Running the Amazon

By Joe Kane

In 1985, writer Joe Kane set out with eight others to navigate the length of the Amazon. Some were expert kayakers, and others—like Kane—were novices. They descended deadly rapids that had never been run and camped in steep canyons where boulders rained down from above. They endured the attentions of poisonous snakes, Shining Path guerrillas and narcotraficantes. Four thousand two hundred miles later, only two members of the group—Kane and Piotr Chmielinski—emerged into Brazil's Marajo Bay to taste the salt of the Atlantic. Running the Amazonchronicles their adventures in thrilling detail with humor, honesty and warmth. The excerpt below tells the story of their encounter with the first big water of the trip. They are running the Apurimac, or"Great Speaker,": which the Incas considered their most powerful oracle — speaking to them through thundering rapids. Kane writes that during the rainy season, the roar of the rapids can be heard from miles away. . .

There is an inherent, humbling cruelty to learning how to run white water. In most other so-called "adrenaline" sports—skiing, surfing, and rock climbing come to mind—one attains mastery, or the illusion of it, only after long apprenticeship, after enduring falls and tumbles, the fatigue of training previously unused muscles, the discipline of developing a new and initially awkward set of skills.

Running white water is fundamentally different. With a little luck one is immediately able to travel long distances, often at great speeds, with only a rudimentary command of the sport's essential skills and about as much physical stamina as it takes to ride a bicycle downhill. At the beginning, at least, white-water adrenaline comes cheap.

It's the river doing the work, of course, but like a teenager with a hot car, one forgets what the true power source is. Arrogance reigns. The river seems all smoke and mirrors, lots of bark (you hear it chortling away beneath you, crunching boulders), but not much bite. You think: let's get on with it! Let's run this damn river!

It doesn't matter. The results are the same.

The world goes dark. The river—the word hardly does justice to the churning mess enveloping you—the river tumbles you like so much laundry. It punches the air from your lungs. You're helpless. Swimming is a joke. You know for a fact that you are drowning. For the first time you understand the strength of the insouciant monster that has swallowed you.

Maybe you travel a hundred feet before you surface (the current is moving that fast). And another hundred feet—just short of a truly fearsome plunge, one that will surely kill you—before you see the rescue lines. You're hauled to shore wearing a sheepish grin and a look in your eye that is equal parts confusion, respect and raw fear.

That is River Lesson Number One. Everyone suffers it. And every time you get the least bit cocky, every time you think you have finally figured out what the river is all about, you suffer it all over again.

As white-water rivers go, the Apurimac's dangers lie not in her volume, which is middling until she reaches sea level, but in her extreme rockiness and steep descent. She is inclined less to pound you unconscious with big waves than to trap you beneath an undercut rock or suck you into a"strainer"—a submerged, sieve-like boulder pile from which there is no exit. She rewards technique over power. That is, she is better run on a small, maneuverable, four-man paddle raft capable of executing a series of tight turns, rather than the kind of boat often used on high-volume rivers like the Colorado—long, wide rafts that plow roughshod through big water and are usually controlled by a single man working two large oars.

Though both boats were paddle rafts, we had problems immediately. The raft Goycochea had loaned us, a lumbering sixteen-foot-long Avon, was stable—it barreled right through waves that tossed Chmielinski's fourteen-foot Riken willy-nilly—but not easily controlled. And as manned by Bzdak, Odendaal, Van Heerden, and Jorgensen, an exercise in floating anarchy. As the Avon plunged into a hard rapid, each man flailed away with his paddle as he chose, watching out mainly for himself.

Life was somewhat more orderly on the narrower, shorter Riken, if only because Durrant, Leon and I were so completely hopeless that we reacted to Chmielinski's every command as if our lives depended on it. For Chmielinski, the military man, failure was not an option. By the end of our second day on the river he had intimidated us into a passably competent crew which, if not strong, at least managed to pull together as a team, stroking frantically at his urgent direction.

And we had another advantage. In its own way, the state-of-the-art Riken was as profound a breakthrough in river technology as the canoe or the outboard motor. The beast's intelligent beauty lay in its self-bailing design. (Chmielinski called it "safe-bailing.") Its foundation was an independent, inflatable floor affixed to an inflatable side tubes by a webwork of rope lashings. When water filled the raft, its weight forced the floor down, stretching the lashings and opening a gap between floor and side tubes. The force of the pneumatic floor trying to rise back up from the river drove the water out through the gap. The manufacturer's claim was that when filled, the raft would drain out completely in five seconds.

The primary task for Durrant, who paddled the raft's left front corner, and Leon, who paddled at the right front, was to propel the raft forward. Manning the back corners, Chmielinski and I supplied both power and direction.

As a "driver" I was also charged with scouting the rapids on foot before we ran them in the raft. Chmielinski scouted, I should say. I scrambled along the bank behind him, slipping so often on the slick boulders and sharp rocks that after two days my shins were plum-colored and mushy and my face and hands were covered with scabs.

Nevertheless, Chmielinski committed himself to the unenviable task of teaching me how to pick a safe line of travel through the Apurimac pinball machine. He believed that he could teach us the requisite paddling skills if we had confidence in ourselves—he would provide the head if we hung in there with a little heart. But as a driver, I had to understand the consequence of each flick of my paddle, an understanding that involved the ability to decipher the river's complex hydraulic patterns. However, when asked from the safety of dry land to choose a possible route, I invariably described one that would have condemned us to a watery death—for instance, twisted and pinned under a strainer, dying slowly of asphyxiation and head wounds.

Chmielinski would look at me with quiet exasperation, then patiently explain a more prudent route. As we memorized the turns, stops, and starts we would try to execute when we actually ran the rapid, our conversations proceeded something like:

"Okay, Joe. Pointy rock."

"Pointy rock."

"It is a killer for sure, that one. I am in with my paddle, you are out. We are turning left, then we are go, straight, we are running, we are pulling for our lives. A killer. But not a problem."

Such conferences were always—always—followed, on my part, by a vigorous expelling of urine. I learned to judge the true danger of a rapid, a danger that only my subconscious could objectively perceive, by the volume issuing from my bladder.

Almost without exception, our painstaking choreography evaporated the moment we entered the rapid. Then it was up to Chmielinski to bring us under control with his precise set of commands, delivered at a pitch never less than savage.

God help the crewman who got out of position on the raft , which, unfortunately was all too easy to do. The position one must master to paddle a raft correctly runs counter to all survival instincts. For example, as a driver, I was supposed to sit squarely on the left side tube at its junction with the black tube, tuck my left toes under the cross tube in front of me, and spreading my legs as if sprinting, push the bottom of my right foot hard against the back tube. Then, anchored to the bucking raft only by the tension on my left toes, right heel and buttocks, I was to hang my body out to the left, over the water, so that I could dig my paddle straight down into the river.

At first this struck me as mortally ludicrous—Chmielinski wanted me to expose half my damn body to that terrible river, daring it to snatch me. Over time, however, and after Apurimac had once too often treated me as a blender does a banana, I learned that being extended over the water, my paddle dug into it, was safer than bouncing about in the raft's interior. Our supplies were stored dead in the center of the raft, under a net. Carrying this weight, the raft floor delayed slightly before responding to the river's turbulence. It in fact moved in, often counterpoint to it, while the lighter, independent side walls moved in synch. Riding the floor was like sitting on a trampoline while someone else jumped. One was quickly vaulted up and out, into the smothering arms of the Great Speaker.

And so one fought one's instincts, a battle in which Commander Chmielinski was ever willing to assist.

The Apurimac tested his talents as captain and teacher most severely on the fourth and last day of our shakedown run from the military bridge to Cunyac bridge, when we confronted our worst rapid. It was a series of rapids, in fact, all of them Class Five, which means something like"high degree of technical difficulty, and if a mistake is made, possible mortal consequences." Your basic "killer, no problem" sort of thing. (Class Five rapids are considered the upper limit of runnable water.)

We scouted that particular chain of rapids, about a half mile long, for two hours. Finally, Chmielinski picked a line of descent. Two boulder formed a narrow chute at the top of the rapid. As the river forced its way through the chute, it compressed from some fifty feet wide to fifteen. Then it exploded through the chute like gas exiting a carburetor, spilled over a short waterfall, and at the bottom built a "keeper," a wave that flows back on itself. Someone caught in a keeper makes several mind-altering spins before escaping. People who have experienced them also call such waves "Maytags."

Below all of this lay the kind of roiling mess that you knew, just by looking at it, could send you home in a wheelchair.

"It's a killer," Chmielinski said when we had finished scouting the run.

I knew the correct rejoinder:"No problem."

Then I let fly with an act of urination so wildly out of proportion to my liquid intake for that day that I felt my face begin to pucker.

Back at the raft, Durrant asked about the rapid.

"It is a part of a cake," Chmielinski said.

We backstroked out of the eddy and turned upstream. (By paddling against the current we maintained control of the raft, sort of.) We swung our nose slowly into the current, like a hand on the clock: upstream, cross-stream, downstream. Then we inched into the quickening water.

I remember, as we hit the chute, the roller-coaster-stomach, sick-sweet sensation of falling through air. I remember white walls of water rising around us, that we blasted into several boulders, and that the explosions we made when we hit them were louder than the river itself. Once, my head snapped so violently I worried I had broken my neck. I remember the raft pinned to a boulder, up on its side about to flip, and us climbing up to the high side while the rapid roared at our feet. I remember staring straight down at a knife-edged rock and watching it shoot past my head. I remember the urgency of Chmielinski's screams, louder and more desperate by far than any I had heard from him before.

And then I remember calm sweet waters of peace and joy, drifting quietly in the raft in the wide easy river below the rapid. I remember that we were breathing hard but otherwise silent, and that in the low water it seemed as if we and the river were one, motionless, while mountains swept past us on their way upstream, to the source of the Amazon, or to wherever it is that the mountains and sky might choose to go.

"Good, guys," Chmielinski said after a while."Excellent. We almost made a bad turnover, but we did not." He shook our hands, and, exulting in the afterglow, Leon, Durrant, and I flashed the adrenaline-laced grins of fledgling river rats.

"The idea is not to beat the river," Chmielinski said. "The river always wins. It does not care. We try the river because we must try. White water is, how do you say it, like you are bleeding. . . "

"It gets in your blood."

"Yes. It is in your blood. It is a thing you are never forgetting."

Joe Kane has written for The New Yorker, National Geographic, and many other publications. His second book, Savages, was published in 1996 to wide acclaim and is available in paperback from Vintage. Joe Kane lives with his wife, Elyse, and their two children in Olympia, Washington.

Zbigniew Bzdak was born and raised in Poland. His work has been published in National Geographic, Outside , The New Yorker, Americas and American Way. He has received Communication Arts Award of Excellence in Photography for his book Living in Wyoming, and for his work in National Geographic. Between expeditions, he lives outside of Chicago where he is a staff photographer for The Times in Munster, Indiana.

Photographs by Zbigniew Bzdak.Special thanks for The Adventure Library for providing this article.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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