Edited by Brie Cokos
This year's race was the first either of us had ever attended and we didn't want to miss any of the action. In our excitement to catch the 6 AM start of La Ruta Maya River Challenge 2003, JC and I made our way to the banks of the Macal River near the Hawkesworth Bridge in San Ignacio at 4 AM. After witnessing the opening ceremonies and the much-anticipated send off, we rushed off to Iguana Creek Bridge to catch the race en route. A few miles later, we crossed Young Gial Ferry and cheered loudly at the Banana Bank finish line as the teams completed Day 1 of La Ruta Maya River Challenge.
The participants of this year's event follow a long line of river travelers who have braved Belize's waterways throughout the centuries. The idyllic Belize River has catered many vessels in its long history running from the Rio Mopan in Guatamala to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Originally, river travelers relied on dugout canoes (dories) for transport and trade. As roads improved and cars gained popularity, the river was abandoned until 1997 when local radio personality Luis Garcia began organizing canoe races and river clean-up campaigns. A year later he coordinated with Richard Harrison of Big H Juices to establish a canoe race for the launch of a new product. Since then, the race has grown to a three-person, four-day 180-mile competition.
The second day, a sixty-five mile paddle under the tropical sun, is the longest and most challenging. As we made our way to Banana Bank on the morning of Day 2, the perennial mist that blankets the Cayo District started to lift. While seated in the motorboat en route to the campsite, I gazed at the banks. Mayan traders, British loggers, and steam boat operators had probably observed these same patches of yellow-green bamboo towers and giant forest trees. Overhead noisy parakeets hurried by while blue gray tanagers and mangrove swallows lounged on the limbs of the trees. Like the participants and support teams of La Ruta Maya 2003, the Belize River was waking up.
Once at Banana Bank, I sat on a log mesmerized by the flurry of activities around me. The sun had barely come into view and already the energy of the race filled the riverbank. A makeshift restaurant was dishing out plates of beans, eggs and fried jacks to hungry participants. Some racers were preparing the canoes for the day's journey; others remained snoring inside their tents, hoping to catch some last minute sleep before the long day ahead of them. Those who had camped above the river bank paraded by carrying canoes to the river, while some sponsors met with their teams to pray or offer advice. Five minutes before the race started, the announcers instructed participants to proceed to the starting line.
At exactly 6 AM, paddling arms flailed about wildly. Racers of every skill level and age scooped away water in a mad dash for the next bend in the river. Since its inception, the race has incorporated many different racing categories: male, female, mixed, masters, intramural, dory, and pleasure craft divisions. The more winners the better!
The variety of racing categories also gives participants of different skill levels the opportunity to enjoy a few days of excitement on a jungle river without feeling outmatched by the professionals. For Robert Lopez, this year's race provided the perfect opportunity to bond with his two sons and build upon last year's performance. Lopez and his two sons, Mica and Anthony, competed again this year as the Hummingbird Rattan Team. Since 1999, he had been sponsoring teams. Last year, after his team dropped out, he and his two sons (10, 11 yrs old) decided to take on the challenge. Armed with an aluminum canoe and the logistical support of his wife, he and his two sons started on their adventure. They spent the time enjoying the wildlife of the river, managed to avoid last place, and won the Belize Audubon Society's Environmental Awareness award in the process.
An announcement for help interrupted my thoughts. My heart raced-nothing serious I hoped. Across the river, tangled in thick brush were three figures: one on the bank, another clinging to a tree and the other swimming towards us. A support boat made a beeline for the team. While two people struggled to free the canoe, two others assisted the stranded team and soon they were back in action. Support crews were never out of sight throughout the entire event. Organizers in four motorboats armed with first aid kits, water, oranges, and life vests accompanied racers and aided overturned canoes or injured canoeists. Most participating boats also had their own support teams who carried tents and supplies from one campsite to the next.
On the beach, Luis Garcia, assisted his clean-up crew. Dedicated to keeping the river and its banks clean, Luis has led many clean-up drives in the Cayo District. The La Ruta Maya River Challenge gives him the opportunity to expand his efforts to the Belize District.
