From July to December 2013, kayakers David Midgley, Darcy Gaetcher and Don Beveridge paddled the Amazon river from its source in the Peruvian Andes, through the rainforest of the Amazon Basin to the Atlantic Coast in Brazil.

Here’s that cliche “we almost died” story

Hi readers,

Thanks for your comments on my first introduction–all were very helpful!

Most of your feedback suggested that I stick with my preferred introduction–starting with the letter to my parents.  But just so you know what your options are, here is the alternative.  My concern with this intro, besides the cliche-ness, is that it’s pretty heavy on the kayak jargon and might not make a ton of sense to non-kayakers (what’s the big deal about getting stuck in a hole)? I’m hoping my book will appeal to paddlers and non-paddlers alike so I don’t want to alienate a large percentage of my audience in the first pages of the book…

Please let me know what you think.

whitewater shot don darcy

CHAPTER 1

Losing  Midge in the Dam Site

 

 

I was having a hard time forcing myself to care whether or not Midge made it out of the construction zone alive. What I wanted to do was ditch him, and thus vastly improve my own chances of staying alive. The adrenaline surging through my body told me to get moving—but I was caught between my own instinct to survive and my feelings of responsibility to Midge.  He was completely beat down after so many days of difficult whitewater, not to mention the energy-sapping stress of the last three hours. Still, my patience was drained, and I wasn’t in the mood for compassion.

It was our twentieth consecutive day of kayaking. We were paddling at the bottom of the deepest canyon I had ever been in—far deeper and more impressive than even the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. We were all tired, but Midge especially so. He was both physically and mentally depleted. The stress of just barely making it through one rapid after another, pushing his whitewater skills to their absolute limit, was taking its toll.  Maintaining high levels of adrenaline requires a lot of energy, and with our limited food intake, we didn’t have any energy to spare.

Whatever group cohesion we had rebuilt over the past ten days was unraveling under the tension of paddling through this dangerous section of river.   The power of this steep, thundering Andean river pitted against the desires—and the dynamite—of humans was more frightening than anything I had ever seen. We had only negotiated two and half hours of dynamite stoppage with the Cerro de Aguila hydroelectric dam project manager.  Three hours had already passed, and we had no idea how much further we still had to go before escaping the dangerous construction zone. I was certain they would resume their blasting work any minute. Time, I reasoned, is money—so why wouldn’t they?

We hadn’t spotted a single worker, but we’d witnessed some troubling results of their efforts. The sheer cliff walls and inaccessible river bottom restricted construction activity to between five hundred and two thousand feet above our heads. Blasting activity had sent everything from fine sand to house-sized boulders tumbling down the cliff walls. Some of the debris now cluttered the riverbed, while here and there it had caught on natural benches in the cliff face, resting there so precariously that we felt even a sneeze from down below might set it in motion again.

Our introduction to the dam construction site a few hours earlier had been a cascading rapid where most of the water flowed underneath school bus-sized pieces of the cliff dynamited from high above. On both sides of this unrunnable rapid, tall cliff walls rose straight out of the river—a bad combination for kayakers. Attaining upriver a short distance, we found a small egress in the cliff. It was still more or less a sheer rock face, and we had to use ropes to haul the three heavy kayaks one hundred feet up the wall. There we found a narrow bench where we could perch, put the boats down, and assess the situation.

We walked along the bench to its downstream end where Don found a steep gully leading back down to the river below the rapid. Looking further downstream, we saw more colossal rapids that defied the natural riverbed, these too had obviously been created by the dynamite high above on the cliffs. Downstream, however, the river left cliff wall was slightly less sheer and the rubble from the dynamiting work had created precarious piles of debris that ran from about half way down the cliff all the way down to the water’s edge. The left shore was a scree and slag pile that, while visibly unstable, did offer a place to walk if necessary.

It took us another thirty minutes to lower each kayak down to the water with our ropes, but finally all three of us sat at the river’s edge with our boats and paddles.

Getting around the first rapid had taken us over an hour.  We spent the next two hours running what rapids we could and devising creative ways to walk around those we couldn’t. Paddling up to one horizon line, we discovered the most atrocious rapid any of us had ever seen.  It was a maelstrom of powerful hydraulics all leading into one monstrous river-wide hole with such strong backwash that it was pulling water back into itself from thirty feet downstream. It looked like a low-head dam and we felt certain that no kayaker would ever get out of that hole alive.

There was a portage route on river left, but it required a delicate dash across a loose debris pile. Clambering around on what little shore there was seemed dangerous, yet infinitely safer than kayaking down the rapid. We decided we would go one at a time, but that we needed to move as quickly as possible across the scree slope and get into the pool at the bottom of the rapid—we feared that lingering too long on the unstable slope would cause an avalanche, sweeping us into the rapid we were trying to walk around.

We were all exhausted, but I knew we could not stop moving under any circumstances.  The workers were well within their rights to start up with their dynamite again. Our two and a half hours had come and gone. Besides, since we hadn’t seen any workers yet, I assumed they also hadn’t seen us: they would have no way of knowing we were still in the canyon. While I knew that lighting their fuse would mean our certain death, they might have no idea where we were.

Just as I picked up my kayak to start the portage, I heard Midge’s feeble voice: “I’m knackered, can we please have a snack break?”

“No!” I shouted at him, surprised at the anger I heard in my voice. Calming down a little, I added, “Midge, can’t you make it just a little bit further? We’ve got to get out of here before they start blasting again.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Darcy,” he retorted. “There is no way they will start blasting again with us still down here.”

“They don’t even know we’re here, Midge!”

“Plus, our allotted dynamite-free time frame has come and gone.”

I felt certain that—despite the construction bosses’ claims that it was “mandatory they have no fatalities”—three kayaking tourists were insignificant compared to their $910-million-dollar dam project.

Midge kept mindlessly repeating his belief that there was no way the workers would start blasting with us still in the canyon. He couldn’t seem to bring himself to imagine the possibility of our group getting blown to pieces; I sensed he felt too important to die in such an impersonal manner.  Or maybe he was simply too tired and scared to allow himself to consider this outcome.  His unwillingness to acknowledge the real danger we faced was pushing me to my breaking point.

The reality was it that didn’t matter whether or not the blasting recommenced: there were so many other ways we could die in the construction zone. A big rainstorm might destabilize the slopes; one of us might take a fatal slip or miss an eddy and blunder into an unrunnable rapid. But Midge was too stubborn and too tired to consider this. It was easier for him to just believe he would be okay.

It took every ounce of self-restraint I could muster to refrain from screaming with all my might that Midge was a complete fucking idiot if he really believed the workers would hold off from blasting for as long as it took his pansy ass to get through the construction zone.

We had more pressing issues to deal with than my anger, so I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm down. I looked downriver. We had no choice but to keep moving—and, to my amazement, Midge finally agreed to hold off on his snack break.

We portaged the massive rapid as quickly as we could and got back into our kayaks, trying to stay clear of the potential landslide area. As we paddled downstream, we noticed something peculiar in the river. The object seemed contorted and it disturbed the water in a strange way.  It was clearly not a rock, or any other natural object.  Paddling closer, we realized that it was a dump truck lying on its side in the middle of a huge rapid. We gazed upward, but could see no road: the truck must have fallen more than a thousand feet. As we paddled frantically to avoid being swept by the strong current into the underbelly of the truck, we tried not to think about what had happened to the driver when his vehicle plunged off the cliff.  So much for the mandatory no fatality policy.

We no longer felt like kayakers out having fun. The setting of our adventure had begun to feel more like a war zone, and I had turned all my focus towards survival. Just after the dump truck, I could see a steep horizon line with water spraying up in all directions, signaling that we had yet another massive rapid in front of us. Fortuitously, one of the huge boulders that had been relocated from the tops of the towering cliffs into the river below was creating a large eddy—a calm spot in the river where we could stop—at the top of the rapid.

Don, Midge and I huddled into the eddy and peered downstream.  The rapid was so big and steep that we couldn’t see the bottom of it, and there was now constant rock fall on the right bank that was also obscuring our view. Clearly they weren’t blasting, because we heard no explosions—but something up above, probably a backhoe or other heavy equipment, was shoving rocks and debris off the cliff and straight into the river about half way down the rapid.

I sank to my thighs in dust and gravel as I clawed my way up to the top of the boulder, hoping to get a better vantage point. What I saw was disheartening; the rapid was runnable, but the very first move was a nearly river-wide hydraulic with only a kayak-width tongue between its right edge and the cliff wall. The lead-in to the hole was chaotic, and most of the current pulled strongly towards the hydraulic. A kayaker not actively fighting the force of the current would be swept into the massive hole. The awful hole itself was only the first obstacle in a very long rapid full of hazards. Plus, the only line past the hole forced us to paddle directly under the river-right wall beneath the rock fall. Some of the falling rocks were small enough to appear survivable, but every now and then a boulder came crashing down that was easily big enough to crush a kayaker. The last thing we needed was for another dump truck to come tumbling off the cliff as we paddled past.

I could see one eddy a few hundred yards down from the entrance of the rapid, but I could not make out what was beyond it around the corner. Based on what we had experienced so far in the dam construction zone, we needed to assume that more unrunnable rapids lay ahead.  As tired as Midge was, I didn’t think he would be able to make the powerful move around the hole. I also suspected that if he were to swim in that hole, and if Don and I were unable get him into the eddy at the bottom, he would have a terrible, potentially unsurvivable, ordeal ahead of him.

Starting to look for portage options, I shouted down to Don, “come up here and have a look with me.” There was a group of twenty workers standing on the right bank about sixty feet above us; the first humans we’d seen since entering their work zone. They were impatiently waving us on. We had already taken more than an hour longer than we had anticipated, and the workers were obviously anxious to get back to it. Seeing me looking up at the left bank for a portage option, they started whistling to get my attention. They were indicating that we could come up the right bank to where they were standing—but it was a sheer cliff, and Don and I could see no way to do that.

When we pointed to the left bank, they all emphatically shook their heads in unison— “No!”—and began drawing their fingers across their necks in the universal sign language for death.

After a couple of minutes, Don stated calmly, “We can make that move, Darcy.”

“I know we can,” I replied, “but I don’t think Midge will make it. He’s too tired.”

I continued, “I know the workers don’t like it, but there’s a chance we could portage on the left. It looks sketchy, but if we can get across that loose scree there, one of us could climb up to that flat bench and then rope the boats up.”

“Suicide for all of us, Darcy,” Don insisted. “If, and I really mean if, we make it to your bench, then where will we go? At least we if run this rapid, two-thirds of us are sure to make it—and chances are that Midge will be okay too.”

The rapid didn’t look great, but it did seem to be the safest of our dismal options. We figured that as long as Midge could summon the strength and the skill to make that first move, he would probably be okay. After the hole, we just needed to move into the middle of the river to avoid the rock fall. From there on, the rapid appeared to be big but doable for Midge.

It was just a matter of making that first move.

Another problem was that the eddy we could see at the bottom of the rapid was at the base of another cliff that also did not look climbable. We were taking a huge gamble that we would be able go further downstream after making that eddy. Using our very limited geology skills, we made our best guess that, even if the next rapid turned out to be unrunnable, the character of the cliff wall looked as if it would offer us a place to climb out of the river just out of view. We said that, at any rate, to make ourselves feel better; I’m not sure if either of us actually believed it.

Don looked again at the rapid and at the portage routes and said, “We need to run this. There is no other option.”

It was a risk for all of us, but we couldn’t stand there forever. We had to go.

Don, the strongest paddler of the group, would go first so that he could catch the eddy at the bottom of the rapid, with the hopes of getting a look around the corner to know what we would be dealing with in the case of a rescue. If there was an easy rapid or a big pool around the corner, a rescue would be simple. If it was another rapid like this one, or worse, rescue would be difficult to impossible.

I would lead Midge through the rapid, and if a rescue became necessary, Don and I would do our best to get Midge into that eddy—but we knew we had to consider the option of letting him go if it meant dragging all three of us into an unrunnable rapid down below. It was a conversation I was not comfortable with, and one we did not share with Midge. Don’s and my job for more than a decade had been to keep people safe; we had saved hundreds of boaters as they swam from their kayaks or made other mistakes in the river. Now, in a moment of painful reckoning, we realized we were facing a situation in which we might not be able to help. Things had gotten that dire in the last three and a half hours. We were still working as a team, but there was an underlying knowledge that each of us was, in a very real sense, in it for ourselves.

Don and I climbed back down from the boulder and got into our kayaks.  We explained to Midge that we had to run the rapid.  We told him that we were going to leave our eddy, which was on the left side of the river, and paddle with all the strength that remained in our bodies to the right side of the river where the safe tongue of water bypassed the hole. We emphasized over and over how important it was to paddle at one hundred and ten percent effort to the right side of the river.  “Hit the right cliff wall with your boat,” we told him.

“After you’re safely past the first hole, paddle hard left to get away from the right wall so you don’t get crushed by that rock fall. Then, once you pass the rock fall, bust your ass into a small eddy on river right.”

“Right, left, right. Got it?” 

Midge nodded in understanding.

As per the plan, Don was preparing to launch as I told Midge to watch precisely where he went. Don took a few deep breaths to prepare himself, but just as he was about to pull out of the eddy, Midge stopped him to ask if his GoPro helmet camera was on. Don and I were beyond dismayed by this question. We asked Midge if was sure his head was in this. We implored him to focus, telling him that we needed him to be concentrating on survival, not on our video cameras.

Don peeled out of the eddy and made it to the right side of the river—nodding emphatically when he had made it to the tongue, which would ensure his safe passage past the hole. I asked Midge if he was ready, and then offered one more reminder: “Midge, put your boat on that right wall.”

Nervous—and wanting to focus on my own line rather than worrying solely about Midge—I concentrated on what I needed to do. Then I nodded at Midge and we left the eddy. I fought the current as I crossed from river left to river right. As I’d expected, the current was forceful and kept trying to pull me back to the left. I did not look back until I had cleared the hole; but when I did, my chest tightened.  Midge was above the hole and nowhere near the right wall.  He did make a heroic last minute effort to get right, but it was not enough, and he dropped into the massive hole.

Amazon Woman: 148 Days Source to Sea on the World’s Largest River

Hey Everyone,

I’ve been quiet on this site for a long time because I’ve been spending every free moment working on my book about our expedition down the Amazon.  Who knew it would take six times as long to write a book about our trip than it did to paddle the 4,300 miles?  (I suppose anyone who’s ever written a book before would have known this).

About to get started on the expedition by paddling across Lago Acucocha to begin our hike to the source.

About to get started on the expedition by paddling across Lago Acucocha to begin our hike to the source. First we had to thaw out all our gear.

I’m now nearly finished with my book and would love feedback from anyone willing to read some writing samples.  Below is my introduction to the book.  My biggest questions are:

  1. Do you like it?
  2. Do these 4 pages inspire you to want to keep reading the rest of the book?
  3. I’ve shied away from the seemingly ubiquitous “we almost died” story as the hook for the beginning of my book. However, if you didn’t feel like this introduction drew you in enough, do you think you’d more enjoy a story of the time Midge nearly died kayaking through the construction site for a new dam on the Mantaro River? I’ve got this written up as an alternative introduction which I will post next.

Feel free to comment on the blog or email me directly at darcy@smallworldadventures.com if you have feedback for me.

Thanks!

Our campsite at Ponto Taipu on day 147. Because of the tides, this rock was only out of the water for about five hours.

Our campsite at Ponto Taipu on day 147. Because of the tides, this rock was only out of the water for about five hours.

 

 

Introduction

July 24, 2013

 

Dear Mom, Dad, and Lacey,

If you are reading this, it’s because something went wrong and I am not coming home from the Amazon.

I realize that anything I have to say here probably won’t lessen your grief, but please know that I very much loved my life! I thank you all for supporting my “unusual” lifestyle choices and for never pressuring me to do all the things that families often pressure their daughters/sisters to do. (Parents, I haven’t forgotten that you forced me to go to college, but I forgive you for that.)

I’m sad it ended this early, but there are a lot worse ways I could have gone.

What I am most worried about as I type this, is the three of you. Don`t forget about me, of course, but please remember that you still have a lot of life left to live. So live it.

Know that I was happy while I was on this earth, and take whatever solace you can out of knowing that I won’t have to suffer when I am old.

I love you all very much. Thank you for everything you gave me.

Now put down this letter, and go out and do something you enjoy. Do it for me, because that is what I want you all to do.

Love, d.

*          *          *

While my friends were busying themselves with the tasks of adulthood—buying homes, starting families, saving for their retirement—I was sinking deeper into a hopeless obsession with running progressively more life-threatening whitewater in increasingly more remote places on our planet.  What few ties I had left with mainstream American society were slipping from my hands and I couldn’t find a reason to tighten my grip.

No one was terribly surprised when some typical, convoluted decision-making put me on a plane heading south to kayak the world’s largest river.  I was with David Midgley, an esoteric computer programmer from London and Don Beveridge, my boyfriend of twelve years.  Don and I had recently sold our adventure travel company and I’d gotten us fired from the new owner; Don was not happy with me.  The plan was to kayak the Amazon River from its source in the Peruvian Andes all the way to the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil. It would be a journey of 4,300 miles. Nine other people had done some sort of source-to-sea descent of the Amazon, compared to twelve people who have walked on the moon. None of those people had kayaked the entire river, and none of them were women.

I would be the first.

When I signed on, I expected one month of kayaking on some of the most challenging whitewater in the world, through the depths of one of most formidable and inescapable canyons on Earth. I was okay with this. I’d spent the previous sixteen years of my life intensely focused on whitewater kayaking adventures, so this sort of thing was almost normal for me. The whitewater would be followed by the longest, flattest, most boring paddle of my life. I estimated that the roughly 3,900 miles of flat water would take us three to four months to paddle. We’d be camping; there would be bugs; we’d be hot, tired, hungry, and bored. But who can’t deal with that stuff? We’d be doing it all for the sake of adventure, in the interest of being first at something in a world where it seems most of the firsts have already been taken. I also harbored faint hopes that this big adventure would be my last hurrah; that it would set me free from my wandering life and allow me to feel content to finally settle down.

It seemed like a worthwhile endeavor.

This was until we got to Peru, where I bought a copy of El Comercio from a street vendor just outside of Lima’s international airport and read that eight Peruvian colonists had been murdered by the indigenous Ashaninka people in the Red Zone. The Ashaninka feared the colonists were there to set up an illegal logging operation.  We would be paddling through Peru’s Red Zone in just over a month. I learned quickly during our four prep days in Lima that this expedition would be much more than a challenging river trip.  The human factor we’d have to contend with suddenly seemed much more dangerous and unpredictable than the Class V whitewater.

We met with Ruth Buendia, president of the Central Ashaninka Del Rio Ene (C.A.R.E), in the hopes of securing permission letters from the Ashaninka people whose lands we would travel through and who we hoped would refrain from murdering us as they had done to the eight Peruvians and the two Polish kayakers a couple of years earlier. C.A.R.E. represents seventeen Ashaninka communities along the Rio Ene—the start of the flatwater and the Red Zone—and their compliance with our expedition would be crucial to our survival. Ruth, whose father had been killed by Shining Path terrorists in this region twenty years ago, issued us these permission letters along with plenty of dire warnings.

The Ashaninka represented only one of our mounting problems. We met with the head engineer of a huge hydroelectric project being built in the deepest section of canyons in the Amazon’s headwaters. He advised us not to paddle through his construction zone. It was simply too dangerous due to the dynamite work, and he was too busy to deal with any fatalities.

Guillermo, whose father was an admiral in the Peruvian navy, was next in the line of people we met who were certain that our undertaking was a bad idea. He was adamant that we arrange an escort from the navy to protect us from the Ashaninka, the Shining Path rebels, the narco-traffickers, the illegal loggers, and the river pirates. He kept saying, “remember Sir Blake, remember the Polish couple, remember Davey,” naming off all the people who had been killed or nearly killed on the Amazon in recent years.

