Loc: Rivermouth Rio Chagres
Dist: 50,1 km
Start: 6:20 End: 17:45
I was neither willing to wait day after day (or maybe weeks…) for a reaction of the high Canal authorities to my various applications, nor to maybe pay eventually the minimum fee of $800-900 for paddling 12 km of ugly canal. The locks were out of the question anyway, this was what everyone told me in the beginning, and I had to hear it again and again. Not from the decision making guys, though, they preferred to not even answer. Peter, the ship agent, said right at the beginning, the decision making guys are simply all like a certain hole in the back of the human nature. Barkley felt the same, and they must know!
So I decided to go for the half-legal-or-illegal-nobody-really-knows-maybe-tolerated-without-permit-way,this is launching from the boat ramp at Gamboa at 09.11344 79.69165, 12 km after the last lock, paddling under the bridge to the canal area, crossing the canal five times to find the shortest and most wind protected way, hauling over the spillway into the Lower Chagres River and paddling to the Caribbean coast! That was it…
It sounds so easy! If there wouldn’t have been the wind…surely right from the north, mostly around 20 knots, in open areas also higher creating unfriendly steep meter high chop, funnelling from the land over the water. Little shelter to be found behind islands. Nothing for someone not used to paddling into strong head wind. A “normal” paddler wouldn’t make it.
Barkley, the friendly canal pilot whom we met on Monday, was so nice to offer an escort with his private small fishing boat, just in case I may get stopped or harassed by the canal police. He has obviously a canal license, and could just in case load my kayak on his boat to get out of the places where I may not allowed to be. Tim also jumped on the boat in early morning’s almost darkness, and we went for the first crossing of the canal with no traffic and reasonable 15 knots headwind – yet. I had my precise GPS map, and though Barkley had the full experience of a canal pilot, telling me where to go, I would have been able to find my own way if I had to. Estimating the best time to cross the canal when there is huge ship traffic is something I know from my various experiences with approaching ships – they are always faster than you think! And I was paddling maximum 5 km/h, sometimes much less in the open areas. Fortunately we were mostly going like 45 degrees to the wind, fully against 20 knots wind I may paddle only 2-3 km/h with my fully loaded bloody heavy boat.
The first ten km were simply ugly, with lots of pipelines floating around everywhere, in use or to be used to widen and deepen the canal. The banks are looking messy and unnatural, full of work scars, a bunch of utility buildings, muddy water, really nothing exciting to see.
After ten km, the “cut” becomes a bit more natural and opens up to become a lake, we were crossing again to the other side for the best way. Many big ships came up with me along the canal now, stinking mostly like hell. When I was paddling outside the buoys of the canal way, I was out of danger. The big guys amazingly make little waves, and even the backwash of the mostly close by canal banks was not really annoying me. Just the wind was annoying…
We were crossing the canal again, and back again to follow the so called “Banana Channel”, a smaller side canal way, well marked with round buoys. Eventually with all those beautiful small islands, I was occasionally able to hide in the lee of some of them, as some open crossings were a little tough going. The main danger was to avoid the many sunken trees right under the surface especially close to the islands, as the whole lake area is artificial, as it got flooded when they built the canal. Barkley and Tim usually now hopped ahead into the lees, throwing out their fishing rods and were fishing nicely while I was working my ass off to punch into the wind. At least Barkley caught his worth dinner
The last crossing of the canal to reach the spillway to the Lower Charges river was especially tough, 25 knots, waves from all sides. Not really fun.
Among the huge ships today there was a big cruise ship with four sailing masts, quite an impressive floating toy! And some gigantic liners looking rather like bath tubs, having not the usual bridge in the back, but a tiny one in the front.
Finally, finally, I really had enough of this f**ing windy canal, I was reaching the bank where Hennie and Diego were waiting to haul my kayak over to the river. Without car help, this would be stupid, it’s about 2 km to drive. thanks, Hennie and Diego! And many thanks to Barkley and Tim fishing so patiently while I was doing my stupid upwind canal paddle! Downwind and unloaded, like the cajuco race is going, it would be a bit more pleasure to paddle!
The Lower Charges river was obviously blocked out by the dam to the canal, so no current was going at all. Still some wind…the river banks were high at the beginning, when the canal builders occasionally pull the plug to flood the river, the banks are washed out. But also there is no time to build up a river bar at the mouth, with ugly high waves…nothing like that! Water deep enough to invite yachts to stay the night.
But I was fully by myself today, and fortunately I knew that there would be those loud monkeys which are in German “Brüllaffen” (Edda may translate…(howler monkeys, E)). Otherwise I may have been a bit shocked when first hearing this roaring sound! Amazing…simply amazing…they were shouting for maybe twenty or more times, from different corners of the very natural jungle here. This sound is worth alone paddling here – solo! I also knew of a few crocodiles being present, and was keeping an eye open for them. I heard one launching hectically when I was passing before I saw it, it was about 1,50 m long. The second one I saw on the bank before it was launching, a smaller one, about 1,20 m. No chance on either for a picture…that was it with crocs for today! Fortunately they are not the aggressive salties from Australia… many colourful birds, mostly blue and white heron-like guys. I would have loved to see the “Brüllaffen”! But I saw only one monkey looking like the ones I saw on Isla Gorgona.
The beautiful river emptied into the Caribbean to the right side with a boat launching area close to Fort Lorenzo, but the left side had a wild beach with no road access which I preferred. Landing was easy with no real surf. No tides here in the Caribbean!!! It is still windy, so camping is friendly and not too hot tonight!