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Behind the Shot: Kayaking Over Waterfalls in the Amazon

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Ben just after losing momentum and getting thrown into a barrel-roll. lip of Cachoeira Santuario, Amazonas, Brazil; Photograph by Chris Korbulic
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This image of kayaker Ben Stookesberry is featured right now in our Extreme Photo of the Week gallery; Photograph by Chris Korbulic

On a seven-week trip from northern Brazil to Guyana and Venezuela, kayakers Chris Korbulic, Ben Stookesberry, and Pedro Oliva sought out the best waterfalls and rapids in the Tepui landscape. Their first stop on the trip led to the first, and best trip photo at the waterfalls of Santuario in the Brazilian Amazon. Here’s how Chris Korbulic nailed the shot that caught our eye for our Extreme Photo of the Week gallery.

Adventure: You had a remote camera set up to capture this photo. How did you pick the location for the remote camera? Where are you located at the moment pictured?

Chris Korbulic: There is always a tough balance between being the kayaker and being the photographer—setting safety and getting a shot … and sometimes you have to seriously compromise one of those sides for the other.

When scouting this set of falls, this angle did almost nothing for me as a kayaker because I couldn’t see the top or bottom of any of the falls. But for a photo it was immediately alluring and kind of mysterious for the same reasons. The falls disappearing, the glowing mist, and the jungle hallway all made it very appealing to photograph—and hard to scout, but I knew it was going to be a cool photo if the shutter fired.

I needed to be over at the lip with Ben to help secure his entry into the water, but I didn’t want to give up this shot, so I left the camera on a tripod, tied it to some slick roots hanging over the falls, and brought my remote shutter release and another camera out to the lip.

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Ben Stookesberry tumbling down Cachoeira Santuario, Amazonas, Brazil; Photograph by Chris Korbulic

A: You were also shooting over the lip of the falls, while simultaneously helping Ben setup. How did you manage that?

CK: There were some roots and logs blocking the entry to the falls, so we had to make a little launch-pad for Ben’s kayak, right at the lip. Once the kayak was on the sticky rocks, his boat was pretty stable. When Ben was ready, I grabbed my remote and camera, gave him the thumbs up, and watched as he tumbled over the edge.

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Mount Roraima, triple border point of Guyana, Brazil, and Venezuela, and highest in the Pakaraima tepui chain, on a hazy afternoon; Photograph by Chris Korbulic

A: The conditions look like you had pretty good light to photograph.

CK: The southern Amazon Basin in northern Brazil is known for its rainfall, but those same clouds often make for really nice, even light. The clouds were thin and bright. Light was reflecting off the whitewater, illuminating the trees where they would have been shadowed if it were sunny.

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Ben Stookesberry takes in the view down the Potaro River from the diving board rock next to Kaietuer Falls, Guyana; Photograph by Chris Korbulic

A: The water looks pretty gnarly. You mentioned Ben hit a rock and barrel rolled?

CK: This falls was full-on! It had been raining a lot over the last week, so the water was high and brown, making it hard to read and especially hard to see what was at the base of the falls. As Ben went over the lip the front of his boat caught a rock edge, stalled his forward momentum, and sent him barreling upside down into a pretty awful looking cauldron.

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Ben Stookesberry, Pedro Oliva, and Chris Korbulic celebrate hitching a ride after a successful descent of the Potaro; Photograph by Chris Korbulic

A: What was going through your mind as you photographed and watched him?

CK: Because of the brown water, we didn’t know if the pool was deep. Ben disappeared for what seemed like a long time in the boiling, highly aerated water in the cauldron before popping out about 40-feet downstream. We’ve been paddling together for about six years and waiting for him to resurface is still one of my most nerve-wracking moments.

After Ben came out safe, I was almost just as worried that my camera didn’t fire as I had been about Ben! I rushed over and checked my camera to find what would be my favorite shot from the trip, setting a great precedent for the next six weeks of travel.