The Deadly Call of the Amazon

Emma Kelty on the Río Marañon in July, and learning to paddle this spring.

By Jeff Moag

Emma Tamsin Kelty spoke often of her ‘can-do’ hat. The expression pops up in the 43-year-old British adventurer’s correspondence with experienced Amazon paddlers who warned her about the dangers of kayaking the world’s greatest river alone and unsupported. That feat has never been accomplished for many reasons, from the difficult whitewater in the headwaters to the mind-numbing distance of more than 4,000 miles. But the biggest danger on the Amazon is not the river itself, or wild animals or disease. It’s people.

After her father died of cancer in 2014, Kelty left her job as a primary school principal, sold her house and began ticking off ‘bucket-list’ adventures. She hiked 2,600 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, and early this year finished a 54-day ski expedition to the South Pole. Nothing seemed impossible, and while still riding the high of her polar adventure she began plotting a solo kayak descent of the Amazon.

She contacted fellow Londoner Olie Hunter-Smart, who had paddled the Amazon in 2015 with Tarran Kent-Hume. “We went for lunch and spent seven hours in that restaurant talking about this journey, my experience with it, the equipment we took,” Hunter-Smart recalls. “We talked about the dangers and risks but also the nice side of things as well.”

Hunter-Smart introduced her to other Amazon paddlers, including Piotr Chmielinski and West Hansen. In their email correspondence Hansen, too, spoke of the joys of his descent. But when Kelty asked about the risk of traveling alone, he didn’t mince words.

“Picture a world without laws, manners, social mores or assistance for hundreds of miles,” Hansen wrote. “Rape does not exist, because there is no reason to report it. Killings are a daily occurrence because bodies are easy to dispose and disappearances are common for innocent reasons, so they are written up as simply that: disappearances.”

Hansen wasn’t blowing smoke. He was held at gunpoint on five separate occasions during his 2012 Amazon descent. Every Amazon source-to-sea expedition since Piotr Chmielinski and Joe Kane’s in 1985-86 has experienced similarly tense encounters with armed pirates, drug-runners and local militias. In 2012 South African adventurer Davey DuPlessis was shot three times on an Amazon tributary and left for dead. A year earlier, a Polish couple kayaking through the same region was murdered and their bodies hacked to pieces, weighted with rocks and sunk in the river. Both attacks came without warning in a lawless part of northeastern Peru known as the Red Zone.

Emma Tamsin Kelty at Lago Carhuacocha, the main-stem source of the Amazon, June 18, 2017. Photo by Rocky Contos

Kelty knew about these attacks. Hunter-Smart told her about them in that pizza restaurant in southwest London. “In the Red Zone you’re coming up to a village and you hear these whistles and little clicks going down the river, and then someone pops out on the riverbank with a shotgun,” says Hunter-Smart, whose local guide Cesár Peña was shot at when they passed through the area. “He put his arms over his head and felt the birdshot hit him, but he was far enough away that he wasn’t injured.”

Kelty listened carefully and took copious notes. But in typical problem-solving mode she sought a solution.

“My current thinking with my ‘can do’ hat on is if I can waylay local fears ahead of my arrival through the use of word of mouth, similar to [Walking the Amazon adventurer] Ed Stafford, perhaps safe passage could be granted,” she wrote Hansen. She sent a nearly identical message to Chmielinski. Both advised caution. “I told her be careful, be careful, be careful,” recalls Chmielinski. Hansen told her she was focusing on the wrong area. The Red Zone, he told her, is the safest of the dangerous regions she would have to traverse.

Kelty didn’t respond. “She didn’t want to hear it. She completely shut me down,” Hansen says. “She basically said ‘I handle the world with a giggle. I’m pretty tough.’”

In addition to the various danger zones along the Amazon and its tributaries, Kelty—who had never paddled whitewater before setting her sights on the Amazon—was grappling with how to get through 500 miles of whitewater on the Río Mantaro, including several sections of walled-in Class V.

Kelty was determined to paddle the Amazon “solo and unassisted,” which meant traveling alone without a guide or any outside support. She started whitewater training soon after setting her sights on the Amazon, but developing the required skills would take years. She had only months. Eventually she made a rare compromise. She would paddle the whitewater with guides for safety and advice, but would accept no help paddling her kayak or carrying her gear. She also chose to start from a different source.

