There are adventurers … and then there are adventurers. In this podcast I interview Darcy Gaechter, the first (and only) woman to kayak the entire length of the Amazon River.
148 days. 4300 miles. Class V whitewater. Narcos. River tribes that have killed foreigners. And so much more.
What was it like to do it? Who do you have to be to do it? We explore all of that in this wide-ranging interview.
- Small World Adventures – Her Ecuadoran adventure kayaking company.
- Kayak the Amazon – Official site for her Amazon kayak expedition.
- DarcyGaechter.com – Her personal website.
Transcript of the entire interview:
Me: This is Doug Greene with What Really Matters Interviews and today I’m really excited to interview Darcy Gaechter. She is – well let me read, read from her Amazon page for her book, and maybe that’ll really get you juiced up about this interview.
Her book is called Amazon Woman and it’s about her journey down the Amazon River. She’s the first woman – and only woman at this point – to kayak the entire length of the Amazon River.
Here’s the introduction to her book.
This 148-day journey began on Darcy Gaechter’s 35th birthday. The emotional waters that would fester and erupt on the ensuing journey were often more challenging to navigate than the mighty river itself. With blistering lips and irradiated fingernails Darcy would tackle raging Class V whitewater for 25 days straight, barely survived a dynamite filled cannon being prepared for a new hydroelectric plant.
She and her two companions would encounter illegal loggers, narco traffickers, murderous shining path rebels and ruthless poachers in the black market trade in endangered species. They would plead for mercy at the hands of the murderers Ashanikna people, who were convinced that they had come to steal their children’s organs
In a desperate attempt meant to give her some pretense of control, Darcy even cut off all her hair before entering Peru’s notoriously dangerous Red Zone in hopes of passing for a boy and being seen as less of a target.
At once a heart-pounding adventure and a celebration of pushing personal limits, Amazon Woman speaks to all of us feeling trapped by our deskbound online society. This is a story of finding the courage and strength to challenge nature, cultures, social norms, and oneself
Darcy thank you for joining us today. So let’s talk about the adventure first. Take us into some of these moments that are described right in here – like getting started. The first thing obviously is the Class V whitewater itself. And for those of you that may not kayak or know rivers it’s there’s basically six-class system.
Class 6 is just insane only a few crazy boaters Do that Class V is crazy people die in Class 5 all the time. And from the video I’ve watched and things, it looks like there was a fair amount of five to be done on this river. It’s kayaking at an extremely high level.
Anyway talk about the Class V water stretch if you could, and what that’s like, what you’re looking for.
Darcy: Even before we got to the class V part of the whitewater we had to locate the source of the Amazon. And the Amazon is the world’s largest river. It has 20% of the Earth’s freshwater, and it drains an area the size of the lower 48. So locating the source was a huge challenge that we had to overcome before we could actually even start kayaking.
And so we spent a few days trekking around Peru’s Highlands at about 15,000 feet in elevation, looking for the highest flowing water that we could find. And then yeah, the three of us kind of decided on the highest little stream we could find. And then from there, we started walking downstream until the river was wide enough to kayak.
And we did have a few days like kayaking through irrigation ditches and little tiny streams before we got to the actual canyons of the Montaro River. And that’s where the class V whitewater was happening.
And it was a really amazing canyon in a remote part of the Andes with such strong bedrock that at one point, the entire river did a complete hairpin turn on itself. And truly some of the most stunning canyons I’ve ever seen. But class V part was obviously challenging whitewater like you explained.
And we were also self-supporting at that point. So that meant that we were carrying everything that we needed in our whitewater kayaks – so like camping gear, stoves, food, water filtration, like satellite phone, passports, money, spare paddles first aid kits – you know, everything we needed or thought we might need to survive – we had packed in our boats.
Which is good to have everything with you, but it definitely cuts down on the maneuverability of the kayak – so definitely a lot of challenges in there.
