Updated: Sep 19
I'll be honest, when I began planning this expedition my fears were all in regard to Stage 2. The rarely paddled, extremely fast and remote Pastaza River. Its banks inhabited by natives who can be unfriendly to foreign faces. For good reason too, in places their territories are being used for oil extraction, logging and illegal mining and they don’t know who they can trust.
My thoughts were that Chimborazo was a foregone conclusion. But the drama around finding a suitable weather window to climb and then the apprehension of being on a severe glacier having already lost one team member to illness and altitude sickness, turned Stage 1 into a real ordeal. Note to self, summitting a 6000+ meter volcano is no easy task. The difficulties in Stage 1, followed by the elation in success, led to our temporarily forgetting about the severity of what lay ahead. A recce of the preliminary part of Stage 2 had proved to us that we were going into a very deadly and unforgiving environment.
The three of us spent two days in excellent white water, paddling from Shell (start Stage 2) to the E45 Bridge (end of the main road), up to and including class 5 rapids. For this section we called on the services of Pat and his friends to join us. Pat's first piece of advice was a shot of Vitamin B to the ass, which he administered himself. We had no choice but to use his white-water raft so that we could transport our gear. The canyon we paddled through on day two hasn't been done in a decade - Pat being the last man to do it. We were joined by paddler Pablo Loco and the local fire team who also specialise in water rescue. They used our journey as an excuse for an extreme exercise and we were thankful to have skilled kayakers in the water with us.
The rapids are huge and exhilarating. I think it's the biggest white water that any of us have ever been in and we are being smashed on all sides by waves that surge through the rocky land, bouncing off its walls and dropping into holes created by subsurface boulders. The green forest and beautiful flowers fly past our peripheries in a blur, the sun beats down and the Pastaza grows and grows as it is joined by more and more tributaries.
At the end of day 1 we arrive at a community called Puyopongo and feast on Yuka and Pollo, which is to be our staple diet now that we are leaving the mountains and entering the lower altitude forest cultures. That evening is my first opportunity to collect sound data for Moira now that we had arrived in a tropical environment. I set up the device back from the riverside and took down some notes. From this point onwards, at every new place we stopped I'd be doing this. The recording device require silence so that it can pick up calls from different forest creatures.
Once in Moira’s hands, she’ll then listen out for a particular frog call from the Amazonian Poison Dart Frog, Rantiomeya ventrimaculata. With this data she can make a good estimate on river health based on the presence of the species. A project like this, spanning the length of the Amazon hasn’t been done before, so we wanted to get it right! You wouldn't believe that in the biggest wilderness on Earth, it'd be difficult to find somewhere quiet to record without the dull thud of a distant loudspeaker or a generator, but that was exactly the problem that I was due to encounter further downstream. We spend the night swinging in hammocks with the Bomberos (fire crew) and swatting increasingly big mosquitos away. On day two we awoke from a fantastic slumber in the hammocks and began scratching our numerous bites. We push out the rafts and leave, everyone looking quite apprehensive; it's time for the class 5 canyon and we're all quietly steadying our nerves.
The first rapid, only 100-meters downstream from Puyopongo throws a wave straight over our heads and the cool baptism readies us for the hard work ahead. Pat is a fantastic waterman, but we could feel his nerves approaching the canyon, having only done it once before. Most of his friends had advised against going back into it. The canyon rapids are insane, exhilarating, long shoots and deep holes with boulders and undercuts scattered sporadically throughout.
They are getting steadily bigger as more rivers join. However, at no point do we feel out of our depth, we are three strong paddlers attacking every wave with purposeful strokes and Pat guides us down a perfect line set by the kayakers in front. We are spat out at the bottom at around 15:00 into a breath-taking view: huge overhanging forested cliffs shrouding the bubbling and boiling Pastaza River that has carried us so far. About 500-meters before our stopping point for the night, a much less apprehensive Pat with a cheeky glint in his eye, sends us straight into a hole.
With the rapids behind us, he catches Ian and I off guard and we are catapulted off the front of the raft into the swirling waves. Ben hauls us back in between fits of laughter. It’s been a thoroughly exciting day and it’d have been a shame if someone hadn’t fallen in. We stop for the night at the E45 Bridge and set up hammocks under a lean to. Unfortunately day three which was supposed to be the easiest day, approaching the flat waters at our destination Copataza, had to be cut short.
All through the previous night was torrential rain which led to the already high river rising by over 3 meters within hours, dragging an untold number of deadly debris down with it. Massive trees are swept past us as we survey from the banks at alarming speeds. We were close to going for it, but the decision was made by the local lads not to. We trusted their judgement. Yan had said "If we had gone for it on day three, we'd have likely got footage never before seen." Hurtling down that brown boiling, tree riddled mess would absolutely have been a rare feat, but the risk to life was rightfully deemed too great. This was our first experience of how changeable the rivers can be in South America and it brought into question whether our journey was even possible in Canadian Canoes.
That evening we returned to Shell by road and had a rethink. The plan was then to meet with our boat builder Ivan, who would be arriving with Jake and the canoes on the 29th. From there it was up to us to attempt to drive the canoes down an unknown road to the flat water at Copataza and make a call on the river there. The only knowledge we had of Copataza was that there was a doctor called Jon there who could speak a little English.
Back in Shell, in an air-conditioned room which felt like the lap of luxury, I reflected on the start of Stage 2. Although we failed to reach Copataza, we were extremely fortunate to have made it as far as the E45 bridge on the water at this very wet time of year. I was content with the journey, and we were all still buzzing from a fantastic 2 days on white water. We had been advised by Pat and the firemen, some of whom are native Shuar, that a guide is imperative as we head down the river, beyond Copataza. Native people are friendly here and used to seeing strangers (not westerners), however further downstream they might take issue with our presence, and we'd need a native speaker to assure them we only meant to pass through respectfully. All the local waterman that we spoke to were amazed that we were thinking using small Canadian canoes to attempt this trip. They seemed to think we were mad, and they may be right. They think that if we are taken by surprise by a flash flood, our small and overloaded boats won't stand a chance. It’s not that they don’t respect our skills, they just don’t understand the manoeuvrability of a Canadian canoe. Any potential guides, seeing us and our kit, assume we are clueless and would use this as an excuse to charge ridiculous prices to offer alternatives or "guide us round the danger." The deeper we travel into the forest, the idea of an adventure for its own sake becomes less and less conceivable to the people we meet. In fact, this leads to suspicion and incredible speculation about our reasons for being there, which I will cover in future posts. This was all food for thought as we awaited Ivan with the boats and Jake in Shell. As I contemplated the journey downstream, I couldn’t have imagined encounters, the drama and the unbelievable happenings that lay ahead. There was only excitement.
Note on Shell: It was established by Royal Dutch Shell corporation in 1937 as a base for prospecting for oil in the region. The base was strongly opposed by several indigenous tribes who attacked numerous times, killing some of the employees. In 1948, Shell abandoned the base. Presently it is a large town made up of mostly indigenous people, it has an airport and an Ecuadorian military base.
Pastaza, The Rough River: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Jzni8SW0wA
Grade 5, Short: https://www.youtube.com/shorts/4SKs3JGsj00