BadfishTeam Rider Clarie Chappell-Exploring Jamaican Rivers on the MCIT Inflatable SUP
When I found out I’d be spending five weeks in Jamaica, land of reggae, rum and beaches, it took me all of thirty seconds to arrive at the key question…can I SUP the rivers? The ocean here is incredible but anyone who stand up paddles on rivers knows why I had to go inland. I was craving that constant forward motion, the rush you get when your speed picks up just above a rapid, peeling out from eddies, the butterflies when you spot a wave and think, ‘Hmmm, can I surf that?’.
The Blue Mountains of Jamaica rise 7400 feet above sea level on the east side of the island where plenty of rain falls. This is a good recipe for several small volume rivers, most of which pour into the Caribbean on the north shore. Our first stop was the Rio Blanco in Ocho Rios. When we pulled a playboat and a Badfish MCIT inflatable board out of the truck, five or so local men gathered to stare. They asked repeatedly if we knew what we were doing. Only one of them had seen a whitewater kayak before and all of them were baffled about my intention to stand on a board and go downstream. This river is a tropical version of a mountain river park. It’s a narrow, three or four hundred cfs, mellow two-mile float with class II drops here and there. The limestone bedrock and low sediment make for crystal clear water and the temperature doesn’t get much better, no neoprene necessary.
At the Rio Bueno in Trelawny Parish, I floated with the local rafting company. The guides watching me pump my board looked super nervous. With the shallow rapids, I didn’t use a center fin and it worked out fine with an extra paddle stroke here and there. The guides really wanted me to lay down on the board or at least kneel through the big bad “Bridge Rapid”. There is always a little uneasiness the first time you run a new rapid in place you’ve never paddled, I was grateful to be on a board that I can trust to be stable. The looks of shock were priceless after I ran it clean and that’s about when they all started asking if they could try.
After we got comfortable on the tourist-friendly stretches, we started poking around for something with a little more meat. A couple times, we just followed rivers upstream from the coast where the roads allowed. Sometimes this ended up being just a scenic drive and sometimes more. Beta is scarce on the island because Jamaican culture doesn’t view the river as a source of recreation but I kept asking just about everyone I met. At the end of my trip I finally found myself on the phone with the right guy. He pointed me toward my last conquest, the Swift River in the parish of Portland. Finding a section with enough water and gradient took hours. We drove through tiny mountain towns with not many homes but lots of goats and the few people we encountered looked pretty surprised to see us. Between the shoddy map, the hit or miss help from locals and the occasional bridge, we found a great spot. The folks living on the muddy tire-track “road” that we eventually parked on came out of their houses to watch me run a short stretch and hike back up handful of times. The trouble getting to the river was well worth it, the Swift River valley is gorgeous and untouched. It is higher in elevation, steeper, deep blue colored and in the absolute middle of nowhere. Looking at the boulders and the gradient you can tell this is a busy creek at higher water. At low water I got to walk along the river in the greenest place I’ve been, with birds chirping and clouds sitting in the peaks above me and hand pick little rapids to paddle. I’ll take it.
I am leaving Jamaica with a list of rivers that I’ll have to check out another time. I am told that a lot more class III plus can be found during the wet spring months and there are waterfalls just sitting in the middle of the rainforest, begging to be hucked. Stand up paddling in warm rivers with breathtaking scenery was an experience I’ll never forget and it won’t be my last. I suddenly feel like there’s a whole world waiting to be SUP’d. Claire Chappell, Discovery Bay, Jamaica