But there’s three of us on the trip. And it was me and my longtime boyfriend, Don Beverage, and then a guy named David Midgley. And Don and I were fairly well prepared for the class V because we both had been kayaking for a long time. You know, me almost two decades, Don almost three decades. And so class V for us was pretty comfortable – like we definitely knew what we were getting into and had the skills to deal with it.
And the third guy, Midge, it was his idea to do the Amazon. And he decided when he was about 30 that – he’s a really brilliant computer programmer who lives in London – and he was worried that he was wasting his life sitting behind a desk. So he thought I just need to do one big adventure. And he thought climbing Everest was too overdone, sailing around the world was overdone.
And he discovered that more people had walked on the moon than had descended the Amazon from source to sea. And at that point, no one had done the whole thing in a kayak. So he decided he would do it. But he had never kayaked before, and he had never camped before. And he was 100% unprepared to do this.
And so that’s how Don and I met him – because Don and I run Small World Adventures, a kayak guiding company in Ecuador. And David started coming to us so that we could teach him to become a class V kayaker so that he could do this. And he trained for about a decade before he felt ready to do it.
And for him this whitewater was pushing his limits his whitewater skills were at their absolute limit. And, for a lot of people that maybe haven’t kayaked before, it can be very stressful. And Having adrenaline rushes all day long can be extremely tiring. And we were all tired, but I really have to give Mitch a lot of credit for – number one surviving. And number two, he did a really excellent job of keeping his head, balanced mental state – even though he was facing day after day of whitewater that was at his absolute limit.
How large was the river at this point in CFS?
Oh, we actually know the answer to that question. It was about 4000 CFS, which is a fair amount of water. But there’s this big dam on the Montaro, and it’s a diversion dam. So they cut a tunnel through the rock. And right about where they put the water back in is where the class V section truly began – and about 4000 CFS. And it was a fairly steep River. So 4000 CFS is a fair amount of volume for a steep river. And it was very continuous – meaning there weren’t big breaks between the rapids
Just to add a little bit to that … so 4000 CFS, that’s pretty pushy water at that point. And many rivers out here in the West are what you might call “drop pool.” So you’ll have a challenging section, and then you get a break. And then you hit another challenging section, and then you get a break. And what’s nice about that is – if you mess up and you actually like to swim, or you get in some sort of scenario where you just can’t get control of your boat – you know that you’ll be coming back to a pool. So you’ll have a moment to take a breath, get your boat, get your gear if you come out of it and prepare for the next part.
But when it’s constant whitewater, it’s a whole different ballgame. It just never stops. And if you come out, you might be in the river for a while kind of swimming, trying to get to shore, gathering your gear way downstream at some point. So it’s a whole different kind of experience than drop pool.
Anyway, please continue on.
Yeah, back to the continuous nature of the river. It did mean that sometimes when we would get out of our boats to scout a section of river, we went by the pretty common rule in kayaking that if you can can’t see the bottom of a rapid, or you can’t see your next eddy, which is a place that kayakers can pull into and stop like a calm spot in the river – if you can’t see one that you know you can stop it, then it’s time to get out of your boat and walk down the bank and scout out the rapids to decide is it safe to run or not.
And so the continuous whitewater meant that oftentimes we’d be scouting for almost a mile at a time – because we’d have to walk down the entire length of some big rapid. And it also meant there was less room for making mistakes because we didn’t have pools or calm spots to recover in.
So that just ups the seriousness of the situation. And we were trying to do our best to take our time and really make sure that we knew what we were dropping into to make sure that Mitch felt comfortable, that David Midgley – also called Midge, that’s his nickname – make sure that Mitch felt comfortable, and that we could all help out in a rescue if it came down to that.
So in the midst of all of this, did you have to do any river rescues for Mitch? Did he get himself in trouble where he was like – have one of those “Oh shit!” moments?
Yeah, he really did amazingly well for 99% of the whitewater. He did have to swim twice, meaning he had to get out of his kayak in the middle of a whitewater section. But both times he chose incredibly good places to do it.
