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FROM KAYAKERS TO EXPLORERS

Edited for the web by S. Danielski

as told by the members of “Canoandes '79” in 1981 —from their book “In Kayak Through Peru”

 

 

The original Canoandes '79 gang after arrival in Mexico.

 
Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79

What started as a quixotic six-month planned escape by a group of Polish students from Kraków standing at the doorway to adulthood became a legend. Originally, it began as an official government-sponsored kayak expedition operating in Mexico in 1979, turned into true-life defiant adventure by five adrenaline-fueled rebels in cut-off jeans, who refused to return to Poland after being recalled by nervous communist authorities. Instead, they pursued river exploration in North, Central and South America, relying on a gift economy from strangers and supporting their journey by selling stories and pictures to magazines and newspapers.

29 months and 100,000 kilometers later, they reached their goal, Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia. At the end, they pulled off impressive achievements: 26 explored rivers and 13 first descents in countries spread out between USA and Argentina. Their crowning contributions were to introduce to the world, the popular today Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica, Rio Santa Maria —one of the finest technical rivers in Mexico, and the Colca in southern Peru —described by National Geographic Magazine as the world’s deepest canyon.

The legacy left by Canoandes-79 cannot only be measured in the number of paddled rivers or days spent on the road (it was one of the longest kayaking expeditions in recent history), but rather by the exploratory importance which makes it stand out from others. During the journey, the expedition completed the first comprehensive whitewater river survey of Mexico for the National Sports Institute of Mexico, proving that Mexico has more to offer than just the sandy beaches in Acapulco, as well as publishing the first whitewater guide of Peru in Spanish and English in Peru. Their Spanish-language documentary of the first descent of the world’s deepest canyon shown in Peruvian cinemas was used to boost national pride in the impoverished country with a glorious past and uncertain future.

It’s hard to forget their pioneering contribution introducing kayaking to Latin American public. As Canoandes-79 moved through Central and South America, they left a trail of articles in the Latin-American press and participated in numerous local TV shows, spreading the gospel of whitewater kayaking and river exploration.

In Kraków, Poland, we were members of the Student Kayaking Club "Bystrze". Through the Club, we made regular excursions on rivers in the mountains and plains of Poland and Czechoslovakia. In 1976, we widened our sphere of activity with an expedition to seven rivers in northern Yugoslavia. A year later, we took another step, again in Yugoslavia, navigating the Tara, the most difficult river in Europe with the continent's deepest canyon. With these experiences, we felt our ambitions growing. Kayaking had become a passion. It was calling us to undertake the conquest of more difficult, wilder rivers. And we looked towards the Andes, towards South America. We wanted to explore this little-known continent.

First we chose Argentina. It was 1977 and we made good contacts, got reliable information and quality maps of the Andean rivers in that country. We started to organize a real exploration expedition with the help of our Club, the Polish Kayaking Federation and the International Canoe Federation (ICF). We had an assignment —to write for the ICF a kayakers' guide to the mountain rivers of South America.

In July 1978, we were ready: 10 kayakers, more than 25 tons of equipment, 21 fiberglass kayaks, a large all-terrain truck with trailer, food —all just waiting for the word to set off. The worsening of Argentine-Chilean relations over the Beagle Channel incident kept postponing the trip. We decided to change our destination immediately in order not to have to back out. We were ready to set sail for Peru when a winter storm paralyzed the Baltic ports for a couple of weeks. When that was over, in January 1979, it was Peru's turn to be affected by strikes, curfews and suspensions of personal liberties. Once more delays and frustrations. Everybody was telling us to give up; through it all we learned one of the kinds of courage that an explorer has to have. If we could not overcome administrative, diplomatic, political and human difficulties, how were we going to face wild rivers?