Kelty paddled an inflatable whitewater kayak on the Marañon’s Class II-IV rapids. Photo by Ariel Diaz.

In consultation with whitewater explorer Rocky Contos, she chose the Río Marañon, a larger tributary often referred to as the main-stem source of the Amazon. Starting there cut some 400 miles from Kelty’s route and had the added benefit of bypassing the Red Zone. Though the Marañon has its share of dangerous people—blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer and his party were detained there in 2013 and American rafter Patchen Miller was murdered on the river in 1995—it doesn’t share the Red Zone’s reputation for violence.

The Marañon is a high-volume whitewater river akin to the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. The rapids are powerful but straightforward and usually have a portage option. It’s the sort of river a new whitewater paddler can get down with help. Kelty contracted with Contos to provide a three-person support crew, including a raft and two kayakers. Kelty paddled an inflatable kayak on the upper stretches of the river and a Dagger Nomad 8.1 creekboat on the easier sections. She ran the Class II and many of the Class III rapids, swimming about half a dozen times. She walked the two Class V drops and most of the Class IVs.

The guide Contos assigned to her, Guillermo “Momo” Castillo, was charged with deciding which rapids she could paddle and which she would walk. The two clashed from the start, when Castillo had her hike a 50-mile section below the source, judging the rapids too difficult for her limited skills.

Two weeks into the trip, the river funneled into a gorged-in Class IV with no easy portage option. Kelty at first agreed to ride through the rapid on the support raft, then ordered an early camp and put on her can-do hat. That evening she announced to the dismay of her guides that she would portage the rapid, carrying all of her own food and supplies. The trek took two full days. Castillo and another kayaker attached to the trip left in protest—“It’s not fun anymore. I don’t expect any more pay,” he told Contos—but Kelty stuck to her principles and the narrow definition of her “unassisted” descent.

The episode reveals much about Kelty’s character and toughness. She was used to making things happen her way. Every successful adventurer shares some measure of this trait, but in concentrated form it can be dangerous stuff.

Kelty spent 45 days descending the Marañon, arriving at Sarameriza on July 29. The next day she began the 3,000-mile “solo and unassisted” portion of her trip. Contos, who had urged her earlier to hire an escort boat, renewed the offer. “I told her if she changed her mind we could still arrange it,” Contos says, “But she wasn’t interested. She wanted to travel solo and made the decision to accept the risk.”

In late August dreadful news filtered out of the jungle. One of the guides who had traveled with Kelty on the lower part of the Marañon heard by word of mouth that she had been murdered. The report seemed credible, and Contos relayed the news to Kelty’s brother in England. At the same time, he sent a message via her Garmin InReach satellite messenger. After several fraught hours she texted back.

“Let’s hope it’s not a premonition!!” she wrote.

Kelty’s response to a mistaken report that she had been killed in Peru: ‘I hope it’s not a premonition!!’

Two weeks later she entered the most dangerous of the danger zones, a section of the Amazon—what the Brazilians call the Rio Solimões—near the town of Coari about 200 miles upstream of Manaus. As she approached this stretch she typed an update into her InReach communicator, which was linked to her Facebook page. “So in or near Coari (100 km away) I will have my boat stolen and I will be killed too. Nice.” The post seemed to be a response to a warning, from whom it is not clear. It wouldn’t have been the first.

Almost every Amazon paddler who has passed through this stretch of river has been assaulted or held at gunpoint, most more than once. It was here that Chmielinksi and Kane twice outran armed men in canoes—something that would never happen today because the pirates have motorboats. Aleksander Doba was twice robbed at gunpoint in this area, causing him to give up his 2011 Amazon attempt. Brothers Dawid Andres and Hubert Kisinski, who descended the Amazon on pedal-powered catamarans in 2015, faced down pirates here on three separate occasions. Hansen’s team was held up here too. He remembers waiting nervously as scared teenagers with guns clawed through their belongings looking for drugs. “That was the scariest of all the gun-pointings,” Hansen says. “We didn’t know what they were going to do if they found our plastic bags full of white protein powder.”

