Showing posts with label Hendri Coetzee. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hendri Coetzee. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The day the FBI came calling

Chris Korbulic shot this self portrait along the Apaporis River in the Columbian Amazon in April this year. The five-person expedition planned to paddle 700 miles, but something unexpected interrupted their plans. 

Hardly a week goes by without someone asking about our son, Chris, 30, who's sort of a local celebrity with tales of his kayaking adventures often making their way online and into newspapers, magazines, films, and, occasionally, TV.
It hasn't been uncommon for photos such as this, documenting Chris enjoying waterfall moments around the world to show up on media. This was in Brazil.

So I wasn't surprised in a hardware store in Grants Pass, OR, when a man behind me at check-out inquired, "What's your son up to these days?"

A store employee swung around and joined the conversation. "Yeah," she said. "Where's Chris?

I thought I'd have some fun with them.

"Oh, he's fine," I said.

"The FBI was at our house for three hours last week alerting us that he and four other kayakers had been held hostage by guerrillas on a river in the Amazon jungle. But no worries. They were released after a few days, and he's back in the USA."

I told the tale as if being held hostage by guerrillas in the jungle was no big deal, happens all the time.

Astonished looks all around.

"Sheesh!" blurted the clerk. "I'm sure glad he's not my son! How can you sleep at night?"

How many times have PK and I heard that?

I got a charge out of the stunned reactions. Now everyone within earshot was leaning in.

It was easy to be glib and milk the moment, but the actual day that the FBI showed up at our house, and the ensuing 24 hours—that was a different story.

For us it began Friday, April 21, 2017.  (For Chris and the expedition team, it began April 18 when they first encountered their captors.)

 I 'd left the house for a bike ride and saw PK talking in our driveway with two men in suits and a nattily dressed woman. I pegged them as purveyors of the Watchtower and prepared to bolt, head down, eyes averted.

"It's the FBI," Paul mouthed as I approached with my bike.
They'd already shown their IDs to PK and stated their purpose, but I was clueless.

The FBI? Is something going on in the neighborhood? I thought.  It did not occur to me that their visit had to do with Chris .

We'd received a text message from Chris within the past few days, or had it been a FB post?  Or was it four days ago? On Instagram? I lose track.

Whatever. His expedition team of five traveled with their best friend, a Garmin InReach satellite device, which enables them to send texts anywhere from anywhere. Hence, they're able to placate parents and other people who care with frequent communications.  Almost daily communicating created a sense of security. False, it turns out.
One of few rapids on a 700-mile expedition, unlike previous expeditions that have been rife with roaring falls, canyons, and cataracts.

In addition, through InReach, a friend in California was updating the team's location though the Amazon wilderness. The map link was available online to anyone interested. We'd seen it  but weren't checking every day, so we were unaware that InReach reports had stopped

Just stopped. The screen had gone blank. Big trouble.

Well, isn't that the perfect definition of "ignorance is bliss"? We would have been emotional wrecks, had we been paying attention. But after enduring 10 years of our son doing seemingly impossible feats and taking unacceptable (to us) risks, we've become calloused to his living on the edge.

He's strong, smart, humble, skilled, and somehow happily enmeshed in a culture that puts him amongst an elite group of modern-day explorers and adventurers. He continues to amaze and delight us as we live his adventures vicariously.
Not a photo a mom can enjoy. Chris on the first
descent of Toketee Falls on Oregon's North
Umpqua River in 2011.

I removed my bike helmet and PK and I and three FBI agents took seats in our living room. PK and I exchanged glances. What the hell's going on?

"It's about your son, Chris," said the lead agent, who introduced himself as a hostage negotiator.

Hostage negotiator?

The other male agent was an FBI special investigator, the woman was a victim specialist.

Victim specialist!

PK and I exchanged glances, and I know we're in the same boat, so to speak, of shock and disbelief. This can't be happening!

The reason for the FBI's visit unfolded.

