Chris Emerick, one of the premier whitewater videographers and producers, is a good friend of mine. We have discussed producing an instructional kayaking video to go with my instructional book that was published two years ago. I just won the World Championships for the second time and it made sense to get the video underway as soon as possible. I got a call from Chris in November suggesting that we should film the video in Ecuador this winter. I have never been there, and needed to check the map to see just where it was, sad but true. I have paddled in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina, but never Ecuador. I discovered a few interesting facts about Ecuador before leaving. We fly into Quito, a city that lies at 10,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. The source of the Amazon is near Tena, in Eastern Ecuador, in dense virgin jungle, where the only people you will find are the Quichan (indigenous natives), and a few native trails. The three ideal places to find an abundance of whitewater are in Baeza, Tena, and Banos. Chris suggested that we should film in both Baeza and Tena.
We arrived in Ecuador on January 2 with winter white skin and still feeling the holidays. Two special people to me were invited to film with me in the video, Jessie Stone and Danny Stock. Both of these people have been brought up in their kayaking career under my direction using my “Strokes and Concepts” program. Danny helped to edit my first book at 18 years old. He is unusually intelligent, motivated and caring, bucking the trend as a teenager. No drinking or self-destructive behavior of any kind. His focus on the good things have paid off as he made the U.S. Junior Men’s Slalom Kayaking team after only two years of serious training. Jessie Stone is another incredible human being. I met her at the Gauley Festival in West Virginia in 1998. She told me that she would trade medical services for coaching. She had graduated from Berkley Medical School but decided that kayaking was her call in life at this point, not medicine. I am a sucker for anybody that is willing to look status quo in the eye and say, “this is not for me”, and make a conscience quality of life decree. Jessie was just that. Not many people would consider giving up being a doctor to be a kayaker an intelligent decision. Jessie doesn’t think twice about it, she knows what she wants, and what she doesn’t want, and makes her life decisions based on a simple formula. “Will I be happier doing this?” By no means does she think short term either. Her decisions are based on goal achieving, not tension relieving. So, she has lived up to her end of the bargain time and time again. She has given my son, Dane, stitches four times since that agreement, as well as helped me in raising money for major competition trips. Jessie has also been rocketing up the rankings in freestyle kayaking. Last year, she was ranked 7th in the women’s pro class.
One more thing that made our group special is that nobody ever complains or argues, ever. As a group it was almost embarrassing how selfless everybody was. “Let me get this check, no let me, etc.” You almost had to be pushy to pay for something. Ok, so I am now ready to continue with my story.
We got a taxi to the bus station in Quito and boarded the 3:30 bus to Tena, a six-hour ride over a 14,000-foot pass in the Andes and back down to 2,000 feet into town. The weather got much hotter in Tena than Quito. It actually felt like we were on the Equator now. The bus ride was just like you might imagine. Sharing the isles and seats were the prized chickens and pets of the locals. Grandma kept her chicken in her shopping bag, and little Jose’ had the little chicks in a cardboard box.
Chris was ready to get to work on the video right away. We checked into one of the nicest hotels in town, $7 per night, and began going over my outline for the video. Chris knew of a lagoon to film the flat-water shots about a 30-minute hike above the normal put in for the Napo River. We spent a few days there in what could certainly be described as paradise. A crystal clear green lagoon made by a steep mountain creek of 70 degree water flowing out of dense jungle. My only regret was that perhaps the only people who would appreciate the ultimate swimming hole more than me would be my kids, Emily and Dane. There were actually a series of three lagoons ranging from 10 to 20 feet deep with sandy bottoms and rocks to dive off of. The rapids in between them were class 4+ made up of steep drops, very low volume. Chris suggested that we take a day off from the Lagoon and try another river run that was nearby. Last year Chris scouted most of the river runs and was familiar with what was available. Locals were also helpful for finding the put-in and take out points, especially since many of them required hiking from the road to find them.