"CANOANDES ‘79"

Finally, on June 14, 1979, 21 months after beginning preparations for our expedition, we arrived in... Mexico. We had to start out in the most stable Latin American country, far from the Andes and we got an exceptional reception —an official invitation, including our activities in sports exchange agreements between Poland and Mexico. The first to arrive were Marek Byliński, leader of the expedition, Włodzimierz Herman, Jan Kasprzyk, driver, Jerzy Majcherczyk and Andrzej Piętowski. The group was completed with the arrival of Jacek Bogucki, cameraman, Zbigniew Bzdak, photographer, Piotr Chmieliński, Tomasz Jaroszewski, medic, and Józef Woch. After the long wait, many disappointments, and the theft and destruction of valuable equipment during the ocean crossing, we were ready to tackle some American rivers.

 

Piotr Chmieliński,
Santa Maria River, Mexico

Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79
 

 

MEXICO AND THE UNITED STATES

During the 13 months that we spent on Mexican soil (including a 4-month trip into the United States) we covered more than 45,000 km over roads and trails to navigate more than 1,000 km on 10 rivers. This period was for us a true "university" of kayaking and the exploration experience. The rivers we ran in our raft and kayaks were:

  • Amacuzac River. First we ran the canyon near Mexico City. Then we ran it from its source to its junction with the Mixteco River. At the end of our stay, we went back and ran it again to complete our hydrographic data with information on water level.
  • Balsas River.
  • Mixteco River. We were the first to run this virgin river.
  •  

    Andrzej Piętowski,
    Rio Grande de Matagalpa,
    Nicaragua

    Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79
     

     

  • Atoyac River.
  • Pescados River. This was also another virgin river and is probably one of the most difficult. In 1978, a Mexican-North American expedition had to abandon the first canyon, the Black Canyon, with one of its members dead.
  •  

    Rio Pescados. Mexico

    Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79
     

     

  • Wind River (Wyoming, USA). We ran this one in the winter, in below-freezing temperatures. This was probably a winter "first".
  • Colorado Canyon (USA). We were only able to navigate the first part, the Marble Canyon, and this only with special permission since navigation is forbidden in the winter. We flew over the rest of the Grand Canyon in a small plane.
  • Moctezuma River.
  • Santa Maria River. This river has five very different canyons and we had to make 21 portages, navigating 180 km. In two weeks of navigating we did only 9 days of pure paddling. The raft turned over and we lost all our food and lived off what fish we could catch for the last four days.
  • Rio Grande de Santiago. We found it polluted with scum and we had to go 100 km downriver from Guadalajara to find water clean enough to paddle in.

This list of rivers and facts can, in no way, describe all of the reversals we suffered and the lessons we learned. The experience we gained turned us into true explorers. Besides perfecting our technical skills as we overcame numerous difficulties of the fast-flowing rivers, we gained confidence in surviving the wilderness of the worst canyons, like the Santa Maria. Several times we were faced with rivers that were impossible to navigate because the water level was too low (the Urique River with its marvelous canyon called "Copper Gorge"; the Bolanos River) or because they were frozen over (Snake River in the U.S.). We lost a lot of time because of long distances that separate the rivers in Mexico. We had to learn how to harmonize the differing plans and opinions of a rather large group of human beings. At the same time, we experienced the extraordinary solidarity between the members of our team. We also found this spirit in people outside of the group as well, or the local university that helped us to overhaul our equipment, or the Mexican authorities who gave us so much support, and so many others.

 

Andrzej Piętowski,
Rio Grande de Matagalpa,
Nicaragua.

Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79
 

 

We made films, took thousands of photographs and slides, gave conferences and put all the information we gathered into the form of a report which we gave to Guillermo Lopez Portillo, head of the National Sports Institute of Mexico in thanks for his help.

CENTRAL AMERICA

By the time we left Mexico in August 1980, our expedition had already been reduced to only five members. The others had had to return to Poland for personal reasons. With Jacek Bogucki, Zbigniew Bzdak, Piotr Chmieliński, Jerzy Majcherczyk and Andrzej Piętowski, leader of the group, we formed what was essentially a new expedition, financed through our own resources, the never-to-be-forgotten assistance from our ambassador in Mexico, the patronage of ODILAC (Latin American and Caribbean Intergovernmental Sport Organization) and the President of Mexico.

