Extreme kayaking and guerrilla warfare don’t mix, generally speaking. But last April, Ben Stookesberry found out what happens when they do.
The Coloradoan pro kayaker was on his way to a first descent of the wild Apaporis River in the southern Colombian jungle. Four more elite paddlers—Chris Korbulic, Jessie Rice, Aniol Serrasolses, and Jules Domine—accompanied him on this expedition down the remote river in the northwestern Amazon Basin.
words :: Ned Morgan photos :: Ben Stookesberry
The river had been on Stookesberry’s to-do list since the early 2000s but was too dangerous to paddle because it flowed through the middle of territory claimed by the notorious Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by the Spanish acronym FARC). At their put-in in the village of La Tunia, the paddlers found some FARC graffiti. “The village was mostly abandoned,” says Stookesberry. “This seemed to follow the narrative of the peace process.” (Late last year the Colombian government and FARC signed a peace accord.)
From the Arctic Circle to Papua New Guinea, Stookesberry has kayaked plenty of “fuhgeddaboudit” whitewater. But though it boasts Class V rapids, the Apaporis was on his list not because it was a particularly challenging paddle. “We had a different mission,” he explains, “which was to explore a river that was isolated politically. Our mission was not so much to test the river’s navigability as much as test the peace process.”
We’ll let Stookesberry tell the story:
Why the Apaporis?
“In the past there was always a focus especially with Chris Korbulic and me of going after the most technically difficult rivers in terms of the whitewater, the canyons. But in this river trip we had a different mission on our hands, which was to explore a river that was in many ways isolated politically. The Apaporis doesn’t have a huge amount of gradient or canyon walls. This is a river isolated by roadless jungle, and also by this half-century-long conflict. So our mission was not so much to test the river’s navigability as much as testing the peace process and entering a place that could have the last remnant of armed conflict, with a faction of the FARC that hadn’t got the memo.
The five of us entered the river, having left Medellín on the evening of April 27, and arrived at the edge of the Colombian Amazon, about a 3 hour tour by 4X4 from where we saw the last small ranches. On the 29th we got local transport to La Tunia. The next day we launched, anticipating the potential for a FARC encounter in those first 60 miles where we could see that the river was accessible by small roads. But beyond that, the jungle was uncut.”
“Nine days into the trip, we had paddled about 300 miles downstream, not quite halfway to the border with Brazil. We were looking for resupply points. We were starting to run into small fincas… Some were growing coca and were some somehow involved in the coca trade. From our point of view it was something we expected to run into in the area and it didn’t seem like a criminal element. It just seemed like part of the culture and just another element of this wild, far-flung place. It wasn’t until day 14 or 15 when we entered our first village that we heard the first reports that a FARC group was checking traffic through the river just above one of the biggest villages on the river, Pacoa Buenos Aires, where we wanted to resupply. We got that information from a group of nurses travelling up and down the river offering medical services to villages. They had seen a FARC checkpoint so we decided to try to paddle that stretch of river at night.
It was the following day, the 18th of April, about 2 o’clock or so, when Jess and I were paddling behind the others, that I saw a family on the right bank. We traded hellos and we told them we were heading down to the village. They told us there was a grupo des armados on this side of the river, so they told us to go to the other side and head up a little tributary into the village. So we did that and in the process we apparently went right past the place where the other paddlers had run into this armed group and were being questioned and searched.
But Jessie and I didn’t see that and made it a few hundred feet short of the village when a motor boat came ripping up to us—this was only the second motorized boat we’d seen in 19 days. There was a woman sitting in the middle, and two guys sitting on either end, with an outboard. Initially it just struck me as ‘Wow, there’s a tourist here…’ But then I saw they had machine guns with them. Jessie was a few hundred yards behind me. They told me, “Get out of your boat, get into our boat—we need to have a talk.”
