By Conor Mihell
Darcy Gaechter didn’t set out to become the first woman to paddle the length of the Amazon and be part of the first team to complete an uninterrupted source-to-sea descent from the newly discovered source of the Amazon. It just worked out that way. Paddling the Amazon was the dream of British adventurer David Midgley, a longtime friend of Gaechter and her partner, Don Beveridge. Midgley hired the veteran whitewater guides to help him, and in late December, more than 4,000 miles and 148 days later, the team accomplished their mission.
We caught up with Gaechter, who’s currently working on a book about the expedition, to learn more.
CanoeKayak.com: Before Midge came along, was kayaking the length of the Amazon River even on your radar?
Darcy Gaechter: Definitely not!
Why was it so important for you and Don to join him on this expedition?
Midge wanted Don and I for help, company, and whitewater expertise for the Mantaro. As we were discussing logistics and planning for the whitewater portion of the trip, Don asked me if I was really going to be okay leaving Midge at Puerto Ene (where the whitewater ends) and passing up a chance to become the first woman to paddle the entire length of the Amazon. Now you know what my answer was.
We talked about the whitewater portion of the river in a previous story. [read it here] Tell us about the lower section, the flatwater jungle portion of the river that everyone thinks of when hearing the word “Amazon.” What was it like?
It’s true that most of the Amazon is flat. Nonetheless, there was still usually something interesting going on. Between Puerto Ene and Pucallpa, we were in the Red Zone [an area in Peru notorious for drug trafficking and violence] so had the added stress of knowing that we weren’t really welcome. The cocaine producers, illegal loggers and Shining Path remnants didn’t want us there because we might draw attention to their activities, and the Indigenous people (mostly Ashaninkas) were wary of us because they couldn’t be certain we weren’t one of the above kind of people.
From Atalaya to the Atlantic we saw river dolphins, both pink and grey. Below Pucallpa we had to be constantly alert for approaching barges, fast ferries (rapidos) and, eventually, supertankers. We met interesting people along the way, we experienced intense wind and rain storms, saw giant sting rays, otters, and tons of birds. Some of the most intense moments of the trip happened on flatwater and usually involved some combination of blinding rains, winds strong enough to push up back upriver, and giant barges getting way too close. As we approached the Atlantic, we dealt with 18-foot tides, the threat of pirate attacks, and big waves from the constant wind. We saw amazing bioluminescence while paddling at night. Even though the Amazon’s flatwater is quite boring in the collective imagination, in reality there was plenty keep us entertained.
How did you organize the logistics of switching over from whitewater boats to sea kayaks?
Midge hired Deborah McLuachlan in Lima, Peru to be his “fixer.” She organized both the importation of the sea kayaks into Peru and the transport of the kayaks to Puerto Ene (they were driven there from Lima). When we arrived to Puerto Ene, we gave the tiny town its own personal circus while we unpacked the sea kayaks (compostable packing peanuts, bubble wrap and all), transferred all our gear over and sent the whitewater boats back to Lima. At least we bought them a round of beers so they would have a refreshment while they watched the show! We also had help from West Hansen of Texas and Cesar Pena of Iquitos in transferring food, clothing, cameras and computers to Puerto Ene.
After saying goodbye to us below the Tablachaca dam, West and Cesar headed down to Puerto Ene with our remaining gear. Despite having rented a HiLux [four-wheel drive vehicle] for the journey, West reported having a harrowing drive on the windy, mountainous, mud-laden roads leading to the lowlands. West left Cesar there to organize the hire of a motorized canoe that would come with us through the Red Zone. This was no easy task and we ended up using five different boats/drivers in the 13-day journey between Puerto Ene and Pucallpa.
We hear a lot about close (sometimes too close) encounters with armed bandits on the Amazon. Did you have any close calls? In general, what were river people like in the Amazon basin?
We heard many bad stories about the Red Zone and pirates on the lower river in Brazil. We went into the trip with a lot of trepidation about the human conflicts we may encounter. The reality, however, was completely the opposite. The people we met along the river both in Peru and Brazil welcomed us, did everything they could to help us, and were some of the most friendly and giving people I’ve met anywhere. Certainly bad things have happened along the Amazon and the knowledge of them caused me a lot of stress—Jaroslaw Frackiewicz and Celina Mroz of Poland were murdered on the Ucayali River in 2011. Davey du Plessis was shot in the same area in 2012—fortunately, he survived. As we were boarding the plane in Denver to start our expedition, we heard that the Ashaninkas had killed eight Peruvian colonists who were trying to settle on Indigenous land. The Ashaninkas feared these men were cocaine producers and would bring more trouble to their communities. As we said goodbye to Cesar and West, we got a phone call from Deborah telling us the Peruvian Military had just killed two Shining Path leaders 12 kilometers away from where we were camped. She warned us there might be extra unrest in the area as a backlash to this military maneuver. So there was undoubtedly cause for concern.
In the end, I think a combination of luck and planning helped us avoid any negative encounters. We carried all the proper paperwork and documentation through the Red Zone. Thanks to our friend Guillermo in Lima, we were lucky enough to get a Peruvian Navy escort for a couple of weeks between Ipiria and Requena (ironically enough, the military will not travel in the Red Zone so we had wait until we passed through this area before meeting up with our naval escort). In Brazil, once we were duly warned by locals about the threat of pirates, we hired two armed guards to come with us through the “pirate zone.”
As for the people we met along the way—I can’t say enough good things about them. The Ashaninkas were reserved at first, to be sure, but they have good reason to fear outsiders as they’ve suffered more than five decades of land grabbing, kidnappings, murder and general unrest at the hands of Peruvian and foreign interlopers. Once we explained what we were doing, the Ashaninkas and the rest of the people we met were incredibly generous. They were intrigued by what we were doing, gave us food, let us join in their nightly volleyball matches, let us camp in their villages and were collectively a very open and giving people.
How big a role did the first woman, first truly contiguous journey and kayak-only distinctions play out in your motivation to complete the journey?
All of the above were definitely factors in our motivation to push on. But mostly it was just a sense of wanting to finish what we had started that helped us keep going when motivation was low. Quitting the trip before reaching the Atlantic was never an option for me. I can’t speak for the boys, but the fact that we all made it to the Atlantic speaks for itself!
Is this a place you’d like to return to?
I would definitely return. I’m very excited about the whitewater potential in Peru, and about how much more there is to explore in Brazil. Having said that, I think I’ll stick to whitewater kayaking for a while now so you’ll have to find me in the mountains of Peru and Brazil rather than on the Amazon.