Facing Fears, Chasing Dreams, and a Quest to Kayak the World’s Largest River from Source to Sea By Darcy Gaechter
An extraordinary and inspiring chronicle of one woman’s harrowing journey to become the first female to kayak the entire Amazon River.
Darcy Gaechter is a bad-ass boater. As co-owner of Small World Adventures, she leads kayaking trips throughout Ecuador and world. But her most challenging one came when she decided to kayak the length of the entire Amazon, becoming the first woman to ever do so.
Others have paddled the river from source to sea, and penned about it, from Piotr Chmielinski (as covered in Joe Kane’s classic Running the Amazon), to West Hansen’s record speed descent, as chronicled in his book,The Amazon from Source to Sea: The Farthest Journey Down the World’s Longest River. But this is the first time a woman has done it, and dealt with the trials and tribulations of traversing the boondocks of Third World countries in a boat.
Part memoir, part feminist manifesto, Amazon Woman shows what incredible feats people are capable of and encourages people, especially women, across all backgrounds and ages to find the courage and strength to live the life they’ve imagined.
Gaechter’s 148-day journey began on her 35th birthday when she sold her successful outdoor adventure business, upsetting partner and boyfriend of 12 years Don Beveridge, and getting them both fired in the process.
The emotional waters that would fester and erupt on their ensuing journey down the Amazon was often more challenging to navigate than the river itself.
With blistering lips and irradiated fingernails, Gaechter tackled Class V whitewater for 25 days straight in the upper sections, barely survived a dynamite-filled canyon being prepared for a new hydroelectric plan, and encountered illegal loggers, narco-traffickers, murderous Shining Path rebels, and ruthless poachers in the black market trade in endangered species.
They pleaded for mercy at the hands of the murderous Ashaninka people who were convinced that they had come to steal their children’s organs. She even cut off all her hair before entering Peru’s “Red Zone” in hopes of passing for a boy and being seen as less of a target.
At once a heart-pounding adventure and a celebration of pushing personal limits, Amazon Woman speaks to everyone feeling trapped by desk-bound, online society. It’s a story of finding the courage and strength to challenge nature, cultures, social norms, and oneself.
Special Book Excerpt: 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.
P.S. 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.
* * *
While my friends were busying themselves with the tasks of adulthood—buying homes, starting families, saving for their retirements—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 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 both of us fired after a string of disagreements with the new owner. Our lives had revolved around this business for more than a decade; Don was not happy with me.
Thanks to our newly imposed life situation—namely, having nothing—I began to think of the Amazon our transitioning point. It would serve as the perfect capstone project to our adventuresome life, the final crazy exploit that would set us free to embark on the next chapter of our lives. Don, however, thought of the Amazon as the final insult to already low point in his life—not only did he just lose his career, his home and identity, but now I was also making him paddle almost 4,000 miles of flatwater. Don hates flatwater.
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 Comerciofrom 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 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, he told us, 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.
My motivations for wanting to do this trip quickly came under scrutiny. As death began to sound like a reasonably probable outcome, I started to wonder what was wrong with me.
Obviously, I didn’t want to die.
I couldn’t help but wonder why I’d gotten on that plane without thinking things through a little better.
It’s not that the concept of people opposing something I wanted to do was new; I’ve spent my entire life hearing all about why I can’t, or shouldn’t, do things. This is because I love doing things that aren’t normal for girls to do. It was different this time though. I’d never tried to do something as big as this, or as dangerous. For the first time in my life, I thought that the people enumerating all the reasons I was going to fail might actually be right.
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 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 casually 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, in a pathetic attempt to assuage my guilt for going forward despite the myriad dangers, I wrote my goodbye note.
I emailed the letter to my friend Larry, with strict instructions to deliver it to my family if I died.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.