Blind Adventurer Erik Weihenmayer Detained in Peru

Villagers mistake river-runners for a dam survey crew

Erik Weihenmayer kayaking Desolation Canyon of the Green River, Utah. Photo: Greg Winston

Erik Weihenmayer kayaking Desolation Canyon of the Green River, Utah. Photo: Greg Winston

Blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer was held overnight this week on Peru’s Marañón River after villagers mistook his river-running party for a dam survey crew.

“They told us, ‘we saw you last time you were here. You didn’t see us, but we were chasing you downstream with rifles,’” said Harlan Taney, a filmmaker and river guide who was part of Weihenmayer’s 21-person group. “They said, ‘it’s a good thing you stopped because we’ve put calls into the villages downstream and they would have been waiting for you,’” said Taney, reached by cell phone when he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport from Peru.

Weihenmayer, the first blind man to summit Everest, was in Peru to train for a kayak descent of the Grand Canyon next fall. His team leader, river explorer and conservationist James “Rocky” Contos, has said the deep canyon that the Maranon cuts through the eastern Andes is a longer, grander version of the Grand Canyon. The Marañón also is the primary source of the Amazon River.

Dam builders have identified as many as 20 potential dam sites on the Marañón. One of the planned dams will inundate the village where Weihenmayer’s group was detained.

“It was scary being in that position, but their intentions are to defend their homes. They’re about to get drowned out of their village,” Taney says.

Villagers at the Maranon. Photo: Rocky Contos

Villagers at the Maranon. Photo: Rocky Contos

Contos has been a vocal opponent of dams on the Marañón. He brought Weihenmayer to the Marañón in part to draw attention to the plight of the river and the people who live on it. Convincing the villagers that the river-runners were on their side was no easy task, however.

“They feel that everyone who’s come down the river has lied to them,” Taney says. Complicating matters was the fact that one member of Weihenmayer’s party, a Peruvian river guide, had also worked as a raft guide for a dam-survey crew. The villagers recognized him and demanded an explanation.

Contos, who has experienced much more fraught negotiations on Peru’s wild rivers, explained that all of Weihenmayer’s party opposed damming the Marañón, and showed an anti-dam video he had produced.

“It was a little uncertain for a while, but the essence behind it is pretty cool,” Taney says. “The locals are making a stand for themselves. They thought we were the dam people, and they made us stay in their town until we could convince them otherwise,” Haney said from LAX, where he was waiting for a flight home to Arizona.

“I woke up at 5 a.m. yesterday, paddled 15 miles, met a van and drove eight hours down a dirt road in Peru last night, caught a plane and have been traveling ever since. I just set foot in the U.S. It’s good to be home.”

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  • Linda Dague Ford

    Thank heaven there was a peaceful ending to this. I would imagine Erik would be able to convince anyone of his good intentions and be able to win the native people over with no problem and end up with them as friends.

  • PaddleCrazy

    As lovely as Eric is, he had nothing to do with the interaction. This was only the first of several encounters, one quite hostile and threatening. One might want to ask? Is it reasonable to lead a commercial trip into this sort of terrain without disclosing the KNOWN risks to the clients?

    • Boris Trgovcich

      I was on that trip and I can say that I felt in no way threatened by ANY of the villagers we met, including during the two events when we were “detained.” Some in our group might have felt differently. In both cases some of the villagers initially appeared quite angry and distrustful of our group but we eventually parted as friends. However, this was somewhat expected and fully disclosed before the trip.

      While Rocky was explaining to the Mendan villagers the reason for our trip, some of us were engaged in a friendly soccer match with the Mendan village soccer team (the score was Mendan 3: Visitors 3). Unfortunately, someone from Eric’s group called his wife, who called someone else, who called…. After that chain of phone calls the message, that apparently went all the way to the US State Department, was that we were “kidnapped.”

      When we entered the Awajun territory, we again played a soccer match at the first village we stopped at (Awajun 6 ; Visitors 0 ), followed by couple evenly matched volleyball games, and a formal lunch prepared for us by the village. We picked up the village chief and his wife who accompanied us for the rest of the trip. We were eventually detained at another, much larger Awajun village. After a 2-3 hour public “trial” we were all “acquitted” and shared a large gourd of local brew. The fact that a local reporter seemed to play a large role at our “trial” was an indication that much of the spectacle was put on for local consumption. I believe that the intent was to send a message to the authorities and dam builders. Again, we parted as friends and were invited back.