This stretch of river from Tefé to just below Coari is a funnel for drug traffic from the entire Amazon basin. Here the river narrows and is full of islands, providing ample hiding places for smugglers and the river pirates and everyday opportunists seeking to rob them. No one travels alone through these parts. Even the Navy patrol boats travel in pairs, Chmielinski says.

It was on one of these islands that Kelty set up her tent on the evening of Sept. 13. The previous day she’d tweeted about passing 30 or more men with guns and arrows, writing “My face must have been a picture!!” The scare didn’t last; the next morning she posted about meeting “three lovely locals and 2 kittens that slept next to my tent for the night.” Coari was a few miles behind her, and those watching her progress felt she was past the danger zone. She didn’t know that the island she chose to camp on that evening, Sept. 13, is a frequent stopping point for Colombian drug traffickers.

Kelty on the lower Marañon, July 2017. Photo by Ariel Diaz

Reports of her murder are vague and contradictory. We have only the testimony of the accused killers and those they bragged to afterward, via Brazilian authorities who quickly rounded up the suspects. According to all accounts, the gunman opened fire with a .20-gauge shotgun without warning. Kelty was struck twice while still in her tent. She was stabbed and violated. Reports suggest she was still alive when the murderers, seven men in their teens and early 20s, threw her from their boat several hundred meters from shore.

The details of her murder have been widely reported. I don’t have the stomach to recount more of them here. In the comments sections below many of the stories about her death, people who know nothing of Kelty, or of the Amazon or paddling have lauded her courage and good humor. Others have condemned the foolhardy risks she took and said, often without pity or grace, that she brought it on herself.

They’re right of course. All of them. Kelty’s bravery was admirable, and her death was predictable. She never should have been on that river. Not alone. Not without an escort. I don’t say that to disparage Kelty or her accomplishments or ambitions. It is simply the truth.

I have written often about paddlers who have made life-affirming trips despite having little or no paddling experience when they set out. Aaron Carotta canoed nearly 5,000 miles down the Missouri-Mississippi without ever learning to J-stroke. I wrote it up like the Huck Finn adventure it was. I didn’t dwell on the risks he took because none of them caught up to him. He was lucky.

I have no doubt that if Kelty had finished her Amazon descent I would have written a similar story about her, applauding her courage and determination. That story surely would have mentioned the warnings from Hansen, Hunter-Smith and Chmielinski. It would have detailed the many dangers and obstacles that failed to deter her, and it would have included a pithy quote about her can-do hat, or going through life with a giggle.

I wish I’d had the chance to write that story. Instead I’m sitting here with my forehead on the keyboard and my gut in a knot. I’ve written plenty over the years about death on rivers, but this is the first time I’ve written about a person murdered on a river. It’s harder than I thought it would be. Rivers kill, but never with malice. There is no evil in them.

Some rivers, however, seem to attract more trouble than others. The Amazon’s exalted status has fostered more than its share of controversy and fraud. It seems to draw out something akin to greed, an unhealthy ambition our sport would be better off without.

Emma Kelty isn’t the first paddler to accept unreasonable risk on the Amazon. Her insistence on traveling alone increased the danger she faced, but all those paddlers who came before, who looked past a shotgun muzzle into to the scared eyes of the kid holding it, they were lucky.

Kelty was naive and bull-headed and, yes, foolish. But most of all she was unlucky. Someday, maybe someday soon, a paddler will descend the Amazon alone from source to sea. And just as surely others who try will be killed. It’s simply the law of averages. If the Amazon is the ‘Everest of Rivers’ — and who can argue otherwise — it’s not just because of its great size and length. Like the world’s tallest mountain, the planet’s greatest river exacts a toll on those who seek to measure themselves against it.

Jeff Moag was editor of Canoe & Kayak from 2008 to 2016.

MORE ON PADDLING THE AMAZON: True Source, Moag’s cover story from C&K’s June 2013 edition, chronicling “discovery and rivalry on the world’s greatest river,” with the dual Rio Maranon-based expeditions by Contos and Hansen; plus the Amazon’s first kayak-only descent from 2013, and Mark Kalch’s unsupported source-to-sea in 2008.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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