Free Flowing: Celebration in International River Conservation


On the morning of the second annual Upper Jondachi Race in January 2016, I lean against a rock, my feet submerged in a pool on this still-flowing river. This rock on the upper stretch of the Jondachi River is situated just under one degree south of the equator. The pool, located downstream from the La Merced de Jondachi dam site, is like magic, offering cool water in a heat unique to the midline of the earth. The water is the sometimes-blue-sometimes-green of tropical places; it reflects the mood of the sky. The trees here are rooted in cracks in the canyon wall and their trunks reach skyward, low-hanging branches dripping with heavy, plate-like leaves toward the river’s surface. Mosses coat the shaded facets of cabana-sized dry rocks, algae covers all stony surfaces that are in regular contact with the water.

I sit, vintage megaphone in hand, waiting for the colorful flashes of boaters on the course. I look upstream, and see the hanging bridge I crossed to get here. It spans the river maybe one hundred feet below the site of the proposed dam, and it’s been here a lot longer than the dam’s emerging infrastructure. The sweepers nod that everyone is here. I reach for the megaphone and holler out in my best gringa Spanish: we’re about to have a race. And at that moment, we believe this race might actually save this river, a notion that we don’t dare dismiss, not now, not with all that’s been invested, not with all that’s at stake.

Photo: Dave Gardner

Ecuador’s Jondachi River has its headwaters on the eastern flank of the Andes, and it forms part of one of the last remaining free-flowing river systems in the country. The river, which has been threatened by a dam for well over a decade, provides ecological connectivity between the Andes and the Amazon and is home to numerous indigenous communities who regard the river as a vital cultural resource. A 2013 economic impact study estimated that the Jondachi’s whitewater tourism industry brings over $1 million annually to the local economy.

Jondachi Fest began in winter of 2014 as a collaborative project, spearheaded by the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute to demonstrate the economic value of the free-flowing river. The festival’s model uses whitewater recreation as a mechanism for conservation, in concert with other strategies: a legal defense of the river in Ecuadorian court and a proposed protected ecological corridor, connecting the headwaters of the Jondachi with the Napo River. Jondachi Fest features the now-classic Upper Jondachi Race and several days of celebration in Tena, one of three hubs within Ecuador’s burgeoning whitewater tourism sector.

Jondachi Fest, like many river festivals around the world, is an expression of solidarity, a unified front in the face of corruption or greed or reckless development. Grassroots celebrations are sprouting up on endangered rivers all across the world. In Africa, festivals on the Zambezi and White Nile continue despite the fact that much of their famed whitewater and rural riverside communities are to be drowned in coming months and years due to construction of large dams. In the U.S., the American Whitewater Association and events like West Virginia’s Gauley Fest have shown for decades the effectiveness of focused celebration and organization within the river community. By participating in the celebration of endangered rivers, by traveling to paddle in faraway places, by listening and by observing, paddlers come to understand the human choice to control or alter wild rivers, and perhaps express their convictions through action. This is the hope, the theory, anyway, behind these celebrations of iconic rivers.


Photo: Marcus Farnfield

The first Nile River Festival happened in 2002, and while it will take place again next year, both the festival and the river have experienced overwhelming changes over the last two decades. In 2011, much of the White Nile was flooded due to the construction of the Bujagali Dam. Today, further alteration is imminent with the construction of the Isimba dam less than 40 kilometers downstream. The festival is no longer a simple celebration of world-class whitewater, but rather a focal point for activism, an international rally for the conservation of Earth’s longest river.

Though British by birth, Sam Ward has lived in Uganda most of his adult life. He began working on the Nile River in 2004 and purchased Kayak the Nile in 2011, which organizes the NRF. Sam Ward’s tone is surprisingly even-keeled and perhaps necessarily optimistic—when he says the festival will persist after the massive Isimba hydro project is finished in May 2018. After the 2018 festival, Nile Special—home of the famed big wave freestyle event—will be underwater. “We already have plans for where we can move the freestyle competition to,” Ward says, “and the rest of the competition will remain relatively unchanged. The festival will live on!”

“The Nile River Festival plays a vital role in allowing progression of the freestyle kayak scene in Uganda,” says Hannah de Silva, the Ugandan Freestyle Kayak Team manager. Every member of the team depends upon the Nile’s whitewater industry, working as safety kayakers and making a viable living in a country where much of the population subsists on $1.50 a day. “I imagine the role of the festival will be even more important in the future, by promoting kayaking in the region as the river changes following the dam,” continues de Silva.

For now, Ward invites paddlers to attend the next Nile River Festival in January 2018, to see the river before it is altered any further and encourages everyone to learn more about the proposed threats and how you can get involved in the movement to re-imagine the future of the Nile.

Eastern Europe

Photo: Matic Oblak

Sam Ward and Rok Rozman have at least two things in common: they both organize international paddling events born, as Rozman puts it, “behind the beer counter.” Rozman, an ex-Olympic rower from the Slovenian Alps, organized the first Balkan Rivers Tour in 2016. He describes his work as “a movement that is demolishing dams in people’s heads in order to stop plans for real ones in southeast Europe.”