      I want to add that at no time did I feel physically threatened and no weapons of any kind were in sight (although the village chief that traveled with us carried his ceremonial spear). During the 30-day river journey, I observed one weapon – an old rifle carried by a woman and her daughter (I’ve seem much more weaponry while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail). These friendly and generous people have some serious concerns with the government, dam builders and foreign companies who are trying to exploit their resources and destroy their way of life. Once they realize you are on their side they will always welcome you. For me personally, the best part of the trip was interacting with the people we met along the way.

    • Dave O’Keefe

      I too was on this trip and was fully aware that some villagers would be suspicious of our intentions. After all, they are being asked/forced by the government to abandon their villages and way of life so that these dam projects can move forward. In the case of the Mendan villagers, initial suspicions quickly faded once they viewed Rocky’s video, which highlighted the beauty of the Maranon and made it clear that SierraRios opposed the dams. Of course some remained unconvinced, but the village leaders were supportive of SierraRios’ efforts and gave assurances that future trips would be welcomed. The soccer match we played in the square before the informational town meeting was for me a highlight of the trip.

      The Awajun villagers, in contrast, were much more agitated and subjected us to a 2-3 hour tribunal. As Boris mentioned, however, no weapons were present, but the atmosphere was tense. In my opinion, Rocky (the trip leader) had gone to great lengths to gain permission for us to pass….securing official letters that explained our intentions, and bringing along Awajun locals who could help explain our presence. Unfortunately, the village that detained us recognized a different authority (i.e., not the one that gave us the letters of permission) and made it very clear that safe passage in the future would depend on us contacting them directly….a condition that SierraRios was more than happy to fulfill. This meeting ended with corn on the cob, a local brew, and lots of laughter with some of the most suspicious elder women of the village.

      This was a unique commercial trip because part of its mission was to establish contact with local villages and to provide them with information as to how local opposition to the dam projects could be organized. These foundations are now firmly established and future SierraRios trips will be welcomed. For some in the group these two meetings may have been more tense/threatening than expected, but I consider them part of the success of this expedition. We were made to feel uncomfortable, but these feelings pale in comparison to emotions associated with losing your village, farm, and home. I look forward to hearing about the fiestas that are planned for the January trip through this villages!

    • Suzy Garren

      I was on that trip and in the village that day. Being one of the few people on the trip with strong Spanish I had the opportunity to speak directly with the residents as soon as we entered the town square of Mendan. I spoke with generations of women all of whom were frightened and confused in the face of the impending destruction of their town and their families’ houses and farmlands. At no point did I feel threatened or worried of my safety. Rather I was overwhelmed by compassion as I heard of their fears and touched by their willingness to share their vulnerabilities and fears of helplessness. They explained their newly formed mistrust of strangers after having been lied to and deceived in the last year or so by the government and by the dam planners (they told me they had always before been so open and welcoming and expressed how uncomfortable and unfortunate it was that they were learning to question people’s motives and doubt people’s integrity).

      In talking with the women of the town, both that afternoon and later at the evening’s meeting, I expressed my compassion for their plight and explained that we wanted to help them but weren’t sure how. A group of the women there told me over and over again that they could see we had “clean hearts”. They also told me over and over again how scared they were- for themselves, for their families, for their children. They don’t know how when or to where they’re going to be relocated, whether or not the government is going to pay for their new housing, how they will feed themselves and their families…
      They are hungry for information and lost for direction. They asked us to stay and explain to the community who we were, what we were doing on the river, where we were going, and how we thought we could help their very discouraging struggle to maintain their peaceful and idyllic lifestyle thriving on the banks of the Rio Maranon. The soonest they could organize a gathering was that night, and so we stayed. They wanted us to stay longer, for an extra day, so that they could organize a community feast to share with us. This detail has been lost in this story. Their first offer was for us to stay two nights, and on the second night we would all gather and share a feast together. Various people expressed to me the feeling that if we really wanted to understand what they were struggling through we would stay longer and hear their stories and experience their culture first hand. And what better way to do this than to share a meal together and stick around. When we told them that wasn’t possible given our need to make deadlines further down the river, we settled on a community meeting that night.
      The people of Mendan along with thousands of others living on the banks of the Rio Maranon are going to be displaced out of their peaceful homes and their families will be faced with new struggles they have not earned. They are friendly people, kind people, generous people, and loving people. They are scared and confused and angry at the disrespect with which they’ve been treated. I have only love and compassion for them.

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