One time he got shoved by a wave up against the cliff wall, and there was a little pocket in the cliff wall where he got stuck. And he swam in the pocket, but him and his kayak and his paddle all stayed right there, and Don was able to get to them pretty quickly – get to him and his gear and pull everything out together. So that was a fairly easy rescue … considering.
And then the second time he swam, he got trapped in a giant hydraulic place in the river where the whitewater is reversing back on itself – and he couldn’t get out. So he swam from his kayak again. But this was one of about five places in the difficult white water where there actually was a pool and it wasn’t very big.
So when you are kayaking, and I know you to run at the level you do – I’ve run classified myself some of the lower part of the North Fork and Idaho and stuff. I have seen God a few times on some of my own runs – you’re going at a level that’s waaay above mine.
And I’m really curious what you do when you find yourself – when things go wrong. Because one of the things about the river is it’s always moving. Unlike skiing or climbing or something where you can stop, take a break, and sort out, and then go forward again, the river is moving. And whatever’s coming up is coming up – and you’ve got to act now.
So with all that extra pressure going on – you know, “everything is fine until it isn’t” – when it isn’t anymore, what’s going on in your mind? How do you deal with that “Oh shit!” moment?
Yeah, the dealing with “oh shit” moment mentally is definitely the hardest part of kayaking. We all work on our physical skills a ton, you know, doing drills in the river, strength training, practicing different moves. But it’s really hard to practice keeping mental composure when everything’s going wrong.
How do you practice that there’s no way besides to just have things go wrong and try to deal with it?
And under the best circumstances, and I can’t exactly say what triggers this, but I’ve been in some really horrible situations where my mind somehow does stay calm and things slow down. And even though things are happening in a matter of one or two seconds, I’m able to slow everything down in my mind and think logically like, “okay, you’re trapped in their water, you’re trapped by this log. What do you need to do to get out of this?“ How I feel something moving here, I think I can do this.
And that’s the best-case scenario rather than panic. Because when your mind panics, you just desperately want to get air. You’re going to probably make the wrong move, because a lot of times the fast way to get air again when you’re kayaking is to do a combat role. But lifting your head to get immediate air is going to counteract your efforts to do a combat role.
But sometimes letting your instincts take over is not what you want to happen in the middle of a “shit hitting the fan” situation in kayaking – because our instinct as humans is always to breathe air. But sometimes you have to force yourself to wait that extra few seconds to do the right thing to eventually get yourself to a point where you can get air.
And I have not figured in myself what make the panic button trigger. The more experienced I get, and the more bad situations I get in, the more often I can remain calm. But still, every now and then for reasons I don’t quite understand the panic will set in.
And I kind of feel like what’s happening these days is when the situation isn’t really dire, I’m more likely to panic. But somehow when my brain knows that this really is life or death, it does a better job of staying calm.
I recently started reading a lot about “flow” of the “flow state” and how this applies to adventure sports athletes, and trying to understand the workings of the brain a little bit better so I can more and more ensure that the panic happens less than less. But I think none of us can really say like, “Oh, I can 100% control it and I know it will never happen”, because you just don’t know when your mind might give up on – you do it anyways,
So let’s move on down the river. We get the whitewater section done. You’ve got all these tribes and narcos, people that are afraid you’re gonna steal their kids’ organs and things. Why don’t you pick a few golden moments on that – and the Shining Path are down there. Talk about a few encounters. Because as I recall from reading a blog post, there’s like different sections. You start with a whitewater section … I believe there were three major sections right?
I broke it down into the whitewater section was one phase; that took 25 days. The Red Zone for me was another phase – and the Red Zone started where the flat water started. And that was 30 days of this area that people recognize as a pretty dangerous part of the river because of the Shining Path, because of narco trafficking, illegal logging and distrustful indigenous people – rightfully so.