Out of what the lead guy described as an "abundance of caution," we were told that Chris and his expedition team in Colombia's Amazon Basin appeared to have been detained by FARC, a rebel guerrilla group. FARC had been mostly disarmed in 2016, after 50+ years of conflict. But holdouts exist.

Some of the FARC holdouts were apparently holding hostage all five members of the expedition.

Team members Ben Stookesberry, Jessie Rice, Aniol Serrasoles, Jules Domine, and Chris Korbulic. Ben was allowed to take the photo above, the only one during their captivity. Actually, on that very day, April 21, perhaps around the same time we were hanging on every word uttered by the FBI agents, the armed group was telling the detainees that they would be released the next morning. Although the FARC rebels confiscated cameras, electronic devices and memory cards, camera lenses were returned and the rebels did not take thousands of dollars from their captives. Chris managed to hide five memory cards, losing only the one that remained in his camera.

The seven FARC members, led by a woman, didn't realize that Ben managed to hold onto an InReach device and had been surreptitiously communicating with a contact in Columbia and another in California.  Chris also had a GPS unit that was signaling the group's location.

Chris told us the only time he was afraid, and planning  an escape into the jungle with his GPS, was the night before they were to be released. He was in his hammock when Colombian military planes began flying over the encampment. The FARC went ballistic.

"They were running around, yelling, asking where is the GPS? Who has it?" Chris had hidden one on his body. The planes left. Things calmed down. The next morning, the team was released and paddled four miles downstream to catch a bush plane to a tiny airport in a tiny town. There, much to their amazement, they were met by representatives of the Colombian military and the FBI.

The greeting party was but a small contingent of the agents and agencies in Columbia and the USA interested in the case.

A brief account of the hostage situation is here:  Outside Online -  How 5 kayakers were taken hostage in the Amazon. It's a series of photos with longish captions outlining the basics of what happened.  The photos, all but one by Chris, provide a sense of the ethereal Amazon. A more in-depth print article about the episode is in the works by the Men's Journal.

I don't want to repeat what you can read on Outside Online, but PK and I  have some thoughts about the US government's response.

We are grateful. 

We were impressed that three FBI agents came to our home, and others to the families of two other US citizens on the expedition. Chris' girlfriend, then in Hawaii, was also contacted by an FBI agent who offered assistance.

We learned that when US citizens are held against their will in foreign lands, it's a no-holds-barred commitment to get them out safely. 

What I've described was a small part of what was going on. The agents informed us that representatives of various US government agencies cooperate in hostage situations involving US citizens.  The agents didn't mention the  FBI-led Hostage Rescue Team, but I looked it up and understood that had the kayaking team been held for ransom, or even detained for a longer time, their captors could have been subject to measures similar to what Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT ) teams do. Drop in, rescue hostages, take no prisoners.

Impressive. Check it out here.

What was the FBI's purpose in visiting us?

Learn about Chris 
They asked multiple  questions about Chris, most designed to determine how he might handle being held hostage.  Does he have medical issues? What kind of person is he? How does he handle stress? How might he react to being pressured?(tortured or threatened)

Admiring parents as we are, we described Chris as a "real nice guy." Humble, quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, intelligent, strong, and centered. Because of what he does for a living, we know that he's able to focus on the moment, shut out negative thoughts and maintain a calm center. We think he'd avoid stupid moves or emotional or angry displays.

Educate us about how to respond to ransom demands
A large part of the visit had to do with "proof of life, requiring the captors, should they call us, to provide evidence that our son was still alive. 

And on it went, all the way through the mechanics of "how to get you your money,"to responding to threats that the hostage will be harmed or killed. I was beginning to disconnect.

It was surreal. Absolutely unbelievable. If this was really happening, our lives could be changing forever, right here, right now.

The hostage negotiator said that if we got a ransom call, he would be moving into our house. As it was, he left us with a recording device should we receive a ransom call. If we were contacted by a captor, we were instructed to call the hostage negotiator any time, night or day.

We didn't have to. Thank you, Universe.

