I peeled down to my bikini and slid into the hottest pool at sunflower hot springs on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. One of the clients (he, still fully clothed) looked down at me and staring incredulously, commented, “You’re not normal!” His comment struck my funny bone and I began laughing uncontrollably. His comment also made me start thinking about some of my boating friends who are as grizzled and wild and “abnormal” as me; the river folks who seek long, extended river trips. I started asking some probing questions of other “expedition” boaters. Why do you leave your “comfortable normal day-to-day life” to go out into the wilderness for extended river trips; what is the pull, the draw? Why do you come back time and again to the river?
I often heard the same or similar reply. Their enjoyment is often the simplicity of living in the moment, taking care of needs as they arise. There is a certain satisfaction for them in following the rhythm of nature, with freedom to play and frolic outdoors. These boaters also expressed delight in paddling every day, feeling their muscles become sleeker and stronger with each passing day. Many of these boaters also told me they value spending quality time with cherished river companions. The vast majority of expedition boaters expressed that living out of their boat was immensely enjoyable, with nothing but the river and river life to be concerned with for days and days.
All seemed to agree that as river days rapidly become river weeks, one begins to forget the stressful day-to-day life back home where there are distractions from modern technology and the stressors of modern life (think cell phones, e-mail, meetings, deadlines, traffic, etc). On the river these unnatural distractions and stressors are nowhere to be found and muscles begin to relax, minds become clearer, laughter and smiles begin to occur spontaneously. One can focus on nature, focus on the river, focus on boat control, focus on seeing that wild animal in the distance, and experience the positive emotion and exhilaration of running difficult rapids.
As people shared with me their reasons for seeking out multi-day river trips where they “lived” on the river, I could relate. I too love the experience of multi-day river expeditions for all of the above reasons and more. For many years now I have attempted to spend as much time as possible on rivers, seeking out these long river journeys. I am really excited about one particular multi-day trip coming up in October because it will be the longest river expedition I have done to date, an entire month on the river.
A group of us will be spending 28 river days on the Rio Marañon in Peru. The expedition will start high in the Peruvian Andes at an elevation of around 7,000 ft and will end in the humid, tropical jungles at an elevation of about 1,000 feet. Our group will travel over 400 miles on this tributary and hydrological source of the mighty Amazon. The canyon averages about 8,000 feet in depth on both sides for hundreds of miles. By the halfway point of our adventure we will have traversed a canyon that is deeper than the Grand Canyon, reaching a depth of nearly 10,000 feet in several places!
As we travel along the river, we will camp on untouched expansive white sand beaches, soak in soothing hot-springs, hike up narrow slot canyons, visit secluded grottos, witness amazing waterfalls, gaze at multi-colored cliffs soaring high above, and touch smooth, vertical limestone walls. We will be treated to rich colors reminiscent of the American Southwest; deep green riparian vegetation contrasted against dark red dirt, mellow tans of sandstone, and the interesting black and white swirling geology of metamorphosed rock. There will be warm turquoise colored tributaries streaming out of flash flood chiseled side canyons. Wildlife in the region is exotic; creatures such as sloths, a variety of monkeys, and giant centipedes have been spotted along the river. Parrots and other colorful birds will soar among the cliffs, and piranha swim in the lower reaches of the river. Ancient Incan ruins and indigenous villages are scattered throughout the canyon; we will be lead to Incan ruins (undiscovered by academia) by local residents and visit the indigenous Aguaruna people living in harmony with the jungle.
Historically the Rio Marañon river flow peaks in mid-March to mid-April with an average discharge of about 33,000 cfs. During the time of our trip (October) the historic average is around 8,000 cfs. With the onset of the rainy season, the flow during November historically doubles to about 16,000 cfs. This makes for exceptional whitewater through the entire year that is comparable to our own Grand Canyon of the Colorado, ranging from flat calm water to runnable class V. In the 400-mile section from Puchka to Imacita, there are more than 150 class II rapids, 83 class III’s, 23 class IV’s, and 2 class V rapids to negotiate. Best of all, we will be exploring one of the most magnificent and last free flowing rivers of the world! When a river is not dammed, the glorious natural cycles are experienced and conditions can change quickly and dramatically. We will be prepared to cope with changes in the river should winter rains begin to fall early.
Our journey down this mighty river will not be solely for pleasure and adventure, rather it is intended to increase awareness and appreciation of this magnificent river. The Rio Marañon is under immediate threat and stands at the threshold of destruction or preservation by mankind. There are around twenty dams proposed on the Rio Marañon, with three of them being mega-dams. One hydro dam after another is planned for the entire length of the Marañon which will leave little or no free-flowing river sections. The energy generated would be exported to other countries and enrich the builders of the dams and their foreign investors, not the people of Peru, and certainly not the thousands of local residents along the Rio Marañon. While there is fierce opposition to the dams by the residents along the river, underhanded tactics are being implemented by the damming companies (and the government) to get approval of the communities and push through the hydro projects. Residents are trying to organize and protest, but there are entities working against that. Also, misconceptions abound among the residents along the river, especially by the Awajún (Aguaruna) in the jungle areas. Although the dams in the latest stages will not affect them, solidarity is needed to prevent all the dams.
Our boating group intends to document and bring awareness of the threats to the Rio Marañon at the local, national, and international levels to garner support for opposition to this extensive network of dams which would destroy the free-flowing nature of the upper Amazon. If these dams are built, there will be catastrophic environmental impacts; not only will sand and silt deposition patterns come to a stop, but fish, aquatic and wildlife habitat would be destroyed. There will be devastating social impacts; thousands local residents and indigenous peoples will be displaced, losing their traditional way of living off of the verdant river lands and jungles. Historical/cultural impacts will be enormous; numerous archeological sites of the Incan and Chachapoyan cultures are found along the river and have yet to be excavated and studied. And finally, the damming the Rio Marañon would result in the loss of potential recreational and ecotourism opportunities. It is vitally important to raise awareness to this situation and amass as much opposition to the dams as possible because two of the dams along the Marañon are in late planning stages. Foreign companies intend to start construction as early as next year. For more information see this month’s issue of American Whitewater or look up the Rio Marañon write-up at the non-profit river conservation organization International Rivers.
In a few weeks I will be driving south of the USA border to do some expedition boating in Mexico. First stop will be the Copper Canyon region of northern Mexico. I have plans to meet a couple of other river enthusiasts for a five-day run down the Rio Guerachi; we may extend for another week on the Rio Fuerte. About seven more weeks will be spent down south exploring other rivers including the Rio Conchos, Suripa, and Batopilas. Mexico is a good warm-up for the Rio Marañon because it has plenty of long isolated wilderness rivers, Spanish is the predominant language, and the weather will be similar. This “grizzled and wild” expedition boating Gringa can not wait to get back on southern waters.