As a young boy, the Amazon by name and reputation intrigued my every sense. The thought of paddling the faster running upper-most tributaries between Ecuador and Peru was mystical. With a successful business by my late twenties, I knew it was time.
On a flight from Denver to NY, I engaged in conversation with the chairman of an international company called Sweepster about my intended expedition. This new friend referred me to his ties in Quito, to whom I was able to ship the white-water canoes and necessary gear for me and five teammates.
The selection process of my fellow adventurers was based on personal friendships with a fireman paramedic (first aid and emergency skills), an Austrian Ski Instructor (meal planning), a fashion retail buyer from Minneapolis -(Photographer), a bohemian type Turkish friend living in DC (canoeing, climbing and white-water skills) and a NY tax attorney (an adventuresome spirit with zero outdoor experience!). The only connection the five men had with one another at the time was their friendship with me.
We were interested in taking firearms for protection but knew that transporting weapons internationally would be a challenge. Always an optimist, I contemplated on the unlikelihood of the head General of the Ecuadorian Army receiving many calls from the US, summarily called their Embassy in NYC, and requested his number. Within five minutes we were speaking with one another about the upcoming adventure.
Upon arrival in Quito, we were met on the tarmac by Colonel Rodriquez, who escorted us directly into the war room to review topical maps of the intended route and notify the military outposts that we were ‘friends’. The Colonel warned the team that because Ecuador and Peru were at war, the Peruvian side of the river would not take kindly to a team of Yankees with Ecuadorian stamped passports. We were treated as honored guests by the General’s staff, and every hundred miles or so in our descent we’d come upon a jungle regiment at the water’s edge who welcomed us.
Entering the green:
After the military briefing, a day of acclimatizing to the area, prepping the canoes and assembling our gear, we set out on what may have been the most precarious leg of the experience.
The only route to the tributaries we sought to navigate was an old dirt road built by Shell Oil for oil and gas exploration. Built for single ingress and egress, the locals plied the route as if it were a thoroughfare in micro-busses stuffed to the gills with farmers, produce and livestock. On mountain passes shrouded in clouds, drivers with the heaviest feet were the victors at contested switchbacks and hairpin turns. Those forced to the outside skidded on eroding mud embankments where the little gravel that existed spilled down into the verdant gorges and pastoral valleys below. After loading our watercraft, tents and equipment on top of one such vehicle, we were given the window seats on what would be the outside edge of the ascent; it was no safer than the inside track, but a lot more attention grabbing.
After hours of travel through amazing vistas, the bus arrived at what could only be compared to a wild-wild west frontier town. A single mud street with an almacén (local store) for the barest essentials, one mechanic’s shop and what appeared to be a two-story brothel made up the outpost.
The beginning of the river and a limitless future:
We portaged our canoes a few hundred yards and entered the head-waters of the Río Aguarico (“rich water”). Rounding the first bend we saw a beautifully colored yellow and black beaked Toucan perched atop a tall hardwood tree. I commented to Paul, who paddled in the front of our canoe, “Paul, think of how many guys are married back home with a wife, a nice little house, two kids, a big screen TV and a ski-boat in the garage… and here we are pal!” Life had never felt so free and limitless.
Sundown and Bullet Ants:
We quickly learned that sundown and sunrise came almost instantaneously, as if someone flipped a master switch on and off. Securing safe camping spots at the end of each day’s paddle could not be delayed. On one particular evening, I was the last to secure my canoe and carry my gear to a clearing where the others were already tying their hammocks to carefully selected trees, so as to suspend their bodies a safe distance from the ground. One of the intrepid explorers affectionately referred to his top-of-the-line hammock as The Jungle Hilton. Anacondas reaching over 20 feet had previously been spotted, and the thought of sharing sleeping bags with a constrictor was not on our list. Given that the prime spots were taken, I spied two young trees with an ideal separation, but as I approached I noted a stump in between the two trunks with an extremely active colony of Bullet Ants, each an inch long. A vine, seven feet up and spanning from one tree to the other, was traversed by other members of the community. My companions looked on incredulously as I, with an air of smugness, began fastening my hammock to the two trees and attached Visqueen sheeting directly to the vine, so as to protect me from the nightly rain showers. My university studies in 500-level Comparative Psychology had taught me that ants follow a formic acid trail from which they do not deviate when collecting from a previously scouted food source.