And then after that we had the Boring Flat Water where we weren’t really fearing for our lives anymore; we were out of the Red Zone. And that was about another 30 days. And then the last part of the flat water got really challenging and interesting again, because we hit the tides. There was constant up river wind, which created pretty big waves. Just a lot more interesting factors going on.
But anyway, to come back to the Red Zone that you’re asking about one thing, I want to be careful about – the Ashaninka people (that’s the local indigenous group there) – they have a bad reputation. And kind of for good reason.
In the two years before our expedition, six tourists passed through the red zone, and the Ashaninka murdered two of them, and shot another one – but the third guy survived. But I do want to make sure that the world understands the Ashaninka a little bit better- because they’re not bad people. They’re not evil.
But basically since the time of the Franciscan missionaries, everyone who has come into their territory has come for the sole purpose of taking something from them or, in the case of the Shining Path, actually murdering them.
The Shining path was most active there during the 1980s and 1990s. The Shining Path killed 10,000 Ashaninka people, and that was a third of their population. In 2013, Peru overtook Colombia as the world’s number one cocaine producing country in the world. And so there’s a ton of narco trafficking business there. And the Shining Path – that still exists – worked for the drug traffickers, kind of offering protection to them.
And there’s a ton of illegal logging, like 80% of the lumber coming out of there was cut illegally. And a lot of it’s happening on Ashaninka land. And so I don’t blame them for not liking people coming into their territory – the takeaway that I want people to have about them.
And we ended up having really good experiences with them. And we also got prearranged permission letters. Tthere’s a couple of overriding bodies of the Ashaninka, and we got permission Letters from them before we left. So basically what that did was notify all the villages that we were coming, number one, and what we were doing – that we just wanted to kayak through.
So this created a situation where the people weren’t so afraid of us because they already were anticipating our arrival, and they knew what we wanted to do.
But our one scary/ funny situation in the Red Zone was – we got to a village who wasn’t an official checkpoint, so they didn’t get prenotified of our arrival. And they waved us over so they could talk to us. And we’re sitting in our kayaks, bobbing in the water, while the chief of the village starts lecturing us. And he’s telling us all the reasons why they need to protect themselves.
And everything that I just mentioned was on his list. And he also added the government now wants to build some dams on their rivers, and so they don’t know who’s the government scout for damming the rivers. And that’s when he also told us we’re also scared of you because white people come here and kidnap our children.
And we had thought that this was just a story that other travelers made up to make the Ashaninka seem more scary. But then this guy was sitting here telling us that that was something they really were worried about. And at the end of his speech, he said to us, well, we’re not mad at you, because you guys are foreigners. You didn’t know any better.
But we are mad at Cesar. And Cesar was a local Peruvian guy. He wasn’t Ashaninka, but he was Peruvian. And he was traveling in a motorized canoe along with us to help be our guide, or person that could deliver these permission letters and help us out with encounters like this.
And the chief of this village said “we are mad at Cesar because he should have known better. So we’re gonna have to punish him. And so Don, Midge and I are sitting in our kayaks and thinking “Oh shit, what do you think punishment means to these people?” Like are they gonna kill him.
And it was this really tense moment and then the guy said, “Okay, as your punishment you’re gonna do 50 pushups.” And we’re all “Uhhh, did we understand that?” Right? Because he was speaking Spanish, which is his second language. Spanish is our second language, and there’s so much slang. Like in Ecuador the word for “push up’ is also the word “to grill”. So we’re like “doing push ups” or are they gonna grill him? What’s happening here?
And then Cesar got on the ground and started doing push ups. And it ended up being a situation where we all laughed together. And it was fun in the end. But right up until that moment it was this “We don’t know what’s gonna happen to us.” Everything we’ve heard about – all the rumors we’ve heard about this place really aren’t true. I hope they don’t kill us when this is done.
And I was like, “Oh, he’s just doing push-ups. This is funny!”
Wow. What about the Shining Path, or the loggers, or some of the others? Did you have any moments with some of them?
We didn’t have any encounters that we knew of with them. So one night the Peruvian military killed two Shining Path leaders about 10 miles away from where we were camped. But we didn’t learn about it until the next morning.
And we did see the President of Peru while we were doing our trip. He was trying really hard to eliminate the last of the Shining Path. And when we’re in the Red Zone, we saw Blackhawk helicopters flying over almost every day, and they’re looking for drug production. They’re looking for Shining Path. But as far as we know, he didn’t come across at any of them.
So other than that one moment, the push-up moment, you guys got through the Red Zone fairly incident free.
We did. Yeah, I think our permission letters helped a lot.
And so all the villages have a guard 24 hours a day. And this is leftover from the Shining Path days – there’s always a guy with a shotgun standing at the beach. And so typically we’d pull up and show him our permissions and our passports. And then everyone was always really friendly. We’re always allowed to camp at the beaches, they gave us a tour, asked us if we just simply needed food.
And we had a lot of warnings from people in the Red Zone saying tomorrow will be very dangerous or this-or-that. But we had only really good experiences. And, like I said, I kind of chalk it up to the permission letters helped a lot. And I think we got lucky too.
So what were these villages like? Maybe just give us an example of what your experience was like? I’m assuming they have huts? How many people were there? What did the villages look like and feel like to you?
In the Red Zone, most of the villages were pretty small. There were a few exceptions, but I would say 200 to 500 residents was pretty typical. Most of them had a big sandy beach. And then we were there at low water, so there was big beaches for us. And all the towns were back because at high water the river is 40 or 50 feet higher. And of course it spreads out at that point too.
And some of them were really basic – a few houses made out of either wood or thatch. But some of them were actually quite nice. There’s not a ton of roads into the area, but some of them had roads coming into their villages and pretty wide streets with mediums full of plants and trees. And almost all of them had schools with really pretty and cute murals on the walls painted by the kids.
And the further we traveled down the river, the more material goods you would see in people’s houses. In the Red Zone people didn’t have a ton of stuff. But as we got further down, people would always want to show us their flat screen TV or their stereo. They had many more amenities the further down the river we got.
One really cool thing I discovered – this was after the Red Zone – but Peruvian women are badass volleyball players. And if any college volleyball recruiters are listening to this, they should go to these tiny, Peruvian villages. Like I work in Ecuador in the winter, and it’s not that common for women to play sports.
But in these tiny villages, we would get there at night, and the women would be playing volleyball. And I played volleyball in college, and I could barely keep up with them. They let me play with them. But I really remember thinking you know, “Thank God I played in college because otherwise they would be kicking my ass here.” But that was a really fun and unexpected part of the trip for me.
So you got through the second section, the Red Zone, and then you came to the third flat stretc, but before the tides come up. So what was that section like? And how many days are we into this? And what was the group dynamic like at this point. You’re stuck with each other 24/ , days on, going through challenges and – my experience is when I spend that much time with people, stuff’s gonna come up. So how was the group dynamic?
Timeline wise, we’re about at day 60 of the expedition when we got out of the Red Zone. And, as you mentioned, if you spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week with any people for 60 days straight, you’ll probably find some reason to be annoyed with them.
But I also think, you know, in the whitewater, we really had to work as a team. And in the Red Zone we had this common fear of people, and “are we going to make it?” And then when we got out of the Red Zone, we didn’t have any threat to our survival to bond us together, so to speak. And so we were a little bit more bored, and we were a little bit more tempted to fight with each other.
You know, honestly, we did pretty good. And we finished the expedition together, which is saying a lot because a lot of long expeditions with groups splits apart. Not everyone finishes or no one finishes. And that we started and finished together – and we still speak to each other – says a lot.
But in this time we were fighting mainly over Midge’s paddling pace and his regime. He decided he only wanted to travel six hours a day, which is understandable. He was worried about getting tendonitis or something else that would potentially ruin the expedition for him. And totally logical and totally makes sense. But you know, I found that was really impatient with Midge and wanted him to pedal faster, wanted him to pedal longer.