We got a late start that morning. I can’t remember why, but it was noon before we got to the put in which was only 30 minutes from Tena. I didn’t even know the name of the river we were going on, never mind the where it started or where it went to. The only thing I knew was that we told the taxi driver 5pm for the take out time some 12 miles through the canyon. I can tell you now that the name of the river run was the lower Missaulli (sp). The river was supposed to have some really good big water play spots and challenging rapids, especially at high water. We had an incredible night of rain the night before ending mid-morning. We watched some natives ferrying family members across the river at the put-in in their dug out canoes. They dealt with the eddy lines and current with ease, even with their canoe so loaded that the gunnels were only a few inches above the water. I am going to use a piece of video Chris got of them to demonstrate how Speed, Angle, and Spin Momentum effect your boat during a ferry. They have mastered these concepts.
The river run started like any other. We warmed up and prepared to expend all of our energy running the rapids, while surfing every wave and hole we could find. For me the best days of paddling are getting off the river exhausted from playing hard all day. This is my training, and the harder I train the better I do, so I avoid being out worked (played) on the river! Danny and I decided to run a challenging line on the biggest rapid we have hit yet. It was a cool line that had us paddling about 10 feet up on this big pillow of water against a house sized rock into a big hole that sucked us under for a few seconds spitting us out down stream 20 feet or so. It made for good video and was quite exciting. We were quite fortunate that the rain had just ended. Not only was the river super high and brown, but also, all of the little creeks were swollen and pumping water over the canyon walls creating incredible waterfalls. Around every corner was a 200+ foot waterfall shooting off the top of the canyon wall and dropping into the river. One was so big that the wind coming off of it made it almost impossible to paddle near it without being blown over. The sight made me shake my head affirming why I do what I do. Life is good. Chris had run this river the prior year at much lower water and warned us that there was a class V portage coming up with a dicey put in requiring a rope. We rounded the corner and stopped at a major horizon line, signifying that there was a falls below. We all got out, realizing that this was our portage. Chris seemed confused by the rock wall on the side, saying that a rockslide must have occurred since the last time he was there. We scurried along the shore on slippery rocks, stepping on one rock that was protruding out from the cliff of dirt that was the only rock that allowed you to cross the cliff. It was about 20 feet above the falls and was not a rock to be trusted; it could have fallen at any time. I cringed every time I scaled across that point. Chris scouted out our portage and looked quite discouraged. It was not looking good. The difficult put-in was now both underwater and there was nowhere to get in the boat except on a steep sloping rock above a major part of falls about ½ way down it. It was possible if someone could hold your boat while you got in, and then seal launch into a steep Class V+ rapid that would take your head off if you flipped. Danny had never portaged a rapid before. We were all excited to give Danny his first portage experience and we were sure it would be a good one. It took us about five minutes to get back up to our boats to prepare for another strategy of portaging. We decided that we would hike our boats up into the jungle to get above the cliffs, traverse along the side of the mountainside until the cliffs ended and hike back down to the river. Chris remembered from last years run that the cliffs went as least as far as the next bend we could see which was about ¼ mile down stream. I was hot and thirsty from the hard playing on the river and the hiking around. I drank the rest of my Gatorade before we started to stay hydrated, and I didn’t want to carry the extra weight around anyway. We were about ½ down the river run and in virgin jungle. Another 15 miles and the river meets with the Napo to form the Amazon.
Upon beginning the portage Chris got out his camera and we each gave a short interview. The consensus was that we were going to embark on a jungle adventure, known as Danny’s first portage. Our spirits were high and everybody looked at the task at hand as an adventure that would be fun. The hike was quite difficult at the onset. I was wearing a pair of board shorts and a short-sleeved polypro shirt, and a set of 5-10 booties. Chris was wearing long lycra pants and booties. Jessie and Danny both had shorts and wet suit socks on, so they opted to hike bare foot. We were all carrying our kayaks, paddle jackets, paddles, and helmets. Chris also had a video camera. Right from the beginning the way was near vertical. I would make toe holds in the soft jungle ground and use roots for handholds. Once I got above a vertical section I would stow my boat against a tree and have the others hand up their boats to me and then we would attack the next section. The Jungle was super thick, with a full canopy of trees above us. The plants that we were climbing through, and over were surprisingly friendly. No thorns, not much for wild life, certainly we kept our eyes open for snakes in the beginning, but the verticality was our primary concern. We did discover on plant that looked good for grabbing while climbing that was covered in tiny thorns. It was more abrasive than painful, but began to wear on the legs quite quickly. The best feature of the mountainside was the dirt. It was super slick mud under a fine layer of moss, leaves, and plants, but was also very soft. We discovered that we could kick our feet halfway into it creating a foothold, much like in snow. Crampons would have been very helpful. Jessie only weighs 130 pounds and was carrying the same weight as Danny, Chris, and I. She had been working out at Radu’s gym in New York City, voted best workout in NY. Her boyfriend, Eric Stiller, was terrorizing her with incredible Yoga and calisthenics workouts for a few weeks before the trip on top of her already incredible physical conditioning, so she was probably as prepared for the physical challenge as any 130 pound man or woman could be. She also likes to abuse her self with tough workouts, so this was a dream come true. Danny trains daily for slalom kayaking and his endurance base is incredible. Chris simply paddles, bikes, and snowboards a lot. He is in great shape by most people’s standards, and luckily he is about 190 pounds and 6’ 1” so the kayak was less of a burden for his size, but he also had another bag with a video camera and accessories. I wasn’t in the best shape of my life by any means, especially after two weeks of holiday food and drink, and no paddling. But my body is always ready for a challenge.
