August 20, 2018
The 17th started out as a big day. I was super tired from the day before since I spent all evening playing soccer in a torrential downpour, but we were planning to leave for the big expedition up river the next morning and we needed to buy some supplies. Elvis and I headed to the city of Mazan at 6:30am (about 4 hours by peccy-peccy) with Explorama (much faster boats). In Mazan, we headed to the market first to find some breakfast. Options were limited and nowhere looked particularly safe to eat, so we sat down at a table that had some good-smelling chicken legs and pasta. I polished off a large plate and some lemonade, knowing that I would probably regret it a little bit down the road… anything for a full belly! We did a round of the market, buying papaya, passionfruit, bananas, onions, lentils, and many more items along with 3 and a half raw chickens. With all of our goodies in hand, we went to a hardware shop and picked up several gallons of oil, 20 gallons of gasoline, 20kg of nails (for my house) and an assortment of boat parts we would need when we headed up river. Loading all of this onto motocars, we headed back to Explorama’s port to meet the cargo boat. Ellie met us there with her boyfriend Forrest, who had just come to visit for a few weeks, and we bought him a solid pair of boots then headed back to Sucusari. I brought Marina the chickens and she prepared a whole one for all of us for dinner (fried, yummy!) and smoked the rest of it so that we would be able to carry it up river with us. We met with the seven people we were planning to take up river with us and figured out how many boats we would need, how much gasoline and food, etc. For this expedition we decided to take an extra person whose only job was to fish and hunt to find meat for us to eat so that we didn’t end up eating pango nonstop like last time. The plan was looking pretty good when we left for the night, assuming the river would be high enough to allow us to go! The rest of the evening it was absolutely pouring rain, so we sat and chatted with Jairo and Marina until bed time.
Saturday was the big day. I must be a lucky person because when we woke up bright and early, there was plenty of water flowing down the river to get at least most of the way. We planned to try and get to a spot about 2/3 of the way up the basin, then see how much water was still around and decide from there whether it would be a good idea to keep going. After a big breakfast of eggs, chicken, plantains, coffee, oatmeal, chicken soup, rice, and fruit, we loaded the boats and were on the river by 8:45am. The ride up to the checkpoint was absolutely beautiful. It was a gorgeous morning and Jairo had again made me a lovely little seat in the bottom of the boat, with a tarp to keep my butt dry, my crazy creek, and my Kindle. The farther up river we got, the more alive the forest seemed; more than ever. Most noticeable were the macaws (bother because they’re beautiful and super loud). At one point three pairs of macaws were flying with us up river, screeching and surfing the wind right above us. Must be a good sign. We arrived at the 2/3 point in good time, at about 1:30pm. We had a quick lunch that Marina had made, with smoked chicken, lentils, rice, and little spherical peppers (ahi charrapita) that are unbelievably hot.
After lunch, there was more good news. There was still plenty of water in the river, and we made the decision to keep pushing north while we still had the chance. The last three hours of the journey were a struggle. It began to rain right away, turning to a downpour within minutes. We scrambled to get tarps over the things that needed to stay dry. The river was absolutely strewn with huge tree trunks and debris, and we had to stop every ten minutes or so to cut them out of the way with the chainsaw. It was slow going. I realized quickly that there are several options that you can choose from when there’s a tree lying across the river:
1. Go under it. Pick the highest point, everyone lays down in the boat, the motor is detached, and you slowly float under the tree.
2. Go over it: When the log is partially submerged, the driver may choose to push the throttle to gain some speed then simply drive straight over top of the log, putting the boat in the air and hoping that we get across in one go.
3. Go both under and over: This is the option we take when there’s too much cargo to lay in the boat. The boat goes under the tree. As the boat passes under, you jump up onto the tree trunk, walk across it, and drop down the other side in your original place.
4. Cut it down: Self explanatory. Involves a giant chainsaw and a large plume of water, while often perched precariously on the same tree trunk that is being cut.
