Rio Days: Puente Romano and Rio Guadalquivir in Cordoba, Spain
Rio Days: Puente Romano and Rio Guadalquivir in Cordoba, Spain

Stretches of Spain

230 Miles, 28 days, countless castles, and a giant snag—one family's transformative journey by kayak down the Guadalquivir River

Rio Days: Puente Romano and Rio Guadalquivir in Cordoba, Spain
David Cates

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FEW MILES DOWNSTREAM FROM ALMODÓVAR del Rio on Spain’s Guadalquivir River, I saw what I’d been dreading for days: my wife, Rosalie, and our 17-year-old daughter, Anna, chest deep in fast water, their loaded kayak turned perpendicular to the current and pressed against a tree that had fallen from the bank. They had been paddling ahead, down a narrow channel with steep, wooded banks and around a blind right turn, when they were swept into the snag. Following in the boat I shared with our two younger girls, Margaret, 13, and Mary, seven, I pulled up on a gravel beach and studied the water between us and the troubled kayak. Too muddy to see through. If the water was shallow, I could walk. If it got deep, I’d be swept downstream. I took a step and it was up to my thighs.

Rio Days: Puente Romano and Rio Guadalquivir in Cordoba, Spain Rio Days: Puente Romano and Rio Guadalquivir in Cordoba, Spain

Out in the river, Rosalie and Anna spoke evenly to one another, calmly discussing their plan. The current piled up water on their backs and against the sit-on-top fiberglass boat that was strapped with three heavy drybags (which were soon to be wet bags) filled with clothes and camping gear. When I took another step, the warm water rose to my waist while a cold lump formed in my stomach.
THE GUADALQUIVIR RIVER flows westward for 408 miles, falling through the cedar and pine forests of the Sierra de Cazorla, winding across southern Spain’s searing Andalusian plain, and spreading to almost a mile wide before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. We paddled about 230 miles of it, skipping the Class IV and V rapids up high, as well as the long stretches of reservoirs in the middle. The day we caught the snag, or the snag caught us, was day 20 of a 28-day trip from the mountains to the sea. I’d planned this adventure to snap my family out of our domestic patterns—to force us to work together through difficult days and to relax together through easy ones. Our excursion was water-oriented because I’m a part-time river guide and because my wife and daughters love any plan that involves camping and floating; Rosalie chose Spain because we both speak Spanish. She said I’d combined a midlife crisis with a family Outward Bound course, and perhaps she’s right. I didn’t want a wilderness trip, though. We live in Montana and we’ve floated wild rivers. Instead, I wanted a flatwater trip through history, so I picked a route that’s been a working waterway for thousands of years.

The Greeks called it Tartessos, the Romans dubbed it Baetis, and the Arabs named it Wadi al-Kebir, which eventually morphed into the Spanish name Guadalquivir (gwad-al-key-VEER), or Great River. The Phoenicians shipped metals home on its water. The Romans shipped pottery and olive oil. And up its estuary to the port of Seville went the gold of the Aztecs and Incas. Hercules, Jonas, Caesar, and Cervantes came this way, so why not the Cates family?

IT WAS LATE AFTERNOON, when the sun ought to be starting to set. But not in Andalusia, where rather than traverse the sky in a simple arc and sink into coolness, the summer sun lingers, burning with torturous patience. Rosalie and Anna worked the bow of the yellow kayak up through the branches of the snag until its weight lay across the trunk. Now only the stern was still propped up onto the tree.

This was the tricky part. The bow line that Rosalie held in her hand wasn’t quite long enough. If they pushed the kayak any farther, she’d have to let go of the rope before the stern was clear. And if she let go, the kayak and gear would wash downstream into yet another snag.
I stood there, waist-deep in the water, and behind me Margaret and Mary sat in our beached kayak, singing to stay calm.