 

Piotr Chmieliński,
Rio Pacuare,
Costa Rica .

Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79
 

 

We wanted to cross Central America as fast as possible to get to Peru, but things did not work out that way. It happened that we were just about the first ever to have brought kayaks to those countries and who had the ability to navigate their mountain rivers. That was hard to pass up. The difficulties we had to put up with because of our Polish nationality (at that time Poland was still a communist country) were compensated by being kayaking pioneers in that region. We tried to live up to that every way we could.

 

Nicaragua.
Learning from
a newspaper about
the Solidarity movement
back in Poland.

Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79
 

 

In Guatemala, national television accompanied us as we ran the Aguacapa River. We had to cross Honduras in only 48 hours because our transit visas we were only good for that long. In Nicaragua, we ran the beautiful fast flowing, tropical Rio Grande de Matagalpa, accompanied by crocodiles in the slow sections. In Costa Rica, we navigated the Reventazon River and then the Pacuare River, one of the most difficult in Latin America. We also gave whitewater kayaking demonstrations in swimming pools. In Panama, we ran the Santa Maria and Chirigui Rivers and gave public demonstrations on live television. There we waited for the Polish ship "Henryk Jendza" that was going to take us to Ecuador. We left on October 13, 1980.

 

Leaving Panama.

Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79
 

 

In our tour through Central America, besides navigating those six rivers (most first descents), more than 350 km, and driving more than 10,000 km, we put together all the documentation we compiled on the rivers we paddled, complete with photos, maps and guides, and gave it to the national sports authorities. We had the satisfaction of seeing the enormous interest that was awakened. In Costa Rica, we were even offered to stay there and open a whitewater kayaking school.

ECUADOR

After unforgettable experiences on the Pacific and crossing the Equator, we finally arrived in South America and the Andes. It was now the end of 1980, but we decided to keep the same name "Canoandes 79" in memory of when we set out.

Ecuador surprised us with their initial treatment. We were stuck in customs for two weeks because we were missing some document required to get our (US-registered) truck out and during this time we had to live in the harbor custom-detained-vehicles parking lot. Once more human solidarity came into play and a young Pole living in Guayaquil loaned us the money to pay duty. We spent our second Christmas season outside our country in the company of Polish friends in Ecuador.

In Ecuador, we first ran the Napo River. This was the river that Francisco de Orellana traveled in 1539, when after leaving Hernando Pizarro behind, he reached the Amazon and followed it downriver to the Atlantic. We explored it and described it from its source at more than 4,000 meters above sea level after a three-day-long ascent through precipices and narrow paths.

When we were finally ready to leave for Peru, armed clashes on the Peruvian-Ecuadorian border postponed the trip. We could not stand to wait more than two weeks and decided to try to cross the border, with official permission from Peruvian and Ecuadorian authorities.

PERU

Ever since the first preparations for our expedition, more than two years before, Peru had attracted us because of its imposing, diverse geography, and its prestigious ancient cultural traditions. We had plan­ned to come in from the south, from Argentina. Instead, we came in from the north, from Ecuador, in an extraordinarily tense trip with numerous military controls. We frequently fell back on the name of our Pope John Paul II to bring a smile to hostile faces and lower the guns pointed at us. Now in Lima, we made our plan of operations.

The famous Amazon River has its headwaters in Peru. It is the largest river in the world, with one-fifth of all the fresh water on the planet. But the Amazon does not just begin in Peru. Its most interesting, varied and exciting whitewater sections are in that country as well. The river's main course as well as those of many of its tributaries flow from altitudes of more than 4,500 and 5,000 meters. They descend the Andean Cordillera as mountain torrents through canyons and gorges with many navigational difficulties. Besides, many of Peru's mountain rivers are still virgin for all or part of their high altitude sections. We had a lot of alternatives to choose from.