The Balkan Peninsula is a latticework of high alpine trout streams, dreamlike waterfalls, and broad fluvial valleys. Its pristine beauty is a secret that much of Europe has not fully realized. 69 species of fish are endemic here, which means they are found nowhere else on earth. 40% of endangered freshwater snails and mussels exist within Balkan river systems.

The 2016 Balkan Rivers Tour consisted of 36 days of paddling from Slovenia to Albania, traversing six countries and 23 rivers, culminating in a high-profile flotilla down one of the last remaining free-flowing rivers in Europe, the Vjosa. In 2017, participants paddled 85 miles of the Soča River from source to sea portaging around the seven existing large dams. The crew then undertook a 17-day mission with skis, fly rods, and kayaks to explore the expedition adventure potential of the Dinaric Alps. “Our project is proving that nature conservation is rock ’n roll and that anybody can join in at any time.”

The Vjosa, the last free-flowing European river outside of Russia, flows from Greece to Albania and empties into the Adriatic Sea. Near the Vjosa’s headwaters in Albania, a hydro project has been in a state of partial construction for the last decade, stalled amid ardent protest from environmental groups. 2700 more projects are planned for the Balkan Peninsula, a number that has shaken Rozman to the point of dedicated action.

“We are exposing the unpleasant truth about how big companies are taking advantage of local people and last pristine nature in Europe just to make more money,” Rozman says. The German NGO Riverwatch, one of NGOs working on the topic, is pushing for the declaration of Vjosa National Park, the first-ever wild river national park designation in Europe. “Since Earth is home to everyone, I think this is a perfect experiment to prove we don’t care too much about politics and borders, but we see the bigger picture,” says Rozman. “We all depend on nature, whether we admit or not, and it comes to be really simple at the end.”

A huge victory came on May 2, 2017 when an Albanian court ruled in the country’s first-ever environmental lawsuit that the Vjosa River must remain undammed. The court cited inadequate environmental impact studies and lack of public consultation as the basis for its ruling. When the 2017 tour came to a close not long after, Rozman posted to social media: “This is not the end—we have just gained even more momentum for future battles. Raise your hand, paddle, rod and beer in the fight for the right thing! Make love, not dams—spill beer, not blood.” Rock and roll, indeed.


Photo: Diego Del Río / Intu

Thousands of miles from the karst fields and bora winds of Eastern Europe, an alliance of South American citizens is fighting to keep big dams off of their remaining free-flowing rivers. Across the Andean region, kayakers are unifying efforts to preserve rivers of ecological, recreational, and cultural value.

Professional kayaker, Niceto Yalan, had been dreaming of bringing kayaking events to Peru for years. He saw the potential of his home country as a host for races. In late 2014, Yalan lost a close friend—Juanito de Ugarte—on Chile’s Nulahue River. Two years later, Yalan brought the idea of a festival to Juan’s sister, Sandra de Ugarte, who had been creating a legacy for Juan through the Juanito de Ugarte Scholarship. Together they began planning the first Machu Picchu Kayak Fest in Santa Teresa, a little over an hour’s walk from the fabled Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.

“The Machu Picchu Kayak Fest is a community event designed to connect the whitewater community in Peru and to reach out to Peruvian youth to teach them about what kayaking has to offer,” says Yalan. “It is an inclusive movement, created to share kayaking with all sectors of Peruvian society and teach river conservation and independence to young adults and children.”


Photo: Matias Veras

In the Trancura Valley of central Chile, a grassroots celebration of rivers and reggae has blossomed into a 4000-person festival where kayaking, arts, indigenous culture, and live music come together in a beautiful confluence known as Puesco Fest. Sponsored by NRS since its first year in 2014, Puesco Fest has morphed into the quintessential rallying point for free-flowing rivers.

Escape owner LJ Groth, who splits his time between White Salmon, Washington and Curarrehue, Chile, began guiding in South America in 2005. Groth, along with Argentinian boater Fede Medina and local activists Andres Macias and Gunvor Sorli, developed their vision for the festival after they learned about numerous proposals for new hydro projects in the Curarrehue region. “The local community was up in arms,” Groth recalls. “No one knew what to do. We decided that we could bring attention to the issue through the festival. We wanted to do something more than protest in the streets.”

“I feel like there are few places left in this world where you can still float undammed rivers and experience a vibrant native culture,” says Groth. He and his fellow organizers work closely with local Mapuche communities who provide “spiritual guidance,” and local families provide 90% of the food sold during the event. While they acknowledge that it’s important to recognize the priorities and goals of local communities, Groth and Medina—both technically “outsiders” in Chile—believe that no one involved in international river conservation should consider themselves as foreigners. “We are a global community working to protect a vital necessity: water.”