So we anchored and they asked me if I knew who they were and I said no and they said they were FARC and questioned me for about 20 minutes as they were going through my boat and all my possessions. Because they were searching so thoroughly I assumed they would take everything—money, GPS device, modem, camera gear. (But the soldiers repacked all my stuff really well and there wasn’t even a dollar missing.) The woman, who was in charge, starting going through the images on my camera and when she handed it back to me I could see that she had deleted the card. But when Jessie paddled up, it seemed like she really de-escalated the situation maybe because she was a female paddler and asking if they wanted to see her roll her kayak. In the end, Jessie was the only paddler in our group who never got searched. So after about another 10 minutes they said we were free to go and paddle to the village. At that point, I hadn’t asked if they had talked to other guys in our group. When we got to the village the other guys weren’t there and we learned that they had been detained, too.
The same thing had happened to the others—they took all of Chris’s memory cards, they took Aniol’s journal. But it seemed like they were just going to check our information and make sure we weren’t CIA. So far it seemed like it wasn’t going to escalate into anything other than a checkpoint. And so that evening, FARC showed up in the village, about five of them, and came into the community hut where we were staying and started speaking principally to Aniol, asking more questions. But they also made conversation…about the area, about why they were armed, why they were patrolling the river. So it seemed friendly, and they knew what we wanted to do, which was to simply carry on downstream. And we let them know that if they didn’t want us to continue, we would leave from the village, which had a very small airstrip.”
“They Told Him He Had No Choice”
“Aniol already had a plan to leave the river and the trip at this village—he had some races in the States. He paddled downriver to see the Jirijirimo waterfall, but the rest of us stayed in the village to resupply with the intention of heading downstream later. Then we saw Aniol paddling back to the village. He had met the FARC again and they had taken him by motor boat to Jirijirimo, which wasn’t at all good to run, so he decided to come back to the village early to get ready to fly out the next morning. He had talked to the FARC again and they said they still hadn’t gotten word from their superior about us and if we were allowed to go downstream. But they understood that we wanted to camp at the falls that evening and they would let us know if they got any word. So then we headed down towards the falls, and camped that night there. First thing in the morning, I saw Aniol come walking out of the jungle and down towards our camp at the base of the falls and right behind him was one of the FARC soldiers.
I realized that something had gone wrong. The soldier told us we’d have to get all our stuff together and go back to his camp with him. For Aniol this was not an ideal situation—he had told them he was flying out the next morning, but they told him he had no choice. So we had to wait at their camp for orders from their superior. But they said they had no plans to kidnap us or extort us. They just needed to follow orders. So that was the point when I went back to get my stuff together, pull down my hammock and my tarp, and sent out a few messages with my GPS device. I sent one to my contact in Colombia and I sent one to my U.S. emergency contact Taylor Robinson to let them know what was happening. (My Colombian contact had a friend who had been kidnapped by the FARC long ago and who spent a few years in custody before escaping. And for months if not years he was chained to a tree. So that was a nightmare scenario.) While I was in touch with my Colombian contact over the next couple of days, we had arranged for coded communication between the two of us, so all I had to do was send him a single number from my GPS device to indicate that we needed emergency assistance. He had been convinced by his friend to contact the U.S. embassy, the Colombian police and military. That was probably when the situation started to get out of our control.
“That was the moment when I felt really scared for all of us.”
So after the first night, they told us they were moving their camp. But they continued to have a good rapport with us. They told us we might be released as early as that afternoon. And the commander told us that we would be released, they had confirmed our identity but requested that we stay with them for another night. It was sunset by this point and really we had no choice in the matter. So that evening we were settling into our hammocks, ready to go to bed, and we heard a plane flying over our camp. And I thought that the only reason this plane was flying over our camp and circling back and flying over again was a) the Colombian military was letting all of us know that they knew where we were. Or b) they were getting ready to launch a rescue attempt. That was the moment when I felt really scared for all of us. I couldn’t imagine how any rescue attempt could go well. And, just the fact that this plane was flying over our heads seemed to me to give away the fact that we’d been in touch with the outside world. We had been told not to turn on any of our electronics. But oddly enough, the FARC didn’t confiscate any of our electronics.
