CASKE 2000 > Stories > Adventure > Honduras > La Moskitia: Poling a Pipante


Poling a "Pipante"
Dugout Canoe

9/25/99 by Jean-Philippe Soule

Networks of rivers drain the rainforest from frequent tropical storms. These rivers are the lifelines of the indigenous people living along their banks, providing fish and water for consumption and crop irrigation. Curving their way through thick vegetation, they are the sole means of travel and transportation, and indigenous people have adapted their entire lifestyle to the water flow. To travel, fish and transport cargo, they dig canoes out of a single tree. These dugout canoes are surprisingly efficient at navigating the waterways, when operated with skill. On a wide and deep river like the Amazon, people paddle their canoes, while on fast and shallow rivers they stand and propel them with long poles.

In the heart of the Platano Biosphere of the Mosquito Coast of Honduras lies the village of Las Marias, home of the Pech people. As part of the Central American Sea Kayak Expedition 2000 we stopped in Las Marias. During our visit we traded our kayaks for a dugout canoe, and with the help of a very special and skilled tutor I started to learn the traditional canoeing and fishing skills.

Seven year-old Lilian is an expert at maneuvering a ďpipanteĒ, as the dugouts are called here in La Moskitia. She grew up high on the Rio Platano swimming, paddling, and poling the strong currents and seems to use little effort to take the pipante where she wants. On one particular occasion she was taking me up to a shallow but very fast confluence where I could sit in the narrow dugout with my camera and take action photos. When I asked her if there was a risk of capsizing she smiled and said, "No problem." She quickly gave a few orders to her six year-old sister Bernarda who was standing and poling at the front. With amazing balance and a natural understanding of hydro-dynamics, she quickly switched between a large wood paddle and a long stick. She alternated pushing and paddling on both sides in order to keep the boat aimed at the right angle against the raging current.

At the confluence I lay down on my back, shooting photo after photo. The water started pouring in the boat from the upstream side. Lilian smiled as I got wet and then saw an expression of worry on my face as I tried to protect my camera. She was in control and made corrections in mere seconds. Immediately she directed her sister to shift her weight. The flooding stopped and the boat kept its place hovering in the rapid. When I indicated that I had shot enough photos, she steered back into the current and let the boat drift at an angle back to shore while she sprayed water over her face to refresh herself after the intense workout.

"Well done Lilian and Bernarda. Now itís my turn," I said. We dropped off my camera on shore along with Bernarda. The day before I had flipped the boat a few times when she was in it and she didnít want a repeat. Bernarda isnít afraid of falling in the middle of the deep river with strong current, but she prefers swimming on the side, where she can return to shore quickly. Lilian on the other hand enjoys being the one in charge and if my clumsiness sends her into the water as well, it just adds to the fun. Besides, I couldnít go without her anyway. I needed her to sit in the rear of the boat and steer with the paddle, or I should say counter-steer to compensate for my mistakes. It was my third practice and this time I stood up in the narrow canoe without any problems. With years of skiing, snowboarding, and many other sports under my belt, I have developed good balance and coordination, or so I thought. The Pech people of Las Marias are far superior, even the children.

The technique seems easy. You pitch your pole onto the bottom, lean forward on it and use your weight to move the pipante forward. Your pole ends up toward the stern. In strong currents, pitching the pole is a little more difficult. You need to have good balance and apply a lot of power to stop the stick from skidding along the rolling rocks of the bottom. It is especially tough when you have missed your entry into a fast stream and the canoe is moving backwards. It takes more power and skill to stop the momentum of the heavy dugout. Sometimes the water is so deep you have to hunch down to push, your hands inches away from the surface and the pole fully submerged. When it becomes too deep to pole, the person at the rear paddles. It may sound exhausting, but with skill you avoid mistakes and keep efficient control of the pipante.