Instead, we learned the next day that the team had been released and flown by a US military plane based in Columbia to Bogota, site of the US Embassy. All were debriefed by FBI and Columbia officials, lodged in a hotel, provided meals and offered air transportation to anywhere they wanted to go. The US citizens were asked to stay three days to satisfy intelligence needs.

The Extreme Kayaking Athlete Moms' Club
One more thing. Chris K. and expedition leader Ben Stookesberry have been frequent kayaking partners for going on 10 years, covering thousands of miles around the world and sharing both magnificent and horrendous experiences. The worst, of course, was in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010 when a monster crocodile rose out of the Lukuga River and snatched from his kayak their good friend and trip leader, Hendri Coatzee.

Hendri's death was international news and a deep personal tragedy to Ben and Chris. Both had been within feet of the crocodile attack and were profoundly affected. Ben created an award-winning film, Kadoma, about Hendri and their expedition and tragedy, still available on iTunes.

 The 40-minute film is gut wrenching and beautiful at the same time. Hendri Coatzee was an extraordinary human being and a gifted writer. He wrote a book that was edited and published following his demise,  Living the Best Day Ever. 

PK and I were in Costa Rica when this tragedy occurred. We were pursued by media, and so was Ben's mom, Bette Campbell. During this blurred tragic time, we began communicating with Bette.

Chris and Ben were being held by the dysfunctional Congolese government. It was making us crazy. That lasted about a week before they were flown out by the United Nations.

Bette and I kept talking. And later, for a few wonderful but heart-wrenching days, we were with Hendri Coatzee’s mom, Marie Nieman, when Ben’s film debuted at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival in 2011.

Bette and I talked again on April 22 this year after we were assured that our sons were safe.

Bette told me about her interview with the FBI agents, and how she described to them her remarkable son, Ben.

"He's humble," she said. "He's generous. I'm proud of him being who he chooses to be. He couldn't handle being stuck in an office, making do with what's expected. I'm glad he is who he is."

Right on, Bette. Me too. I couldn't be more proud to be Chris' mom, and as for Chris' father, PK,  he can barely contain his enthusiasm for telling Chris stories to whatever man, woman, child or dog will listen.

We know that if  Chris wasn't doing what his soul requires, we'd worry about him being depressed and downtrodden. He's fortunate to be able to pursue his passion and have the skills, courage and inner strength to do it.
Started young. Won't quit until he must. Despite
how much he sometimes scares us, gotta love him.
But please, no more FBI visits. 
Plus we could stand a bit less of this type of action.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Uganda - Best Travel Day Ever

Our "best travel day ever" in Uganda was our last touring day in that country. It was also when we saw Nile crocodiles for the first time. They are fearsome, huge, powerful and deadly. Ironically and tragically, a croc was behind what brought us to Africa. See the "back story" at the end of this post. 

It has been nine months since PK and I returned from Africa where our socks were blown off so many times we had to swathe our feet  in bandages and drink strong potions. Just kidding. But seriously, three of our way-too-few days in Uganda (only 12 days!) stand out for over-the-top-all-time travel greatness. They were days studded with surprises that kept us breathless.

What does it take to inspire breathlessness in a couple of almost-geezers, aside from hiking a steep slope, dancing to Talking Heads,  or having sex in a VW bug?  Quite a lot, actually, but Uganda's wildlife and natural wonders delivered. (The sex in a VW bug is ha ha, of course. Check out an earlier post. My prediction was correct! That post continues to attract deviants (!), and, I'm sure, has left them crestfallen in the titillation department. Hint. The post is not about sex.) Don't even look.

But onward. Of the three best-ever days, one emerged as the most-best because it started full-tilt before first light and didn't end until way after the last shafts of a spectacular sunset disappeared from the Nile near the Murchison River Lodge. The two other contenders for "best ever" days were when we scrambled through a rain forest  Gorilla Tracking, and when we experienced Bush Camping in Murchison Falls National Park.

Here's a quick rundown of one day in October 2013, ruled by excitement, surprise, wonder, and awe. We were in or near Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park. 


