Big River, Bigger Picture
When paddling the Amazon means more than paddling the Amazon
(The following story originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Canoe & Kayak. Kalch recently earned a nomination for the 2013 Canoe & Kayak Awards for his solo 117-day, 3,780-mile, source-to-sea descent of the Missouri-Mississippi River system. Click HERE to read more and vote.)
By MARK KALCH
By late afternoon the sun had long since disappeared. Only a sliver of blue sky remained between the Andean peaks towering above us, three little men in the bottom of one of the world’s deepest canyons. I could only slump on a rock with my head in my hands, trying in vain to stifle the tears. A day spent punching through endless waves on the frigid Apurimac River had left me shivering. We hadn’t even flipped our raft—an occurrence that had become far too routine during the last three weeks of near-misses and must-make moves. After working through acute mountain sickness, snowstorms and torrential rain, the canyon’s challenges made it seem like purgatory. My mind swirled with the what-ifs: What if we did not make that drop? What if I got pulled into that boat-eating siphon? What if I died here? I felt broken.
An unsupported journey in a 14-foot inflatable raft down the entire Amazon sounded like an adventure, and we certainly felt it through the sustained spikes in adrenaline. And with villages perched on the distant upper steppes, the lonely canyon’s depth amplified the experience, a reminder that it was just us—our own private audience with the mighty Apurimac.
We’d occasionally pass men setting fish traps or women and children collecting water. Our sudden arrival in brightly colored gear left them lost for words; our vaguely militaristic appearance sometimes sparked alarm. And though we had opportunities for friendly visits, our time was all too limited. We had more river to paddle and rapids to face. Back to yelling instructions over the roar of whitewater, jaws set in grim determination, power strokes and heart rates skyrocketing.
More than 50 days in, we reached the river town of San Francisco and flat water. In Iquitos Phil’s illness forced him to return home, leaving Nathan and me to plod on to the ocean. With no major injuries, we’d paddled the most amazing and beautifully rugged river any of us had ever experienced—adventure beyond all that we could have hoped for. But it somehow wasn’t enough.
As our battle-scarred raft drifted westward into the jungle-fringed, calmer waters of the lower Amazon, I realized that in the rush of journeying from A to B, pinballing down the canyon—wake up, break camp, paddle, stop, make camp, repeat—that we’d robbed ourselves of so much more on offer. It was in those brief interactions off the river that our descent became real, became interesting. “Source to sea” wasn’t enough of a driver by itself. I wanted to really experience what we were seeing, by learning and by documenting, so those who will never visit the Amazon could feel just some of what I was lucky enough to live through.
Students grow up with only the idea of the mighty Amazon. From poster projects in primary school, essays in secondary school geography, and climate change studies at university, the drainage is portrayed in abstract terms, a wild and mysterious region that’s not quite fully explored. It stands for an impenetrable, remote green jungle, uncontacted tribes and limitless variations of animal life. Though the mysteries of the jungle remain, the river’s reality does not quite match the posters. Boats of all persuasions ply this watery highway, everything from pirogues and putt-putting wooden skiffs to large passenger ferries and ocean-going tankers.
Our vessel however, was still unlike any moored at the riverine villages where we would stop, to be welcomed with smiles and offers of help. The land excursions were a tonic to isolated river days without touching ground. Excited children would lead us through villages of stilt houses, hammocks, chickens and growing crops. A scattering of boats anchored below crumbling dirt cliffs with plantains hung from trees, a lone satellite dish looking skyward.
And there was some truth hidden in that satellite dish perched on a tropical island in the middle of the Amazon. These basic lives filled with happiness, virtue and struggle had a true connection with the river and jungle; in the absence of nearly any state-supplied infrastructure, the transport, fuel, construction, food and water all came from the immediate surroundings. But these villagers wanted more. They wanted the same living standards as any “civilized” person, whether it was access to quality education for their children, adequate and accessible medical care, or a sturdier house, newer boat or bigger television. The innate economic opportunities that reside in the river and forest blur the desire to preserve them. Do you starve or take a job in a logging camp? Watch your child suffer preventable illness, or work on an oil pipeline?
Sublime moments punctuated the drudgery and physical exhaustion of life on the raft. Weeks under near equatorial sun had turned our burns to a shade of tan, our calloused and wet hands torn by the hard labor of dragging the raft through shallows. My five-month beard matched the raft’s scruff appearance; its faded sponsor logos and some 30 patches covered by a steadily growing coat of slime. We paddled in shifts and kept moving around the clock. The sun setting and rising over the treeline created scenes impossible to replicate. I would fall asleep, slumped at my post in the early morning, awoken only by the splashing of playful river dolphins. Other times, we’d row wide-eyed and tight-gripped into the darkness of night playing chicken with barely lit, rusting oil tankers and logging barges.
Suddenly, we were dragging our raft, under pouring rain, in knee-deep water, out and around the jagged mouth of the river more than 100 kilometers beyond the metropolis of Belém. It was then—153 days in, five years spent planning, 4,300 miles—that we knew the journey would be completed no matter pirates, piranhas or the crashing ocean waves. Reaching our final end point at the concrete lighthouse base at Ponte Taipu, I was overwhelmed by the knowledge that I could accomplish anything.
I was fortunate to experience that empowerment. Back in those villages, however, an external influence—the drive for continued development—has wrested control of the river and basin from the people who live there. More pipelines, more deforestation for cattle grazing, more energy demands from more people. The Amazon proper may be too big to dam, but its arteries, from the hydrological source on the Maranon to the Xingu—where battles rage over the construction of the massive Belo Monte Dam—are still up for grabs. Demand for electricity only grows far from the jungle waterway, out of sight, out of mind of its priceless value.
Mankind’s greatest civilizations have sprung and flourished alongside the planet’s greatest waterways. They flow through every environment on the planet, bringing us the essentials of life. But what rivers give, they can also take away. They are powerful, frightening, majestic and awe-inspiring. They are life. For me, it would seem, further big river descents will continue to reveal much more.
— After completing the Amazon in 2008, Mark Kalch set the goal for his 7 Continents project: source-to-sea descents of the longest river on every continent. In October, the Aussie explorer knocked off North America with a solo 117-day, 3,780-mile complete descent of the Missouri-Mississippi River system. While eyeing maps of the Volga, Nile, and Yangtze, a descent of Antarctica’s Onyx River seems the most likely next expedition to be launched from his current residence in Buenos Aires.