Henry Heyman Turns Interns to Warriors with his Off the Grid Rafting Experience
“That’s got to be the top,” twenty college-aged students muttered as they scrambled to the pseudo-summit of another uphill slope. We were journeying towards the peak of Rio Piedras Valley that Saturday afternoon, where the quaint village of Alto Pacora is perched. The endlessly green nine-mile trek was only the prelude to the zeal-inspiring weekend lead by Weekend Warriors founder Henry Heyman, who prescribed three days of raw exploration through a raft-hike hybrid excursion to the cross-continental students of the Kalu Yala Institute. The route would take us four miles alongside the Pacora River, up and around a lush mountain pass and into the Chagres National Park for a night of camping. The following morning, we would hike to a lunch spot from which our full day of rafting would embark, bringing us through the Rio Pacora, Lago Alejuela and finally landing us within the Panama Canal.
On the hazy morning of the trip's departure, the groggy-eyed student interns gathered up hats, hammocks, and Teva’s in preparation for the experience. Upon our guide’s arrival, we set out on an illusorily mild dirt road, embracing the view of several dozen rio crossings along the way. A few even stopped to take a quick plummet into the river to evade the heat. Our final lapse over the river brought us to the base of the menacing four-mile, 2,500-foot elevation inter-valley climb, which we spent hours chipping away at, occasionally laughing off its extremity and taking ample breaks.
At the eventual summit, we could see above several dozen mossy rolling hills that smoothly pulsed into one another like waves, the zinc roofs of our camp now just visible as a glint of light miles below. The incredible sense of green everywhere was hard to shake. We rallied to a well deserved, overly satisfying spread of PB & J’s and cold orange soda. We took a long siesta at the summit, some lying and meditating off the exhaustion while others danced it out. Many of us pronounced the hike to be the hardest we'd ever done, but it had quickly become edifying as we looked up (figuratively) and proceeded into the latter half of our trip, starting by moving through the small town of Alto Pacora.
As most of us were running low on water, we stopped at a home in the center of town to fill up our bottles using their backroom faucet. As we all lined up one by one, Henry mixed our drinks with a yellowish serum used to purify water by chemical reaction. We proceeded to follow the route through the neighboring Rio Piedras Valley, down a steep double-lane footpath that brought us, at last, into the Chagres National Park.
We arrived around five PM, with nine miles under our belts and the last remaining sunlight creeping slowly out of the valley. Our destination was a finca, a small ranch alongside the Rio Piedras. The spacious, staggering plot of land was adorned by several lean, towering coconut trees, giving hammockers the green light to begin unloading and slinging themselves all about. The farmers immediately made us feel at home—the homeowner, a sprightly man of 80 years, begun bantering with interns as he whipped up a few homegrown snacks from the property—fresh coconut water and hand-carved oranges.
His grandson scaled the fruit trees on a handmade bamboo ladder, tossing down coconuts sporadically as the father machete’d the fallen fruits and passed them out to the wide-eyed hikers. Simultaneously, the grandson carved the peel off of several oranges using a hand-powered cranking device, which rotates the oranges in a mesmerizing spiral motion, unearthing it from its skin and leaving an OCD-satisfying aesthetic on the now ready-to-eat fruit. Each bite and sip into the two was met with a soothing natural sweetness that quenched the thirst of the twenty hikers.
Refreshed and belly-filled, we all took to the grass alongside several newly slung hammocks and laid scattered in a circle, lazily chatting about the day. The heat had burned off considerably, leaving a cool stillness that perfectly suited the evening twilight that dressed the valley. In the finca, the bustle of pots and pans were audible as the campesinos prepared supper—stir fry with locally farmed chicken and freshly squeezed lemonade. Upon the dinner call, we all bustled to the quaint dining room, huddling around the picnic table together. A massive pot of rice and veggies was planted in the center of the table, which soon was mindfully, yet quickly consumed by the campers.
Following supper, we lazily sauntered over to the fire pit, laying in the grass and enjoying the stars as our Outdoor Rec director Clay strummed coolly on his guitar. Juxtaposing our quietude, the campesinos were astonished by Clay's talent, beaming a flashlight in his eyes while he played much to our humor. They proceeded to take the guitar and perform their own traditional songs, which were more ambient in style and loudly staccato'd unexpectedly. Giggling at the exchange, we were fascinated by our ability to communicate across cultures through this one instrument. One by one, our group dwindled as sleepy campers removed themselves from the campfire scene and slowly made their way to their hammocks, drawing the enchanting evening to a close.
We woke up with the sun at dawn, immediately prompting us to pack up our camp and get going. We thanked the farmers graciously for an evening well spent, thereafter filing down the slope of the hill and making our way towards the rio for a two-hour morning hike to the raft site. At this point, my camera didn't make the cut into my on-raft gear, as its survival on the raft was looking glim with chances of splashing and misadventures. I tucked it away on a truck picking up our dry gear before carrying on.
The winding single-file dirt path carved itself through the hillside, which bore several delectable orange and apple-pear trees. Without hesitation, we snacked as we moved onward. The jungle was magically dense this deep into the Chagres Park; the tree line mystically appeared to be miles above us as it shed fallen leaves the size of our limbs, grander than I've ever seen. The sunshine was interminable that morning, spilling out rays through the interweaving branches like long hair. Our guide declared several ten-minute warnings before actually arriving ten minutes from our destination, which included a refreshing rio crossing to a small patch of beach where the rafting outfitter would be meeting us.
Upon arrival, Adventuras Panama’s seven rafts, four horses and massive lunch spread greeted us as we threw our bags down, stripped into our swimsuits and gleefully hopped into the rio. The rafters called us over for our lunch--a sandwich spread with mélange of options, from juicy oven-roasted turkey and smoked ham to red bell peppers, lime mayonnaise, freshly sliced tomatoes and a ton of leafy greens. The meal hit the spot and was the perfect sendoff for the long afternoon. I quietly snuck a roll of sweet oatmeal galletas for a mid-raft shareable snack.
We engaged in a brief lesson in raft safety before embarking on our journey. The rules of thumb were paddle when our guide says "forward," stop at "stop," and bounce up and down when we get stuck on a rock. Also, don't fall out. Seemed easy enough. One by one, the guides pushed the rafts into the current, and we were on our way.
The route was a perfect mix of relaxation and adventure. Calm periods extended between bursts of rushing rapids, which pulled us through the rio and propelled us onward. The course was a total of twelve miles long, moving us from the Pacora through the Lago Alejuela. The sun was shining brilliantly through the afternoon, reflecting off the water and offering us a double dose of Vitamin D. The expanse of shoreline was mostly comprised of stone caves and rocky beaches with stents of sandy beach. We talked, laughed, laid, snacked, sung and danced our way through the afternoon, occasionally jumping ship to cool off. A few friends even surprise-hijacked our raft, starting a paddle-splashing war that spanned the afternoon.
We eventually happened upon a sandy shore amidst the indigenous Embera village, where four men, a young boy and several 50-foot hand-carved canoes awaited our arrival. The final stage in our evening would be riding through to the Panama Canal with the tribe in the motor-powered wooden canoes. The canoes were narrow and worn with years of good use—one wooden plank every few feet served as a single seat, with each canoe bearing about 12 seats total. We moved our belongings from one vessel to the next, shortly after departing for the canal.
The canoes tore through the glass-like waters with impressive speed. Some evening clouds begun to roll in, mixing a certain gray-whiteness into the water and washing the vibrant color from everything. The cliffs on either side of us were covered in a dusky jade. Tribe homes and structures began to emerge atop the cliffs, consisting of several sprawling ranchos with open walls and thatched roofs. We had journeyed incredibly far from home, and would potentially never have another opportunity to bear witness to this breathtaking view of Panama again. The total stillness of everything in this moment was deafening, quieting us for the entire ride through the lake.
All too soon, we pulled up to a sandy shore within the Panama Canal, where our van waited for us along the neighboring road with beverages and snacks. I was able to reconnect with my camera and snap one last picture of the canoes that completed our journey. We thanked the Embera people for the ride, grabbing a quick snack at the grilled meats stand at the bus stop. Thereafter, we boarded the van as the sun receded, making our way back to the valley. ★
Author: Danieller Naer