4 First Descents in 2016 Part 4: Norte de Santander, Colombia; Rio Margua

November – Return to Colombia: Rio Margua

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On the road to the Rio Margua: Military Checkpoint

In 3 different missions from 2003 – 2007 with Shannon Linnane, Jessie Coombs, and Lizzy English; I completed all but two miles of a river that had defined my view of an embattled country still emerging from the throws of narco warfare.  But to think that I had taken more than a minute sample of one of the most hydrologically endowed country’s on earth was a mistake.  But even during my last trip 2007 large amounts of Colombia’s vast river wilderness were simply off limits to the outside world. In spite of the dangers, dedicated local enthusiasts like Mauricio Arredando and intrepid outsiders like Mark Hentzee and Capo Rettig continued to expand the breadth of knowledge of the country’s rivers eventually penning Colombia Whitewater, the country’s first whitewater guidebook.  Since then the politics and security of region have improved immensely to point where that original guide book should now be tripled in size with all the new rivers that have been explored.

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Colombia is a different country today than it was 10 years ago

In late November, my chance to return to Colombia for a decidedly knew experience came thanks to Lane Jacobs.  He had been planning a first descent in a once dangerous corner of the Colombia called Northern Santander, and his contacts were now saying that the time was right for this first descent of the Rio Margua, a major Andean tributary to the mighty Orinoco River.  How I got involved is thanks to the wedding of Rafa and Fernanda Ortiz.  Ostensibly the union of two of the best people I know, Rafa’s wedding was inevitably a meeting of whitewater minds and that’s exactly where mine came into contact with Lane’s plan for the Rio Margua.

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La boda de Rafa y Fer

As anyone knows that has ever paddled with me, I worry a lot about the objective hazards of first descents.  And nowhere are those hazards more significant than Colombia.  In 2013 the paddling community lost the afore mentioned Mark Hentzee in what can only be described as a tragic flash flood on a multi-day first descent. But no matter how tragic and rare, Colombia’s combination extreme topography and tropical precipitation make it a risk impossible to deny and or completely mitigate.  That being said, there are things that can be done to significantly reduce the risk like choosing the appropriate season, strategically placing camps, and operating in a cohesive well prepared group.  To that end we were stoked when Jules Domine decided to join the team.  At this point he is the most knowledgable and successful paddler on the Colombian scene and now calls Medellin home and the base of his full service guiding operation: Expedition Colombia.

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A combination of virgin jungle canyon and continuous gradient made the Rio Margua one of a kind

With that the three of us met in the city of Bucaramanga for the mission. Even on fantastic roads it took 7 hours to wind our way over the 12,000 foot pass directly out of the city and down to a lonely looking put-in bridge over the Margua.  In the last few minutes of light we took in the sight of an improbable mountain range sliced just wide enough to allow for passage big river and it’s exponentially more massive scoured river bed.  I couldn’t help help but think about Mark, flash floods and the big time risk of entering a 30 mile long, over mile deep canyon, with the threat of rain in the air.

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One look at the walls and the tributaries shows you that the flow in the Margua was a fraction of what it contains every year.

The next morning, still straining to hear any inkling of an impending change in mood of weather and river, we launched into the Margua, hopeful that we could make our passage in as little time as possible. I can imagine the descent as scene from over a mile above river level as three kayakers where engulfed and swallowed whole by an immense vertical landscape. 

Lane and Jules lead to the brink of the first slot canyon on the Rio Margua

But at river level the Margua maintained a character unprecedented for a river of that size and gradient. It’s best understood by comparison to the Clarks Fork Box. The Margua drops 1000 more vertical feet than the box with much fewer and less arduous portages. In the end the rain only poured down on us the final night on the river already beyond the crux final Canyon where higher water could have made a clean exit impossible.  By early afternoon on day three the terrain opened into a vast tropical plane at the border with Venezuela and our would-be take-out near the small town of Cubará.

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The final crux of the Margua: A short portage to a must make move down the right with a 4000 foot tall wall in the background.

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