Road doggin’ in the Land of Noriega |

Road doggin’ in the Land of Noriega

Scott Willoughby

Just about everyone who has lived in the Vail Valley for any length of time gets the urge now and then to run away. And while I’m not exactly sure at what point in life running away becomes acceptable behavior, I suppose it’s when you start calling it “vacation.” By then it’s presumed you have somewhere to go.Myself, I prefer the phrase “leave of absence” to “vacation.” It has more mystique, even when you’re pretty sure you’ll be back. And maybe helps me rationalize the coinciding lack of income that is self-employed holiday.Still, there is a fine line separating my transient tendencies from full-on vagrancy. When we were younger, a wandering companion and I would refer to such escapades as road-dogging, more or less scavenging our way around the globe with little more than a backpack and a direction, if not an actual destination, in mind. More than a place, we sought the frame of mind that comes with the freedom, independence and discovery of exploration.Like most people, I’m guessing, my running away fantasies are deep rooted. I can include others in this flight of fancy with a good amount of confidence because of the ubiquitous pining for adventure I encounter whenever I mention an impending leave. Nearly everyone claims a desire to drop everything and go, yet few actually do. Something always holds them back.I understand completely. There never seems to be a shortage of deadlines or commitments, and putting the world on hold just to go wandering can be tough. I can still remember my own feeble first attempted run-away some years ago. I was in my early teens when I hopped out of the car at a red light during an argument with my dad. Even with nowhere to go I was glad to be gone. I trudged around town for a few hours before sneaking over to my friend Johnny’s basement to spend the night. Eventually though, I had to go home and face the music.Although arguments with the old man are much fewer and farther between these days, I still find the pattern hasn’t changed much. For no good reason, sometimes I still even head to Johnny’s, now that he’s moved to Summit County.Since settling in Vail, I’ve found November to be the optimal time of year to road dog. The summer’s long gone, trees have turned, and while ski season looms, in reality it’s still some ways away. And after an especially long summer of desk jockeying and shoulder rehab, the wanderlust was exceptionally strong this year.Thus far it has pulled me down to the rivers and beaches of Costa Rica, across the southern border into Panama and into the Chiriqui Provence of Panama, where I’m currently residing in the highland town of Boquete. Since this recent reincarnation of the road dog has proven a bit more tedious with a kayak in tow, I figure on settling here for a few weeks at least.And why not? The quaint village on the flanks of Panama’s highest peak, the Volcan Baru, has everything a dormant ski bum could need steep hills, scenic vistas, gracious, hospitable people, cheap food, 50 cent cervacas and an estimated 35 river runs (class IV and up) within two hours drive. Plus, the man who pioneered whitewater river running in Panama Hector Sanchez of Chiriqui River Rafting is housing me and a posse of Southeastern river rats from the Nantahala Outdoor Center at his beautiful 15-acre coffee farm. Life is good.The popular comparison is that Boquete is what Costa Rica was 15 years ago. The gringo invasion has yet to occur and the eco-tourism industry is still in its infancy. It’s essentially impossible to kayak in the area without the assistance of Sanchez and NOC adventure travel instructor John Miller, the first guy to kayak nearly all of those 35 runs. Nor would anyone really want to. Beyond the standard safety ropes, pin kits, spare paddles and first aid gear, a machette is standard equipment in the back of your kayak around here. Simply finding the put-in is adventure enough for most.But the rivers are indeed a treat, ranging from technical rain-fed creeks to playful big-water drainages and remote steep-walled gorges that will test the ability of any boater. Howler monkeys, river otters, iguanas and any variety of tropical birds abound. And in six days we’ve run six different rivers, thus far passing up the class III play run rolling right through downtown Boquete.That may change this week, however, as the centennial celebration of Panama’s independence from Columbia is currently under way and there is talk of taping flags to our helmets and doing some patriotic paddling during the fiesta.I’m confident that even as gringos the show will be appreciated. Although most of the locals already look at us as loco in our bright plastic boats, Sanchez and our amigo Papito Panama’s only class V paddling native are somewhat famous local heroes. Plus, this is a celebration of independence and Chiriqui is a fiercely independent province. They understand good and well just what road doggin’ is all about.Even in Panama, local freelancer Scott Willoughby can be reached at For mas information on los rios de Panama, log onto

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