On Dec. 21, 2013, veteran kayak instructor-guides Darcy Gaechter and Don Beveridge, along with British adventurer David Midgley, completed a source-to-sea descent of the Amazon from its newly discovered most-distant source in the headwaters of Peru’s Rio Mantaro. Gaechter is the first woman to complete a source-to-sea paddling expedition on the Amazon. She also likes to point out she’s the first vegan to do so—and that her team was the first to complete the 4,300-mile descent without raft support. (The following story originally appears in the June 2014 issue of C&K, now available on newsstands.)
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THE LONG WAY OUT
Journaling the Amazon’s first kayak-only descent
By Darcy Gaechter
Day 21: Rio Mantaro, Peru. Relaxing to paddle without the constant threat of imminent death. Making it past the blasting zone and construction site for the new Cerro de Aguila hydro project was such a relief. Maybe too much of a relief.
On a tough portage, I set my kayak on a ledge to down-climb to the next rock shelf and made a huge mistake. When I let go of my boat, it slid. Loaded with eight days worth of food, I couldn’t lock my grip to the grab loop in time and just watched as my boat skipped down into the long, sieved-out rapid. Thankfully, the boat slid into the river upright. I started running down the boulder-strewn shore repeating two things: “Be careful, breaking your leg here would be a disaster”; and, “Run faster, all your food is in that boat!” I got within 15 feet of it in the last big eddy, but just as I entered the river, the current whisked it away.
Food is always at the front of my mind. I’m constantly hungry after three weeks of dehydrated meals that never quite pack enough calories. Every time I get tired I recall just how far we are from the next supply drop-point and I run faster. As I sit here relishing my Backpacker’s Pantry Katmandu Curry, I’m eternally thankful to Don, who caught up with my boat and got it to shore in a super-sketchy eddy just above the next huge rapid. Only as I write this do I remember my passport, and all my money, stowed in my boat. Never even a thought at the time. Only the food.
Day 63: Aided by our Peruvian Naval escort and our entourage of pink river dolphins, we safely made it down the notorious Rio Ucayali to the start of the Amazon proper. Hung around Iquitos today sweating our cojones off. The outdoor thermometer at the naval base reads 49 degrees Celsius—that’s 120 Fahrenheit! I can’t believe it’s accurate.
Day 69: Stoked to be at the Rio Napo confluence. After years of paddling the Napo’s upper reaches in the Ecuadorian Andes, it is rewarding to see the headwaters’ final form in the flatlands. The cold, healthy flow reminds me what has kept me exploring South America for so many years. Let’s hope this strong current lasts.
Day 107: Finally leaving Manaus, happy to escape the hot and dirty city. Immediately the sky turns dark, dumping sheets of rain thicker than I’ve ever seen. The wind whips up 6-foot breaking waves that challenge our not-so-stable sea kayaks as the rain obscures the horizon. With 10-foot visibility we dig hard for shore. A storm break reveals a huge barge bearing down on us; our rudders are useless against the wind and waves, especially mine, which is jammed at 90 degrees. No way the barge sees us. Just before we go into panic mode, the storm and the barge drift downstream.
Day 147: We yell at each other through the dark and over breaking waves and howling wind to figure a plan. ‘Midge’ brings to our attention that he doesn’t see well in the dark, so we quickly rule out a night paddle to the Atlantic. But it’s 9 p.m. and we haven’t seen anything but mangrove swamps for the past six hours of paddling, so we also rule out the frivolous option of probing the darkness for a suitable camp. That leaves us bobbing around a somewhat protected bay for three hours, waiting for the tide to drop and expose a tiny, rocky refuge. Midge clings to a tree while Don and I paddle around, dealing with the incessant waves created by the incessant wind. Just after midnight, a jagged but appealing spit of lava rock surfaces. The three of us cozy up on a 5-by-7-foot slab of basalt. Very uneven and very sharp, it features no less than five rocky protrusions in my back and legs, my pillow a puddle I must share with what I think are hermit crabs.
Day 148: Oddly, I sleep better than I have in weeks. We’re awoken at 5:30 by an impressive cacophony of scarlet ibis, egrets, and herons roosting in the tree branches over our heads. Their excitement quickly spreads as we prepare for the final hours of paddling to the Atlantic Ocean.
— Here’s the full-length version of the video above: