Dispatch: Upper Amazon

River Notes from an Ambitious Source-to-Sea First

David Midgley and Don Beveridge upstream of the Sala De Machinas of Tablachaca dam. Photo: Darcy Gaechter/kayaktheamazon.com

BY CONOR MIHELL

David Midgley had never sat in a kayak a decade ago when he plotted an audacious plan to paddle the length of the Amazon River on a cocktail napkin in a Scottish bar. Some kayaking training was obviously the first step, so Midgley signed up for a beginners’ course in London, in 2005, and then set out traveling the world in search of whitewater to pursue his new passion. He paddled in Norway, Costa Rica, Morocco, France, Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Italy, and Ecuador, hooking up with Small World Adventures founders and veteran boaters Don Beveridge and Darcy Gaechter along the way. To make a long story short, Midgley invited them on the Amazon expedition, which hit the water in late July on the Rio Mantaro in the Peruvian Andes.

We caught up with Gaechter (who, incidentally, is poised to become the first woman to complete an Amazon source-to-sea descent), in Pucallpa, Peru, nearly six weeks into the estimated four- to five-month expedition.

Midgley and Beveridge on on Lago Acucocha, near the Amazon headwaters. Photo: Darcy Gaechter/kayaktheamazon.com

CanoeKayak.com: You’re well over a month into the expedition. How did things go in the whitewater-intensive headwaters region?
Darcy Gaechter: For the most part, the whitewater on the Mantaro was manageable. I don’t mean easy, but it was manageable in the sense that when the river was really going off, there was always (well, almost always) a portage option. And when there was no portage option, the river was nicely runnable. There were tons of great Class IV and V rapids on the lower section of the river.
By far the most intense section for us was at a new dam site (Cerro de Aguila) below where the Tablachaca water comes back in. They are building yet another dam on the Mantaro and the construction site was very active. The engineers knew we were coming and agreed to stop blasting for the day, which is a very good thing, otherwise, we would all probably be dead. For four miles the riverbed was completely unnatural because of all the dynamite work they had been doing. There were giant sharp and jagged boulders in the riverbed and the banks were vertical cliffs that had blasting debris covering them. Those four miles took five hours. We had to do a couple of portages that required rope work to get out of the canyon, and a big hike up and around. At the heart of the construction zone was a huge rapid with an almost river-wide hole at the top and then a 300-yard runout. At first glance, we thought it would be a good rapid to portage, but after looking around we realized portaging was not really an option. The workers noticed us looking to the left bank and they started shouting (they were up on a cliff about 60 feet above us), “No! No!” and making the motion of drawing their hands across their necks letting us know that going up the left bank meant death in their opinions. The right bank wasn’t an option as it was a sheer cliff. We decided our chances in the rapid were much better than any alternative so we went for it. Aside from one short ride in the backwash of the river-wide hole, we all made it.
This was one of the most stressful days of kayaking of my life.

What have water levels been like?
Midge decided we would launch on month earlier than West Hansen’s expedition with the hopes of having low water, but not really low water. The idea was that the whitewater would be manageable because it was almost at its lowest, but that there might still be some flow below Malpaso and Tablachaca dams. We also had meetings with the engineers of the Tablachaca dam in hopes of timing our arrival there with some of their releases. This more or less worked out for us! We had a few short days around the Tablachaca dam waiting for the right timing, but in the end we had descent water levels between the dam and where the diverted water returns to the river.

What have been some other challenges?
So far the trip has run amazingly smoothly. Challenges … being in freezing weather in the headwaters and waking up to frozen water bottles, socks, and shoes so frozen we couldn’t even get them on our feet. All we were doing back then is wishing for the hot weather. Now we are in Pucallpa and have massive sunburns and do nothing but sweat all day long and we are longing for the days of frozen socks…

What did it mean to the expedition to have West Hansen on board to help with logistics in the whitewater section?
Besides the fact that it is not within his powers to drive a minivan without ripping off the bumper and other somewhat important parts, West was an invaluable asset to us! His local contacts and knowledge of the area was great to have. On top of this, he is a very positive and encouraging person, and we are all incredibly grateful that he was willing to help us out. His sister, Barbara, deserves a lot of credit as well for constantly watching our progress and being the go between for us and West while we were on the river.

What have been some highlights for you so far?
Watching Midge kick ass in the whitewater section! We paddled for 30 days without a rest day. We paddled the hardest whitewater Midge had ever done, and he really rose to the occasion. We were all tired and beat down, but he rallied every day and had a positive attitude all the while. More recently it has been seeing river dolphins everyday on the river since Atalaya.

How is the team working together?
Great! No fistfights have broken out yet. We would also like to mention that Cesar Pena has been part of the team for the last month now. He is from Iquitos and has been accompanying us since Puerto Ene (confluence of Mantaro and Apurimac rivers). He is helping with logistics, local PR, etc, and he is awesome.
The Peruvian Navy has also been part of our team since August 31 and they are amazing as well. They have been so helpful, and we are all grateful that they are giving us their time and resources.

— Keep pace with the Amazon expedition at kayaktheamazon.com

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