 

Crossing a tributary of the
Napo River, Ecuador

Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79
 

 

We decided first for the Maraňon River, which for a long time was considered as the Mother River of the Amazon, the origin of the "river-sea". We wanted to do a "first": navigate the mountainous section of the Maraňon in the height of the rainy season, at the peak of its high water level. Then the Apurimac interested us because it is now held to be the true source of the Amazon. The Apurimac is over 1,200 km. long, and thus wins for Peru the distinction of having the largest part of the total length of the Amazon within its borders (3,714 km out of a total 6,800). We wanted very much to find out at just what altitude kayaking was possible. The Urubamba/Vilcanota River caught our attention for the combination of sports and tourist attractions, crossing, as it does, the Sacred Valley of the Inca and passing at the foot of the legendary Machu Picchu.

THE LUNAR CANYON OF THE COLCA

We had also heard of the Peruvian coastal river, the Colca-Majes-Camana that had an extraordinarily deep canyon and was still unrun. Discovered by the North Americans Shippee and Johnson, studied and made known by the geographer Gonzalo de Reparaz, this can­yon offered us the possibility for a "first" of world-wide stature. It was a formidable challenge to our capacity as kayakers and our dedication as explorers to be the first to study it from within and run it no matter how we had to do it, even if it had to be on foot.

We have now been in Peru for seven months. We have fulfilled our program here. With the help of our Peruvian driver Javier Fort and the company of two young Poles (Stefan Danielski and “Biczu” Krzysztof Kraśniewski) who had come by yacht S/Y "Horn" from Poland to Ecuador where they joined up with us, we navigated the Marańon, Colca, Apurimac and Vilcanota/Urubamba rivers. We were successful in all aspects of our undertaking. We have experienced unforgettable moments of danger and the thrill of overcoming it; enjoyed the beauty of the places we have passed; enjoyed contacts with friends in the cities and many wonderful people we met on our travels deep into the country. Now we are going on to Bolivia, Chile and Argentina to complete our circuit. We have lost a lot of time because of financial problems that we managed to solve by selling part of our equipment, as well photos and articles, and securing financial help from the Peruvian Tourism Promotion Fund (FOPTUR).

But we decided to stay in Peru a little while longer to finish our "guide to whitewater in Peru" and a film which we made in the Colca Canyon.

FROM OUR JOURNALS

The artist of Sitabambita (March 1981, on the road to the Maraňon River): "At 3,500 meters, crossing the intimidating barrenness of the "puna" - highland plains-, there are very few landmarks that demand the attention. That is why, going from Huamachuco to Puente Chagual, 78 km after the bridge over the Chuagon River, we immediately noticed a tiny house in the distance, completely surrounded by flowers. There we met Aurelio Rios Cardenas and his own special little world —an island in the altitude, an island of art and nature. With his family, he farms for a living. But then his hands take whatever he finds, the fruits of nature or the refuse of modern culture, and give life and form to his experiences and fantasies. His home/workshop is lost in a solitude tenuously linked to the outside world by an old bus that rattles past every day. Here he produces sculptures and collages with personal and religious themes that could easily grace the avant-garde art galleries in museums anywhere in the world..."

 

Samosierra rapid, the Marańón River during flood. Perú

Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79
 

 

Maraňon, 3rd day of navigation: "Some more difficult rapids (4,5 and 6). In one of them, more than 2 km. long, we found ourselves trapped with no way to stop or turn around. Navigation became a question of life and death. Were we going to meet the same fate as many of our predecessors? We had to get through. The raft was full of water and stood on end over waves more than 4 m high. A miracle? Probably, but we got out safe and sound. We had made it through. We decided to name this rapid "Samosierra", in memory of a daring charge made by Polish cavalry in the face of a Spanish cannon during Napoleon's Spanish war. In our country, this charge was considered more than anything else as an almost suicidal act, a mix of daring, folly and valor."

