Meet Maggy Hurchalla, Abuela de la Alseseca (Grandmother of the Alseseca)


Maggy Hurchalla, an admired and accomplished environmentalist since the 1970’s,  joined us for the January Co-Ed Week of Rivers in Mexico for her second trip paddling with us in Jalcomulco. Her confidence, balance and skills on Class IV rapids would never reveal that she is 70 years old. She styled her way down the Tomata section of the Alseseca, as well as the Pescados, Antigua and Actopan. She is full of vibrant stories from her world-wide kayaking and scuba diving travels as well as knowledgeable about the surrounding birds, flora and waters.  She was a delight and inspiration to have on our trip.

During our week with Maggy, I remember standing nervously above numerous rapids, discussing the line and then watching her paddle down them flawlessly and every time looking at whoever was next to me at the bottom saying “wow, she’s awesome!” She inspired us all.  She reminded me that no matter how intimidating or challenging the rapid looks, if the rapid is within my skill level, I can do it.

Maggy loves kayaking for many reasons, one she claims is that it keeps her out of “old lady therapy classes”. So please enjoy the following interview to find out what else kayaking does for her, and in her own words, how she became the “Abuela de la Alseseca”.

Why do you kayak?
Because of the jubilant feeling of bouncing safely through chaos and because there are no ugly whitewater canyons.

When did you start kayaking?
1999. My sister had discovered how to go over Maryland Chute  in the Potomac in a poke boat and sent me off to NOC to learn whitewater kayaking. I took an NOC course with Jimmy Leithauser and he made a kayaker out of me.

How does it help your body and your way of life?
It makes me strong. It makes me healthy. It makes me happy. Adrenaline makes all aches go away. It beats going to the hospital exercise class. There is laughter, excitement and beauty you don’t find in a gym.

What do you find most rewarding and most challenging in kayaking?
I get high on wilderness scenery. I don’t need to do harder rivers or more challenging rapids except for the fact that that is the only way to see more beautiful canyons. And kayakers, in my experience, are really neat people. They are tolerant and encouraging when we’re incompetent. There is beer at the end of the run. They laugh a lot.

What do your 4 kids and grandkids think of your kayaking adventures?
My children laugh at me. My grandchildren admire me. My 16 year old grandson James can now kayak better than I can. When his high school teacher told his class that his grandmother was a famous environmentalist, James added: “Not only that, she’s a world class kayaker!” I’m not. I’m a terminal intermediate, but that’s why you have grandchildren.

What sort of advice can you give to us about lifestyle and kayaking for years to come?
Don’t stop! Whatever you do, don’t stop! If you haven’t started yet it is not too late. Kayaking is perfect for old ladies and middle aged ladies and young ladies. Most of all it adds joy and exuberance to life. Secondarily it’s good for you and gives you a good reason to stay in shape. You don’t have to do class III or class IV rivers, all you have to do is bounce along in beautiful places and enjoy the view. It does tend to give you a smug sense of competence.

How has adventure travel impacted and enriched your life?
I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I have kayaked in Ecuador and Panama and Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic and Jamaica and Mexico and California and Idaho and Montana and North Carolina and Georgia and Tennessee and Virginia and West Virginia and Maryland. I have had an array of wonderful guides who saved me when necessary and laughed at me when appropriate. It is a great way to impress your friends without making them jealous. My son posted a picture from Mexico on facebook and got the following reply:
comment from Irish friend Mary “that’s not your mom again, is it?” “yup”. “you don’t really expect me to believe that, do you? come on…”   You do come away from it swaggering.

How does kayaking play a role in your conservation activism?
I’ve spent my life trying to save the world. Kayaking reminds me of the awe and wonder that makes me care.

What advice can you give us all on conserving and protecting the rivers we love?
Paddle for the sheer joy of it and don’t let environmental issues weigh you down.
That said, DON’T JUST PADDLE. Give something back. Give money. Give time. Get involved in the political campaigns of the good guys.Write letters to the editor. DO SOMETHING!

Abuela de la Alseseca
I have a new and honorable title.

The night before we paddled the Rio Alseseca – the one with the twenty foot waterfalls and sweetgum trees side by side with tree ferns – we went to a sweat lodge ceremony.

Jorge was our leader and Elvis our fireman.

They heat up lava rocks from the mountains because they are the oldest bones of the earth.
Every time Elvis brought a shovelful of glowing rocks into the firepit in the sweatlodge, we all chanted:

“Bienvenida Abuelita!”

to bless and welcome the grandmothers of the Earth.

I pointed out that I too was a grandmother.

That did not keep Elvis from dousing me with cold water when we came out of the sweatlodge.

When we got to the Alseseca high up in the cloud forest and I got to the top of the first high waterfall, our young helpers shouted:

“Bienvenida Abuelita!”

At dinner that night I was assured by river experts that no other 70 year old grandmother has every paddled the Alseseca. In fact no other 70 year old, grandmother or grandfather or not, has paddled the Alseseca.

So the assembled group officially named me:

Abuela de la Alsesaca

Maggy Reno Hurchalla