Rainforest Expeditions recently became the first and only company to offer standuppaddling (SUP) in the Amazon. To test the equipment and show staff the ropes, the company asked writer Shelby Stanger, expert paddler Mariko Strickland, and photographer Chase Olivier to make the first ever SUP adventure in the Amazon. Read Stanger’s account of their epic journey as first written for SUPmagazine and then book yourself a trip to Tambopata so you can take part in the next one!
Amazon Diaries Day 1 October 2, 2011
Our driver is taking us in circles through Lima to get us to our hotel. We have four inflatable C4 Waterman iSUPs, enough gear to rival an REI warehouse sale and a gallon of bug spray. After 65 minutes of what should take us only 20, our driver finally tells us that with all of our gear, he is worried someone is following us, so he has taken a round about way to our first destination. I’m with Mariko Strickland and photographer Chase Olivier. We are going to standup paddle the Amazon. I’m going in with the mindset that we’re embarking on a Joseph Conrad-esque version of Heart of Darkness, but hoping for something more like an “It’s a Small World,” Disneyland ride.
To prepare, my friends have graciously offered every crocodile, piranha and snake story they can muster, but honestly, I have no clue what to expect. For all we know, no one has standup paddled the Amazon–at least not where we’re going. Kurt Holle, who owns Rainforest Expeditions, has been leading trips in the Amazon for the last few decades and wants us to teach him and his guides to standup paddle. After seeing SUP for the first time a few months ago on the beaches in Ecuador, Holle believes standup boards will make the perfect jungle exploration/research vessels.
The Peruvian government has granted us access to the most remote places: Spots where tourists have never heard of. A Hungarian macaw bird as well as a native medicinal researcher will be joining us to explore where traditional boats can’t. In the next week, we’ll be camping a few nights, staying at lodges, then paddling. We were told to bring a headlamp, water gear, mosquito repellant, closed-toed shoes (for snakes), binoculars for animal watching and an open mind.
I purposely did as little research as possible so as not to have any expectations. Although I did catch the tail end of an Anthony Bourdain episode of No Reservations, where he does a culinary expedition to this region. Anthony said the Amazon is one of the only places in the world where you can only get food from the Amazon…because it is so damn hard to get to.
He also said it’s an amazing place, but much better in retrospect. By the time they’d wrapped their shoot, his crew looked like they’d finished an ultra marathon. Everyone was sweaty, sick and pretty famished for a food show. Despite all of that, I can’t wait to get out there.”
Day 2, October 4, 2011
A big chunk of international paddling expeditions is just getting to paddle. We are into day three of the trip, and we have yet to test out our boards. Two plane flights from Lima and we arrived to Puerto Maldonado, a small town in the southeast part of Peru in the state of Madre de Dios, where the main commerce in town is gold mining and fishing. Upon arrival, we headed straight to the mouth of the Tambopata River that goes from the snowy peaks above Machu Picchu and eventually feeds into the Amazon via Bolivia and Brazil. To get to our lodge, we took a 40-foot wooden canoe about four hours south,seeing all sorts of creatures along the way.
Along the side of the river were a giant colony of capybaras – the worlds largest rodent. Think of a rat the size of your dog and that’s what they look like. We stayed the night at a place called refugio Amazonas — an eco friendly lodge where we took a variety of side hikes to see macaws, toucans and a whole array of poisonous spiders.
Mariko, Chase and I have spent a good chunk of our time just packing and unpacking. Knowing what gear to bring to the middle of the rainforest has been trickier than training for a river expedition. We are all pretty geeked out on gear. So far, having inflatable iSUPs have been amazing. No one has asked us what we are doing and the boards fit seamlessly on the boats. Mariko and I have waterproof backpacks from Dakine, and between the three of us, we have Teva and Keen hiking boots, Teva watershoes, a slew of GoalZero solar panels and a variety of mosquito proof gear from Patagonia, Smartwool and REI to test out. Tomorrow we camp, then we paddle for two days straight.”