NOWADAYS THE GUADALQUIVIR turns turbines in big dams to make electricity. It’s pumped and divided to irrigate corn, cotton, tomatoes, strawberries, and rice. It swells in winter rains, fills reservoirs, and in some places dries to a trickle in the summer sun. It smells variously of olive oil, paper mill, sheep manure, eucalyptus, and willows.

Shuttled 300 miles east from Seville, we’re dropped off in the mountains with our rented kayaks, gear, a cell phone, and a list of people—assembled by the woman who rented us the kayaks—who volunteered to give help when we need it. The river here is flat, milky green, and fast. It’s four or five yards wide, but branches and vines stretch over the water, tunneling the passage, or blocking it altogether. The Guadalquivir isn’t a user-friendly river. There are no boat landings or accurate river maps. Our only plan, besides moving downstream a little each day, is to stay safe, and to find comforts where we can. So after mornings of paddling, scouting routes around dams, heavy lifting, and yes, tantrums, we spend siesta hours in the shade. We play cribbage, read poems or plays aloud, sing, and nap. We walk to the frequent riverside villages to fill water jugs, to buy groceries and beer, coffee and ice cream. We camp on steep banks, sandy banks, muddy banks, rocky banks. We listen to the hum of a million insect wings, uncountable songbirds, an occasional rooster or mourning dove, the jangle of sheep and goat bells, and as night falls, the croaking of ten thousand frogs. There are no legal limits to where we can camp—the banks of the river are public land—so we set up our two tents under the 13th-century San Pedro hermitage in El Carpio, or near an ancient watchtower, or, stranded by fading light, atop a massive humming hydroelectric dam.

In Córdoba, we wave to people leaning over the rail of a bridge built by the Romans. My daughters carry sketchbooks and draw a few of the 850 columns in the Mezquita, a giant eighth-century mosque with a 16th-century cathedral built inside. A few blocks away, Margaret gathers a crowd of tourists by singing “Pia Jesu” in the Castle of the Christian Kings, home of the Inquisition.

The river widens and turns brown on the plains. We paddle past lemon and orange groves, past olive trees squatting in perfect grids over pale hills. We meet boys and old men fishing for catfish, and Manuel the shepherd shows us his ancient Roman coin. His sheep graze through our camp while he tells us how he found the coin in the grass by the river. Tells us how he lost it, and then, miracle of miracles, how he found it again the next day. Everyone we meet greets us with a polite reserve, sometimes expressing concern about our excursion.

Unlike in the provinces of northern Spain, paddling in Andalusia is rare. So we see no other kayaks or canoes, and not until the last couple of days, when the river turns salty and begins to flow backward with the tide, do we see other boats: a trawler, a yacht, a giant ship coming in from the sea.

The morning of the day we hit the snag, we paddled a bend and there, on a high hill above a spreading white town, rose a many-towered castle. We landed on a sandy bank, pocketed our money and passports, and followed a goatherd into the village of Almodóvar del Rio.

We walked uphill through the narrow cobbled streets until the town ended and a steep field spread upward to the castle. We’d read about this place. Completed in the year 740, it had never been taken by force. We followed a footpath to the big front door. Above us, we could see the narrow slots for archers to shoot arrows through, or to pour hot oil. We rang the bell. A caretaker let us in and gave us a tour. We followed him to the tower and relished our first long view of the river curving across the green plain.

Then we descended a dark stairway and got down on our knees and peered through a barred hole in the stone floor. That’s the dungeon, the caretaker told us, in which Tello the Bastard, brother of Pedro de Castilla, imprisoned his poor wife Juana de Lara until her death in 1359.

After the tour, we walked back to town and ate green olives, french fries, and a pig’s kidney at a sidewalk cafe. A taxi took us to a public pool, where we swam, showered, and played cards with local kids until late afternoon. Then the same taxi picked us up and took us back to the river. I feared, as I always did, that the unguarded kayaks, paddles, life jackets, and drybags would be stolen.