When we next caught up with the race, I was in the middle of the river at a village called More Tomorrow. There, at the race's midpoint, the currents were strong and the river quickly splashed over the rocks. With my voice lost to laryngitis, I could only applaud each passing team, but secretly I saved my loudest claps for team Auxillou Suites: Allie, Francisca, and Anna. Although I had met them only yesterday at the end of the race, their dedication and competitive spirit had inspired me. Forty-year old Allie brought the team seventeen years of paddling experience and three Ruta Mayas. Having won the 2002 Female division with the Challillo team and successfully completed the 185 mile non-stop paddling Belize Extreme Canoe Race, Francisca was already a veteran at fourteen. Her eighteen-year old sister Anna was the neophyte of the group. Anna's competitive nature, coupled with Allie's experience and Francisca's confidence, made their performance impressive. Not only had they kept the other female teams at bay, but also left the majority of male and mixed teams in their wake.
Just then they shot around the bend. The opposing female team, KFC, cousins to Francisca and Anna were in hot pursuit. This must have been what Francisca had described as "war".
On our way to the next river bend, we passed several Belize River villages: Burrel Boom, Bermudian Landing, Double Head Cottage, Willows Bank and St. Paul's Bank. At the end of the dusty road, about a half mile past St. Paul's, we found ourselves high above the gurgling, fast flowing Belize River as it passed through the three runs known to locals as Big Falls. Other spectators directed us to the "island", a patch sand, rocks and trees in the middle of the river, for the best view. Seeing the slight drop in the level of the water and the fast moving river, I knew Big Falls would be the most difficult turn yet.
After about an hour, a burst of shouts announced the approach of the first canoe. Builder's Hardware, which would go on to win the overall title in the Belize Ruta Maya River Challenge 2003, led the second team by eight minutes-a huge gap compared to the bow-to-bow racing we had seen in More Tomorrow three hours earlier.
Just after the sixth team passed, I caught sight of a wooden canoe with a gray-haired man at the bow. Young - I mean, Slinky - Ting, I thought to myself. Upon taking a closer look, though, the canoe keeled over. As the currents carried the canoe and its former occupants past me, I realized it was Bob, Ray and Mike, the Canadian Team. At 60, 65 and 38 respectively, they were racing as professionals. Having left 30 below temperatures for sunny Belize and her friendly people, the Canadians were impressed when the support teams of competing canoes offered them food, water and advice about the river. Even though Mike had raced 260 miles of the Texas Water Safari, he later admitted that the Belize River's 180 miles proved to be one of his hardest races.
Several other canoes, among them Auxillou Suites and BATSUB (British Army Training Support Unit Belize), met similar fates at the baleful Big Falls. Chaa Creek's Slinky Ting carrying the 2002 Masters winners, Mick, Tony and Bob, tried to avoid the fateful spot and crossed on the other side of the island. But the gods of Big Falls were not to be fooled; Slinky Ting tipped. Two hours later teams were still tempting fate at Big Falls while we headed to Bermudian Landing's finish line.
By the time we reached the finish line, the first seventeen teams, including the feuding top three, Builder's Hardware, Pine Lumber and Koop Sheet Metal, had finished; so had the Female winners, Auxillou Suites and the Master's winning team, Slinky Ting.
Above the river, the countdown party had begun. Loud music boomed from boxes while stalls and outdoor kitchens offered meals to complement the variations of drinks available from the bar. Support teams had set up tents in three sites and awaited the arrival of their teams. British army volunteers recorded and announced the scores and times of arriving teams, while howlers lounging in treetops observed the excitement on the river below.
Five minutes later and lifejacket secured, I hopped into the Black Rock Lodge support boat to accompany trailing teams to the finish line. As we passed by, teams asked how much further they needed to go. Responses which had started out at five minutes changed to ten, then became "almost there," "about 7 miles," or "soon as you hear the music" as we moved farther away from the finish line. Other people on the support boat encouraged the last of the teams to paddle harder; but after eleven hours, some canoeists were content with leisurely strokes. A few jokes passed across the water from one canoe to the next.
The trip back to the finish line in the support boat followed the pace of the two trailing teams. Occasionally a spotlight was used to track their progress but each time the light quickly transformed our boat into a bug magnet. In the dark, Bryony Fleming from Chaa Creek's Rescue Team could be heard encouraging the canoeists to keep paddling and stay strong.
Thirteen hours, fifty-six minutes and sixty-five miles after the start of La Ruta Maya River Challenge Day 2, the crew of the last two canoes stepped onto land again. Crowds on the banks of Bermudian Landing, barely visible in the dark, cheered as though the first team had just crossed the final finish line in Belize City still two days away-an inspiring moment at the end of a picturesque day.
Special Thanks to:
Alfredo & Irene Morales
Jullian Sherard (Black Rock Lodge)
Team Auxillou Suites
Team Hummingbird Rattan
Team Slinky Ting
Team Swamp Witch
Images Courtesy of: