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
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.
"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."