West Hansen, from paddling the Amazon to running for Congress

Amazon express expedition Peru
Amazon Express expedition leader West Hansen paddles through a heavy thunderstorm on the Ucayali River as the team approaches Iquitos, Peru, on October 17, 2012. Photo by Erich Schlegel

West Hansen, an Austin, Texas, explorer who led a National Geographic expedition in 2012 as the first team to kayak the entire Amazon River from its newly discovered source, is changing gears from running the Amazon River to running for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hansen’s 4,225-mile 2012 “Amazon Express” expedition–the first complete paddling descent of the Amazon from a newly discovered source, and also the fastest source-to-sea on record–started at the Amazon’s Class III-V headwaters, followed by 3,800 miles of downriver sea kayaking. A record-holder in the notoriously tough 260-mile Texas Water Safari, Hansen produced a documentary on his journey, Peeled Faces on the Amazon.

Now he’s embarking on an even bigger adventure: running for Congress in Texas’s 25th Congressional District. “Our elected officials in Washington are refusing to work together more so than any other time in our nation’s history,” says the well-known marathon paddler and mental health care executive, touting a platform of saving and preserving Medicare benefits, streamlining and improving care for veterans, and eliminating such policies as mandatory arbitration protecting sexual predators. “We don’t have to agree on the issues to work together. Texans are wary of the behavior portrayed by the very people who are supposed to be setting a good example for our state and country. It’s time we demand people over party and get busy doing the hard work.”

We caught up with West for his take on the campaign…and how paddling waterways like the Amazon have helped him prepare for politics.

Hansen at the Western Candidate Forum, Jan. 7 in LAKEWAY, TEXAS. Photo by Erich Schlegel

Canoe & Kayak: Why run for Congress? 
Hansen: After wasting way too much time and effort debating with people on social media about issues, I figured it was time to put my experience in the mental health field to work and begin working on finding solutions, instead of expecting those with alternative realities to see things the way I do.

Will negotiating political battles be harder than ones you encountered paddling?
We were held at gun point five times on the Amazon and once on the Volga River. Each time, there wasn’t a whole lot of time to avoid the situation and there was very little equality of power in the situations. We focused on the simple goal of ‘not getting shot.’ While shootings are fairly rare on the House floor, the focus on a singular goal will come in handy in Congress when so many variables are at play.

Any similarities between running the Amazon and running for Congress?
There are a lot of politics involved in expeditions. I dealt with power plays amongst team members, sponsors who wanted special attention and other explorers who challenged my claim to be the first to paddle the Amazon River from its most distant source to the sea. Each situation required a different approach, but the same adherence to rational, evidence-based reasoning and calm, steadfast perseverance to what was right.

What have you learned from some of your longer paddling trips that might help you?
Pick a good team that you trust. Foster a climate where your team feels comfortable pointing out when you’re wrong. Be sure that everyone has a shared goal–if a team member can’t be on board, for whatever reason, then they must go or the team will suffer. Never blame others for your mistakes. Enforce a hard and fast rule that no problem can ever be voiced without a solution, lest it be thrown into the ‘whining’ pile. Finally, whining is completely allowed, but only when coupled with whiskey.

Hansen makes his case at the Western Candidate Forum, Jan. 7 in LAKEWAY, TEXAS. Photo by Erich Schlegel

Do you hope to continue paddling as well?
As a matter of fact, I’ve already talked with Washington Canoe Club president, Andrew Soles, about joining the club and working out on the Potomac. And, of course, I’ll always do the Texas Water Safari, my hometown race.

Does this mean no further big paddling expeditions on the horizon?
I’ll have to limit expeditions to a few weeks. I still have my eyes on the Vancouver Island circumnavigation speed record, which I had to abandon in 2016, due to a nerve damage injury.

The Texas Water Safari and the Amazon are both marathon endeavors; is that how you’re approaching this?
Somewhat. In the TWS and other expeditions, I was very much in charge of my progress; however, a campaign for election is the longest, most grueling job application and interview in the entire world, where the ultimate outcome may hinge on a news bite, rumor, slip of the tongue or how a voter feels when they wake up on Election Day. Paddling the Amazon and Volga simply required overcoming violent storms, huge wind/waves, dangerous wildlife, narcotic traffickers, pirates, natives, dangerous white water, surly team members, illness, cheap whiskey, 14 hours days of non-stop paddling, blinding snow storms, altitude sickness, extortion and injuries. Running for office is far more difficult.

— See more of Schlegel’s photo coverage of Hansen’s Amazon Express speed descent expedition, as well as the Texas Water Safari. Check out more info on Hansen’s political run at westfortexas.org

The Deadly Call of the Amazon

Darcy Gaechter, the first woman to complete the Amazon from source to sea, part of the storied river’s first kayak-only descent

— Notable recent Amazon descents by open-canoe, and by pedal-powered rafts

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!