5:30 a.m. We meet  guide Pete Meredith (a wonder himself) for a quick breakfast, then squeeze into his Land Rover and roar down another rutted red road, this time to the Budongo Forest for chimp tracking.
8 a.m.   Chimp tracking was so fun and exciting. Highlights: running through the tangled jungle behind our guide in pursuit of chimps, both in the canopy and on the ground. Stopped dead in our tracks by chimp choruses. Exhilaration. (Full post of chimp tracking here.)

10:30 a.m.  Skitter along the red dirt, rolling up windows to ward off tsetse flies, en route to Murchison Falls. This cape buffalo grazed just a few feet off  the road with his buddies. Yawn. Just the usual massive African wildlife. A herd.

Noon: Murchison is the most bad ass of falls. It roars, plummets and boils for 141 feet, compressing the mighty Nile River into a 23-feet wide gorge. Great place to eat a sandwich! 

 PK is just a few feet from the top. Note the safety sign painted on rock behind him. Stop! Other spray-painted signs say Slippery! Do not cross!
 Murchsion Falls is an awesome spectacle as it thunders, booms, and vibrates the earth. 

PK puzzles at the sight of an old bridge piling surrounded by slippery rock and surging water. We know supposedly intelligent people (Chris Korbulic, Leyla Ahmet, Pete Meredith) who ignored the signs and stood atop the slick piling for photo ops. They lived. Somehow. The wet rock is super slick.
A 30-foot boil surges up the gorge walls before cascading another 100 feet.
We had the place to ourselves except for a couple of British soldiers returning home after training forces in Mogadishu, Somalia. We enjoyed their stories and insight into what it's like to serve in the world's most dangerous city. A guide, arranged by Kara Blackmore, ushered us down the river to board a tour boat. (More about Kara below.)

3 p.m.  Ho hum, we thought. A boat ride  with a bunch of tourists. Big deal! What could we possibly see that we haven't already? We figured we'd kick back and watch the green banks drift past as we enjoyed a Nile Special (beer) and digested the excitement of chimp tracking and seeing Murchison Falls. But no. 
3:30 p.m. Crocs cooling off below Murchison Falls. Seeing crocs was creepy and transfixing in equal measure. Some in this toothy gang were 15 to 20 feet long.  At least 25 were gathered on a spit of land or cruising the river nearby. No one swims in this part of the Nile, by the way.

Nor do they collect water without a makeshift croc barrier. Even then, the river devils sometimes manage to get around the barrier and snatch people. or whatever warm-blooded hapless creature is in snatching range. 
4 p.m. Just a short sweep downriver, the boat veered toward a sandstone cliff. The closer we got, what appeared as dark spots from the middle of the Nile came alive with primary colors. At least 100 vivid birds perched, flitted and flashed for our viewing pleasure. Where's the popcorn?
I was able to capture close-up images while on my back on the deck, hands shaking and eyes tearing. I don't know. Sometimes beautiful things make me weep. 
                DRAMATIC DUSK
5:30 p.m.  As we caught our breath after the sensory overload set off by the bee eaters, we were stunned by the clotted sky and the gathering dusk. In the meantime we had left the tourist boat and boarded a skiff suitable for four passengers for the approximately 15 minutes it took to get to Murchison River Lodge, where we were staying. With the driver, five were in the boat. Crocs and hippos were in the river, which is wide and still and musky. On the opposite bank, the pilot spotted an elephant. Ho hum. An elephant, and he roared right over to the grassy bank where the behemoth was feeding.


5:40 p.m.  Our little boat bobbled close, but the elephant paid us no mind, except to move away. What a thrill to be so near we could hear him rustle and almost feel his movements. So beautiful. And like most of the day's wonders, unexpected. 
6 p.m.  We return, exhausted but jubilant, to Murchison River Lodge in time to rinse off the day's dirt and have dinner before falling into bed. But wait! There's more!

