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Article on Specops: The Big Adrenaline Rush, Costa Rica

Feel The Rush
from Polo Magazine, October 1998 - Reprinted with permission.

by Katy Foster
Photography by Jay Dickman

Cold water swirls and churns about me as I struggle to keep my feet forward and hang on to my paddle. I try to remember what I was instructed to do when I boarded this raft, whose route is straight down Costa Rica's Pacuare River. I gasp for air and search desperately for the raft. The guide is leaning over the edge with his paddle outstretched. I manage to catch it and he pulls me roughly back aboard before we careen agonizingly close to another huge rock in "the witch," one of several Class IV rapids on this raging river. Looking back, nearly drowning was a minor annoyance compared with the heart-stopping charge I would get from jumping off a 265-foot-high bridge several days later. It's the first day of my week-long journey with Specops, a tour group founded and run by Special Forces veterans (also known as Green Berets) that offers action-packed excursions in some of the world's most beautiful locales. This particular trip, the Big Adrenaline Rush, promises high-octane adventure in Costa Rica's most idyllic spots.

"Forward, hard!" shouts our guide, Manfred. "Longer strokes! Together!" All those in our raft, including Specops founder Jay Stanka, do exactly as instructed to keep ourselves, and our raft, from flipping into the river. It's almost as if the Pacuare rewards us after each difficult rapid; we're able to coast with our paddles in our laps and soak up the breathtaking scenery. Canyon walls shoot up unevenly on either side, and the rainforest crowding along the top is refuge to a variety of wildlife. Toucans soar overhead and a long sabañera (a native non-poisonous snake) dangles from a vine. During a calmer stretch, a sun-browned boy clad only in red shorts ventures out of the trees near the water and waves shyly. His golden collar glints in the morning sun, and his wrists are swathed in bracelets. "That's one of the indigenous Indians, a Cabecares," Manfred explains as he guides our raft closer to the shoreline so we can inspect the boat the tribe is constructing. "They are one of 12 indigenous tribes along the river, and they make up about 1 percent of the total population." A machete imbedded in one end of the boat indicates there is yet more work to be done, and Manfred explains how they navigate the difficult portions of the river in their seemingly fragile crafts.

Drake Bay is one of the best areas for sighting marine life.

It's an appropriate Specops moment. A thrilling risk, an up-close look at a unique culture, and a brief educational lecture - exactly what founder Stanka had in mind.

"The reason for creating Specops was not to get into the average tourism industry," he says. "It's to teach people how to travel, to incorporate outdoor skills and outdoor survival - up-to-date information within adventure tour packages that teach people how to travel."

The dozen of us on this trip already have picked up new information. Prior to being handed helmets, life jackets, and paddles, we were given a brief tutorial on how to survive the Pacuare (locals say the name translates into "river of fire"). The approximately 20-mile stretch is dotted liberally with challenging rapids that require every muscle in our bodies to direct our rafts. About two-thirds of the way, the skies open (as they do daily in Costa Rica during the green season), and we have the added challenge of battling the rain and wind as we negotiate what Manfred tells us is the most dangerous rapid in the river, another Class IV, created when the local water company dynamited rock walls to build a dam. Consequently, the rapids tumble over rocks with sharp, jagged edges that can inflict serious injury. We strain to stay balanced in the raft as we push through the rapid, and after we've cleared it, we celebrate with a group "high-five" with our paddles.

Jungle survival skills are basic can be applied anywhere.

We return to San Jose's Corobicí hotel to recover and meet with Dave Kellerman, the instructor who will take charge of our group for the remainder of the trip. A Special Forces weapons and intelligence veteran with 18 years of experience, Kellerman is one of the world's leading authorities on maritime security and counterpiracy operations. After listening to some of his stories, I decide that this is the one guy I'd want on my side in a Die Hard situation. Kellerman, a cross between MacGyver and Schwarzenegger, makes Bruce Willis' character seem like Andy Griffith's Mayberry sheriff. Hovering around the six-foot mark with a solid build, Kellerman's don't-mess-with-me vibes belie a guy who I come to genuinely admire. Armed with a sense of humor as well as who knows how many potentially lethal weapons, Kellerman also has emergency medical knowledge and carries a medical bag (as does each special operations veteran on staff; Stanka himself is a trained medic who could perform an appendectomy in the jungle if required - one more reason why Specops is a unique company in the burgeoning adventure travel niche). Kellerman and Stanka met when they served in the same Special Forces unit several years ago, and although Kellerman isn't on the Specops staff, he is a regular instructor, especially on jungle trips.

Specops is not a boot camp by any means; participants don't have to worry about being awakened at oh-four-hundred hours for a two-mile run. At no time is the attitude overtly military. "These guys are tough because they have to be, because they're in the military, but they're more into passing knowledge along than marching in the woods playing soldier," says Josh Stanka, the 19-year-old nephew of founder Jay who's also on the trip. "This is as much of a learning experience as it is fun. It's part vacation, part learning life skills." But the Big Adrenaline Rush isn't for the fainthearted.

"This is a vacation that you come on to get roughed up a bit," says Joseph McElmurry, a college student from Houston. "It's not like you sit on the beach and sip piña coladas. It's a little tougher than most vacations."

"When you're out here doing this stuff, you're going to get cut up and banged up and bruised," says Kellerman. "You won't get hurt badly, but it's the nature of the beast. We're not out here shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue."

©1998 Polo Magazine

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