Volume 25 • Issue No. 2 •
Current Issue
Back Issues
New! Trip Finder
Subscribe to Paddler
Become a
Paddler Retailer
River Flows
Bulletin Boards
Go to the ACA
Order Back Issues
Change of Address
Contributor's Guidelines
Other links

Jan/Feb 2001

Surf Zone

More from
Surviving the La Ruta Maya

Return to
Table of Contents
< Jan/Feb 2001
Surviving the La Ruta Maya
Canoeing 180 miles in the Belize River Challenge
by Tom Bie

I will never underestimate canoeing again. This revelation coming as a byproduct of the past two days, in which my image of canoeists as fat, flatwater, family-men hauling pasty-white Midwestern offspring out for a week in the Boundary Waters has been replaced by blurry portraits of real athletes--very fit, very strong and very quickly leaving me in their wake.

I deserve this of course. I came here expecting this to be easy and it’s not and now it’s 6:30 a.m. and I’m down on all fours, the sounds of my dry-heaving blending nicely with those of roosters and howler monkeys to wake the surrounding campground. Every muscle I ever forgot I had is sending an unspeakable pain though my body from 17 hours of hard paddling and as I prepare to topple over in my own puke, a thought occurs to me: It’s one hour ‘till race time. I’ve got two days left.

The Belize River Challenge, better known in its Central American homeland as the La Ruta Maya, is an annual, 180-mile grindfest from the inland town of San Ignacio, near the Guatemalan border, to Belize City. Like many other endurance, adventure-type competitions springing up worldwide, the race is part athletic event, part tourism promotion and part party, with some abstract river conservation goals being a hopeful side effect, if not a priority.

This spring will mark the fourth La Ruta Maya, with the race growing exponentially each year since its inception in March of 1998. The event as it exists today is due largely to the combined efforts of two men: race director Mike Green, a drawl-talking expatriate Texan employed by Chaa Creek Resort, and Richard Harrison, an entrepreneurial native whose Big-H juice and bottled water company is the major sponsor of the event. One of the big draws to last year’s race was the amount of prize money the organizers were able to collect--more than $30,000 Belizean ($15,000 U.S.)--a princely sum in Central America, where the economy remains mostly third world-ish.

Almost all of the competitors choose three-person canoes, and I was invited to join a team that needed a third participant. I met my two boatmates at the organizing meeting the night before the race. One, Rupert Harris, worked as a wrangler at Chaa Creek Resort and had done well in the race the previous year. He was quiet and focussed. The other, Jonathan Lohr, was a student at the local college and, like me, had little canoeing experience, much less canoe racing experience. Though he was born in Belize and spoke often in the poetic Mayan dialect, both of his parents were American and he was white, clean cut and stylishly dressed, looking less at home in a canoe than at a Britney Spears concert.

Our first decision came that night when we had to choose which category we’d compete in--professional or fun class. Jonathan and I were both leaning toward fun class and Rupert was indifferent. Or so it seemed. That’s when John Griber, the man I’d brought along to take photos, thought it important to share his thoughts. "Come-ooon dude," he said, a look of disgust spreading across his face. "I mean, who’s a professional canoeist?" (It should be pointed out here that Griber himself is no stranger to endurance activities. As one of the world’s premier snowboard mountaineers and a former nationally-ranked mountain bike racer, he knows a thing or two about pushing one’s personal pain threshold. Only this time he was pushing ours.) "Racing it is," we said, and made plans to meet early in the morning.

It is pitch black when we arrive but the racers are lining their boats side by side under the historic Hawksworth Bridge, jockeying for position while spectators line both sides of the bank. When the starting gun sounds, I understand what drew all the watchers out of bed so early. The displacement of water caused by 200 canoe paddles digging at once is not unlike that of a freighter leaving port. Waves triple the size of what would normally be caused by a passing canoe are sent in every direction as boats bang and paddles pound and knuckles get smashed and everyone is yelling and canoes are swamped and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry as the three of us just try to keep moving ahead without going under.

In the middle of this chaos I am offered a quick glimpse of the real Rupert: early on, maybe 10 or 20 seconds into the madness, as dawn is just melting the mist off the water, a boat rams us from the right. I am still in the stern attempting to steer at this point so I see the look Rupert gives this guy--gives the whole boat in fact. And I’m tellin’ ya--it made me scared. Shortly thereafter, when we determine that Rupert can steer much better than I, he moves to the stern and I move to the bow, so I never get to see him look at another racer. Nevertheless, two things result from that split-second confrontation: 1) I learn that Rupert is a fierce competitor who isn’t just out to have fun in some casual canoe-a-thon, and 2) nobody ever tries to cut us off again.

The first day is marked by too many sprints too early. We learn that, despite our inexperience paddling together, when the three of us are digging hard we can hold our own against just about any team--even beat a lot of them--in a short sprint. But the ability to win short sprints doesn’t mean much in a 180-mile canoe race and by early afternoon several of the teams we sprinted past in the morning catch up, tortoise-like, and pass us by employing slower, more consistent paddling techniques. But we’re learning.

