The Abatan River

October, 2002

The mouth of the Abatan River is about 5 miles north of the City of Tagbilaran. It isn't much of a river, I suppose -- less than ten miles long and about 100-200 yards wide. It drains an area of low hills, just visible beyond the trees along the shore. The river quickly descends to a low-lying area of tidal mud flats and mangroves (see photo #1, at left). Rain falling in the hills quickly makes its way downstream to the sea.

We motored up the Abatan River to a rural area near the town of Cortes, where we tied up next to a wall at a disused boat yard. This made it much easier for us to load and unload things from the boat and gave us access to running water to flush our water tanks, electricity for tools, and buses for trips into Tagbilaran City. We stayed here a total of 2 weeks. The low-lying, heavily wooded terrain meant that we had very little wind, hot days and nights, and a great many mosquitos. We were there during the new moon, so it was quite dark at night. All in all, it was not a very pleasant place to stay.

The Abatan River is much used. The mangroves are mostly covered with nipa plantations (photo #2) The outer fronds of the nipa trees are cut and collected periodically to make roofing material for the local "native-style" housing. The nipa trees continue to produce new shoots from the center of the plant. The trees along the river are at least 30 years old.

The river is used to transport whatever people need to move. Most of the boats are small, outrigger canoes (photo #3) The river is also used by large, ocean-going barges that are pushed up the river by tug boats. No barges came up river while we were there.

At high tide, fish swim in amongst the nipa trees and local fishermen hang nets along the edges of the nipa plantations. When the tide goes out, the fish are trapped behind the nets. The fishermen come back to collect the fish, and their nets, at low tide. Other fishermen use nets in the water or hook and line to catch fish. Near the mouth of the river, large permanent fishtraps (photo #4) catch fish during every tide change. With all this activity, it is surprising there are any fish left.

— Adventure on the Abatan

The Abatan River is tidal. During the incoming (flood) tide, the tidal current runs upstream, largely cancelling the downstream river current. During the outgoing (ebb) tide, the tidal current adds to the river current, creating a strong, fast flow of water. This effect is greatest during "spring" tides which occur twice each month, during the full and new moons. On rare occasions, a heavy rain will fall in the hills that drain into the river at the same time as a spring ebb tide. When this happens, the river runs very fast indeed.

Our first indication that something exceptional was happening was a strong flow of very fast, turbulent water that roiled the river into a muddy boil. The strong 12-knot current created rising columns of muddy water that mixed with the clearer water running down the river. Side-lighted by the afternoon sun, these rising columns looked very much like cumulus clouds on a hot summer day — speeded up 100 times or more. The visual effect was quite striking, even beautiful.

We had little time to enjoy the show, however, as we soon were inundated with floating debris carried downstream by the flooded river. Logs, tree branches, palm fronds, banana trees, and tons of other debris was headed right for us. For a while, we successfully fended off much of the debris. But it kept coming in larger and larger quantities, and we were overwhelmed. The material began to accumulate between the hulls of the boat, packing in tighter and tighter. Large rafts of interlocked trees began to float towards us, though most of them did not strike the boat. Then a large log jam caught on our anchor line and began putting more and more pressure on the boat, pulling us away from the shore, stretching our dock lines. We weren't sure how long the deck cleats and lines could take the strain, so were forced to cut the anchor line, leaving our anchor to the river. (We have no pictures of the river in flood, as it was dark for most of the time and we were somewhat occupied.)

Eventually, the tide began to turn and slow the onrush of water. The pressure eased, and the crisis passed. We went to bed with a strangely quiet, serene river lying almost motionless around us. In the morning, we got our first good look at the accumulated debris. Not only were we surrounded by a tangled mass of material, but it was a floating menagerie covered with frogs, snails, insects, etc. We were finding snails in odd places on the boat for a week after the flood. We hired a young fisherman, Jun-Jun, who lived nearby to help Jim clear the debris away from the boat. We also offered a reward for our anchor, if he could find it on the river bottom. We weren't sure if he would ever find it, but it took him only about a half hour.

So, we survived our adventure on the Abatan River with only the loss of a some money, a few mosquito bites, and a new respect for the power of water. At its best, the river was beautiful (photo #5). At its worst, it only frightened us — this time. We do not plan to return to the Abatan River.

— return to the 2002 Journal Archive.