When professional kayaker Joel Kowalski and I got together to tell me about his plan to kayak in Michoacan Mexico I was pretty excited. Joel showed me rivers on Google Earth that looked to have amazing potential, and no one had ever kayaked them before. I got home and started researching the area immediately and it only took browsing through the first page of Google to make me start to second think going on this trip. Michoacan is one of the most violent states in Mexico and is very heavily cartel controlled.
I grabbed the phone and called Joel back right away. He told me he has been eying up this area for years and that “now is the time to go”. The rest of the crew including professional kayakers Dane Jackson, Rafa Ortiz, Seth Ashworth, Juan Antonio De Ugarte and Ciarán Mc Ardle Heurteau were all itching to start.
The crew met in Mexico City at the airport on November 16th, 2013 and rendezvoused to Veracruz for a warm up to start our 3 week expedition. Veracruz is a more stable state on the east coast that has been explored and loved by kayakers for the years.
After 3 days of warmup we headed west to Uruapan Mexico, where the crew would base out of. The original plan was to stay low key in the area but once you included the 6 athletes and 10 media personal it meant we needed 3 vans. As well as 3 drivers to go with those vans. So much for low key with our 19 man crew. Our convoy was suspicious and easy to spot. We did discover though that we could all fit into 2 vans after Ortiz’s “Van from Hell” broke down shortly after entering the state of Michoacan. All I could think is “what a start”.
On our very first full day in Uruapan, we hit road block number one. It was the Mexican Federal Police. There was about 6 of them, all with machine guns. I had heard a lot of stories about the police being just as corrupt as the cartels in this area so as we pulled up I popped one memory out of my camera and hid it in the sole of my boot so that I would hopefully not loose that mornings shots. I then slid my camera under the seat and waited to see what would happen.
We had a couple key guys on this trip for our safety. The one driver Isreal whom the athletes had used before on trips in Mexico was key to giving us “street cred”. He explained that we are here in Michoacan to run water falls in kayaks and film a movie about it for Red Bull. Another key member was Simba. He was great at diffusing any situation. After a long chat some smiles and laughs started from the police. They gave us key information of where to go and where not to go in the area.
Once the river expedition started it meant a lot of long, grueling hikes in the heat of the Mexican jungle. We had no trails to follows and would use machetes to blaze our way from the road to the river where we would meet the athletes to shoot a rapid. It didn’t take long to learn that the only thing in the jungle that is your friend are the rocks. And not even all of the rocks are your friends as Univision camera operator found out when he feel on loose rocks and broke his leg in 3 spots deep inside a canyon.
A couple things I learned about shooting in an jungle environment is to wear good, high cut back packing boots, pants, long sleeves, gloves and a hat at all times. This just helps project you from spiders and poisonous plants. It is also key to carry a good camera bag. I used the Think Tank Streetwalker Pro as it is very comfortable and stays steady on your back. It is also key to pack light. Instead of hiking with a full sized tripod I would use the Joby GorillaPod Focus to save size and weight. During the hikes I would often stow my DSLR in my bag as it was tough to keep out and we often had a machete in one hand and balancing with another. I would keep the Canon S120 handy in my pocket for shots during hikes though as you never know when something might happen and you need a camera handy.
Mexico starts to take a toll on your body both mentally and physically. Hiking through the jungle with camera gear gets to you after a week straight but constantly having to be alert for poisonous snakes, spiders and plants is even more exhausting. Midway through the expedition while hiking out through long grass in the evening we encountered a large black snake. Unable to correctly ID it was still a scare for the media crew. The food also can get to you as we all found out after eating bad pizza one day. It seamed like everyone in the crew was sick at least once during the trip but when a job needs to get done you have no excuses. Especially when your client is Red Bull. No matter how ill I was I felt obligated to bring back the best possible images I could create from them and the athletes.
After 2 weeks of exploring the rivers of Michoacan only had one river left. The area at the end of the river had a single airplane runway near it that was visible on Google Earth. This caused us to ask some questions. One local told us “Don’t go there, they wont ask question, they will just shoot”. That is all we needed to know as a crew. We packed our bags and rallied back to Veracruz with the 3 days we had left. This is where one of my favorite photos from the trip happened. An amazing spectacle of water and light.
For more about how I captured the above shot check out Canoe & Kayak’s Behind the Lens: John Rathwell
For more photos I took during this trip check out Red Bull’s Mexican Whitewater Madness: Photos from Michoacan