling out at the bottom before getting piled into the huge boulder..

I could see his line in a theoretical sense, but it was not something that spoke to me. Ben studied this one a long time from the bottom, middle and top. I joined him to discuss it and support him even though I knew I was not going to run it. Ben eventually decided not to run it, and we headed downstream to contemplate the next piece of this puzzle.

Ben Stookesberry tries in vain to find a line on the gigantic cataract just downstream..

Next were a set of falls which fed into one another in a series of steps, dropping about sixty feet total. The first was a twenty-five foot slide/freefall combination and then a thirty-foot slide/freefall combination. Stookesberry and I ran these and both had good lines. Stookes ran them both left.

I ran the first one left and the second right which turned out to be a much meatier and chunkier line, and I almost paid dearly. I got held in the falls at the bottom for a minute due to some very powerful recirculating currents but stayed upright and was eventually able to pull myself through it..

Ben Stookesberry in the middle of the sixty-foot tall multi-tiered series of slides and falls.
photo by Ben Zupo

Ben Stookesberry runs the bottom falls of the multi-tiered sixty footer.
photo by Ben Zupo

Next was a class four-plus set of rapids that led to the railroad bridge we decided to use as our take out. Mac and I had to use his machete to hack our way for a solid fifty minutes to go a hundred yards through the jungle to reach the railroad tracks.

Ben Stookesberry paddles the run-out below the big stuff on the Preto.

Looking downstream, the author runs the last few rapids above the take out bridge. Below the bridge are a series of large unrunnable cascades.

We hiked our way back to the Jeep and we all celebrated our final day on the river together in Brazil..

Looking back upstream at the 'Falls of Smoking smoke'.. truly an epic section of whitewater.