White Water Rafting in Sagada

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white water rafting

September 20, 2006 Wednesday

Braving the Tocucan Waters with Peter Loebach

New Kid in Town
How do I even begin to write about my most memorable Sagada adventure thus far? This one's so over the top, I'm glad I have pictures to prove it. It all began with Cincinatti-born, Peter Loebach, coming into town. Pete has worked for 4 years along the Gauley River in West Virginia as a rafting guide...a real pro. Now that he's in town, and Sagada's very own rafting-guru Steve Rogers catches wind of him, it was only a matter of scheduling for the plunge into the picaresque waters of the Chico River.

Waterfall drop

What's in it for All?
For Pete, it was a jaw-dropping surprise to find out there's white-water opportunity in Sagada. For Steve, it was a chance to learn a thing or two from another pro. Besides, he welcomed the change in role from big-cheese rudder man to working-class paddler (like us mortals). For us, it was an opportunity to paddle under a different stewardship. It was a win-win scenario and all was gung-ho.

Kicking it a Notch
Our previous experience was to raft the waters between Dantay and Bontoc. The plan this time was more ambitious - Dantay to Bontoc to Tocucan to Anabel ( see map). After Bontoc, the waters were raging. It was new ground for us. With the downpour of the past few days, the river was expectantly deeper and rougher. The air was filled with promise of an adrenaline gush.

Dantay to Bontoc
Since the water here is relatively staid, we used it as warm-up for the bigger challenge ahead. The water was higher by 6 inches from the previous run. I thought the river would be more technical, but the added water seemed to have smoothened the ride. It wasn't as topsy-turvy as the previous two rides. I didn't even come close to being thrown overboard (unlike the last). What did it for us was perfect weather. The sun was out.

Bontoc to Tocucan
From this point on, it's was new ground. Unlike the Dantay - Bontoc, the added water in this section only fueled the river's rage. There were many occsions we all had to lean in and get down to keep from being thrown out. The highlight for the entire ride was on this section when we hit a 7-ft drop. It was enough to knock Sig and Pete over. Pam was on the river bank ready to throw a rope...just in case.

Tocucan Pit Stop
Tocucan was the last bail-out point. From Steve's recollection from earlier rides (2 years ago), the rest of the ride wouldn't be as nasty as the Bontoc - Tocucan. The tricky part was the remaining sunlight. If there is a delay for whatever reason, there's no more bail out until Anabel. It would be a close call. We all looked at the bright side of things and decided for a go.

Second Thought
The moment we went back to the raft, I felt a chill. It was past 3 pm and I'd been wet for nearly 6 hours and the sun wasn't there anymore. There was even threat of rain. I knew it would only get colder from then on, and the river ride would at least still be 2 hours. There was a voice inside me that said it was prudent to get a consensus about pushing through. Foolishly, ego got in the way. I didn't want to be the one to suggest a bail out. I put another layer of clothing and braced myself for the cold.

Tocucan to Anabel
This section didn't feel right for me. I was cold for the most part. The waters were nasty fun, but some sections were simply too nasty it forced us to portage the raft across boulders and rocks to bypass the hairy section. One particular section was into a huge boulder with an overhang - getting pinned underneath precluded the possibility of rescue. A great deal of time was used up scouting the technical sections. Steve and Pete would beach the raft and walk close to the technical section and assess the situation. Sometimes, the decision is to tow the raft until after the gnarly section.

Running Out of Sunlight
While scouting was prudent, it also ate up a lot of precious time. It came to a point when it was already getting dark and we were nowhere close to Anabel. Pressure was building up. This and feeling cold brought in a creeping sense of apprehension in me. I was constantly talking my way out of it. What pulled me through was the confidence in Pete and Steve. I could imagine the kind of pressure they were in - executing all the prudent measures but still ensuring it all fits within the increasingly narrow time frame.

Running out of sunlight packs a horrific repercussion - beaching the raft and camping it out for the night in the rain with no food, no tent, no sleeping bags, no light and no provision whatsoever for such eventuality. Besides, Steve has 2 kids waiting for him back home.

Ride 'em Cowboy
It became increasingly clear we would run out of sunlight. The race against time would be lost. Not through improvidence but part wishful hoping and mounting pressure that solicitous guidemanship gave way to calculated derring-do. We braced ourselves for a gadarene charge into the rapids without the benefit of scouting to gain the last few minutes of sunlight left. It was a white-knuckle roller coaster ride as we slammed into the raging rapids weaved-in by the water's high elevation. Pete's controlled commands morphed into frantic yells as he read the lines on the fly. There was no slack to feel the fear. We were automated to the rapidly changing commands as the water tossed the raft over.

Just in the Nick of Time
With barely 10 minutes 'til it got too dark to continue rafting, we eventually reached our destination. Whew!!! We just made it by the skin of our teeth. That came as a huge relief. The ordeal would have been unimaginable had we been forced to camp unprepared. We deflated and rolled up the raft, but by then, it was completely dark. We had no light, and the road was a good hike up. The trail head to the road was nowhere to be seen. Sig, being a cave guide, took off in search of the trail head...in complete darkness. She found her way to the road, but did not see the trail. She blazed her way through shrubs, rice paddies and across stone-walled terraces.

