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Exploring the Caves Branch River, Belize

By Slickrock Adventures on October 4, 2011

When we first thought about venturing down the Caves Branch River, Belize, in the mid 1980’s. We had some basic information about the run from a friend in Moab who had actually been on the first exploratory trip through the caves a few years before. That group of cavers had explored the river cave system from the bottom end up before taking their first trip downstream on inner tubes. So, we knew that the caves were navigable with the exception of one cave that ‘sumped’ underground, but which had a portage route around it to another entrance below. (Click on any image to see the full size.)

The Caves Branch River passes through four caves as it runs through the limestone foothills of the Maya Mountains. The caves also have numerous ‘windows’, or openings, to the outside as the river runs though the caves, allowing various access points along its course. But, the surrounding terrain is thick jungle with no roads or trails, so it is a real adventure to run this stretch of the river.

We were running various rivers with a group of river guides when we decided to run the Caves Branch, and although we knew where the put in and take out were located, and that there was a portage around a cave somewhere, we didn’t know which cave had the portage. We planned on asking a local expert, Ian Anderson, at the put in where his jungle lodge was located. Unfortunately he was not there when we arrived, so we launched anyway.

After paddling a few miles we arrived at the entrance to the first cave. It was a bit nerve wracking because we knew one of the caves did not go through, but since we were all strong paddlers in kayaks we thought we could handle it. The first cave had very fast current and the river was wall to wall. But we were able to see light downstream from the first window so we knew it was a ‘go’. We continued on, and again we could discern light downstream so we were able to relax in knowing it went through. After exiting the first cave, we started down the second. However, we could not see light as we descended into the darkness, and about 200 yards in we came upon the sump. Fortunately it was quiet current at the sump so we were not swept into it. Now we had to back track back out of the cave, which proved quite difficult since there was a small rapid. A couple of our stronger kayakers were able to eddy hop back up however, and then they lowered throw roped back down to the others could haul themselves back up and out of the cave. We were all quite nervous and were thinking about what would have happened to us had we not been able to get back up that current!

Now we were faced with a portage, but there were no paths and we were in the middle of thick rainforest and had no real idea of where the river went from there. So we sent out scouts in several directions. Fortunately, one person did find an overflow channel that he knew must lead back to the river eventually, and it did. He returned after a half hour and we were then able to portage and get back on the river through a cave window.

As we proceeded, we were all extremely apprehensive because we did not know if there was another sump, and we were not seeing any further light down the cave. But, the current was much slower and we knew we could paddle back upstream if we found another sump.

The next anxious moment occurred when we heard a roaring sound approaching, which sounded like a large rapid. As we cautiously proceeded, we eventually came to a side stream that joined the main river, and the sound of its small waterfalls had only been amplified by the cave. The main river continued on as slow water, and we were much relieved when we finally emerged from the last cave.

After scouting the river successfully, we began to run the Caves Branch in kayaks and rafts as part of Slickrock’s Belize Adventure Week trip, and it is still the highlight of the trip today!