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2017-02-01 / Go Pink Boots

Take Me to the River

Jill Gleeson


I’m soaking wet, chilled to the bone. I’m wearing sodden kneepads I’ve pushed down to my ankles for comfort, an unzipped life vest, and a helmet. I’m streaked with mud, my right wrist aches, and I’m panting like a hound dog on a Texas summer day. I’m right behind my group’s guide, Gabriel, shadowing him as we climb, hand over feet in some spots, up the sides of what’s known in this slice of western Puerto Rico as a “haystack hill.” Filled with a pure, gleeful joy, I’m grinning even as I struggle to haul my body onward. This afternoon has tested my endurance more than anything I’ve done since I began training to summit Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua — and I’ve aced the test.

Though I’ve been here before, to this gorgeous and largely unspoiled island with enough opportunities for thrilling escapades to satisfy even Anthony Bourdain on a bender, I’ve never set foot in this part of Puerto Rico. The karst region, distinguished by deep, verdant canyons rimmed by hills that seem more like mountains when you’re scrambling up and down them, is so wild it seems nearly primordial.

Through this untrammeled tropical forest flows the Tanama River, clear and cold. It’s here that Explora, a local company, invented a sport called body rafting. It’s a little crazy, a lot of fun and more purely adventurous than a day’s worth of hang gliding trips.

Because unlike some adrenaline-fueled activities, you have to be in decent shape to do it. The descent to the river, over a barely-there path erupting with sharp limestone rock, is tricky. So too was the climb down a 10-foot section of the trail so vertical Gabriel roped us each to him for safety as we did it.

Afterward, we crawled through a couple caves on our hands and knees, finally emerging near the water’s edge. Down here the sun was blocked by the towering hillsides, making the green surrounding us appear darker, more lush and just slightly sinister. The only sound was the river’s rushing and an occasional birdcall.

I wasn’t tired, not a bit, by the hour’s exertions, but if I had been the cold water would have revived me. Gabriel led us out into the middle of the Tanama, explaining that the Explora staff had mapped out every curve and ripple in this part of the river. The current would never carry us anywhere dangerous — say, directly into a rock face, or down a waterfall. All we had to do was lie flat on our backs in the rapids, keep our hips pushed up so our asses didn’t batter against the river rocks, tilt our heads back and tuck our arms at our sides. The water would do the rest.

It sounded easy, but on my first attempt I didn’t quite trust the process. I put my hand out and promptly smashed it against the canyon wall. At least I’d learned my lesson. During the next segment I kept my arms at my sides but forgot to elevate my hips. My ass, so much less padded than it was before I began training for my climbs, bounced off barely submerged boulders. I kept getting water up my nose, down my throat and in my eyes. I was cold enough that during the times when we hiked through the water to the next body rafting spot I was actually shivering.

There was nothing “soft” about the adventure, and I was grateful for that. With my goal set on summiting a couple of the world’s highest peaks, I need to attempt things that are not only exhilarating but also physically challenging, because I have to see how far my body’s come — and how far it has to go. After five hours of hiking, climbing, caving and body rafting, I still had enough energy to disdain a ride in Explora’s truck cab back to base camp. Instead, I hopped in the back. When Gabriel noticed me laughing as we bounced down the pockmarked dirt road, he called me an adventurer.

“Oh, I’m just getting started,” I replied. •SCM

For more information about Explora, visit explorapr.net.


Jill Gleeson is getting set for the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey on her blog at gleesonreboots.com and via her column at womansday.com. Read the first one here.

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