6:30 p.m. Kara Blackmore, our personal Cambridge-educated cultural anthropologist, cultural consultant, Uganda expert and minute-to-minute itinerary planner, clears the view so we can get the full impact of the coming sunset. No rest yet on our best-ever travel day. And about 50 sunset photos later....finally......

This will be my last post about Uganda. Much gratitude to the late and great Hendri Coetzee, whose brilliant  memoir,  Living the Best Day Ever, along with our son's travels with Hendri in Africa, inspired our trip.

Hendri perished, as you may know if you've followed this blog, in December 2010 when, on an Eddie Bauer-sponsored expedition he was leading, a giant crocodile exploded out of the still waters of the Lukuga river in the Democratic Republic of Congo and took Hendri in an instant. Our son, Chris, was just a few feet away in his kayak. PK and I met Hendri's family in 2011 at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, where Kadoma, a film about the expedition, premiered. They invited us to visit them in Africa. Two years later, we did.

Thanks also to Kara Blackmore, who planned our 12-day itinerary in Uganda and spent several days with us, and Leyla Ahmet Meredith and Pete Meredith, owners/operators of TIA Adventures, Inc. The Merediths are highly recommended if you ever want to go on safari or experience a teeth-clenching Nile River adventure. Or, if practicing yoga with a glittery slip of a woman with a beautiful spirit is up your alley, you can do that, too.

Hendri's memoir, Living the Best Day Ever, was published in 2013. It's a great read. (You can buy it here.) Hendri tells in fascinating, sometimes jolting, detail about his myriad adventures, plumbs his unique philosophy, and in between, explores the nature of the hours, days, weeks, and months between peak experiences and how to make every day the best day ever no matter what. 

PK and I read the book before our trip (we got it prepublication  as I did light editing of the manuscript at the bequest of the book's real editor, Kara Blackmore. ) The book helped to inspire us to visit Africa, Uganda in particular. We were determined that, while there, we would go with the flow. Good idea, because the flow swept us from one trans formative experience to another. Our African days truly were our best days ever.

If you've made it this far.......OTHER POSTS ABOUT AFRICA
My personal favorite 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Buy Hendri Coetzee's Memoir, Please

Dear Readers - I'm asking you to consider purchasing a memoir written by Hendri Coetzee, Living the Best Day Ever. No one asked me to promote the book and I have nothing to gain other than the satisfaction of sharing insight into a young man whose impact on my son, and the ripple effects through our family, have been significant. Also, it's a good read! A bonus is that this first hardcover collectors' edition is being produced in the spirit and style of a classic explorer book, complete with Hendri's hand-drawn maps. The book includes five photos by Chris Korbulic.

Hendri Coetzee, 2010 shortly before his death.  Photo by Chris Korbulic.
Do you remember Hendri Coetzee? I sure do. I became acutely aware of him late in 2010 when our son Chris Korbulic and his kayaking partner Ben Stookesberry launched into what was planned as a three-month circumnavigation of rivers that connect Africa's West Rift Valley. Their expedition was to end when they arrived at the Congo River. Hendri was their guide.

Who the heck is he? I asked Ben, who had searched-out Hendri online and made the long-distance arrangements. Is he legit?

Ben said, in as many words, This guy is great. And indeed he was. Hendri was a modern-day explorer,  extreme kayaker, and adventurer. I later learned he was also a thinker, philosopher, comedian, and one helluva writer.

The trip would take them down the gnarly hippo and crocodile-infested Nile River in Uganda, across Lake Victoria, into the Ruzizi River and then the Lukuga River. Ahh, yes. The Lukuga, which I bet anybody who's reading this had never heard of before this expedition.

By this trio's ridiculous standards the Lukuga was tame. Most of Hendi's exploits were far sketchier, and Chris and Ben travel the world chasing waterfalls and unexplored rivers. The Lukuga was an unlikely place for any of them to die.

Hendri was taken by a crocodile on that river. Chris was just a few feet away and saw the split-second attack. Why didn't the croc take Chris? Or Ben? They will never know but will forever question: Why did I live? Why did Hendri die?

