Rollin' on the River
Islands, July-August 2000
© 2000 by Greg Breining
AS I TOUCHED my paddle to the water, the inflatable canoe spun in the current like a whirligig beetle. Then I spotted a big rock ahead. I tried to nose the bow away from the rock and power around the side. No luck. The canoe spun again, and I took the rock amidships, bouncing off and caroming downstream.
Gradually I learned to rein in the craft and began to appreciate its maneuverability. Resting in an eddy, I could also appreciate the lush scenery of Jamaica's Drivers River. The water spilled clear and blue from the highlands of the distant John Crow Mountains. Around us dickey birds flitted through the rain forest.
I had lounged on the island's beaches and hiked its mountain trails, but over the years I had learned that traveling by river is often the most revealing way to get to know a place. Tourists arrive at the front door, as guests. By river, a traveler can sneak in the back like a nosy neighbor.
My leader was Peter Bentley, a native Jamaican and backcountry guide. That morning we had piled paddles, life vests, and inflatable canoes into Bentley's Russian Lada and had driven the coastal road from Kingston around to Manchioneal on the eastern end of the island. At towns along the highway, we passed clusters of shacks. Kids and men, balancing loads on their bicycles, shared the narrow highway shoulder with women in their Sunday dresses. At Manchioneal we picked up two other paddlers and headed into the hills on a dirt road to our put-in, downstream of Reach Falls.
Here Bentley apportioned equipment while his assistant, Kenneth "Hunter" Wint, assembled and inflated the canoes. As we gathered our gear, Bentley, with his grandfatherly beard, tiny Speedo, and woven bamboo hat shaped like a Norman helmet, explained the procedure: "Hunter will go first, you see? Then he'll stop and say, 'Pull over' or what have you. There is one lovely spot - I hope it's lovely, because the water is higher than last time - where we can have a swim. We'll stop along the way. We have a bottle of wine with us and naseberries, and different kinds of Jamaican chocolate. We're not prejudiced - we do have one kind of Trinidadian chocolate. We can also skinny-dip if you feel so inclined."
Bentley was an old hand at this sort of exploration. He had run rapids on the Ys River southwest of Maggotty, the White near Ocho Rios, Rio Grande near Port Antonio, Wag Water north of Kingston, Rio Cobre north of Spanish Town, and the Martha Brae in Jamaica's rugged Cockpit Country.
"There are a lot of things left to explore in our rivers," he said, including a class 5 cataract on the Martha Brae that he had never attempted. "I'll take my hat off to whoever does it first."
This stretch of the Drivers wasn't difficult - class 2 in the parlance of river rats - and once I mastered my canoe I bobbed easily down the rapids. The greatest hazard was the occasional trunk of big bamboo that had fallen across the channel.
Soon we reached the toughest rapids of the trip, and my heart leaped as I saw the steep drop ahead. I glided to shore and clambered up the bank to scout. The river dropped through a narrow notch on the right, skittered off to the left through a steep pitch of rapids, and ended in a quiet pool.
I climbed back into the canoe and pushed off. The canoe squeezed between rocks with the sound of ripping canvas. No problem, mon - still afloat. I danced down the waves and dropped into the pool. After the exhilarating run, I leaped with the others from the bank into the deep, clear water. On shore Bentley broke out the wine and chocolate, and naseberries, a sweet fruit also known as sapodilla.
Then it was back to our canoes. Downstream the rapids soon gave way to quiet pools and shoals. Beyond Manchioneal we entered the mangroves, where herons flapped and fish darted among the trailing roots. Then not long after rounding a bend, we saw the waves of the Caribbean. We beached the canoes at the river mouth, where fishermen showed us the day's catch - doctorfish, red snapper, goatfish, and, best of all, bright red bug-eyed butterfish.
With the soft wash of the waves, the wooden fishing boats resting on shore, and those fishermen quietly tending their lines, peacefulness soaked in like the low warm sun. I had been granted a rare glimpse into a world I wanted to know - just like a nosy neighbor who'd slipped in through the back door.