For Groth, the greatest challenge associated with Puesco Fest has been to remain focused on the goal: to keep the region’s rivers running free. “Sometimes the focus can get lost in the music festival side of things, but we will always have our roots in the fight for free rivers and protection and recuperation of the Mapuche culture.” And it has worked: as of this spring, plans for the three hydro projects in the Trancura-Puesco drainage have been terminated.


Photo: Jules Domine

Some rivers are left undammed because laws protect them, they are culturally or economically significant in their natural state, or they boast some factor that limits their viability as an ideal site for hydro. Colombia’s Samana River, however, still flows freely for a different reason: it runs through what was, during Colombia’s 52-year war, a violent and uninhabitable swath of jungle, its banks controlled by paramilitaries, its riverside families forcibly displaced. The Samana was effectively abandoned, forgotten, and preserved in its pristine condition by a tragic civil war called La Violencia and the decades of fighting that followed.

Jules Domine grew up in the French Alps but lives now in Medellin. “After exploring and paddling the world to my heart’s content, I realized the rivers that gave me so much joy were becoming polluted or choked, contaminated with heavy metals from mining, turned into sewage systems, or dammed for hydroelectric energy. Rivers were in a state of rapid degradation,” Domine says. “No longer could I go from one pristine river to the next before it was destroyed. I decided to stay in Colombia and try to protect its rivers. Here remain some of the world’s last wild, clean rivers and ecosystems, but more importantly, a community of resilient and resourceful people brave enough to stand up to protect them.”

Domine and the other members of the first Samana expedition began talking with locals who indicated that the river was renowned among villagers for its healthy supply of fish. But when they spoke with friends from the city of Medellin, only one and a half hours’ drive from the Samana, no one had heard of the river. Domine soon learned of the plans to dam the Samana. “Most of the people living around the river were displaced survivors of the violent period. I couldn’t imagine what it may feel like for someone, who probably lost their sister, their father, their friend, their home in the war, to learn that this, too, was being taken away from them,” Domine explains.

In an effort to bring Colombians closer to the river, and to keep hydro off of the free-flowing Samana, Domine now organizes Samana Fest, which will celebrate its fourth year in 2018. The festival has come to serve as a metaphor for a peaceful future in Colombia. As Domine points out, a strange dichotomy has emerged: with a new period of peace comes enthusiastic interest in development. “The country’s destabilization prevented destructive, major scale development of critical ecosystems during a time when neighboring ecosystems were being deforested at alarming rates.” It’s hard to know if peace will prove productive in the long run.

Since the ceasefire in 2016, villagers from the Samana region have been returning to their home to begin a new life. Samana Fest aims to unite local river communities and, as Domine says, “create one strong voice against the threat of a proposed hydroelectric dam project that will impact not only their livelihood but also the pristine, natural area sheltered by the years of war.”


Abe Herrera has been organizing the Quijos River Fest since 2013. The festival originated when World Class Academy came to town in 2013 and wanted to engage with the local community. Herrera planned the event to coincide with Baeza’s annual town festivities. That year, over 100 locals tried kayaking on a local pond with World Class kids assisting throughout the day, and the Quijos River Fest was born. Herrera’s initial goal was to cultivate appreciation of and connection to the river within the local, non-kayaking community. “We want to create awareness in the local community to have leverage against indiscriminate dam construction,” he says. Often, people in Herrera’s part of the world believe their communities will benefit from dam construction, which brings jobs, at least temporarily. But Herrera encourages and helps locals to develop more business related to tourism. “Kayaking uses hostels, hotels, transport companies, cafes and restaurants. Many Baeza businesses have actually been able to base their economy on the kayakers that roll in every year between October and March.”

Herrera is enthusiastic about his beloved Ecuador, and about getting more people to his country to experience the rivers and advocate for their protection. “Take it personally and be the one that does something to make this a better experience for everyone, or at least for someone. Kayaking is taking on a huge new meaning in traveling abroad and we need to give it direction and purpose: river preservation and river awareness. Every effort we can put in toward bringing the good to our river community has a huge impact in smaller communities. Being a good ambassador of the sport also means giving love back to those places that we go paddling.”

Photos: Abe Herrera

Currently, two-thirds of the world’s large rivers are dammed.

Most of the existing dams are concentrated in the northern third of the world, though plans currently exist for over 400 dams across the Amazon Basin. It’s a difficult thing to suggest a better solution be sought, when a proposed hydro project promises temporary prosperity for local communities. But certainly the intrinsic value of the river itself should be considered in any long-term economic forecast. What metrics determine the value of a free-flowing river—healthy fish populations, clean drinking water, ecological connectivity, tourism revenue, recreation opportunities, indigenous sovereignty, and the ancient grace of wild rivers?

I try to consider the effects of rivers on our souls, the communities of humans whose lives and livelihoods are defined and shaped by meandering or thundering waters.

What can be accomplished when a common focus is identified, and the power of human awareness is coupled with the power of a free-flowing river? The result has yet to be seen, and kayak festival organizers are waiting to find out.