The following story originally ran in the June 2013 issue of Canoe & Kayak, available on newsstands now. Photos by Ian Buckley
The jungle feels like another planet. Even coming from dripping forests and gushing creeks of the Pacific Northwest, I'm still completely out of my element. The frogs and birds chirp and squawk some foreign melody as we hike our kayaks to the river, the random insect clicks reminding me to take the Malaria meds today. Surreal is the word in the depths of the upper Amazon Basin, where the birds are bright, the plants enormous and the vines run endlessly into the dense canopy enclosing us.
The only thing cutting through the land is the river. Fortunately, that's the only path familiar to our group of 10 coming from all over the U.S., Canada and England. The Rio Misahualli pushes through smooth, large boulders and tight sections. The warm water offers a comforting challenge as we cruise countless rapids down the rainforest in this remote corner of Ecuador.
Don Beveridge knows the rio well, which takes a bit of the edge off as we boat-scout, taking his verbal cues at the top of every never-before-seen drop. He keeps an eye on the clouds as we glance up from the action to the sight of narrow foot bridges running high above us—a sudden change in the weather, meaning flash floods, could force us to that higher ground and a treacherous, muddy hike out. Everything about paddling these Amazon headwaters seems exotic. Only the PFD, paddle and helmet I so painstaking packed and lugged here, and the moves on the river, feel comfortably familiar.
The comforts keep coming off the water. Prearranged shuttle pickup. A hot dish of local foods waiting for ingestion. A cold pilsner that's never tasted better. A warm clean room. It's a far cry from most weekends that I travel to paddle and end up in a tent, or a floor if I'm lucky. So yeah, I feel a little guilty about the pampering at Small World Adventures. But it adds up to an unparalleled week of paddling: seven days, seven different rivers, boulder gardens, tight creeks, big-water rapids, most in splashtop temperatures, the dialed guides picking rivers in each drainage according to the rain forecast.
The Southern Hemisphere water works just like it does at home and my mind wanders to the multi-day opportunities, runs that local paddlers tell me are unbelievable, but go un-paddled since the day-trips are so amazing. I'm already planning my return, next time with overnight gear. Small World founder Larry Vermeeren came down with similar plans 20 years ago, and now I believe him that there's more than a lifetime's worth of rivers down here to explore. — Nick Hinds
— Longtime SWA guides Beveridge and Darcy Gaechter, along with David Midgley, recently announced plans to launch an Amazon source-to-sea expedition this summer with the hopes of adding Gaechter's name as the first female paddler to complete the descent.