Our efforts are rewarded handsomely by Mick Fleming, owner of Chaa Creek Resort and the man putting John and I up. A Brit who moved to Belize in the ‘70s and first made money by selling food from his garden at the local market, Fleming pulled enough of his resort staff to assemble a million dollar support team--massage, cook, people to set up the tent and pass out ibuprofin. But even with the assistance, I am moving awfully slowly as I make one of my tired walks down to the beach that night. One of the Rasta boys from the coast smirks at me as I pass, "It’s only day one, mon. You neva gonna make it." I file the words away.

Day two is supposed to be the hardest and longest at over 60 miles, yet I feel strong and the section is remarkably uneventful, except for the swim… Only one real rapid exists the entire length of the route and an overhanging tree hovering just above the water at the top of it sends the three of us for a visit with the river gods. The water is warm and actually feels kind of refreshing but the Belize River is home to a good number of crocodiles--including one we’d seen at the starting line that morning--meaning we are quickly back in the boat and on our way--submersing ourselves in the suffering once again.

The mixed pain and pleasure of a lengthy canoe race was perhaps best described in a letter I received from a girl named Mindy Heskett. Mindy was one of the few other Americans who entered, and she and her two fellow Peace Corps volunteers were almost always the last ones to camp. She paddled from the middle seat, sitting the entire way on a stolen Belikin Beer crate:

"Before the race, I had visions of drifting on the water, taking time to swim lazily in the Belize River. But within the first few hours of day one, I came to the painful realization that I had grossly underestimated the difficulty and I quickly revised my personal goal--from not coming in last, to simply surviving. On day two, we paddled for 11 hours straight, with no time to stretch cramped legs or bandage blistering hands. My strategy to keep paddling was surprisingly successful in its simplicity. I would count to 500, silently commend myself, and then begin again, until I became delirious and started repeating numbers; 22, 22, 22. Before the start of each day, we would float on the water among the professionals and absorb the camaraderie. But when the starting gun sounded, we lifted our heads only to see one canoe after another disappear around the bend in front of us until, ultimately, it was just the four of us--me, Brandon, Kara and the river."

Though Jonathon is sick much of day two, Rupert and I both feel strong and even sort of enjoy carrying him throughout the tough second leg of the competition. My arms and legs feel good and we poise ourselves much better than we had on day one, gaining a lot of ground in the standings. There is one group that gets to me though…

They are English army soldiers, stationed in Central America since the early ‘80s to remind Guatemala that if anybody tries to invade the peace-loving country of Belize that Belize will have help and they’ll have it quickly. There are probably 18-20 men scattered throughout a half-dozen canoes and while none of the teams are particularly fast, they are strong and persistent. They are soldiers.

We battle a few of them back and forth throughout the day and, being British--and British military at that--they have a cocky demeanor about them and let you know about it when they pass you. When we finally arrive at Camp Two, almost nine hours after we started, we’ve passed dozens of boats and have improved substantially on our finish from day one. Yet there at the landing is one of the British teams, one we worked so hard to overtake only to have them pass us late in the day. And the red-headed, Richie Cunningham-lookin’ bow paddler makes an announcement for everyone in the area to hear: "Oh you finally made it mate! We were wonderin’ where you were--we’ve been waiting for you!" It is loud, it is obnoxious, and it stings. Rupert and I don’t say a word to each other--we just exchange a glance that says, "Here’s somebody we’ve got to beat."

But this brings us back to the start of our story. Though I did indeed feel relatively good after day two, I spent most of the night hurling my insides indiscriminately onto the jungle floor surrounding camp. I knew, somehow, that I would figure out a way to get through the next day--motivated in no small part by the unsettling option of describing how I quit when it came time to write this story.

Prior to going to bed, I paved my way to illness by sharing one or two or seven too many drinks with Richard Harrison, the event’s main promoter. He explained his plans for increasing tourism in Belize and how he’d like to see the race grow to include many international competitors. My rum-and-ibuprofin-induced response to all this was to tell him how special I felt the race was in its current state--the provincial pride, the fierce battle for bragging rights and the feeling that the whole event belonged to the 250,000 or so residents of Belize. I told him I had concerns about publicizing it.

"You don’t understand," I slurred. "You work so hard all year to raise this prize money. And these guys paddle like hell to win it. You don’t want some Canadian like Serge Corbin showing up down here and taking all the money back to Quebec."

"What makes you so sure he’d win?" Harrison asked. "Down here I mean, in this heat, with the humidity and the distance."

"The distance?" I said. "The distance wouldn’t phase this guy. Don’t get me wrong--I’m dying out there. I haven’t worked this hard since Basic Training. But this guy Serge wins a race every year in Michigan that runs 122 miles straight--they paddle all night. Believe me, Corbin’d come here and crush these people and I’d just hate to be part of making it happen." Harrison said he appreciated me being conscious of that sort of thing, but after a couple more days of watching the leading teams paddle past us, I became less convinced that they would get beat.