The longest night:
Upon finishing our dinner of freeze-dried stroganoff, I returned to my sleeping quarters and began to unzip the entry into my hammock. Unlike The Jungle Hilton, my hammock was of the Army Navy surplus variety. As I slid the zipper from right to left, it became irretrievably stuck at the half-way point of its trajectory. With the challenge of only half an entry, I faced my back to the hammock, placed both hands mid-center of the newly configured opening and leaped up backward into the structure. With my posterior planted in the wobbly nest I assumed a fetal position, pulling my knees to my chin and pivoting right so my feet could clear the side wall of mosquito netting. Just as I was about to congratulate myself on a successful entry my toe caught on the portal causing the apparatus to twist violently, dumping me instantaneously onto the stump below. As I scrambled to my feet I received the first bite; it felt as though my left wrist had been torn off by a shotgun blast. As I looked down on a sleeping bag swarming with the insects another bit my chest and the heavens opened up with the nightly downpour. Surveying the situation, I had no choice but to head down to my canoe resting on the bank. As I lied on my back like a corpse in a coffin, I thought of the heat my body was giving off – an open invitation to the 20-foot anacondas we’d seen earlier and any other number of creepy crawling night hunters. Lying there with the throbbing pain of the stings and the pelting rain on my uncovered body I pondered the long night ahead. Out of nowhere, something bumped into my canoe causing it to lurch sideways, and for whatever reason the desperation of the moment transformed from anxiety into aggression. With a yell I lurched upward to blindly face my unknown foe, but in that instantaneous ascent the bridge of my nose and forehead collided violently with the strut of the canoe overhead – I fell backwards as quickly as I’d risen. Whatever had struck my abode was not heard or felt for the rest of the night, and I was left with the rain and pain that kept cadence with my heartbeat until sunrise.”
[The Bullet Ant stretches almost 1.5 inches in length and is known as the first of the top-10 insect stings. The sting contains a neurotoxin so powerful that only a few bites can take down a grown human being. It is called a Bullet Ant because the initial bite is equal to being shot]
Myths and Dolphins:
Legend has it that the Boto (Amazon River Dolphin) can change into a handsome young man or woman with great seduction abilities. At night, a female dolphin becomes a beautiful young woman, an encantada or enchantress. She visits the home of a married man, places him under a trance, and takes him to a secret hideaway. Thereafter, she meets him on the same night for seven-years, at which point she changes him into an infant and places the baby into the womb of the man’s wife–a circle of life.
One afternoon after a cleansing rain and deep in thought, I was paddling a placid section of the river when only a foot to my left the rarely sighted Boto or Pink Amazon River Dolphin exploded into a perfect arc. Though only a fraction of a second in duration, the memory remains an indelible photograph in my mind. To my knowledge I wasn’t seduced, but I was left to contemplate the wonders we were experiencing. In these upper tributaries, never did we see other humans beyond the occasional indigenous tribes and the few military outpost of Ecuadorian soldiers. Experiencing nature for days at a time as a solitary group of friends brought about an inner connection and sense of peace not found in civilization.
Bananas and Bedbugs:
We’d completed another long day of canoeing and were looking for a takeout point when we came upon a deserted Indian village. A small grouping of ripe banana trees and perfectly constructed thatched huts were set on stilts, obviously to protect the former inhabitants from rising water levels. We stood perplexed in the eerie silence observing charred fire pits where others had once gathered for communal meals, storytelling and social events. Feeling very much like intruders, we walked the village’s perimeter but found no one. Somewhat emboldened, I climbed the ladder to enter one of the high-rise domains about the size of a gazebo on a quaint country estate. Crossing the threshold, I instantly gagged as a horrible stench filled my nostrils and lungs. Soon, others who’d climbed up and into the remaining dwellings had the same reaction. Whatever had driven the tribe away had to have been a significant disease or pestilence–I couldn’t get out fast enough. Much to my astonishment, Howie, our NYC Tax Attorney and a lecturer at NYU, decided that the comfort of staying dry for the night far outweighed the oppressive smell of the dwellings. Because it was getting late, Paul and I along with another duo decided to tether some of the canoes and create a makeshift platform floating atop the water. Luckily, we had very little precipitation that night. We were only able to achieve intermittent rest, but we prided ourselves in being able to make do with little. When Howie and his canoe mate Hussein emerged from their hut, there wasn’t a single centimeter on their bodies that didn’t have festering red bite marks. However, both seemed to recover quickly over the next day or so with no lingering illnesses.