Colca, navigating the first section: "We had planned to run the whole canyon in five days at the outside, running about 20 km. per day. We had food for seven days. What a whopping mistake! We only made it to Canco (44 km.) after 11 days. It had been the real acid test. Each day we made about four km, using all our wits to fight incredible difficulties we had never before encountered - boulders completely blocking the river; almost continuous waterfalls in some sections; vertical walls that closed in over this place that would have been hell for anyone, but even more so for us as its first explorers and navigators. Here we had our first accident. The raft capsized and we barely managed to get it upright again before coming on a nasty rapid. We lost three raft oars, some small items and sustained light injuries. If we had not rescued the raft in time we would have lost everything. In the same section, on the fourth day, a grade 5 rapid formed a trap that one of the kayaks fell into. We don't know how our friend came out alive. The river defended its virginity with a fury and we had to fight for every meter. On the eighth day we had to start rationing food. By the ninth day, one of the members of the group had an infected eye and was virtually blind. The floor of the raft had been badly ripped. On the tenth day, still inside the canyon, we ate our last rations. Difficult before, navigation now became insanity. The raft was tossed around by the river like a piece of flotsam in spite of all our efforts to paddle. On the 11th day, we could make out vegetation in the distance. We advanced 3 km through vertical rock formations, which were more than 3,000 m high. We made bridges with our mountaineering cables. At the end we came to the three largest and most beautiful cataracts we had ever seen. We had to portage around them. Another short stretch of paddling and we were on the stony beaches of the Hacienda Canco. The people who met us brought us boiled corn on the cob, eggs, cheese, whatever they had. We were emaciated and exhausted. Was that food ever good!

 

Piotr Chmieliński charming Peruvian beauties.

Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79
 

 

Colca—The Chocolate Canyon: "We entered the next canyon. Its walls were an incredible chocolate color, like in a fairy tale. All the different colors of chocolate. The vertical walls were lined with chocolaty veins running every which way. A pile of small stones and dust looked like tongues of chocolate lava. We decided to stop here to eat and sleep in this setting of pure fantasy. This was one of the most beautiful nights and the light of the full moon highlighted everything. And to think that we were the first human beings to enjoy this!"

Epilogue

The first descent of the Colca Canyon brought the world’s attention to a little-known region of Peru, and to, as an American pilot Robert Shippee, who before WWII explored the region by airplane, called “a forgotten valley of Peru”. As a result, the Polish paddlers had a meeting with the President of Peru Fernando Belaunde Terry, who immediately recognized a significance of the Colca Canyon as a potential of world-class tourist attraction.

 

Urubamba put-in, Peru.

Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79
 

 

While still in Peru, in July, two kayakers navigated the Vilcanota River, then a month later together with Tim Biggs and Chan Zwanzig (founder of the Wave Sport Kayaks) paddled the upper section of Apurimac River in altitude of 4200 m above the sea level.

In September, Canoandes crossed the Argentinean border. Finally, after 29 months, traveling 100,000 km, kayaking 23 rivers in 12 countries, they reached their ultimate goal, Tierra del Fuego and completed the last river, Rio Gallegos. As the expedition was over, the members of the group were scheduled to return to Poland from Lima, Peru, on December 22. A week before the departure, on December 13, the Polish government declared martial law, disbanded the Solidarity movement and jailed Solidarity activists.

 

Protest on the streets of Lima, Perú

Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79

 

Solidarity Support Committe.

Canoandes with famous Peruvian writer

Mario Vargas Llosa.

Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79

 

Demonstration in the streets of Lima, Perú

Photo Zbigniew Bzdak © Canoandes '79

 

The kayakers reacted by setting up a Solidarity Support Committee in Peru, giving public lectures and organizing a massive demonstration on the streets of Lima to protest the martial law in Poland. And then the time came to make the painful decision to find a new home, a new country or face persecution in Poland. Today, five of the members live in the U.S.A. and two in Canada.

 

 

The above excerpt is from the Canoandes-79 whitewater guide titled In Kayak Through Peru.

Whitewater Guide by Polish Expedition Canoandes

Published by Embajada del Viajero S.A. Lima. 1981