Portaging the Raft
That blazed-on route essentially became our default route to get back to the road. With the rolled-up raft, the task was insuperable. We're not just talking dinky rubber tube here. This is heavy-gauge industrial-strength rubber designed to carry up to 8 grown ups. 6 guys find this thing heavy. For the most part, we were just 3. Pam and Sig went up the road carrying the paddles and the dry bag. The raft weighted like a tank and no matter how tight we bundled it up, it kept unravelling. The three of us would get a good hold, count to 3, and then swing it 1 meter forward and then do another count. This we had to do in complete darkness, along narrow rice field edges, over stone walls, over rice paddies, through thick brushes....you get the picture.

Deep Shit
Given the pitch black condition, our landmark was the faint reflection of the white pig pen. We were exhausted at that point and fatigue was evident. We finally reached it but at a stinky cost...to Steve. Not knowing where to place his footing, he wound up thigh-deep in pig shit. It must have been the pig shit depository for eventual use as fertilizer. Hey, we're not just talking a handful of pigs here. You know what could be worse than that? Finding yourself there TWICE! Retracing his steps back, he misplaced his footing again and ended up in the same shit hole. I sympathized, but nonetheless kept away from his not-so-fragrant radius.

The Road at Last
Finally, the road! Our troubles were finally over...not! The truck wasn't there. Apparently, the driver left the truck a long wayzzz from the waiting shed. Siegrid and Pete took the long walk uphill. Finding solace by the shed, Steve and I waited facing each other, but seeing nothing (too dark). It was no picnic driving the truck back either. It had to be driven in the rain along a narrow mountain dirt road, in total darkness.

Roll Back
I was at the back of the truck busy helping out load our gear when I suddenly heard shouts and screams. I didn't know what was happening until I felt the truck rolling back towards me. I was able to quickly jump to the side and missed being run over. It wasn't until it rolled about 10 ft. further until it stopped. Steve was inside, but the handbrake failed. I had a serious sigh of relief. Heck, I could have been flattened out.

Heading Back
After loading, we started heading back. It was already 8:30. Our troubles were finally over...not! There was a landslide on the road caused by the pouring rain. Sig, Pam and Steve went out to check out if it was doable, only to find themselves in knee-deep mud. There was no way the truck could go over that.

Phone Signal
With no telephone signal, Steve turned back to see if we can get a phone signal along the way. All our phones were engaged, waiting for the first bar of signal to appear. At some point, we got signal. Woo-hoo! Our troubles were finally over...not! We heard a loud and sustained 'psssssst' sound. We just had a flat tire.

Changing Tires
Steve pulled over and we started changing tires. The tires were muddy, the road was muddy...we were muddy...then it started drizzling. After getting the spare, jacking up the truck, removing the flat tire and replacing it with the reserve, we were set and ready to go home. Whew! Our troubles were finally over...not! The spare tire had no air. Steve remarked, "What god did we offend to have all this misfortune come down on us?".

Dozing Off
At that point, it was a waiting game for all of us until help arrived. Sig and Pam went back on foot to the landslide area to wait for the coming help. Steve, Pete and myself remained inside the truck where we dozed off from fatigue and hunger. At that point, I was already prepared to sleep the entire night hunched in an upright fetal position, at the cramped back seat of the truck.

Help at Last
Our sleep was disturbed when Sig knocked on our windows. Help was there...from the most unexpected source - assault-rifle wielding Bontoc PNPs! We secured all the stuff inside the truck, locked it, and started walking towards the other side of the landslide area where the search-and-rescue transport vehicle was waiting. Steve, Pam and Sig took turns rolling the flat tire (for vulcanizing in Bontoc). A PNP officer helped carry the tire on the landslide section where it couldn't be rolled over.

Body Heat
I was steadfast on my umbrella. With only a sleeveless shirt and no shell outer clothing, I was already borderline-shivering. If I got wet, I was afraid my body might start twitching uncontrollably, like what happened to me at the summit of Mt. Pulag.

The Police Chief
Upon arrival in Bontoc, the police chief extended his hospitality by offering coffee and radioing for a possible transport for us to Sagada. Mind you, it was past midnight. He had to be awaken for this, and he had to leave the following day at 4am, for a meeting in Mt. Data. That was enough aggravation to get a typical ego-centric police chief to go bonkers...unless cash was laid out on the table. But no, this guy genuinely wanted to help us out. There was no available transport so we had to spend the night over in Bontoc. The police chief offered a room in his office but we didn't want to overextend our welcome. He took the trouble of giving us a lift to the Churya-A Hotel. What a guy! A police chief doing that without extending an open palm for money? I was impressed.

Sleep Time
The moment we hit the bed, we were snoring...without dinner. It was close to 1 am, and all the eating places were shut. At least I had a piece of suman (sticky rice) which I found in my backpack.

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