Rafael Gallo

Young Rafa: How Rafael Gallo Started his Career as a River Guide, Outfitter, and Champion of Conservation

by Earl Alderson (with Glenna Alderson)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a small group of University of Tennessee students in Knoxville began their lifelong passion for finding outdoor adventures and paddling whitewater rivers. Some of the group members rented a house on 10th Street and it became the meeting place for paddling trips to the rivers of southern Appalachia.

At that time, kayak manufacturing was in its infancy. It was standard practice for paddlers to build their own fiberglass boats, and this became a regular activity in the yard and garage on 10th Street. By the time I showed up to the party, the 10th Street house had been condemned and torn down, along with the rest of the neighborhood, in preparation for the 1982 World’s Fair that was coming to Knoxville. But the 10th Street group was able to relocate to another “10th Street” house a few blocks away on Laurel Street.

Rivers have a magical way of bringing people together, and those of us in the group created a tight bond that remains unbroken to this day. We proudly became known as and still call ourselves the “10th Street Paddlers.”

Rafael Gallo
Earl Alderson (left), Rafael Gallo (center), and Jimmy Nixon, on Laurel Street, 1980.

Two friends in the 10th Street group had grown up in El Salvador. They were adventure-loving guys who found their way to the University’s Canoe and Hiking Club and became deeply cherished personalities on wild river adventures. Rafael (“Rafa”) Gallo and James (“Jimmy”) Nixon are the type of river characters who would turn every trip into an epic story, and countless tales have been shared among friends for decades. I was fortunate to live with both of them on Laurel Street.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, commercial rafting companies were a relatively new concept, existing in small pockets here and there throughout the United States. A couple of local companies needing guides hired a few of the 10th Streeters. On weekends, we would faithfully make the drive from Knoxville to Erwin, Tennessee, to kayak and guide rafts on the Nolichucky River.

Back in the day, people thought that if you could kayak the river, you could easily guide a raft. This did not always prove true and resulted in some exciting trips for the clients. I spent the spring and summer of 1981 working as a raft guide. The following spring of 1982, I was promoted to “Guide Scheduler” for the Nolichucky on the weekends. Rafa would kayak with us, but he worked as an industrial engineer in Knoxville and was not guiding. So, I recruited him to raft guide on the weekends, which triggered his passion for commercial guiding.

In the summer of 1983, the 10th Streeters secured a permit to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Rafa and a few others quit their jobs to go on the trip since they couldn’t get the time off. We all rendezvoused in Golden, Colorado, where many 10th Streeters had relocated after graduating from UT. We boldly headed to the mighty Colorado River as word of its record flow reached our ears. We spent 18 days on the river, which was at historically high water levels. Boats included kayaks, a canoe, and rafts. At that time, rafts were closed systems with flat bottoms. In big rapids, they would fill with hundreds of gallons and thousands of pounds of water that had to be scooped out. A bailing bucket was almost as crucial as the raft itself.

One of the 10th Street rafts was called the “Yeto” boat. Yeto was a flatbottomed beast that did not hold air. Tenth Streeters still recount the stories of entering the large rapids as someone anxiously pumped air into the deflating tubes! Somehow, we survived that trip and went on to share many more adventures on rivers throughout the world.

History rafting Costa Rica
In the early days of rafting in Costa Rica, gear was hauled to the river on ox carts.

In 1984, Rafa headed to Costa Rica to manage river operations for the company Costa Rica Expeditions. At that time, it was the only rafting company in the country. A group of 10th Streeters traveled to Costa Rica to guide rafts and work with Rafa. Then, the plan began to unfold for Rafa to start his own company, and in 1985, Rios Tropicales was born. Longtime friend, Jimmy Nixon, was a partner, along with friend Fernando Esquivel.

In the beginning, the days were long and rewarding, as the Rios Tropicales commercial trips ventured to the Pacuare, Sarapiqui, and Reventazon rivers. A rental house in San Jose served as living and office space, and rafting gear was the furniture. The roads to get to the rivers were long and not in good condition. At the Pacuare, teams of oxen hauled the gear to the put-in. First descents were muddy and perilous adventures.

Rafa laid a solid foundation to build his company that has introduced tens of thousands of people to the magnificent tropical rivers and jungles in Costa Rica. He planted thousands of trees to reforest cut areas of the rainforest and produce oxygen for the planet. Rafa also advocated for sustainable agriculture and responsible tourism. And he worked tirelessly to preserve the rainforest and rivers for future generations.

With Rafa’s passing on March 23, 2021, the 10th Streeters and river community have lost a family member, and the world has lost an incredible human being and visionary. The tears that I and others have shed seem almost enough to form their own river. In this loss, we recognize all the more the gift that Rafa was and is to us. Through this gift, I am inspired to support Rafa’s legacy and am reminded that we can all play a part in bettering our world, as Rafa did with a group of buddies in Knoxville and across the globe.

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