Showing posts with label ben stookesberry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ben stookesberry. 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.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Too Many Photos!

Baby Noah displaying his outrageous independence at almost nine months.  No cuddling, please!
Just feed me and give me toys and space. And can I pull your hair?
I lost my camera the first day of our March vacation to Death Valley and other places in California and Nevada. Fortunately, I managed to keep track of it while in Reno with grand baby Noah, and fired off a shot worthy of archiving, if not for technical proficiency, at least for recording the reality of  a baby who is not at all interested in being cuddled. Grandpa Paul enjoyed the hair pulling as he provided sustenance.

This is Death Valley as seen from the gravel parking lot-type camp at Stovepipe Wells. It is my last vacation photo before my camera  disappeared.  This was also before I determined to take only photos that might mean something to me in 10 years .... or more. Or to someone else. This shot, while pleasing, would not make the cut.
This is how our bikes look hanging off the back of our little Four Wheel camper.
Exciting, right? This is what can happen when you have a camera and feel compelled to use it and SHARE the photos.
This does not make the 10-year cut, and is for demonstration only. Others may be interested in your children, your pets, your vegetables,  your toenails. But your bikes, probably not.

Traveling sans camera was a revelation. First I realized that not taking photos is a vacation in itself. How many pictures does the world need? How many do I need? Pictures of Noah and other family members have a small but appreciative audience. Pictures of Death Valley and the Sierra Mountains, however, have been well documented by photographers who are a million times more skilled and better equipped than I am. We discovered Galen Rowell in a Bishop, California gallery. Wow! It's clear that my landscape photos are not needed. I secretly like some of my own shots, but I can keep them to myself. Maybe.

What happened to my camera? I thought it was stolen, or even worse, that I had left it by the sink in the campground restroom. Paul discovered it soon after we returned home beneath the bench cushion in our cozy camper. I was disappointed, as I had already selected a replacement. My pocket Nikon Coolpix has been obsoleted over the past three (four?)years with much-upgraded compact cameras. Why I need sharper, brighter images, and even more foolproof technology, I do not know. But I want them. I would have shot hundreds of photos. I'm not kidding. I would have snapped my way through Death Valley, then captured myriad scenes along the incredibly beautiful highway 395 skirting the eastern edge of the magnificent Sierra Mountains through Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills and Bishop and Mammoth Lakes and then onto South Lake Tahoe and our fabulous day of bluebird skiing with vast, crisp, magnificent views of the lake. Post trip I would have been overwhelmed with  images, editing like crazy to decide which shots were worth salvaging. And who cares? Key question.

Of course after Paul found my camera, I gradually resumed photography, but with more retrospection. I was once a "professional", shooting to illustrate articles for small newspapers and a statewide business magazine. That was when 35mm film came in rolls of 20 or 36 frames, and you had to think and frame and anticipate to use those few shots judiciously. It was a discipline that I, for one, have almost forgotten with digital photography. Temporarily losing my camera brought me back to something I'd all but forgotten: pre-editing. Think before you shoot. So here follow some recent random photos that mean something to me, and why.
Chris, the professional photographer, and I, took turns at the magnificent cactus in  our solarium.
What Chris saw. This could be enlarged 100 X and still look great.

What I saw. Don't make it any bigger, please. 

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. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nomad kayaking son ..... will I survive?

As I begin this post Nov. 18, son Chris, 23, is en route to India and perhaps Nepal, China and Tibet, on a two-month kayaking expedition. This is not "ordinary life" but it is his life. Here he is, my baby, 20 years ago dipping a paddle into the river for the first time. (That's his dad's vintage blue Dancer) And here he is a few years ago in a circling-the-drain Chilean waterfall. Actually, I"m not sure that's Chris. He and a Spanish kayaker explored this creek and took turns with the camera. Those days Chris was on his own with a hunger for adventure and a quiet determination to join an elite cadre of kayakers who travel the globe pursuing primo adventure and first descents. That's what he's doing now—primo adventure and first descents. And that's what he did in 2008 in Pakistan and Brazil, and in 2007 in Newfoundland and Chile. It's a ridiculous life. He toils for a few months to earn enough for life support and airline tickets, and then hops around the world with his kayak. It's not something that you envision, or can even imagine, for your child. But Chris is driven by an endless well of ambition and passion, so I go along, oscillating between pride and terror. Despite my fearful motherliness, I say, Go Chris!