Two winters ago an article I read in American WhiteWater magazine struck a chord with my sense of adventure. Resonated with my alter ego.
The alter ego not married to the couch. The alter ego which still has a hankering for a dosage of adrenaline. (Though the dosage is - admittedly - getting smaller.) The alter ego who imagines himself as one of the most interesting men in the world. (“Whose passport requires no photograph.” “Who won a staring contest with his own reflection - Dos Equis.” You need to know the commercial to appreciate the reference.)
The article was written about one of the major tributaries of the Amazon. Possibly even the actual source tributary for the Amazon, according to the article’s author. It was the Rio Marañon. The Grand Canyon of South America was how the article touted it.
And it was - in the immortal words of Paddington Bear - “in darkest Peru.”
How dark? I couldn’t have guessed or imagined by reading the article. But the story fired my imagination because it was a river that could be rafted for 24 days. Even longer if you went into the jungle regions. Even longer than that if you wanted to head down the Amazon. However, for 500 kilometers, it was a river that meandered and dashed through canyons comparable to the grandest of all canyons.
And - better still - it was a river that would not require a herculean effort because the author of the story about the Rio Marañon was also an outfitter who outfitted Marañon trips. All I would need to do would be to rally enough boaters to fill out our exclusive ‘trip of a lifetime’. The outfitter would provide the rest, including a Spanish-speaking, English-comprehending guide. All for a price similar to a private Grand Canyon-outfitted river trip.
The rallying began in earnest and, before I learned too much to turn back, I found myself on an international flight to Lima, Peru, with three packed duffles of river gear and 15 party members to follow with their own small hills of gear in tow.
I get stoked about rafting and wilderness and the outdoors for all kinds of reasons.
Floating a river is the closest I ever get to being spiritual. I get high from the ‘flow experience’, and I am not referring to the river’s flow. Flow is being so in tune with your surroundings that you lose yourself in the moment. It is as if the molecules in your universe are in exquisite agreement, and you are dancing with those molecules in perfection. You become the molecular equivalent of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
Seamless. Synchronized. Flawless.
The world you left behind is completely tuned out. It’s just you, the river, the boat, the oars and the elements. Everything that means anything is in your mind’s eye or, actually, in sight. It is the ‘flow experience’ and every athlete knows of which I speak. In fact, it happens with any activity with which you have become intimate. Writing, pottery, oratory, horseshoes. . .
Rhapsodic ‘flow experiences’ only happen periodically. In my case, predominantly with whitewater, when my concentration is naturally at its peak.
A lesser version of it, but still transcendental in nature, far broader in scope and the main reason I set off down rivers, is my overall experience of being detached from all the cares, responsibilities and worries that plague us all during our daily existence.
To put it succinctly, I leave all the mental baggage - eventually - behind. And this is every bit as magical as it sounds.
No rocket science degrees are required. Take portrait pictures of all the participants of a 24 day river trip on every fourth day, and I guarantee you will see the weight of the world disappearing with each photographic session. I live, breathe and sermonize about the wonders of a river trip for that particular reason, as well as the incredible feeling you get when you realize the group you are living with day in and day out has begun to coalesce.
Esprit de corps is an equally potent elixir that doesn’t follow automatically with every raft trip, yet when it does, coupled with those other two experiences, feelings, transcendental planes of existence, however you want to refer to them, you have - as far as I am concerned - the closest thing to nirvana on earth.
Which brings me back to Peru. And the Rio Marañon.
When dawn broke on the morning of our put-in, we awoke to another seductive river in another seductive canyon, but this time, we were in Peru!
The sinuous river tumbled down from points unknown to us in the Andes hemmed in by imposing canyon walls. What we heard was that, unlike our “mandatory portage” at Wasson’s Slide on Day 8, upstream there were dozens of mandatory portages. Rio Maranon was, to date, a river untamed.
Though sadly destined to be impounded and much of the adjoining countryside inundated with a series of hydroelectric dams. Which was one reason we chose to come to one of the darkest corners of Peru. We were to witness it first hand and then help spread the word back home.
Our launch site was near the confluence of two rivers. On our journey from the town of Huaraz, a jump off point for international mountaineering expeditions, we stopped to tour the ruins of Chavin de Huantar. Our passionate tour guide, Esteban, was also a shaman and was not unfamiliar with the medicinal and ceremonial values of San Pedro cactus. He told of us times he was transformed into a jaguar and wandered the grounds of the temple late at night.
But even more interesting was the significance of the Orion constellation to the Chavin culture. On the temple’s grounds there were reflecting huacas, indentions scooped out of huge, stone slab, that mirrored the Orion constellation. Our shaman guide, Esteban, blessed our trip.
All in all it felt like an auspicious beginning to our trip.
(To be continued.)