Written by Beau Burns
Over winter break, while many students were preparing for Half Block, I traveled south to Veracruz, Mexico. I planned my trip with the intention of participating in a kayaking race and running whitewater rivers with Gradient, unlike anything I had ever experienced. However, I encountered more than just scenic jungles and thrilling whitewater. I discovered a subset of the kayaking community focused on using their sport to improve people’s lives and local populace that wholeheartedly embraced this initiative.
This year, the ninth annual Alseseca race was located in Tlapacoyan, Mexico, a remote town six hours east of Mexico City. Tlapacoyan sits atop mountainous terrain surrounded by citrus and banana farms. The Tlapacoyan area is extremely rainy, feeding rivers like the Tomato, Filo Bobos and the Alseseca. These rivers cascade down mountains formed by volcanic eruption and create hundreds of waterfalls, making the area an ideal location for an extreme whitewater kayaking race. The rivers are also very important for the local economy. Tlapacoyan is dependent on agriculture. Fruit farms employ more people than any other industry in the area. Unfortunately, the rivers are threatened by changing environmental conditions.
During my travels, I observed many of the locals burning or burying their waste due to poor trash collection services. A lot of their waste ends up in the rivers. While paddling the Alseseca, I found pill bottles, wrappers, plastic bags, and even a massive blob of pink gunk—the origin of which I couldn’t begin to guess. Despite its clear blue water, the Alseseca was by far the most polluted river I have been in—and I have kayaked in Monument Creek! This issue became even more apparent when I was plagued by illness three days after swallowing some river water.
Dams also pose a threat to the rivers and thus the surrounding communities. If the Filo Bobos was dammed, agricultural lands would flood, residents would be displaced and recreational industries like river rafting would lose their means of existence. Facing potential disaster, the people of Tlapacoyan and greater Mexico decided to do something about it.
The Alseseca race was started nine years ago with the intention of bringing awareness to these issues. It was the product of a partnership between the rafting company Adventurec and a group of Maryland-based kayakers, including kayaking legend Tom McEwan, and his affiliates: Liquid Adventures, and Calleva. Since its founding, the race has placed strong emphasis on river stewardship. Before the competition began, myself and my fellow competitors scoured the banks of the Alseseca in preparation for race day crowds. According to Tom McEwan, in the early years, competitors had to haul piles of waste from the gorge just to make it possible for spectators to attend. While most of the river needs similar work, the area we clean has improved dramatically and is becoming a symbol of environmental stewardship.
Although it was started in part by Americans, the local community has taken ownership of the Alseseca Kayak Race. I observed Mexican families from Tlapacoyan and other areas crowding the banks of the Alseseca to watch kayakers run rapids. Awestruck kids watched and cheered as they paddled by. Before the race, an indigenous priest blew smoke on each competitor while they bowed and prayed for the river. The ceremony was followed by a chant where everyone shouted, “No Mas Represas!” (meaning, “no more dams”). The cry has concrete origins; a portion of the money raised by the entrance fees goes towards efforts to oppose dam proposals in the Veracruz area.
In my opinion, the Alseseca race embodies the ideal combination of culture, celebration, and service. Events like this can be detached from the host communities, and do not always benefit the local people. However, the Alseseca race embraces the local community and strives to promote stewardship and environmental change. Even niche extreme sports like whitewater kayaking can be vehicles for positive change and community engagement when properly organized.