Of Machetes and High Water: Stookesberry on His Leg Wound on Ecuador’s Rio Chalupas 

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After a two-pronged attempt of first descent of Ecuador’s notoriously steep Rio Chalupas this fall — which is being kept under wraps until the release of a film for TGR/HBO’s “Edge of the Earth” series — expedition kayaker Ben Stookesberry Stookesberry returned home with a new scar…and newfound respect for the river.

The leg wound, resulting from machete swipe to his leg on the second leg of the trip, just missed his femoral artery. PaddlingLife catches up with Stookesberry — who’s sponsored by the likes of Eddie Bauer, Jackson Kayak, Kokatat, Werner Paddles, Teton Gravity Research, Boof Sessions and Jungle Roots — for the inside skinny on the slice.

Stookesberry: The Leg Wound In His Own Words

“It was day eight of a kayak mission to finish the Rio Chalupas in Ecuador with Diego Robles. A month earlier, Eric Boomer, Nouria Newman, Chris Korbulic, Sandy McEwan and I failed to finish the Chalupas in our month-long effort because of high water. Boomer and I stayed to finish it, teaming up with Diego, one of the best kayakers in the country.

Stookesberry
Careful with that Axe: Stookesberry after slicing his leg open with a machete on Ecuador’s Rio Chalupas.

We came up with a plan to finish the Chalupas without paddling the bottom gorges of the downstream Rio Verdeyacu by hiking out on a trail we scouted with Diego and native Kichua guides; it makes JMT into the Middle Kings seem ridiculously easy.

Boomer pulled the plug when weather forecasts showed still more high probabilities of precipitation. So I asked Diego if he’d join me. Boomer helped with some of the gear he’d need to be self-sufficient for two weeks on the river.

When Diego and I landed at “Playa Negra”, where the previous attempt had ended, the river was clear and as low as it had been in the three months I had been there. We paddled a few kilometers before we hit the first gorge and camped. But from then on it rained every day in the vertical gorge, which is why we spent every day cutting scouting and portage routes through steep jungle with our machetes.

On days four and five it rained too much to get back in. On day six we finished the Chalupas and reached the otherwise inaccessible Verdeyacu the day after a huge high water event had swept through the canyon. On day seven we paddled to within a mile of our planned hike out — it was the crux, all we could see were vertical walls and exploding hydraulics.

On day eight while scouting downstream looking for a route, I made a light chop though tangled vines and felt a sharp but very light strike on my knee cap. I figured it couldn’t be that bad. I figured wrong. The cut was at least a quarter inch deep, and by the time we returned to our camp a tendon was protruding through like pushing the broad side of your tongue through pursed lips. Luckily, I was still walking. We made a quick move to immediately hike downstream to the trailhead and try to evac from there as the gorge and jungle prohibited it from where we were.

We then hiked a couple thousand feet up over the mountain that formed the gorges between us and the take-out, getting dry for the first time in week and a half on the river. Then we made it down a super steep slot canyon tributary and swam a quarter mile of the Verdeyacu to our take-out where our logistics guy, Abe Herrera, arranged another heli-evac — way better than a next-to-impossible hike out on an unusable knee. It was my second heli-evac of my career and second in as many months trying to run the Chalupas.

Back in Tena, I was relieved to find that we had managed to keep my gaping would surprisingly clean, and that it only required four stitches. Five weeks earlier my hand had required seven stitches.

I’ve been using machetes since my first international kayaking trip to Mexico in 2002, so I feel like I have a lot of experience. But still, I’ve had plenty of close calls in my two decades of expedition kayaking with machetes. Are they dangerous? Yes, extremely — especially considering I could have easily chopped my finger off in the first incident, or severed my patella tendon or cut an artery in the second.

When handling a machete I always where gloves. The one time I didn’t follow that rule I cut my finger and hand pretty bad when I slipped on a tree root. I also always wear pants, but they were zero protection against my second injury/mistake with my machete.

Now that I’m back home, there’s an out-of-control mint bush in my back yard that I’ll probably need to use a machete to chop down. The show must go on.

 

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