It was one o’clock in the morning, and we were supposed to start our drive to the source of the Amazon River in five hours. I was exhausted from the previous four days of running around Lima taking care of last-minute preparations. More troubling than my fatigue were all these images of how we were likely to die on this expedition, each subsequent danger certain to kill us provided we survived the ones before. If river pirates didn’t rob and murder us, then narco-traffickers or Shining Path insurgents would. If we somehow avoided being crushed by dynamited rock in the dam construction zone, then the scared and insular Ashaninka people would kill us. Or, who knew, we might stumble upon an illegal logging camp and get murdered there by rogue loggers afraid of being reported.  And if we escaped all those fates, we were sure to meet our end in the fierce winds, tides, and monstrous waves of the lower river.

This wasn’t at all what I had imagined when I said, “Sure, what the hell, I’d like to kayak the Amazon from source to sea.”

I wanted nothing more than to just collapse into bed. Instead I forced myself to sit down at the hostel’s lone computer and I hesitantly wrote my goodbye note.

I emailed the letter to my friend Larry, with strict instructions to deliver it to my family if I died.[i] Then I crawled into bed, hoping to get a little rest—but mostly I lay there wondering if I would succeed in becoming the first woman to kayak the entire Amazon River, or if, as so many people had predicted, I would die trying.

It was my thirty-fifth birthday.

 

 

[i] Hey Larry, 

Sorry to ask this of you…but if I happen to die on this trip, can you give this letter to my parents?

You can read it too if I don’t make it back.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that! But I thought I should write something for my family because I know my mom will not do too well if this is the outcome.

And, rest assured, I will do everything in my power to come back. But you just never know when there are people with guns involved…Thanks LV.

 We are heading toward the put-in tomorrow and will supposedly start paddling Saturday.

Love you man!

Kayak the Amazon Video release.

Where are they NOW?

Sorry, we seem to have dropped of the face of the earth AFTER completing the Amazon!  After making to the sea, we went back upstream to Belem and rushed to re-enter civilization.  Midge was able to catch a flight home in time for Christmas in London.  Don and Darcy got “stuck” in Rio for Christmas, but made it home to Colorado in time for New Years, and then spent the rest of winter wondering what that white cold stuff falling out of the sky was (snow).  We don’t usually like to count, but after 148 days on the Amazon, Don was able to get 67 and Darcy was able to get 60 days skiing in Aspen.  It was a nice way to decompress after all those days on the river.  And good to be COLD again!

After ski season ended, I felt I was finally ready to start tackling some video editing.

Canoe and Kayak wanted me to whip up a short “teaser” video to accompany an article in their magazine.  It turns out that our little trip has been nominated for “Expedition of the Year” and they wanted to post a video on their site.  They asked me to condense 5 months of paddling and video from 6 different cameras into a two minute video.

I went a bit over.

During the process I came up with this longer video of stuff I which I could have put in, if not for the two minute “limit.”  You can see the short video and read the story here on Canoe and Kayak’s website:

http://www.canoekayak.com/touring-kayaks/dispatch-amazons-first-kayak-descent/

 Now that we’ve reached our goal of paddling the Amazon from Source to Sea, our next goal is being voted Canoe and Kayak’s “Expedition of the Year.”  If they are going to have a contest, we want to win it, darn it!  So please vote for us here:

http://www.canoekayak.com/canoe-kayak-awards/vote/expedition-of-the-year/

While fulfilling Midge’s dream of paddling the Amazon from Source to Sea we set these records:

First Englishman to paddle the entire Amazon:  David Midgley

First Woman to paddle the entire Amazon:  Darcy Gaechter

First Vegan to paddle the entire Amazon:  Darcy Gaechter

First kayak only descent of the Amazon (other trips used other craft for downstream travel for parts of the journey)

First person to paddle the Amazon with no record to set:  Don Beveridge

 

We hope you enjoy the video.  Please tell your friends to get out and vote for us.

 

 

Expedition Complete!

On 22nd December 2013 team Kayak The Amazon finally reached the Atlantic Ocean. After starting in the Peruvian Andes on 28th July the expedition took 148 days. The Amazon never let up right to the end and we did spend several hours on the penultimate night holding on to tree branches in the dark as the tide rose relentlessly!

Team Kayak The Amazon on the beach just after reaching the Atlantic Ocean

Team Kayak The Amazon on the beach just after reaching the Atlantic Ocean

We’re currently in Belem and are off to Rio tomorrow. We’ll write a more substantial blog post once we’ve had some R&R.

Merry Christmas!