Because there was no way to be vigilant—and we needed these town trips—I’d consigned myself to fate. As Anna said one scorching afternoon while we walked back to the river, “If our stuff is stolen, we’ll just have to take the bus to the beach and have a normal vacation.” But nothing was stolen. Not in Almodóvar or anywhere else. The taxi dropped us off and we paddled downstream to our appointment with the snag.

MARGARET AND MARY WERE still singing when I untied the bow line from our beached kayak. Anna had swum across to get it, but I didn’t want her to go back to the middle of the river. I told her to stay with her sisters, and then swam out across the current.

After grabbing the snag and working my way around the main log toward Rosalie, I saw something I hadn’t noticed from shore: a decomposing goat tangled in the branches. Neither of us mentioned it.
Rosalie held on to the tilting kayak so it wouldn’t wash downstream. I leaned over the trunk, the current pushing against my back, and tied my rope to the end of her bow line. Now we had a line long enough to let the kayak go. I leaned farther over the trunk and flipped the line off the tangle of branches, and then I squeezed over next to the dead goat.

Rosalie said go, and slid the kayak off the trunk as I pushed off, bow line in my hand. I paddled and kicked hard across the 15 feet of strong current, pulling the kayak to shore next to the other one. I hugged Anna, and we turned to watch Rosalie work her way across. While I helped her get her footing on the gravel, dripping, I felt awash in sunshine, in water, and in gratitude.

ON THE 28TH DAY, the wide turquoise river, smooth as glass, made a big bend westward and in the distance lay the port of Sanlœcar de Barrameda. White buildings spread along the south shore. Then, to the north and west, the blue Atlantic opened like a dream.

We were tired, so that’s of course when the wind came up and the tide reversed. The last two miles across a broadening bay took an hour and a half and added a little drama to the already dramatic final two days through the estuary and tidelands: flamingos flying low in formation, a footlong fish leaping out of the water and smack into Rosalie’s face. Another into Margaret’s lap. We’d paddled for hours, it seemed, with a single tree on the horizon the only thing that wasn’t liquid or airy blue—no distance or time, just stroke after stroke through a Dali painting.

We landed on a beach crowded with sunbathers, and we jumped into the water to celebrate. The past few days little Mary had been asking so many questions about the ocean and the tide and the river, so many questions that I simply could not answer to her satisfaction, that finally during one particularly grueling moment I had to tell her to stop asking me about that stuff because I’d said every word I knew, in every order I knew how, and still she couldn’t get the picture of the river meeting the sea.

So it was with pleasure that I could stand on the beach and point, and say, “What’s that way, Mary?”

“The river,” she said.

“And that way?”

“The ocean.”

For the next week we lay on the beach and camped close by. I kept my body as still as possible, happy not to have to move anymore. We watched big ships pass and little boats bob in the surf. The kids did handstands and searched for shells, and we all floated far out into the water.

Floating to Montana, we said. Then we turned and floated back to Spain.

We rented kayaks from Mar’a del Mar Berbín Varón, owner of Turismo Nautico Triana (011-34-954-28-13-82; in Seville. Del Mar and Maximo Vela Adame, president of the Andalusian Canoe Federation (011-34-954-28-25-26), shuttled us to the headwaters, and their network of friends stowed our kayaks and gear in the big cities, where we stayed in hotels, and gave us rides past the parts of the river we elected to skip.

Officially, we needed a permit from the Confederacíon Hidrografica del Guadalquivir (011-34-954-93-95-17) to make this journey. The office never responded to our numerous inquiries, so we decided that if we were stopped by a government official we’d pretend we couldn’t speak Spanish. We were never stopped.

In the summer in southern Spain, the sun burns hot from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., so we wore lots of sunscreen, broad-brimmed hats, and sometimes long pants and long-sleeve shirts for additional protection. We brought (but never unpacked) rain ponchos. In addition to our clothes, we carried two tents, five sleeping bags and pads, two water jugs, and one small cooler, which we filled semidaily with crackers, cheese, sausage, canned tuna, olives, powdered milk, jelly, and bread.

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