A Jungle Adventure
It was 3:30 pm and we had another three hours of daylight. Our first hour of hiking was straight up, sweat was pouring off of us, while our legs and shoulders burning from exertion. We were maybe above the cliff walls. Unfortunately we were actually traversing slightly upstream since there was no apparent way to keep moving downstream yet. Chris suggested that we begin moving downstream. I was quite thirsty and it became apparent that water could become an issue if we don’t get to the river soon. Chris, Danny, and Jessie all still had some water on them. Every ten feet of was an effort. The vegetation was so thick that no way seemed like a good one. Then I discovered a trail! It was a small footpath. Small enough that you had to really pay attention or you would lose it. A periodic footprint here or there, a broken branch, sometimes even a mark made in a tree could be found. One thing for sure was that every trail goes somewhere. At this point we figured that this was made by kayakers to get around the canyon and back to the river. I wanted to follow it but it was going up more than downstream. Chris didn’t want to go too high and get cliffed out. We climbed the trail, which was no easy going, but at least our kayaks weren’t getting tangled up in the jungle plants every couple of minutes. Jessie was getting behind and could hold the pace. We had our first discussion about the fact that we only had two more hours of light left. Two hours seemed like more than enough to walk a quarter of a mile downstream and get into the water and paddle out. We all decided that the trail was the way to go as long as it was heading down stream. It seemed that we were about 1,000 feet above the river. We couldn’t see the river but could see the other side of the river through the periodic holes in the jungle canopy. The scary thing was that the other side of the river was so close and we were so high. Certainly the only way that was possible was for a cliff to be below, a big one. At 4:30 pm we crossed a little creek. We all cooled off in it. The thought of drinking it was there but we didn’t have filters and nobody wanted to get sick. So we kept on going. At 5pm the trail turned to straight up the mountainside. At this point we were no longer working our way downstream. Chris decided that we should break from the trail and go for the river before it got dark. All of us were tired and super thirsty. Everyone with water was smart enough to ration it. Jessie was practically drinking nothing just in case. We decided to take a 5-minute break after 2 hours of slow agonizing climbing. I climbed ahead on the trail to see if it would perhaps get on a ridge and then go straight downstream. It did break back downstream but was definitely going more up than anything. When I returned, everyone definitely had second thoughts about heading back down the mountain. It was so much work to get where we were. We decided that we would go down and downstream as well, looking for a ravine that we could get down to the river with. It only took us about 45 minutes of downhill climbing to discover a ravine. We only had to follow that for 10 minutes before it ended in a 500-foot cliff. The river was directly below us. I climbed out on a fallen tree to see if I could get a look down river for a possible way in. About ½ of a mile downstream I could make out another much larger ravine that would certainly have a creek in it. It looked like there was a rock beach at the base of it so perhaps there wouldn’t be any cliffs to prevent us from getting down the ravine into the river. Chris also scaled out on the tree, which was a sketchy exercise at best, at 1000+ feet over the whitewater below, to make his judgment. We decided that it was our best bet. It was now 5:30pm. We had one more hour of daylight. It was at that point that it hit us. We would have to get used to the idea of spending the night in the jungle. I said this out loud and Jessie was already thinking along those lines. Danny had no comment. Now we looked back up the mountain. We had gone for broke on our last quest to get to the river and brought our boats back down the mountain. We would have to go back up with them. We were all exhausted and dehydrated. I couldn’t spit and was getting quite dizzy at times. None of us were the least bit hungry. Not even Danny who eats more than any human being I have ever seen. Danny normally has serious blood sugar problems, along with being allergic to any kind of grain, except corn and rice. He was doing as well as the rest of us with no food, to the point that I told him his blood sugar problem was obviously psycho somatic, he didn’t really want to get into that discussion, and dismissed my comment.