And he had a hard time accommodating my wishes and I had a hard time accepting his wishes. So we fought a lot about that. But luckily right when things were getting really bad group dynamic wise, we started having to worry about survival again, so that probably saved us.
Let’s take some of those tense moments, though. Between you two are some challenging moments. How did you work through them? Did you just find some sort of technique for being heard, speaking, being heard? And you’re worn out, you’re already just ragged. There’s enough things going on. And just did it fester and get a bit “Urrrrrrr” with each other?”
A little bit of all of that, yes. So a little bit of background …
Don didn’t really want to do the expedition in the first place. But he agreed to go along because I wanted to go. And seven days into the trip, he had a fight with Midge about some logistics, and he felt Mitch didn’t respect him. So he wanted to quit on the seventh day. But I talked him into staying.
And Mitch is a really, really brilliant computer programmer. Anyone that’s ever spent time around those kind of people knows that they often relate to the world quite differently than some of the rest of us do. And I don’t know if this is true or not, but Mitch believes he has Asperger’s and falls somewhere on the spectrum. So this adds another layer of complication, because he also would say that he has no emotional intelligence – and so we can’t get mad at him for being a jerk because he doesn’t really understand when he’s being a jerk.
And then I am really, really impatient and want everybody to do what I want them to do on my timeframe. So you have all these conflicting personality problems festering, and I wouldn’t say that we ever solved our problems or our differences.
And I tried basically every day to talk myself off the ledge in terms of being pissed off at Midge. Because I could logically and rationally say to myself, “Who cares if Midge paddles slow? Who cares if we only pedal six hours a day?” I have nothing to get back to. Don and I and our third business partner had sold our business right before we left for the Amazon or about eight months before we left. And I had gotten us fired from the new owner.
So Don, and I had no job to go back to. We had no house to go back to – like nothing to go back to. And so I was telling myself truly “What is the rush?” And so I could rationally think all these thoughts to myself.
But then as soon as Midge would want to quit paddling at one in the afternoon, I’d be like, “Oh, come on Midge, you gotta push further.” And so to me it was really like a daily struggle. And that was totally my own issues there.
Mitch put up with me pretty well; I’ll give him credit for that. Yeah, Don definitely enjoyed some parts of the trip. But he was kind of grumpy in general to be there, and a little bit resentful at me for making him be there, and resentful at Midge for prolonging his time there by paddling slowly. So, yeah, it was all kind of non-serious conflicts, but it ended up causing a lot of conflict.
Okay, so we get out of the Red Zone. We come into that flat stretch. That’s where a lot of this stuff really comes up, right? Because now you’ve got time. There’s no common threats. There’s no “thing” to rally against. It’s just like, “Okay, here we are with each other now and it’s “rrrrrrrr” with each other and …
Okay. So how did the river itself change or the villages the people, the experience along that stretch – separate from your own inner dynamics …
The river got a lot bigger. You know, it definitely felt like a normal river all through the whitewater into the Red Zone. About the time we got out of the Red Zone, more and more significant tributaries were coming in. And it got to the point where we could see across the river, but we couldn’t make out details on the far shore.
And one way we had tried to mitigate our differences of opinion in the paddling pace was that Midge would start kayaking anywhere from a half hour to an hour and a half before Don and I and then we would just catch up with him at some point throughout the day.
But then around this time, if he was on the right bank and we were on the left bank, we wouldn’t be able to see him over there, because it got so wide. So eventually we had to go back to paddling together again.
We started to pass a lot bigger cities. We passed Iquitos,Peru, which has half a million people. It’s the biggest city in the world that you cannot drive to; you can only fly there or get there by boat. And the river traffic got a lot bigger. There were huge barges. Supertankers started coming up the river carrying propane and other huge things. We also started seeing pink Amazonian river dolphins. And so it’s very cool … gaive us something to be distracted by.