Team Black Rock, from Black Rock Lodge, had a solid 20-minute lead after day two, covering in 14 hours what took the slower teams over 20. To see these guys paddle is to witness the very spirit of the sport and watching them work away from the starting line quickly dismissed any doubts about whether or not this was a serious competition. The three of them--Armin Lopez, Alex Lisbey and Leroy Romero--started training in January, coming down to the river and filling their canoe with sandbags before heading out to paddle four hours straight, upstream, with all their hands tied together so they’d learn to paddle in unison. "We wanted to have a good team," Lopez says. "And we wanted to win."

Griber rode in the front of the media boat every day and thus had the distinction of watching team Black Rock’s paddling prowess up close. His scouting report was short and simple: "They’re a machine."

But the machine got pushed itself on day three, as team Joe Grine, the Rastafarians from the blue-collar coastal town of Gales Landing, stayed in Black Rock’s wake the entire day, finishing a mere three minutes behind them. Seems Joe Grine brought some training credentials of their own, not the least of which is a day-to-day familiarity with this thing called a canoe.

Their multicolored craft serves not only as recreational device and racing apparatus but also work truck, transportation and livelihood. Team members are employed by a cement company and spend their days loading canoes full of gravel and paddling them across the bay at Gales Landing. "We know what’s hard and this ain’t hard, this is fun" says the team captain, Egbert. "Canoeing is a good sport, a fun sport."

It is a good sport. But man did I suffer on day three. The thing with canoeing is that you never think of having to do it quickly. But a canoe race, like all races, has a huge mental bridge you must cross. Get passed by one boat and everybody behind you knows: "They’re vulnerable-- pour it on now and we’ll catch them."

And whatever joy you derive from passing one team is quickly replaced by the pain of adding one more to the number now pushing you from behind. Getting in a canoe and paddling as hard and as fast as you can for 10 minutes will wear you out. Doing it for 10 hours will redefine your perception of the sport. Just the simple act of shifting from one knee to the other became an enormous task. And the straightaways… Oh-my-god the straightaways became unbearable. I would just tilt my head down and count, each stroke being a number, and –trying hard not to bang my weary knuckles once again on the gunwale--I’d hope and pray that when I lifted my head again that godforsaken corner would be just a little bit closer. My dehydrated, dilapidated condition on day three allowed Jonathon a chance to return the favor of support, carrying me with encouragement from the middle of the boat: "C’mon Tom, dig. Just a little harder…"

But eventually it did end. After one more splendid breakfast by Raul, the camp cook, we sprinted the final leg in just under four hours, crossing beneath the Swinging Bridge in Belize City almost 27 river hours after we’d started. Hundreds of people lined both sides of the river, simultaneously celebrating both the end of the race and Baron Bliss Day--a holiday in honor of Henry Victor Edward Bliss, the great Belizean benefactor who left a significant will to the people of Belize. We were totally spent, physically and mentally, but after pulling our canoe up onto shore, Rupert gave me an elbow and I turned to see the team with the red-headed English soldier coming in behind us. I couldn’t resist.

"Where ya been, mate? We’ve been waiting for you…"

Belize Beta
The Belize River Challenge 2001 takes place from March 8-11. Entrance fee is a hundred bucks. For info, go to www.bighjuices.com. But remember, no sane person goes all the way to Belize and does nothing but compete in a canoe race. (In fact, no sane person competes in a canoe race.) Also, it’s a sad fact that most visitors to Belize never venture inland, preferring only to wander the country’s beautiful beaches. But while the coast is indeed lovely and offers its own benefits (such as bonefishing), I found all 180 miles of the interior I explored to be thoroughly worthwhile. Actually, I was lucky enough to experience a couple days each of both inland and island treasures, so if you head down for the race, here’s what I recommend:

Before the Race (Inland)
Book a couple nights at either Mick Fleming’s Chaa Creek Resort (011-501-92-2037, www.chaacreek.com) or Ceasar Sherrard’s Black Rock Lodge (011-501-92-2341, www.blackrocklodge.com). Both are located just outside San Ignacio, nestled in the jungle along the banks of the Macal River. (Yes, you can paddle the Macal--but it’s a serious eight-mile run.) In addition to fine food and accommodations, both resorts offer everything from guided caving trips to day tours visiting ancient Mayan ruins.

After the Race (The Cayes)
Contact Island Expeditions in Dangriga (800-667-1630, www.islandexpeditions.com) to check out the bonefishing, snorkeling and sea kayaking on Glovers Reef. They offer several multi-sport trips where you get to combine paddling with a bunch of other activities. If you just want to fish the storied waters of Turneffe Flats, try Turneffe Flats Lodge (800-815-1304, www.turneffeflats.com).

© Paddler Magazine, 2000