Just the previous evening, sitting cross-legged in a rainstorm while Chris and Ben huddled beneath a tarp, Hendri laughed and joked, bringing light to what could have been a miserable situation. Despite the downpour, their meagre dinner of a shared candy bar and a bit of dried fish, he was having the time of his life— another Best Day Ever. The next day he was gone.
 What could be more ironic than dying when you feel most alive?      From Living the Best Day Ever 
His memoir brings to life many of his incredible adventures, and he tells the stories with delicious detail, impressive descriptive power, humor and self deprecation. In most cases, he's aware that death is at his side, a subject he mentions time and again.

He wrote in one of numerous foreshadowings:
The lack of happy old people in my environment is a good indicator that this is an unsustainable lifestyle. Either I find something better, or I die on the river. Either way I have nothing to worry about. The worst possible scenario is that I don't let go when the time comes, that I live out my life by an empty well, depressed and chained to a dead passion."  From Living the Best Day Ever
I was asked to give the manuscript a quick edit. (It had been edited already and would undergo a more thorough treatment before publication.)

It was sent to me from Uganda via the Internet. I printed all 296 single-spaced PDF pages, sharpened my pencil and went to work. (The boxed manuscript traveled back to Africa with Chris a couple weeks later.)

Fascination and awe grew as Hendri's life unfolded. My eyes flew over the words, stopping now and again to correct a comma, substitute a word choice, or eliminate excess. I laughed out loud, (Yes LOL!! as they say on Facebook) teared up, shouted at Hendri, talked with him quietly, and marveled that a young man bent on apparent self destruction was also sensitive, compassionate, thoughtful, self deprecating, courageous, outrageous, damn smart and funny!

With his muscular physique and history of daring adventures, you might think he was macho in the worst sense. Not at all. In fact, he was full of self doubt, always questioning, always thinking—and always writing. He began his  Great White Explorer blog to chronicle what would be his final expedition. He was 35. His blog posts are part of the book.

Note: If you check out the blog, you'll find a piece written in August 2013 by his good friend Leyla Ahmet. Her piece is worth reading. To see Hendri's 11 posts, scroll down on the right to 2010 archives.

When our Chris is deep into an adventure, we are always hungry (desperate!) for news. When Hendri's blog came to light, I was thrilled to learn expedition details, terrifying as they often were. I was also amazed by his writing. He generated a flurry of words that he obviously didn't have time to labor over, let alone go through the torture of revising/rewriting. He was a natural. He wrote out of excitement and the need to tell his stories. As I worked through the manuscript, I was taken with his respect for African people, who somehow manage moments of joy in the midst of great poverty and pain. A couple of my favorite quotes:
 White people are not tough enough to be black
The Heart of Darkness is a label that will hang over the Congo for a long time. The cliché is turned on its head when you find out it is your own heart that leans in that direction. 
His ability to create a sense of place in the here-and-now and also in historical context is remarkable. I developed a desire to GO THERE and I am! (PK and I are soon headed to South Africa and Uganda.)

Fear,  disillusionment, death, good, evil, leadership, self-doubt, haves and have-nots, joy in the moment, guilt, implications of being white—all are themes that are woven throughout the book. All this is mixed with the adventure stories that wouldn't be unbelievable  if they were in a novel. Who would believe, for example, that cannibals are still operating deep in the Congo and that Hendri nearly succumbed to a group of them?

Extreme kayakers will relish the wave-by-hole accounts of class five and six rapids, and the trials of expedition leadership as well as unsupported solo explorations. The rest of us will enjoy those parts, but will be taken as well  by his insights and original thinking.

Why do I care? Because I care about the people who put their hearts and resources into getting it into print, and I care about Hendri, although I never met him. And I care about my son, Chris, who could have been crushed between a crocodile's jaws but wasn’t.

Chris escaped death, and because he loved and admired Hendri, he thought about conducting his life in a more conscious way that Hendri had demonstrated, specifically about accepting the troughs that occur between peak experiences, and learning to accept and even welcome the “flat water.” He wrote about Hendri’s  “best day ever” state of mind in a piece in Canoe and Kayak magazine.