Given that we had only one hour to do anything, I put up three options for a vote. Stay where we were and rest until dark, then sleep until morning, or head for the ravine and stop when it gets dark, or lastly retreat back to the creek we found that was probably about an hour back so we would have water for the night. Everyone decided to push forward and hope we found water ahead. Within 30 minutes we found the trail we were previously on. It was depressing to be struggling up the same steep section of trail we were on an hour and a half ago, but comforting to have found the trail again. I was making trips back to help Jessie carry her boat much more regularly now and my strength and condition was going down fast. Chris hit the wall and wasn’t going anywhere. He needed to rest and decided that that was what he was going to do. We dropped our boats against trees on a 45-degree slope (the flattest section we could find). Daylight waned and then dark came so fast that we suddenly couldn’t see the trail. I climbed ahead to see if there was a flatter section, instead it turned vertical again, some serious climbing, and it was dark. We were in the best spot we would find tonight. Chris and Jessie set their boats up together to make a chair I found another spot for my kayak but Danny couldn’t find a good place. It was nearly black out as Danny and I rushed to find a way to position our boats to make a semi-comfortable place to rest. We got out all rations of water, and food. There was about 1 cup of water available as well as two cans of tuna fish in oil, some chocolate, and a half of a bag of Doritos. It was totally black out within five minutes. I have major hearing loss and didn’t have my hearing aids with me, so I read lips. You can pretty much say that I don’t hear in the dark. We all decided to have one sip of water now, and then one more before we went to sleep. This was one group of people who, no matter how bad it got, would never need to worry about somebody taking more than their fair share. That was a comfortable feeling, amid feeling quite uncomfortable. That one sip of water wet the inside of my mouth and throat as I gargled it and swished it around before swallowing. I have never been this thirsty in my life. It was far from refreshing though and within a couple of minutes my mouth was dry again. Somebody opened a can of tuna and nobody had any luck eating it. I tried some but it just sat in my mouth and I couldn’t swallow it. I kept it under my gums like chewing tobacco just in case I suddenly felt hungry. Danny then offered me a Doritos. I must have been out of my mind to accept it. I chewed the cheesy salty chip for five minutes, never getting it wet enough to swallow it or rinse my mouth out. I spit it out in a powder, the cheese barely wet. The only thing that was wet was all of our clothes from sweating. We were soaked from head to foot in sweat and mud. Within 30 minutes we were all cold.
At 7pm we were all settled in and so tired that I thought sleep would come easily. Danny and I laid down on our boats next to each other, as did Jessie and Chris. It was so quite and dark, and it would be so for the next 12 hours. That was when the first person slapped. Then we were all slapping. The bugs were awake. It was amazing. There were no bugs accept for ants biting our ankles and hands when climbing through their territory, and now suddenly there were a wide variety of insects biting us. There were big noisy bugs that even I could hear, small ones that you didn’t feel when you slapped them, and crawling ones. The next 12 hours was a long losing battle against being eaten by bugs. Danny was our entertainment as he offered his selection of bad jokes and singing. Everybody was talking and slapping all night. I couldn’t hear the conversations so I stayed quiet. My body was covered in red welts of many different shapes and sizes. We were all blood donors that night. Suddenly, it began to get lighter. I was eager to see again and get on our way. I felt terrible from dehydration and wanted to get back to our hotel room. I waited and waited but it was taking forever to get light. Then I saw it, it was the moon shining through a hole in the jungle ceiling. It wasn’t morning, not yet. I took my Swiss Army Watch off for some unknown reason, as if that made it hard to sleep. I reached for it on the ground and picked up some glow in the dark moss. Weird. That stuff was all over; I couldn’t find my watch because everywhere was glow in the dark stuff that made it useless. What seemed like an eternity later the light appeared again, this time with more color and it kept getting lighter. Everybody was wide-awake and waiting for enough light to pack up our makeshift camp and get underway. We didn’t want to spend another night out there. Without saying much we all got our boats on our shoulders and started up the mountain again. Within 60 seconds our legs were burning, our hearts were pounding, and we were sweating up a storm, again. We weren’t moving as fast; Jessie needed more help than before with her boat, but wasn’t complaining, of course. Dehydration was now scaring us. I was definitely dizzy and feeling terrible, as were