Yeah, so this is about the time when I discovered the volleyball players, so that gave me a really good distraction. And it made me really excited to get to a village every night. Interactions with people … we only had good interactions. But sometimes after a really long day of kayaking, you just wanted to go to bed or eat your dinner and go to bed.
But, because at this point we were always camping in villages because it seemed like the safer thing to do – so every day after packing, we’d have to find a village. And then talk to them from anywhere from half an hour to four hours – depending on how talkative they felt like being, and ask permission to camp there.
And we always did enjoy talking to people, but sometimes just wanted to kind of collapse in the sand and not socialize for a couple of hours. But the volleyball made me really look forward to that because, well, number one, I didn’t really have to socialize, I just had to say, “Hey, where’s the volleyball court?” and then go find some ladies and convince them to let me play.
So yeah, that was pretty enjoyable part of that trip for me. And people continued to be really kind and really helpful for the entire trip.
Once we got to Brazil – and that was maybe about 90 days into the trip – once we got to Brazil, there was no more volleyball. So that was sad for me. And then people also speak Portuguese in Brazil. Don and I speak Spanish, but we do not speak Portuguese. And so that added a whole another challenge to us.
And in Brazil, they don’t have anything quite like the Red Zone. But they do have a lot of drug trafficking, a lot of river gangs, and what the local people they’re called “assaltantes” that ply the river in little motor boats and rob people basically is what they do. But by this point, there’s so many little side channels that they can easily escape.
One of the big challenges we had here was – whenever we got to a village and we wanted to camp there – we would have to spend a lot of time convincing the people of the village that we weren’t there to rob them. And that was an interesting twist for us. I mean, we knew in the Red Zone that people were probably fearful of us. But in this part of the river, I was like, “oh, man, these people are still afraid of us.”
And we did learn in Portuguese, how to say “we don’t want to steal anything from you. We just want to camp here on your beach.” Again, once we could convey that people were always happy to let us camp and very friendly and very helpful.
You did mention that you had to cut your hair at one point. Was that farther up in the Red Zone?
That was for the Red Zone. I had read not a ton about the Red Zone before we actually started the expedition. But as we were going down the whitewater, I was reading more and more about it. And I was undecided if I believe that the reward of kayaking the Amazon was worth the risk of going into the Red Zone.
And so I was contemplating this as we were paddling down the whitewater. And we got to one town and I just thought, you know what, maybe “cut my hair off” because then everyone will think we’re three dudes, and they might be less likely to mess with us if they don’t think there’s a woman in the group.
And again, I still hadn’t totally committed to doing the Red Zone yet. But I thought I would take this sort of drastic step and see how I felt about it. Kind of hard to convince the hair cutter lady to do it because she’s like, “Why do you want me to cut off all your hair?”
And I tried to explain to her about the dangers in the Red zone, and she really gave me this look like “Why the hell do you want to go to this place if you’re so scared of going there?” And it was kind of a mirror of my own thoughts at that point and like “I have no idea lady but let’s just cut off all my hair and we’ll see how this goes.”
So we get through the stretch before the tides, and then we hit the tides. Talk about that. So all of a sudden you’re having to time it – kind of like on the Grand Canyon, you’ve got to time it with a surge coming down.
Yeah, so the tides come up the Amazon River more than 600 miles. And the gradient of the Amazon River – from the place they call it the Amazon – It drops 1.8 inches of elevation drop for every mile you paddled out in the river. Then once you’ve passed Manaus, which is the big city in Brazil, I think it’s down to one centimeter of elevation per mile.
So the point of all that is that there’s no current and there’s a lot of wind, and even without the tides, if we stop paddling – no, the wind is always blowing up river too. So if we stopped paddling, we would get blown up river quite fast.
And then you throw the tides into that, and for maybe a week we could paddle against the tide with some success. But eventually they became so strong that paddling at pretty full effort, we were making one kilometer per hour. And so it wasn’t worth the effort to paddle against the tide.
