The following appeared originally in the June 2013 issue of Canoe & Kayak.
The author (Jones) and photographer (Chervenak) are currently on a 5,500-mile, human-powered voyage across Brazil from north to south. The first-ever, two-year journey started with a packraft descent from the source of the Rio Maú in Brazil’s remote mountainous jungle border with Venezuela and Guyana, then switched to a 16.5-foot folding Ally canoe to paddle down the Rio Branco, Rio Negro, and Rio Amazonas proper. In Belem, Chervenak, a 31-year-old photographer and filmmaker from Auburn, Calif., and Jones, a 31-year-old British adventurer and Royal Geographical Society fellow, plan to ditch the canoe and hike to Rio de Janeiro, cycling the final leg to Brazil’s southernmost point at Chui. We caught up with them 126 days and 1,457 miles into the 2,017-mile paddling leg.
Photos and story by Gareth Jones and Aaron Chervenak
DAY 70 (Mile 924): We’ve been on the river for months, but this afternoon I felt so vulnerable in the canoe, with nowhere to sleep and the nocturnal feeding frenzy approaching. It had been a long paddle by late afternoon when we’d narrowly avoided a violent tail slap from a gigantic jacaré caiman. By sunset they controlled the muddy banks of the Rio Negro, their red beady eyes peering back at us as we struggled to find somewhere to camp and string our hammocks out of their reach. To add to the urgency, menacing black-bellied clouds were blowing in—the classic Amazonian storm front.
We somehow found this spot just as night fell. Somewhere in the Anavilhanas archipelago national park of Brazil’s Amazonas state. There I am, sitting beside the fire, managing to cook some fish and rice, breathing in the remoteness and solitude, sipping a funky cocktail made from cachaça rum, electrolyte powder and iodine water. The jungle screams all around, as loud as any city.
I think about having paddled from that trickle up in the mountains all the way to this: a mighty river split into endless islands and channels, already like an ocean but still to get even bigger on its way to the Atlantic. It seems like the one thing all rivers have in common is that they have a destination. I crawl into my hammock wondering what ours will be.
The Coke Drop
DAY 61 (Mile 720): The days on northern Brazil’s Rio Branco are growing long. Sure, we just paddled across the equator line escorted by a pod of pink river dolphins. But it doesn’t mean much. We’ve been alone for so long under a relentless sun and swarms of biting flies, passing endless hours in the canoe the only way we know how: another pointless conversation.
“So, when does the new season of Breaking Bad air?” I ask.
“I don’t know, you asked that yesterday and the day before,” Aaron counters. “We’ll be in the jungle anyway.”
“OK. Can I have a biscuit?”
Suddenly, a small plane appears on the jungle horizon. It flies over low and buzzes us.
What does it want? Our thoughts jump panicked directions in a haze of dehydration and sunstroke. It dive-bombs us again. We paddle for shore, but it lands in front of us on the river and taxies our way.
The door opens and a man in flashy aviator sunglasses asks in Portuguese if we know where José lives. Uuughhh, Jose? He instantly realizes we’re gringos and curses his co-pilot. We have no idea about José, but confused by our worn-out state, the pilot hands us ice-cold Coca-Colas. The confusion mounts as they watch us caress the bottles with our molding fingers before savoring each sip in an orgasmic fashion, then they motor up and fly away.
DAY 122 (Mile 1,396): We scout for a hidden patch of jungle that seems to lack any “snakey” sensation for the night. Sunlight falls and the mosquitos arrive. Our “junglewear,” rancid with tropical mold and soaked in max-DEET repellent, does nothing to prevent the bloodletting stings from the little vampires, traveling in gangs of thousands.
We rush our nightly chores—check for snakes, machete open patch of jungle, unload canoe, filter water, make fire, eat, look at map, charge cameras—wanting only the safety of our hammocks. Winds pick up and a violent storm erupts. I don’t set my tarped-over hammock properly and enter to veins of water streaming down. I try to fix the leaks but it’s pointless. Resetting the ropes would cost 20 exposed minutes fiddling in the downpour, so I re-enter, along with dozens of vampires.
Now I’m soaked. I try to squish as many unwelcome guests as I can with this journal, the storm breaking palm fronds free and impaling our camp on the forest floor. I give up, curling into a fetal position for warmth, my hammock and clothes turning burgundy with the rain-smeared splatters of mosquito-drawn blood.
The obstacles are only mounting. We’d been pulled over at gunpoint, mistaken for drug-runners, and almost sucked back into the prop of a trans-Atlantic container ship. All I can do is shiver. Desperate for rest, soaked in smeared blood, the storm jerking on my hammock, it feels like the Amazon finally has us beat.
The next morning, watching each other itch violently and trying to warm our weary souls with murky river coffee, we can’t help but laugh a little. Then we get back in the canoe and hope for the best.