That’s when the guard who had been up all night started to yell about a military plane and they started talking about bombs. But luckily in the morning when I was talking to the soldiers they decided that the plane had been on a routine surveillance check. That night certainly was the clearest night of the entire trip. And I don’t think it was a secret that FARC was there. When we’d initially gone into the community we had learned that the FARC had, according to some, stolen government funds for building a runway. And had threatened the head of the community to the point where he had requested help from the Colombian military. So there were other things at play here that seemed to indicate that the Colombian government was aware of this group and alleged nefarious activities contrary to the peace process.
So in the morning they said we were free to go but that they had orders that we leave all our electronic equipment and memory cards, everything. At that point, having been so frightened the night before, and thinking how tenuous our situation was, I was ready to open my bag and say, “Just have it. Take it all.” Some of the other folks in our group tried to convince the FARC that leaving all our stuff would be very hard on us. This equipment was part of our livelihood and it didn’t make sense; none of the memory cards had locations. The FARC weren’t really persuaded, but as I gave them my camera, Jules was able to negotiate with them. He said, “at least let us keep our lenses.” I handed over a bunch of memory cards with images from other trips that I’d already backed up. I hid all my other memory cards in the bottom of my boot. But in the end they let us go without confiscating everything they had originally intended on confiscating.
Now we only had one responsible option and that was to evacuate the river as quickly as possible and not give the situation another opportunity to spiral back down. For example if they found out that we had communicated our positions or that we hadn’t given up all our memory cards, leaving seemed like the only reasonable option. So it took about two and a half hours to paddle back to the village. Luckily he weather was good and we had two Cessnas ready to whisk us out of the community.
“Talking to them it was easy to be convinced that they were the ones in the right, that they were the ones fighting for poor Colombians and workers and the natural environment.”
We were held for a number of days but the stories you heard about the real kidnappings, when the military tried to launch a rescue, in many cases FARC would just kill the hostages. So it was frightening but at the same time, I think it can be viewed as an evolution of the relationship between the FARC and the outside world. In the past, I don’t think our situation would have de-escalated that quickly or amicably. And today with the peace process in full swing, despite the fact that there is the faction of FARC who told us that they did not want to be a part of this peace process, that there was a lot of disinformation about it. Despite this, you could see that their encounter with foreign nationals had a much different outcome that it would have just a few years ago.”
“The FARC soldiers were less ragtag and more disciplined than one might have anticipated from a group of guerrillas. All of them without question seemed to be following the directives of not only their female commander but from the superior on the outside. They were all male aside from the commander. They seemed to be taking good care of themselves. Nobody was drinking or smoking in the camps. They seemed to be living by some high ideals. Talking to them it was easy to be convinced that they were the ones in the right, that they were the ones fighting for poor Colombians and workers and the natural environment. But talking to the villagers and finding out that they had possibly stolen community funds, and had stolen the possessions of one of the teachers who had come into the community, you got a different side of the story.
From what we saw in the camp and from the way we were treated, the way we were served meals, the way that all the soldiers interacted with us, it was admirable how they behaved. For us, there wasn’t a whole lot to complain about, other than this spectre of kidnapping, murder and torture that is, if not a hallmark, then part of the history or lore and also a generalization made about this rebel group.
There was a lengthy interrogation about what we were doing, how we made a living, what our rationale was for coming into the area. And there was approval for what we were doing.
When we were in Pacoa Buenos Aires, we were about 500 miles down the river. Our final night when we spent the night at the falls just before we got taken into the FARC camp, we had just crossed the Equator. We only had 200 miles left to go but we’d heard it was this section that had 25 of the biggest rapids on the whole river.”
Ben Stookesberry is an Eddie Bauer athlete.