5. “The Classic”: Get out and push. Everyone hops out of the boat onto the tree trunk, and pulls the boat across, jumping in as it slides over (like a bobsled team)
Anyway, this small trip involved hairpin turns every which way and use of each of the above methods multiple times. As an added bonus, the boat leaks a bit and begins to fill with water so between the tree trunks you are often bailing water out of the boat with a little bowl. Jairo was bailing once this journey and accidentally let the bowl go while he was tossing the water out. That resulted in frantic paddling trying to chase the bowl down the river, and a lot of laughing.
The river at the top of the basin is very different from the bottom. The higher slope makes the water run quite quickly, with debris everywhere, so it’s a mix between white water rafting and canoeing. Even the word “river” is somewhat of a misnomer. The Maijuna describe these waterways as quebradas, or small streams instead of rivers. At the narrowest points the river may only be two and a half meters across. The trees grow completely over top of the stream, making a canopy archway above. Some trees even grow straight from the middle of the stream.
By the time we arrived at the up river camp, we had been on the river for 9 hours in total and most of our stuff was pretty wet. We sent our fisherman out to set some nets and set our cook to making some hot coffee and prepping dinner of smoked chicken. Turns out the guy we chose to come as a cook this trip was phenomenal. He made some great fried chicken and there was plenty of it. To make things better, the fisherman came back with almost 10 fish for breakfast the following morning. It was going to be a good trip, I could tell. Ellie and Elvis and I met with a map under the lantern to figure out a plan for the next day, and I passed out in my tent before 7:30pm. We had a big few days ahead of us.
The next morning, the river had dropped almost two meters and was still receding. We were on a time clock now to finish the work we had to do up river and get down in time, or be forced to wait for more rain. We had packed food for six days if needed, but I hoped it would not come to that. Breakfast was delicious fried fish, oatmeal, fruit, and the usual rice and plantains. The passionfruit was a welcome addition for sure. I realized that we had made a good choice in who the cook was for this expedition, a man named Ulderico who is always kind of goofy and fooling around. When he cooked, there was no more joking. He made some great food, woke up hours before everyone else to start, and took a lot of pride in serving everyone and taking their plates away. Good food makes everyone happy and work harder; a cook is always a good investment.
The plan for the day was to split into five teams. I was going with a young man named Limber to find four mineral licks that he said he knew of, pretty far from the camp. It turns out, he actually knew five. Within an hour of being on the trail, we heard the resounding crack of a shotgun. Limber smiled and said that must be Jairo, and he must have just found us some lunch on his walk. Exciting stuff. The mineral licks were all pretty easy to process except for one. The most remote lick was enormous, and it was filled with a teal-colored mud that was extremely thick and stuck to everything. It sucked you down like quicksand, and I needed to put three camera traps in the middle of it. Limber started to cut small trees for us to stand on to spread our weight and we headed out to the middle. Usually this is pretty effective, but this time the tree trunks started to sink as well. We were getting stuck over and over, and it was difficult to move at all. After setting the third trap, I had allowed one of my feet to settle a bit too far in and mud started to fill my boot. When I struggled to lift it out, it went even deeper. When I finally got my foot out of the mud, it was bootless. The mud had claimed my boot right off of my foot, somewhere deep down. Limber smiled and said well, I will get it. Man did he commit. He walked right over and put his arms in that mud shoulder deep and started digging around. He managed to get his hands underneath the sole of the boot and lift it out, but he (and the boot) were coated in so much mud it was unbelievable. What a pal. When we got back on the trail, we both looked like the Tar Monster from Scoobie Doo. We took an impromptu bath in the stream nearby and kept walking!
When we got back to camp, we were handed plates of more fish, and found that the river had fallen too much during the morning. (Also Jairo told us that the sajino AKA peccary that he shot at had gotten away, sadly). We would have to paddle out, and we had to do it within the next hour. We broke down camp and started down the river, having efficiently completed the work at the very top of the basin in just the morning. I never understand why, but every boat only ever carries one paddle with it. The other people use large sticks as a mixture of pole-and-paddle combo. By the evening, we arrived at the lower camp and set the cook to making a classic dinner of pasta and sardines.