Hendri's philosophy demands embracing the moment, whatever it brings.
Do I always do this? No. But I do think about it, and I do try. And I believe I have been elevated in some situations that otherwise would have been terribly dull or uncomfortable. Hendri’s memoir made me realize the role individuals can play in creating their own realities. 

He caused me to think and wonder. What more could one ask from a book? Or from a person, dead or alive?

 For how-to-pre-order info, keep reading. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Costa Rica—lessons from a journey south

Paul toasting our good fortune to be at Cabinas Jimenez on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica in December 2010. 
Note to readers: This post includes numerous links, which, if followed, could direct you toward journeys far deeper than my little excursion to Costa Rica leads you. I travel where I can, when I'm able, and in comfort. But my son's journeys are wider and deeper and challenging in every way. If you have time to follow only one link, choose the Great White Explorer. It can transport you to explorations you may not know exist in this day and age.

When I started this post long after returning from our Costa Rican respite, it was raining like hell here in Southern Oregon. February 14 shattered the 1904 rainfall  record in the Rogue Valley and interrupted weeks of balmy days when winter plantings vibrated with springness, and when we uppity Northwesterners looked toward the hideous Eastern blizzards with curiosity and said, "Oh, poor things!" But. Here's winter again.  And now I'm looking back to Costa Rica, where PK and I escaped for most of December 2010. Ahh. It was glorious. But.

We had been there only two days when our son, Chris, emailed us to say that his African kayaking expedition leader. Hendri Coetzee, had been killed by huge crocodile on an African river. Chris was two feet away, and another kayaker, Ben Stookesberry, was close by. A lengthy piece about this tragedy is the cover story in the March 2011 edition of Outside Magazine. (This is a 9-page piece profiling the amazing Hendri. It is well well worth your time. Hendri was charismatic and an outrageous adventurer. His is a riveting story, despite the tragic ending. It's almost as if he saw it coming.)
If you lose your child by a crocodile snatching, it's no more grief-making than by any other means. Car accidents. Diving mishaps. Bicycle crashes. But to us, this news was disturbing beyond belief, perhaps because we'd gotten to know Hendri though his writing on his Great White Explorer blog. The guy was an incredible writer and an extraordinary person. And partly because we felt guilty.

Hendri was taken. Chris lived, and we were grateful he did. Nearly three months later, we're still in wonder and so incredibly thankful that our son is alive and has moved on to his next adventure. Because what else could he do?

Hendri, rest in peace. Please accept the profound regrets of your companion's mother, and I know I speak for his father as well. We're grateful that Chris knew you, and know he loved you and will never forget. He takes many lessons from you. And so do we.

And so we moved on, as parents of survivors can do. (Had Chris been the crocodile's meal, we would still be muddling in a corner.) The next few weeks were a wonder of sights and sensations taking our minds off the tragedy. Two things stand out. One was our stay at a B and B called the Erupciones Inn at the base of the Arenal Volcano. The other was a lesson in letting go with good friends Catherine and Michael Wood, our Southern Oregon pals who live several months a year near Mal Pais on Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula.
The story: This Costa Rican dad raises Arabians. His wife runs the Erupciones Inn, a bed and breakfast at the base of Arenal Volcano. I took this photo (and more) from the patio of our modest accommodation. The little guy is two years old, and on his first "round-up-the-horses" mission with his father. Seeing this strong yet gentle parenting was somehow comforting to us, fortunate to be the parents of two incredible young men. 
The story:Here's Catherine Wood napping in her hammock on a lazy Costa Rican afternoon.  In her non Costa Rican life, she's a whirlwind. She works tirelessly for the non profit she founded, Bright Futures Foundation. But CR time is laid back. She reads. She refreshes. She and Michael play dominoes and entertain friends. They get plenty of hammock time. She's younger than me, and I have NEVER achieved the level of relaxation that she demonstrated.
There's no reason not to enjoy some down time, and so I am going to learn to do it!
Thank you, Woods, for the life lesson, and for being such good friends.
More photos from Costa Rica. 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A mother's nightmare; a mother's dream

