Final Countdown: Amazon solo

Inside West Hansen's 4,225-mile Amazon Express project

By Conor Mihell

Leave it to Texan West Hansen to try to become the first person to solo the entire length of the Amazon River, setting a speed record in the process. Hansen’s 4,225-mile expedition starts in mid-August in the Amazon’s Class III-V headwaters, followed by 3,800 miles of downriver sea kayaking. A record-holder in the notoriously tough 260-mile Texas Water Safari, Hansen, 50, is approaching the Amazon expedition as he would an ultramarathon. He’s set an ambitious goal of averaging 100 miles per day and hopes to finish the trip in a blistering 60 days or less. Recently, Hansen’s Amazon Express expedition received the support of the National Geographic Society.

Of course, any Amazon attempt is wrought with uncertainty. The trip marks Hansen’s first stab at expedition paddling. He will be supported along the way by a ground crew and a small team of kayakers, including a whitewater raft on the upper river and two tandem sea kayaks on the flatwater portion. His whitewater and flatwater crew consists of veteran adventure racers David Kelly and Jeff Wuesce, and he’ll navigate the upper river with Mexican steep-creek phenom Rafa Ortiz. But Hansen, who’ll pilot a Jackson Villain creekboat and an Epic 18X sea kayak, insists the expedition qualifies as a solo because his paddling partners won’t offer him any physical assistance. Meanwhile, he says the crew will reduce the risk of a pirate attack on the Amazon’s notoriously lawless reaches in Peru and Brazil.

We caught up with Hansen as he was finalizing preparations to depart for South America on Aug. 7.

Photo Christine Battaglia

CanoeKayak.com: What’s the inspiration for this trip?
West Hansen: There are two answers to that question. I was first introduced to the area when I raced in the Great River Amazon Raft Race in 2008. Then, my teammate David Kelly gave me Joe Kane’s book Running the Amazon. Those guys did it in 1985, which isn’t that long ago. I thought, ‘Shoot, I’m going to do this.’ Piotr [Chmielinski, the Polish paddler who teamed up with Kane in the 1985 expedition] has been a wonderful mentor since I first tracked him down two years ago. I couldn’t even begin to count the words of advice he’s given me. Without his help, this expedition would be much tougher.

You’ve made your mark as an ultramarathon racer. How do you feel about the whitewater component of this expedition?
It intimidates me. I’ll make no bones about that. Until I began training, I hadn’t paddled serious whitewater in 20 years. The U.S. National Whitewater Center [in Charlotte, N.C.] has been great. I was also out on the Potomac in Washington [D.C.] last week. There’s not a lot of water in Texas right now but I’ve been working on my roll whenever I can.

What about the threat of pirates?
I am concerned about it and I don’t think it will be easy. I do expect some encounter and it’s the petty pirates I’m really concerned about. For the dangerous zones that we need to get through quickly, we’ll go into ultramarathon mode and paddle at night with our lights off.

Why is it so important to have a solid team of supporters behind your for an expedition like this?
I can go on my own and I’m prepared to do that. The team will allow me carry more gear to communicate, including a mobile satellite uplink for a computer and a wider variety of food. The safety factor is also a big deal.

I bet you’re looking forward to getting on the water.
I just can’t wait to start it so I can relax. Anyone who has ever planned an expedition will know the feeling. Right now I feel like a lone air traffic controller and I have all these jets flying around me.

Keep pace with the Amazon Express by following Hansen’s website.

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