Day 3 October 5th, 2011
If you think stepping out of your comfort zone is camping at San Elijo or San Onofre State Beach, try the Amazon. Mariko’s thin Japanese-Hawaiian ankles have become swollen kankles with bug bites covering the entire bottom portion of her legs. Mine aren’t much different, despite the fact that we covered ourselves with 98 percent DEET. Chase counted the bites on my upper right arm alone: 53.
After getting up at 4 a.m. yesterday (not by choice) to see wild macaws (they were awesome), we took a seven-hour boat ride from the Tambopata River up to the Tavara river with a few Class I and II rapids.
Antsy as hell and sleep deprived, we pumped up the iSups and took a few runs on one of the rapids that kept us from going further south. Mariko found a mini standup wave and put on a show for our entire crew.
Mariko is a natural athlete. She hasn’t been SUPing long and ended up winning both events she entered last spring at the TevaMountainGames. When the sun started setting, our boat crew and guides helped set up camp on the side of the river, and then we quickly got caught in a classic Amazonian rainstorm. Being wimpy Americans, we took shelter in one of the boats and plugged in Chase’s Goal Zero solar panels and watched three episodes of Modern Family on my iPad. By 10 p.m., when the rain slowed, we finally got into our bug-infested tents, covered with DEET and slept as peacefully as one can in the jungle.
This morning, we finally got to paddle some distance. The Amazon is insane! A caiman (a mini crocodile) chased our photographer and so we got to see just how fast he could run. We paddled about 45 to 50 kilometers today in an area we don’t know if anyone has really paddled before. Our guides and the boatmen from RainforestExpeditions are hooked on standup paddling now. They think they’ll be able to use the sport much more than for recreation, but for research purposes, especially with the Macaws.
We have two more days of actual paddling, including one trip where we’ll meet with a local medicine man. So far, we’ve seen zero traces of humans, but a ton of wild macaw, a turkey vulture-looking bird that tried to take a bite out of my booty when I went to the bathroom, and dozens of other rare birds.
We paddled seven-and-a-half hours north back to the lodge today just because none of us could bear to camp again. It’s been an adventure just to get here, but paddling in the jungle is something we will never forget.”
Day 4 October 6th, 2011
The Amazon is everything we imagined and more— and a lot more rustic than I assumed. Our kayak escort guide, LeoGonzalesMulonovich said we were the first people to standup paddle the Peruvian Amazon. Since Leo has paddled all the major rivers in Peru and around the globe, and is pretty much the mayor of the Peruvian paddle scene, we’re sticking to his word. That’s one of standup paddling’s great beauties: Pretty much anyone can make a first descent on a SUP and there are millions of places around the globe to still explore.
Without Leo, our other guides Cesar and Enzo, a famous macaw researcher named George and the folks at Rainforest Expeditions, we would have never received the permits to get as deep as we did into the Peruvian Amazon, and we would have never had the chance to experience one of Earth’s most raw and unforgiving jungle environments.
Our photographer, Chase, and standup paddle pro Mariko were total champs, never complaining despite both getting bitten hundreds of times by bugs.
For a paddle expedition, we really didn’t paddle much… Only a few days, maybe 60 km, with a few minor rapids and two mini standup waves thrown into the mix.
Where we we did venture—through thick, muddy water and lush lands full of wild macaws and caimans— made it feel like exploration, truly being out there, accompanied by the pure joy at being where few had been before.
The most important lesson we learned is that a huge part of a paddle adventure has nothing to do with paddling.
Maybe it’s cliche but it’s the journey–-just getting to the entry point and paddling places people can’t get to by boat or car. And often the best part is getting off your board, trekking inland, playing soccer or cooking with the locals and getting to know another culture.
At the end of our paddle, we went up to the house of a local shaman who cut into a tree called sangre de grado, which released a red sap that oozed like fresh blood. The shaman used the sap to treat our countless bites. A doctor of the earth at work, in his office.
I have a feeling that in a week or two, our Amazon adventure, as Anthony Bourdain experienced, will be even more epic…in retrospect.
If given the opportunity, we all agree we’d return, though with stronger bug protection than DEET and full length socks.
Despite all the cute yoga pants and tanks Mariko and I planned to paddle in, function and mosquito protection won over fashion.”