Chris' self portrait taken in the garden in late December 2010 is symbolic. This is his home, and he loves it. But he's a ghost here, always en route to a new adventure. 
 I read about your son--truly a mother's nightmare. I was wondering how you restrain yourself from locking him in his room until I read the follow-up story about how much he loves what he does. I'm glad he is home for a bit--I'm sure you are too.
The email message above arrived yesterday and made me study my wonderfully alive and well son sitting at his computer editing his photos from Africa. What happened in Africa in early December was a "mother's nightmare," and a father's and a family's nightmare as well. A horrific tragedy occurred, and Chris could have been the victim as easily as the man who died. 
If you're reading this, you likely know that Chris was one of three kayakers on an expedition that entailed paddling rivers never before navigated in the heart of Africa—the Democratic Republic of Congo. They successfully ran incredibly challenging whitewater, something they've done all over the world. They know how to measure a rapid's or a waterfall's risk and weigh the consequences of error. They can walk away, and they often do. But a giant crocodile exploded from the Lukuga River, grabbed one man by the shoulder and capsized his kayak. Hendri Coetzee was gone. 
Chris and his companion, Ben Stookesberry, were stunned and horrified. There was nothing they could do for Hendri, so they paddled furiously and pulled out of the river at a village less than a kilometer downstream. They told villagers the tragic story and asked for help looking for Hendri. But the villagers, who were otherwise helpful, refused to enter the river. The croc, estimated at 15-feet long, had already killed nine people in recent years. 
The next day, vacationing in Costa Rica, PK and I got an email from Chris informing us of what had transpired. Our first thought, "Thank God it wasn't Chris!" Then guilt  because somehow that equates to we're glad it was the other guy. But that's not true. We're deeply sorry that anyone died this way. Our hearts go out to Hendri's family and friends. I  regret never getting to meet such an incredible young man, and am grateful that Chris was able to benefit from Hendri's energy, experience, and insights.

Media frenzy ensued. 
An AP  quote, via email,  from PK and me in Costa Rica:
All of us with loved ones engaged in extreme risk as a lifestyle and vocation live in dread of getting bad news, but at the same time we are wildly proud of our sons for their courage and determination to be explorers in a time when most people think terrestrial, social, and environmental exploration is over. We didn't know Hendri, but will miss his presence on earth and in the life of our son.
Amen to that. But what about that impulse to "lock him in his room?"
Last spring I called Chris as I was obsessing about his plans to run a big, bad waterfall. "Why do you have to do this," I asked. "What's the point?"
The point was he wanted to do it, he said. And, he added, I was in greater danger driving than he was running waterfalls that he had carefully measured himself against. Ten minutes later,  on a deserted street in our quiet little Oregon town, a man had a heart attack while driving and plowed into the back of the vehicle I'd exited about a minute earlier.  My car was totaled, spun around and pointed the other direction. The errant driver died. So could have I. 
Ok, Chris, I believe you. Perhaps risk is relative, and the greatest danger is mediocrity, of playing it safe, of avoiding risk. (says she with a blog entitled Ordinary Life!) Well, I have to tell you. One of life's greatest risks—and joys—is having children. You raise someone as far as you're able, then they're launched and all you can do is watch and hope. Loving someone as deeply as most parents love their children is a huge and unavoidable vulnerability. Loving children is a exploration into the depths and heights of being human. It is at once dangerous and thrilling. I hope one day you dare to take the plunge. 
I'm not advocating that our youngest son forsake his adventuring soul and give it all up for a  home in the suburbs or work in a cubicle. My dream for him is that he can continue exploring the globe and his inner self, accepting physical and mental challenges, and make a living doing so. He's one of an elite group of seekers who dares to step far outside the boundaries of what most others think possible. But I also hope  that he never turns completely away from the ordinary life of making a home and  having a family. Because it's good, too, and has its own rewards—and even an occasional thrill.