the others, I’m sure. All we saw was hot jungle, with a minimal trail that lead straight up, never offering a physical break, a single flat area, or any indication that we were near the top. Then the trail ended in a vertical pitch, congested with vegetation. It was a small landslide. I propped my boat up against the mountain with the stern on a tree to keep it from sledding down the mountain. Just another obstacle to challenge us, nothing more. I scrambled up the side of the cliff using roots and plants whenever available, making toe holds in the mud. The others waited below. The pitch was only about 25 feet high but there were lots of dead sticks mixed in with the roots to fake you out and get your adrenaline pumping when they broke away. I made it to the top and saw something we hadn’t seen since yesterday, the sky. About 100 feet in front of me, and 50 feet above me, was a clearing, only people made clearings, and we needed to find people. I rushed ahead to scout it out so I could bring some good news back to the others. When I got to the crest of the mountain I was standing in front of about 5 acres of recently clear-cut land. It was a mess of mangled jungle. All of the huge trees, and brush laying horizontal on the ground. My first assumption is that we would just have to follow the logging road out of there to a bigger road, and that we were saved. I couldn’t see a logging road, nor were any people working there, but people got there somehow. I decided that it would be worth the effort to have more substantial information for the others upon returning to them. It took me five minutes to climb over and under and through the brush and trees to the middle of the clearing where I stood on top of the highest point on a fallen tree to look for a way out. There was no obvious road, and no obvious trail either. The way we had been walking turned up again on the far side of the clearing with a steep pitch. On my left only 100 feet past the clearing was the big ravine we spotted late yesterday. This looked promising from the clearing, especially since there was no other apparent way out. I worked my way back to the jungle. It took me a few minutes to find where I came out of it. I tried yelling and waiting for answers. I heard somebody, but it didn’t really help me get my bearings. Go down was tough and scary. From the top it looks impossible to get down the cliffs, but once you get over the lip it all seems to work out. Chris was busy while I was gone. He found a better way up. We passed our boats up to him and bypassed most of the brush in the cliff that I climbed through. We all arrived at the clearing at about 10am, three and a half hours after setting out that morning. It took another 30 minutes to get our boats into the middle of the clearing. Jessie and Danny were sitting on their boats; Chris and I were looking around. Chris suggested that we break for the ravine and make our push to get back to the river now. Jessie was dead set against that, announcing for the first time that she was nearing her limit. Certainly, she would not be able to get her boat back up the ravine if we got cliffed out again. It was at least 90 degrees out and super humid. We were now in the glaring sun. A sense of panic was hitting all of us from the dehydration. It was no longer a concern but a danger and it was affecting our judgment. For the next ten minutes we were at a stalemate. Everyone wanted to rest; nobody was ready to commit to any plan since none seemed promising. We had that truly lost feeling. The clearing didn’t reveal a way to civilization and the only way that seemed to have promise would put us back down the mountain. Finally, Danny decided to scout the ravine, so I decided to scout the other side of the clearing and to search for water, leaving Chris to scout the area in between that lead straight up the mountain again. Within twenty minutes I found a wet cliff side that had water dripping off of roots hanging from it. I tried to fill the two-liter bottle. I gave it 60 seconds on my watch to gauge how long it would take. I got about a teaspoon. This would take hours to get two liters. I looked along the cliff until I found a bigger trickle of water and then I saw it, a pool of clear water! This pool was big enough to fit the entire two-liter bottle in and fill it several times. I was yelling at the top of my lungs to get the others attention, WATER, WATER, I FOUND WATER! I filled the bottle and began to run back, then stopped and drank almost the entire thing myself in one long series of gulps. I filled it a second time and ran back to find Jessie on her boat, and Chris in the woods, Danny was still gone. They both arrived back within a couple of minutes. As excited as everyone was, nobody wanted to drink the water fearing that it was bad. That lasted about 30 seconds until Chris took his first real drink in 30 hours. Danny and Jessie both followed suit drinking enough to actually make a difference. We all lost that feeling of doom from dehydration immediately. The difference between our condition before and after the water was incredible. I was a new man. Tired and still lost, but not dizzy and weak from lack of water.
Danny announced that the ravine quickly turned into a series of cliffs with waterfalls the first one was 25 feet high, then they got progressively higher and impassible. This was the last time we would even discuss trying to get back down to the river as a plan, we were going to hike out of the jungle somehow. Chris found the trail we were originally on and it went straight up again. Jessie and Danny rested while Chris and I scouted the trail. The trail was steep for about 15 minutes then it got much flatter and came to another clearing, this one with Banana trees, papaya trees, and just over the next ridge, a cabaña. We were saved! We rushed back down to the others and told them the good news. Our kayaks were still in the middle of the clear cut field so it took a while to carry them to the edge, with lots of angry ants running around and covering many of the branches and trees we needed to use. We got pretty good at getting on and off those branches quickly and then brushing them off before getting too many bites. My ankles were hit the hardest but it really didn’t seem to matter that much any more. Danny and I got to the top quickly, as if it was a sprint to the finish of a major race. My heart rate was near its maximum and my legs were shaking violently from the lactic acid and exhaustion. We walked around calling for anybody that might be there. Nobody was there, but it was apparent that people lived there. Clothes were hanging on the line, chickens were running around, and everything looked in order. There were bananas, papaya, plantains, and a big bucket of rainwater that was collected from the rain off of the roof through bamboo gutters. Danny and I set off down an obvious trail to our right and it crossed a little creek and into banana trees. It ended almost immediately. Danny went back and I pushed on through brush looking for another trail that may lead to a road or somewhere. I was running to make good time and the brushes turned out to be nettles. The burning set in rather quickly since my legs were raw from scratches and bug bites. There was nothing but nettles everywhere I looked so I sprinted back through them to the trail. The pain just kept accelerating. I rinsed my legs off but it didn’t seem to help. When I got back Danny had gone off on another trail and announced that he would scout it a little ways up. I was sitting on the steps of the cabana just trying to tolerate the pain and act normal. Jessie and Chris were sitting on their boats slapping bugs wondering when Danny would be back. We fully wanted to wait there until these people came home. It made the most sense. After 30 minutes we began wondering where Danny was. He hadn’t any of the water from the house to drink, and only a few cups of my stagnant water from earlier. Chris decided to scout the trail Danny went up to see if there was a road nearby and possibly intercept Danny on the way back. Jessie and I totally dehydrated. I drank about 4 liters. Chris came back in 30 minutes as promised. No sign of Danny. We now were pretty sure something was wrong. Why else would he leave on his own with no food or water and not tell us that he would be gone for an hour. We began having imaginings of him getting heat stroke and wandering aimlessly until he collapsed. We waited for another 30 minutes, nothing. We decided to abandon our plan of waiting at the house for the owners to return. We knew the trail he started on, so we would set off after him and see if we could track him. We have carried our boats so far that we decided not to give up on them now. Danny’s kayak was left behind. We pretty much figured that would be the last time we saw it. The trail was quite obvious and was very muddy. There was nothing but footprints in the mud, and Danny’s was not easy to spot. Jessie was becoming quite slow and was talking about hitting the “Wall”. She had held out like a true champ and would work most men into the ground. However, she was fading fast and moving at half of the pace of Chris and I making the trips back to get her boat quite frequent. Within 20 minutes of walking we hit our first obstacle. A three way fork. We all decided to take a prong with an agreement to return back within 30 minutes. I followed my trail for 15 and then came back. When I returned I intercepted a native boy carrying a muzzleloader. Startled but not alarmed I made friends with him as quickly and honestly as I could. I wasted no time in letting him know that he was my savior and that I would pay him to get us to a road safely. He agreed to help. The others returned in a couple of minutes and we were all feeling the next level of excitement about getting out in one piece. I inquired about Danny and he said he saw him walking and trying to speak English to him. This wasn’t like Danny since Danny had enough Spanish to get around as well as the sense to use it. We were now truly afraid that he was delirious. The boy told us he was 12 years old and his family had a cabana close by that was on the way to the road. He said that was the way Danny had walked as well. Perfect, we could work towards getting ourselves out of trouble while looking for Danny at the same time. I asked the boy to carry Jessie’s boat for $5, he agreed. Chris had a better idea, for Danny at least. He suggested that we get Danny’s boat and let the boy carry that. I ran back with the boy and got Danny’s boat and carried it myself the 20 minutes back to the forks. Jessie was bummed that she would have to carry her boat again. We began our hike with our boats to the boy’s house. This kid was like lightening. I was straining my aerobic capacity to keep up! He wasn’t impressed that he had to wait while I got Jessie’s boat and tried to catch up, but he didn’t particularly complain. The Quitawan boy actually told us that it was 200 meters ahead at one point and after another half and hour we began wondering just how far it was. It took us 3 and a half hours to get to his house. The last 30 minutes the boy’s bigger brother carried Jessie’s boat. When we got to the house the family invited us in. There was grandma, grandpa, mom and dad, two brothers, three sisters, and three kids, and two babies in the house. One baby was in a makeshift hammock tied up between two vertical supports in the cabana. A fire was crackling in the corner of the cabana in a rock fire pit with no chimney, just the openings in the thatched roof. Grandma offered us a drink. It was in an old beat up tin bowl, white and a little chunky looking. Chris took the first sip and I though he was going to throw up. I was a little embarrassed because they seemed proud of the drink and Chris couldn’t manage to keep a straight face. I took several big gulps and it didn’t taste to bad to me. It had a little bit of an alcoholic taste to it.
Jessie also took a couple of swigs and confirmed that it had alcohol in it. Grandma followed the drink up with a plate of Uka (white root that was boiled and not unlike a potato, perhaps dryer), and the tastiest soft-boiled egg I have ever had. We were truly in heaven at this point. The whole family was looking at us amazed at what the boys brought home from hunting today. We were running out of questions to ask and the conversations were one way. They never asked where we were from, what we did, etc. They’re family had been in that cabana for the past forty years, overlooking the source of the Amazon River, they seemed incredibly happy, all of them. I wanted Chris to video this awesome experience we were having, being taken in and fed after such an ordeal by this wonderful family. He was afraid of offending them. Then I remembered a few days earlier when he was videoing a group of kids at the take out and had the video screen pointed at them so they could see themselves on TV for the first time. The kids went nuts and couldn’t get enough. Chris agreed to try it. He started with the Dad and within 30 seconds everyone was scrambling to get on the screen like New Yorkers trying to get on the train on a busy workday. Grandma squeezed her grandchild out of the way for a better look; everyone got to see him or herself in action. The little baby that was in the hammock started crying the second mom stopped rocking it to check out the video action. I took over rocking the baby. He was quite cute, and as all babies do, made me feel special by smiling at me, when I paid attention to it. Chris sat down and momma seemed happy that someone else was taking a shift rocking the baby so I spent the next ten minutes doing that until he went to sleep. There was a squeal that came from a small box. A baby Toucan jumped out of the box and looked me over. I offered it my finger and he jumped on it, so I got to hold him. That was unexpected. The bird was all beak and no body, quite out of proportion looking. The boys (Dad and two sons) wanted to rest for an hour before taking us to the road. We worried about Danny but figured that our best bet was to have their help the rest of the way. Jessie was in good spirits knowing that she would not have to carry her boat any more. She never complained about it once, just ran out of gas, and told us matter of factly. I was getting anxious and asked it they had any water we could fill our water bottles up with. Our 12-year-old savior, I regret that his name got confused between us and now is beyond remembering, filled our bottles up. We asked them how much they wanted to carry our boats to the road beyond the $25 dollars I offered the 12 year old. Dad said for $40 they would carry the boats to the road as well as get us to the road where we could catch a bus. We all went outside and got our boats paddles and gear ready. It was apparent that we only had three carriers for four boats (we still had Danny’s with us). Dad called inside and out came his 10 year-old daughter. My daughter, Emily, is 11 and I carry her boat to the river unless it is quite close. This little 10-year-old girl came out as the boys watched, picked up my boat and gave them the nod. Yes, she said, I can do it. Well, I carried my boat this far and there was only another three hours left, there was no way I was going to have a 10 year old girl carry my boat so that I could be spared the pain. I told them that we would still pay them the same money, but I would carry my boat. We all loaded up and started down the mountain. The way was muddy to say the least. We were either skiing on our booties down slick muddy inclines or up to our shins in mud. Our guides were moving quickly and Jessie was struggling to keep up. Her booties didn’t have treads on them like my 5-10’s, so we switched. It was quite interesting taking off booties that were covered in and oozing out rich mud. I easily slid her small sloppy booties on and we continued on down the mountain trail. The rocks were interesting to cross with a thick layer of mud on the bottom of the booties. It was definitely slick as ice. I finally gave in to the desire to skate down the mountain. We stopped periodically to catch our breath, and drink some water. It was hot and humid out. I finally saw why the natives where tall rubber boots, for the mud (and snakes). I was desperately searching for even just one footprint that could have come from Danny but it was impossible with the amount of traffic this trail has had. After about two hours we reached a the bottom of the mountain and there was a large trail that cattle use. We followed that for a while until we finally reached the a small dirt road. The feeling that we actually made it was creeping in and replacing the one of determination to push on. Our friends showed us a small creek to wash off. We were disgusting at best. Our polypro was dripping from sweat, and had been for the past two days and we were muddy from head to foot. I doubt the bus driver would have let us on. There was a pool in the creek about two feet deep that provided the best bath I have ever had. We took off our shirts and booties and washed ourselves from head to foot in the cool water. It took five minutes to get all of the mud out of my booties. It was another 30-minute hike to a bigger road where the bus would come to. The bus was expected at 4:30 and we were there at 4pm. We paid our new friends their $40 and they were quite happy. Sure enough the bus arrived on time, even early. We hoisted our boats on the roof and tied them down along with our paddles and gear and jumped on board. It was both a great feeling and a sickening one. Jessie, Chris, and I made it, yet Danny was still M.I.A. Were we driving away with him in the Jungle, or were we heading towards him back in Tena? The only way to find our would be to get to the hotel. It made no sense to anybody that he would have just left us and somehow found his way home. Jessie being a doctor offered a less than pretty picture of somebody delirious from dehydration and possible heat stroke. The jungle extends from where we were all the way along the Amazon into Brazil and thousands of miles further, trails by natives the entire way. Perhaps the worst kind of getting lost would be there.
Our bus stopped and let us off at a corner one block from our Hostel at 6pm. We unloaded and saw a local friend, Genair. He was laughing at us, knowing that we were somehow just returning from the river run a day late. Genair said he saw Danny and got the story from him. Danny was now headed back to try to find us and had a taxi scheduled for 6pm to pick him up and bring him back, theoretically with us in it. We all decided that we needed to eat and went to the local pizza place to wait. Danny showed up 15 minutes later at 7pm and we wanted some answers. I didn’t care how he got out, just why he did.
Danny suffered from dehydration and had an uncontrollable panic attack after going 30 minutes down the trail he was scouting. He got pointed in the right direction by our native boy and his family along the way and continued on looking for signs of a road. Of course it was a 5-hour hard hike to get from where we were to the road so Danny wasn’t going to get any kind of proof that he was on the right trail. He said he had already walked 2.5 hours and only thought he was 30 minutes away. He panicked and was desperate to find food and water, so pushed on. He got to the road and got a bus going the wrong way and had no money to pay for the ticket. He then begged for some bananas and water in the town he ended up in. He got on a second bus without money to Tena an hour away. It was there that he got all of the food and water he needed. He then stocked up with Gatorade and food for us, a flashlight, and rubber boots for his rescue attempt. When he got to the trail he found the boys who helped us and they told him we were in town. He caught his taxi home and met us at pizza. I left a note for him, somewhat sarcastic, trying to make a point. “Danny, we are at pizza, decided not to wait.” Danny felt bad about what happened and we just wanted to make sure he wasn’t just using bad judgment. We were so glad to see him and amazed that he made it. Any number of things could have gone wrong. He could have taken the wrong fork when he was 5 hours out, he could have passed out from dehydration and heat stroke. Most likely, was just getting lost. Genair’s comment to us that night was that not many people get out of the jungle after getting so lost. We were all quite lucky and happy to be eating pizza and recuperating.
We were all on the river the next day by 10am and doing quite well considering. All of our legs looked like they have been abused badly, we were walking bug bites.