Exploring Caves Branch River in the Early 80s
Today’s tacogirl blog guest post comes from Lucy Wallingford, she has a unique story to tell as she has been involved with Belize since the 80’s and seen a lot of changes over the years. You will be hearing more from Lucy in future guest posts.
We first thought about running the Caves Branch River in the mid 1980’s. This was the only underground river run we had ever heard of. We had some basic information about the run from a friend in our hometown of Moab, Utah who had actually been on the first river trip through the caves a few years before. That group of cavers had carefully explored the river cave system from the bottom end up before taking their first trip downstream on inner tubes. So, we knew that the caves were navigable with the exception of one cave that ‘sumped’ underground, but which had a portage route around it to another entrance below.
The Caves Branch River passes through four caves as it runs through the limestone foothills of the Maya Mountains. The caves also have numerous ‘windows’, or openings, to the outside where the cave ceiling has collapsed. The surrounding terrain is thick jungle with no roads or trails, so it is a real adventure to run this stretch of the river, and we were excited.
We in Belize running numerous rivers with a group of friends who were all river guides, and although we knew where the put in and take out were located, and that there was a portage around a dry part of the stream somewhere, we didn’t know which cave had the portage. We planned on asking a local expert, Ian Anderson, at the put in where he was building a jungle lodge. Unfortunately he was not there when we arrived, so we launched anyway.
After paddling a few miles we arrived at the entrance to the first cave. It was a bit nerve-wracking because we knew one of the caves did not go through, but since we were all strong paddlers we figured we could handle it. The first cave had very fast current and the river was wall to wall. But we were able to see light downstream from the first window so we knew it was a ‘go’. We continued on, and again we could discern light downstream so we were able to relax in knowing it went through. After exiting the first cave, we started down into the second. However, we could not see light as we descended into the darkness, and about 200 yards in we came upon the sump. Fortunately it was quiet current at the sump so we were not swept into it. Now we had to back track back out of the cave, which proved quite difficult since there was a small rapid. A couple of our stronger kayakers were able to eddy hop back up however, and then they lowered throw ropes back down so the others could haul themselves up and out of the cave. We were all quite nervous and were thinking about what would have happened to us had we not been able to get back up that current!
Now we were faced with a portage, but there were no paths and we were in the middle of thick rainforest and had no idea of where the river went from there. So we sent out scouts in several directions. Fortunately, one person did find an overflow channel that he knew must lead back to the river eventually, and it did. He returned after a half hour and we were then able to portage and get back on the river through a cave window.
We were really nervous by this time because we did not know if there was another sump, and we were not seeing any further light down the cave. But, the current was much slower and we knew we could paddle back upstream if we found another sump.
The next anxious moment occurred when we heard a roaring sound approaching, which sounded like a large rapid. As we cautiously proceeded, we eventually came to a side stream that joined the main river, and the sound of its small waterfalls had only been amplified by the cave. The main river continued on as slow water, and we were much relieved when we finally emerged from the last cave.
After scouting the river successfully, we began to run the Caves Branch in kayaks and rafts as part of Slickrock’s Belize Adventure Week trip, and it is still the highlight of the trip today!
Cully Erdman started Slickrock Adventures in 1977, teaching kayaking on the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. He soon branched out to guiding rivers in Mexico, and it was only a matter of time before he discovered Belize. Eventually he and his partner Lucy Wallingford purchased a Belize island for their tours: Long Caye at Glover’s Reef.