I woke in the night to torrential rain pounding on the tarp above me at about 1:30am. At 4:00am, Elvis was outside my tent asking if I had any spare tarps. At 4:30am, Ulderico got up to start making breakfast. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much. When I finally rolled myself out of bed at 6:00am it was still raining hard and the camp was one giant mud hole. Amazonian mud is just soggy clay and it sticks to everything. My tent was covered in mud, all my bags, my shoes and socks, everything. There was a bit of good news, though. Not only had the fisherman brought fish for breakfast, but he had gone out hunting in the early morning in the rain and brought back a majaz (paca) for lunch. Fresh meat is always welcome when you spend all day walking. We tried to wait out the rain, but it clearly wasn’t planning on stopping so we put on our soaked gear and split up into teams for the day again. My personal theory is as long as my socks are dry, I’m happy. I had stowed two extra pairs of wool socks in a dry bag, so I was pretty much the happiest one in camp. I spent the morning with Limber and Jeison, adding five more mineral licks to the records and setting more camera traps. On the trail we also saw an agouti and a peccary, which is always nice. Get a little viewing of the local wildlife in the work day.
When we got back at noon, we ate a delicious lunch of majaz, rice, and plantains and packed up some cargo to head back to the community ahead of the others to clear the river. Again, kudos to Ulderico, who went foraging for some wild plants to add some flavor to the meat, including a famous one called achiote. We met Elvis’s team an hour to the south and started down river towards the community with the chainsaw. With the river as low as it was, it was slow going. Trees that were way underwater when we came up were fully exposed now, blocking the river. Trees we had cut on the way up had fallen and were now exposed again, just cut a bit shorter than they were before. The first major block was a tree too big to cut with the chainsaw, with just enough room underneath for the boat to pass under. Jeison took off the motor and stowed it, and we all laid down in the bottom of the boat and used our hands to push off the tree. When we popped back out the other side, a low hanging branch caught Jeison in the chest and pushed him straight overboard. Unfortunately, he took the motor with him. Now we had an issue. Our boat driver was in the middle of the river, clutching the now-sunken 70-pound motor, while the cook and I were drifting away; and we had one paddle. I grabbed a long stick and started to pole back up river while Ulderico (the cook) paddled like crazy. Jeison reached the boat and Ulderico yanked the dripping motor back on board. We weren’t sure if it would start or not, and there was a strong smell of gasoline. After many many tries, the choke caught and the motor started. Off we went again.
The second big stop was even worse. There were a series of trees down stacked on top of each other, all of which blocked the river. When we arrived on the scene, Reigan (fisherman) was standing on top of the topmost trunk with the massive chainsaw. An awesome sight, except that the chainsaw was clearly stuck in the log and Reigan was having no luck getting it out. He went to Plan B: the machete. He started hacking away, but it was a hardwood tree and he couldn’t get far enough into the trunk to make a difference. Plan C took effect. Reigan dismantled the chain saw (he’s still standing ten feet in the air on a tree trunk) until the only part that was stuck was the chain. He tied the chain to a rope, then tied it to the boat. He then put our spare chain on the chainsaw, and started cutting the tree again, closer to the water. I would like to say at this point that this is exactly the type of mistake I used to make when I was a kid on the farm – standing on the thing that you’re cutting. To my credit, as I watched this happen, I was thinking to myself “Man, Reigan needs Mama G here to tell him chainsaw safe practices.” All at once, the trees snapped and sank into the water, the chainsaw broke free and fell towards the water, and Reigan fell. Any time you’re falling into a river holding a running chainsaw, you’re living on the edge. Luckily, the edge of the boat stopped the chainsaw and Reigan escaped without a scratch. His boat wasn’t so lucky. The chainsaw, still running when it fell, had ripped a massive hole in the side of the boat. But then the river was free again! Well done Reigan.
Compared to that, the rest of the boat trip was somewhat uneventful. The sun came out halfway and began to dry us all out finally. When we finally arrived back at Sucusari at around 5pm, we were a tired and wet crew but had done a pretty speedy and neat 3-day expedition up the river to the middle of nowhere. Not many foreigners have walked in places like that (I think the number is actually somewhere around five). I headed back to the lodge briefly to touch base with Mike, then passed out without dinner. What a weekend!!