I started poling next to the riverbank where the water was hardly moving. Then we steered away from a rock and faced the current of the first confluence. The boat swung from side to side. I lost my balance, swayed back and forth and tried to pitch my pole against the bottom of the river. I felt like a clown and my poling was completely ineffective. We lost ground quickly against the current. With Lilianís remarkable steering we maneuvered over to the other side where I could again attempt to be "useful" in the boat. I poled three times and we were ready to enter the second, faster branch of the river. Again I poled with effort and we gained a few feet. Once in the current, however, the bottom dropped away to a depth where I could no longer touch. The stick lost its purchase on the bottom of the river, it slipped out of my hands and was carried away from the boat by the current. Shortly thereafter I tumbled over the side and ended up following my pole downstream. In the middle of a rapid while standing on a pipante, mistakes are not allowed, unless of course youíre looking from a big, beautiful laugh from the seven-year-old captain. Lilian steered the canoe back to a neutral position in an eddy while I was breaking the surface. I swam and climbed back in. We played for a while longer and I fell into the water countless times.

When we returned to shore, I asked Bernarda if she wanted to come with us the next time. She answered, "Tengo miedo con tigo," "Iím afraid with you." I had to appreciate her point of view. If I was her size and was sitting in a dugout next to a giant, uncoordinated, unbalanced gringo, I wouldnít give him another chance to tip me over. I was reassured when I saw my expedition partner Luke take his turn to practice. With a few big splashes, the skiing champion couldnít stay on his feet either. The river was beautifully refreshing and we ended our practice session by playing with the girls in the water where we redeemed ourselves with our swimming ability.

Every day I went out with Lilian in the small pipante. With time I improved a great deal at standing and poling, but of course it was relative to my original inability. Only fast rapids caused me to fall. I could stand and pole but I still did not instill much confidence in my passengers. Bernarda was the ultimate judge, and to her, the dugout was still swinging too much from side to side. The gringo still looked like an uncoordinated marionette. Lilian thought I had improved enough that she challenged me to race. I had to turn my seven-year-old competitor down. I would have no chance of winning, and after all, a man has his pride!

I was interested in learning the traditional fishing techniques and asked Lilianís two older brothers, Maxi, 20 and Elias, 22, to show me. The grace and power of two strong men is best seen when they go fishing with the traditional long harpoon. The harpoon can be fifteen to twenty five feet in length and is used in the shallow rapids where the fish can be seen more easily. One person steers and paddles at the rear while the fisherman stands in the front. If needed the hunter uses the backside of his harpoon to pole.

Elias steered a bigger dugout canoe into the strong current and Maxi stood staring at the water for fish while holding his harpoon in position. The boat didnít swing an inch. The two men were in perfect synchronization with the movement of the water. With no visible effort, they kept their dugout in place where I always fell. The water visibility was poor that day because of the heavy rains of the previous week. We left the pipante on a gravel bar on the side and followed Maxi into the shallower rapids as he stood thigh deep in the current in search of fish. He missed the rare ones he saw, but as he had told me before, with such poor visibility we would be very lucky to get anything. When the water is clear, he sometimes spends more than an hour before returning home with fish. But a few delicious Cuyamels (a prized river fish) for the family makes the effort well worth it. Needless to say, I havenít yet tried to fish standing in a pipante. I will keep practicing poling and I will spear a cuyamel from a dugout before we paddle out of La Moskitia. The Pech have been doing it forever. Iíve got hundreds of years of tradition backing me up. How can I fail?

After a rough day, we always reward ourselves with some type of decadent food or sweet. When we paddle, I usually rely on Luke for the culinary inspiration. While flailing about on the Rio Platano we discovered that the perfect drink at the end of the day is cacao. During our short stay with the Torres family we became addicted to the hot cacao served with every meal. The preparation in La Moskitia, is almost the same as that which we documented with the Mayan people in Belize. Read the full page, "Cacao, the drink of the Gods". The ground powder is mixed with hot water to which one adds sugar. The natural oil of the cacao is found floating at the surface. Unlike the Western preparation, no milk is used. My first impression was of a slightly bitter drink. But one quickly acquires the taste and after a few days you canít get enough.

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