Kickstarting the Amazon Express

Expedition leader raising funds for new source-to-sea documentary

C&K editor Jeff Moag catches up with West Hansen, who has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a feature-length documentary about his 2012 Amazon Express Expedition.

kayak the amazon

Team on Rio between Alpamarca and San Pedro de Racco, Peru August 19, 2012. Erich Schlegel

Jeff Moag: The film is based on your 2012 “Amazon Express” expedition, which was the first complete paddling descent of the Amazon from a newly discovered source, and also the fastest source-to-sea on record. So should we expect a mission report full of gnarly rapids and long flatwater days, or will we see more of a travelogue?

West Hansen: The feature-length documentary is broken into three distinct sections. The first part is the first 500 miles of white water, which shows sections of the Andes with rapids and canyons that have never been filmed. Most importantly, this section includes some truly talented and generous whitewater legends who helped the team survive and make the expedition a success.

The second part is the first section of flat water from the coca region cloud forest to Iquitos. This is where most of the incidents occurred where we were held at gunpoint and had the most dangerous sections with pirates.

The third section is the final push from Iquitos to the Atlantic ocean, when the Amazon River really gets huge and the final three team members fight massive waves, currents, ships, barges, tides and thousands of miles of “man this is huge” stuff.

It’s interesting that you’re using Kickstarter to raise funds for this film, as the expedition itself also was partially funded with private donations. Did the knowledge that so many people had contributed help to motivate you on your 3-month, 4,100-mile journey?

The expedition was funded by thirds–with a grant from the Expeditions Council at National Geographic, from individual donors and from my family. It was important to me that members on the expedition not be strapped with any financial obligations. That said, [whitewater videographer] Tino Specht funded his own way to Peru to join the Tigers [the elite whitewater paddlers who assisted Hansen on the Rio Mantaro] and I hope to repay him someday. His contribution to the team and the documentary was and is really incredible. While the donors were always on my mind, at no time did it ever cross my mind that we wouldn’t successfully make it to the Atlantic. I’m humbled and amazed at the support we received, which made the loneliest times a bit less lonely. While we were physically alone in the vast jungle, we always know people were watching us, and that felt great.

Speaking of teamwork, filmmaking and river-running both require plenty of it. How did people like Rafa Ortiz, Juanito de Ugarte and David Kelly help your expedition to succeed?

The skill the Tigers brought to the expedition goes without saying. Going into the expedition I knew my whitewater ability was not enough to attempt many of the rapids on my own. But it wasn’t merely their skill, but their willingness to work with whatever skills I did have in order to complete the larger goal. This is really what made guys like Rafa, Juanito and Tino more than just great paddlers, but also great teammates.

[Expedition manager] David Kelly was the anchor. With him on the bank running the circus, I was able to forget about a lot of the minutiae and concentrate on surviving in the white water. I later learned that he, and many others on the support crew, shielded me from a lot of the strife that went on off the river. His goals were in line with mine and that of the expedition—sloughing off all other non-essential issues.

You got a chance to play a support role this summer, when you went to Peru to assist Darcy Gaechter, Don Beveridge and David Midgely. What was that experience like for you?

The Kayak the Amazon expedition is still underway, so please keep an eye on them. I loved the chance for my wife, Lizet, and I to go back to the Andes. It was nice to re-live some of the experience and, most importantly, to help the Kayak the Amazon team avoid some of the massive time-eating pitfalls that we encountered in our expedition. In spite of David Midgley’s inability to grasp the improvements Texans have made to the language he claims his countrymen invented, I really enjoyed my time with the team. Darcy is not only a great paddler, but her ability to tolerate my occasionally awkward social graces with the greatest of diplomacy sets her apart as a leader. Don is the dolphin of the group. He’s always happy, primarily because he can kick everyone’s butt, if need be.

Much has been made about your “race” with Rocky Contos, who discovered the new source of the Amazon and made the first descent of that river, the Mantaro. You made the second descent of the Mantaro and continued some 3,600 miles to the sea, thereby claiming the first paddling descent of the entire Amazon from that new source. Will “Peeled Faces” touch on that subject?

Having made such a phenomenal discovery in this day and age is such a rarity. Since Rocky conducted all the research about his discovery, he is the best qualified to present it in the documentary. There really wasn’t a “race” between our expedition and Rocky’s journey since the Amazon Express expedition had a specific goal to be the first expedition to paddle from the newly discovered source to the sea, which we accomplished.

Amazon Express expedition  Ucayali River in Peru. Photo: Erich Schlegel

Amazon Express expedition Ucayali River in Peru. Photo: Erich Schlegel

Peeled Faces is an interesting title for a movie. Is there a story behind that?

“Pela cara” is a term the indigenous people in the Peruvian rainforest used to refer to us. When the Spanish conquistadors first made their way into what is now known as the “red zone” in southern Peru, the only time the local people had seen a white face was on a skull, which of course had the skin peeled off. Hence “peeled face” or “pela cara” in Spanish.

You’re also writing a book about your Amazon descent. When will it be published?

The book is nearly finished and I’m shopping a publisher now. With crossed fingers I hope to have it on stands next summer.

What’s your next adventure?

I’m only able to say that there will be a next adventure, which has a solid start date, and Canoe & Kayak readers will be the first to know.

Where can people go to contribute?

Our kickstarter page. We have four days to go. You’ll have our thanks plus a copy of the film, and will also be privy to some select raw notes from the expedition that are being made into a book. Please check the list of rewards given to contributors on the kickstarter website.

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