Expedition kayaking in Costa Rica
The Box Canyon of the Sarapiqui: V+
By Ben Stookesberry

Click here to view the Sarapiqui trailer from the film Hotel Charley Volume II: The River of Doubt

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We arrived in Costa Rica after a long and logistically complicated search for first descents in Colombia. At this point the group consisted of Boyd Rupelt, Brad Sutton and myself from Team Jackson, and Lizzy English from Team Dagger.

We were also very lucky to hook up with Costa Rican playboating phenom and Team JK paddler Mario Vargas. Mario contributed shuttle services and local expertise that kept us on the water and otherwise entertained throughout our stay. With Mario's beta we had lots of options in Costa, so we set our sights on exploring the hardest rivers available.

Mario Vargas, playboating phenom and shuttle driver extraordinaire.

Our first stop was the amazing Box Canyon of the Sarapiqui.

The Sarapiqui flows through a lush rain forest canyon on the Atlantic side of Costa Rica. The river originates on the flanks of the Poas volcano, which towers ten thousand feet overhead. The volcano is constantly buffeted by the trade winds roaring in off the Atlantic, which translates into an enormous amount of rainfall on its slopes. The rain has carved many deep canyons and gorges into the volcanic rock as it works its way back down to the ocean.

Far downstream from the box canyon, the lower sections of the Sarapiqui are mellow and commonly run by rafting companies and others. The tour companies do very well because the jungle flanking the Sarapiqui is overflowing with life and there are opportunities to see toucans, monkeys, sloths, and crocodiles.

At the headwaters of the Sarapiqui waits another beast entirely: The Box Canyon Section, which we knew absolutely nothing about other than it's length, impressive gradient, and extraordinary difficulty. We hoped to complete the ten mile canyon in one long day, but were prepared to stay overnight if necessary.

On the drive up to the put in for the box canyon run, we were amazed by the giant waterfalls roaring off the sides of the volcano. Some of the more impressive drops warranted a quick stop..

Scoping out the park-n-huck options on the way to the put in.
This particular 80-footer at the La Paz ( Peace ) waterfall park has been run several times.

Brad was struggling with water-induced intestinal difficulties, so he was forced to bail on this first expedition of the trip. This worked out well for Lizzy, who had lost her boat during a gnarly swim in Colombia and hadn't found a replacement yet. After a few minutes she was able to adjust Brads Rocker to fit her and we were ready to go.

Getting into the canyon isn't easy, requiring a rappel to reach the canyon floor..

Boyd, rappin' in on the Rio Sarapiqui.

Below the rappel, river disappeared between vertical walls cloaked in a heavy shroud of mist. We wasted no time, quickly gearing up and heading downstream.

Immediately below the put in we found ourselves in a dizzying world of locked-in class V+ whitewater. Surprisingly full tributaries crashed in from hundreds of feet overhead to increase an already adequate flow with every paddle stroke downstream.

A first look at the mist-shrouded Box Canyon of the Sarapiqui.

One of the first big drops we encountered was a very difficult and committing falls dropping fifty feet over two tiers. The first tier consisted of a thirty foot slide which led into a difficult twenty foot falls with a nasty recirculation into a cave on the right.

The entrance of this monster drop was a long boulder garden which dumped into a boiling pool which flushed over the thirty footer. After scouting, the bottom twenty footer had us a little concerned because the water crashes off the wall on the right, making it hard to get a good boof stroke necessary to clear the nasty hole/cave combo at the bottom.

We looked at this one for awhile and finally Lizzy decided to probe it. We set up safety as well as we could while she began the long hike back upstream to her boat.

She ran the lead-in no problem, entering the thirty foot slide perfectly. She blasted down the thirty-er and bounced into the entrance channel above the final falls. She drove to the right, leaned over and dug in for a huge boof stroke right at the lip, launching off and landing perfectly in the boiling pool below!

Lizzy English gets ready to probe the fifty foot entrance falls of the Box Canyon.

Just below the thirty footer, Lizzy digs in for the key boof stroke at the lip of the bottom twenty-footer.
A perfect line over this second falls is critical because the hole feeds into a cave under the right wall.

Soon the daylight started to fade away so we started looking around for a reasonable place to camp. None of us really wanted to spend the night in a box canyon in one of the wettest places on earth, but we had few other options.

Finally we found a beach elevated almost twenty feet above the river, which gave us some peace of mind. That night we were extremely lucky to experience only light rainfall.

Our canyon bivy.
Check out the cool natural bridge spanning the gap above the waterfall in the background.

The following day the river held its relentless pace, with drop after drop of totally runnable but committed whitewater.

Boyd runs a typical drop downstream of our bivy.

We had just started to get comfortable with the walled-in nature of the canyon when we arrived at a bit of a nightmare: A class five boulder garden rolling off into the distance between sheer rock walls, ending with a nasty-looking slotted horizon line far downstream. There was no way to scout this drop.

My first thought was that this was certainly another rappel portage, because the horizon line looked like bad news. However, after a two hour search for a route up the canyon wall in order to circumnavigate the problem, we had found no good alternatives.

Finally I was able to shimmy out onto an overhanging tree, and from my vantage point I thought the slot looked at least theoretically possible.

Armed with the meager beta gleaned from my treetop perch, Lizzy immediately volunteered to probe the drop. Now, I had known that Lizzy was an exceptional expedition kayaker prior to this trip, but she was proving it again and again by stepping up to probe the toughest drops.

After executing the zigzagging entry boulder garden to perfection, she entered the slot on the prescribed line, but got tossed overhead to the right against the wall, cutting her thumb to the bone.

Lizzie probes the tough lead-in to the nasty horizon line slot which we were not able to scout.
This is as close as we could get to the bottom drop, which is the narrow horizon line far downstream.
We had no idea what was in there ( or if the drop was runnable ) until Lizzy probed it.

After Lizzy emerged at the bottom, Boyd and I followed her down. Like Lizzy, we soon discovered that a nasty lateral at the top of the slot forces you against the right wall with no chance for a boof through the recirculating hole.

Both Boyd and I fought our way through it, trying to remain upright and in control while punching the hole and staying away from the undercut wall.

Lizzy below the unscoutable, unportagable double drop.
The big lateral tossed us all into the jagged river-right wall, which is where Lizzy cut her thumb.

Below this drop we stopped and patched up Lizzys thumb as best we could, and for a moment we breathed a little easier.

Our relief was short-lived.

Although already impossibly walled in, with every corner we became even more confined until we finally reached a long, deep gorge that literally disappeared into the mist. As we approached this forboding crack in the earth we could hear a thunderous roar emanating from within the gorge, many times louder than anything we had encountered yet!

We moved cautiously downstream, straining to see through the wall of water droplets that dramatically limited our visibility.

Finally, we discovered the source of the mist: Below us the canyon reached a crescendo of class five boulder gardens, all leading to a confluence of epic proportions where a three hundred foot waterfall thundered into the river from a tributary high overhead!

Approaching the three hundred foot tall waterfall that pours into the river, generating hurricane-force winds at river level.

Boyd would later describe probing the confluence rapid as the most intense paddling experience of his life. In the midst of the rapids the hurricane-force winds and driving rain made it nearly impossible to see your hand in front of your face.

We were all relieved to find a relatively calm stretch of river at and below the base of the falls ( the rapid at the base of the falls was manageable class four ) because there was certainly no option to portage let alone see where we were going!

Due to our slow progress through this gorge and the non-stop action that followed, we were forced to set camp for yet another night in the Canyon.

Lizzy runs a nice falls just above our second camp.

The next morning we had another rappel portage and four more hours of continuous class five before we emerged from the canyon. However, just below where the walls opened up we made a sickening discovery: The substantial gradient in the Canyon had attracted more than just kayakers, as there was a newly constructed powerhouse at the mouth of the Canyon.

The Costa Rican Hydroelectric Corporation has been slowly but surely destroying Costa Rica’s whitewater gems through hydroelectric diversion, and the Box Canyon of the Sarapiqui will soon be their next victim.

At that moment I began to understand how all the paddlers that loved the Peralta section of the Reventazon must have felt. To this end, I am looking forward to increasing awareness about these hydroelectric alterations to the hydrologic landscape in Costa Rica and throughout the world in the upcoming release of Hotel Charley II.

Very soon the Box Canyon of the Sarapiqui will be no more..
The new hydroelectric project at the bottom of the Box Canyon.

A week later, Lizzy and I returned to the Box Canyon of the Sarapiqui with Brad and completed the whole run in only seven hours. Brad said later that the canyon possessed a unique beauty and contained whitewater of the highest quality.

P.S. If any of you have suggestions for organizations or people that our fighting the damning of the rivers in Costa Rica and across the globe I would love to hear about it.

Click here to see the third in the series of 'Hotel Charley Volume Two: The River of Doubt' trailers, featuring footage from the Box Canyon of the Sarapiqui and other classic Costa Rican runs.