The Black Canyon—15 miles of treacherous whitewater on the Apurimac River in southern Peru—was the crux of the first expedition to paddle the Amazon from source to sea. Over nine days in the fall of 1985, Piotr Chmielinski, Tim Biggs, and Jerome Truran, as the lead kayakers in the 14-person crew, spent many hours scouting rapids in the tight, twisting canyon, plus many more shouldering their heavy plastic boats over boulders as large and slick as washed-and-waxed SUVs. Still, they were forced to run some rapids blind: Biggs endured several scary swims; Chmielinski broke his nose. Only Truran escaped unscathed.
In his 1989 best-seller Running the Amazon, author Joe Kane had this to say about the blond 29-year-old from South Africa: “[Truran] slid easily through the worst the river threw at him, as if the Apurimac designated him our guardian angel. He alone had yet to swim, he rescued those of us who did, and if he was ever frightened, he did not show it.” — Joe Glickman
We had a film crew following us so I didn’t understand why Joe Kane, a writer with no paddling experience who dressed like Indiana Jones, was on board. But then the raft flipped and we lost most of the footage. Had Joe not written such a compelling book no one would know about the trip.
Not until I read the book did I appreciate the daily terror Joe experienced. He had to psyche himself up every day to get on the water. I would never have been able to do it if I were that scared.
I was a fanatic, obsessed with maximizing my time outdoors every weekend. I wasn’t happy if I didn’t get to use my headlamp on the way back to the car every Sunday night.
In our river marathons in South Africa we ran Class II, III and even IV rapids in Olympic K-1’s and K-2’s with over-stern rudders. We were very lucky to be paddling at a time when we raced every weekend, and did trips as well.
South Africa was banned from international sport. I was lucky enough to have a British passport because my great-grandfather was British and that enabled me to race for the British team in downriver and marathon. That was a wonderful way to see the world and get good results.
When I got to the upper Apurimac I was on top of my game. If I thought I could run the rapid, I did. It was challenging but fun—a sponsored trip with free food and beer.
The Black Canyon wasn’t any fun though. We had to camp under ledges as rocks rained down on us day and night. Some of the rapids took hours to scout. One day we covered just a mile. There were many undercuts with water flowing through large rock piles. One time the nose of my kayak got pinned under a rock. I’m sitting underwater, right way up, and the boat bent like a banana. Had I been sideways I’d have wrapped the boat.
The Sendero Luminoso—the Shining Path guerillas—operated in the jungle. I’m putting my sprayskirt on one morning, and I hear these zips in the water—zip, zip—and I’m thinking, ‘Boy this is exciting being in South America, what insect makes a noise like that?’
There’s a wonderful wave train on the other side of the river, and I go over there and start surfing some waves—I’m hard-wired for it. I can’t help it. I thought Tim Biggs would come over and join me, but he was waving at me to come over. He was pointing at the bank, where there’s one of these guys 40 or 50 yards away, down on one knee with his rifle pointed at me and he was taking aim.
A couple of days after that, the Sendero pulled the raft off the river. They wanted supplies. Piotr gave them his knife, and then started bargaining for tins of sardines. They wanted five and he said four. Joe nearly had a heart attack—give them the goddamn sardines.
I had no interest in paddling thousands of miles of flatwater, so when the whitewater portion of the journey was done I left Peru for another crack at the European Wildwater Championship.
After I retired from competitive paddling, I moved to Canada, landed a job at an outdoor store on Vancouver Island, and got busy mountaineering, rock climbing, and backcountry skiing. Of course, I carried on paddling.
This whole issue about the new source of the Amazon, I didn’t really believe it until Piotr phoned me. That’s not something I want to hear, but if the Mantaro is longer we just have to give it up—that’s the new source. I thought, ‘Boy, we’re just a bunch of doofusses running the wrong river, aren’t we?’ And everyone before us and everyone after us too.
WATCH MORE OF THE INSIDE LINE:
Covert Operators: Bill Nedderman (May 2013)
The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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