Our team member from Austria was a self-proclaimed snake aficionado, who kept a 12-foot anaconda and an 8-foot python roaming freely in his home. On one overcast afternoon, he spied a large anaconda sleeping atop a stout branch above the river. Standing up in the front of the canoe, he requested his rightfully concerned companion to stealthily paddle him alongside the snake at eye level. Anacondas are basically apex predators, and as such he felt confident in approaching the docile creature. Carefully guiding the butterfly net towards the animal’s head with his right hand, he deftly brought up his left to grab its side. As he inched closer the serpent began to flick its tongue, signaling its awakening.
The rapid in-and-out movement of the snake’s tongue samples the air, picking up different chemicals. Upon reentry, the tongue touches the top of the vomeronasal organ, determining the makeup of the outside elements–though they have nostrils, this ability provides an even greater sense of smell. The scent of the nylon net and man’s arm had to have been uncommon compared to the plants and forest debris to which the creature was accustomed. Just as Howie was about to lunge, the anaconda shot forward to grasp his clenched hand. Due to Howie’s quick reflex and considerable luck, the snake missed net’s handle–both the animal and apparatus plunged heavily into the water. It was clear to each of us that had it grasped its target, both man and snake would have disappeared into the muddy runoff below.
Wasps don’t make good bedmates:
Upon exiting the river another early evening for camp setup, I heard a loud yell from my dear friend Paul, the fireman paramedic and expedition’s emergency medical guru. He’d begun cutting limbs with his machete as ballast for his Jungle Hilton, hands down the best hammock on the expedition. As he did so, he inadvertently disturbed an entire nest of black wasps. I watched from 20 yards away as Paul ran faster than I’d thought possible for a big man. A black sphere the size of a basketball was in pursuit and gaining as he ran hell-bent for the river’s safety–10 feet, 8, 6, 4, 2… and a micro-second before the swarm engulfed his shirtless back, rivaling any Olympian, Paul pierced the water in a headfirst dive. After several encirclements, the airborne nest veered off and headed back into the forest. Our very wet but relieved companion selected a new site.
Prior to the wasps’ charge, we’d stowed our canoes well away from the bank; the water line could rise as much as 10 to 15 feet depending on the nightly downpours. After Paul was resettled and we were preparing our meal, out of nowhere an indigenous tribe emerged from the forest, no doubt in wonderment and search of the sounds emitted from the earlier ruckus. They stood motionless observing the six of us, and with no common language we returned their gaze with smiles seeming out-of-place. Noticing that our canoes were out of sight, Paul whispered to me, “You know what they’re thinking don’t you… ‘How’d they get here?!’”
What glows in the dark:
One evening we decided to canoe throughout the night, so as to observe the nocturnal life on the river. Aside from the river a myriad of Bats darted about like shooting stars as the elongated snouts and retinas of Caiman Crocodiles reflected the beams from our electric torches like landing lights on a never-ending runway.
What goes down must come up:
After a week and several days of paddling down the Aguarico, we came to its emptying point into the Napo River. From there we had a day’s paddle up the Napo, a much larger river with heavier currents. Every hundred yards or so we’d cling to overhanging branches to rest our arms and catch our breath before the next leapfrog sprint. Late in the afternoon, a very long dugout canoe made from one of the plentiful hardwood trees came flying upriver, powered by a sizable outboard motor–common craft for the Napo. We frantically hailed it down and gladly paid the asking price to tow our tired bodies and canoes in the northerly route.
When it became too dark to navigate we were forced to disembark on a pier that framed a couple of huts powered with generators and lit by kerosene lanterns. We purchased a meal (primarily made of boiled rice) and laid our sleeping bags on the thatched floor of our ‘dining room’. Worn out from the day’s events, I quickly fell asleep.
Some time after the last lantern was snuffed out and the din of the generator gave way to the sounds of the forest, I was half awakened in-between dreams and consciousness with the odd sensation of something gnawing on the tip of my nose. Having become accustomed to many strange sensations over the previous nights I did not react with a swat as one might in civilization, but merely opened my eyes. To my surprise, I was looking into another set of orbs much smaller than my own. I wasn’t sure which of us was startled the most, but the fully-grown rat’s retreat was much faster than what I was capable of.
With the sunrise came the normal mix of sunshine and rain. As our dugout skimmed up the Napo, we reflected on our experiences and pondered over warm showers and clean table cloths with multiple courses. Just one more journey on a micro-bus and it would all be ours!
Copyright 2018 Robert Comstock - All Rights Reserved