So what that meant for us is that we could paddle for five or six hours while the tide was going out. And then we’d have to sit somewhere for five or six hours while the tide was coming in, and then start paddling again when the tide went out.
And eventually in the Amazon River Delta, you lose the sandy beaches and the solid ground, and it becomes mangroves and mud flats. All the people down there build their villages on stilts. And the tides come up about 20 feet and drop 20 feet twice a day. So all of their houses are built on 20 foot tall stilts to accommodate the tides. And everything’s connected by boardwalks.
And so eventually, when we had to start waiting out the tide, you’d have to get on someone’s dock, convince them we weren’t there to rob them or murder them, and then ask if we could just sit on their dock for five hours. And they always thought that was pretty weird, but they always let us.
Also, because of the wind being so strong, when a big storm would come in the waves and the river would get to be like 10 or 15 feet tall. And sometimes they would start breaking and at this point, we had switched into sea kayaks. And we had racing sea kayaks that are not very stable. So, once again, we had to start concentrating on our kayaking skills – and that did wonders for group dynamics.
So you finally make it to the sea, yeah?
Yes, we did make it to the Atlantic Ocean 148 days after starting.
So what was it like to see that ocean? Or did you even know you were at it? At that point the river so wide maybe you weren’t quite sure where the ocean started or …
So we had three nights before we finished. We paddled after dark for a little ways and we noticed there was bioluminescence in the water. So with every pedal stroke, we would disturb these little micro organisms that would light up like fluorescent green in the water. And at that point, we all knew that we were quite close – because the water was salty by that point.
But a couple things started to happen. You know, the Amazon rivers really muddy because there’s so much sediment in it. And as we were getting close to the ocean, the watercolor turned this magnificent blue color – because there was enough ocean water mixing in with the river water to change the color.
And we did know that we had made it because we got to a point where we couldn’t see any more land except one little spot off to our right which was where we planning to camp that night. And we had also program into Midge’s GPS a little ending point. So before we went, we looked at the map and found the river right bank and the river left bank at the mouth of the Amazon, and drew a line between them to find the farthest point we would have to go to say that we actually fell into the ocean.
So we were in what 100% felt like the ocean for about a day and a half. But then we eventually passed our little GPS point and knew we could do it. The river – the ocean, I guess – was so rough at that point that we all looked at each other and said, “Yay!”
But we couldn’t even high-five because we were worried about tipping over and swimming. And the tide was going out. So we thought we would just be carried off into the Atlantic if we had swam. And so we looked at each other said, “Well done mate!” And then start paddling into shore.
How many days was this total?
Okay, so 148 days in, you’ve finally done this thing. You’ve probably spent a few years planning this thing out and all of that. When you finally finished it, and you knew you’d done it – after all the planning, all the things you’ve gone through down the river, what did it feel like?
It felt like “Oh shit! What are we going to do tomorrow?”
And that is kind of true. It felt really good for about a half an hour. And then we all did – we were sitting on this perfect white sand beach and watching a perfect sunset – and we just sort of had this realization that for the last five months there had been absolutely no question of what we were going to do the next day: get up, eat breakfast, go kayaking,
We had a really simple life. We had a really clear purpose. And we all got really into that rhythm. And finishing – even though we were in a very remote place; there was no other people – but it threw us back into a reality of “Oh damn, what are we going to do tomorrow?”
And for Don and I that also meant we had the feeling that that meant “What are we going to do for the rest of our lives?” Because we don’t have our kayaking business anymore. We’re without aim, without purpose. We gotta figure this out.
I mean I thought maybe we would figure it out in the five months while we were kayaking. But we had to failed to do that. So it was 30 minutes of awesome feeling we accomplished this goal. And then pretty quickly said, “Oh, man, I wish we could still go kayaking tomorrow.”
So what did you do? I hear people talk about this a lot. They accomplished some amazing goal. And then that singular focus you’re talking about that, what am I doing the next day? It’s like, ‘Well, that’s pretty easy. You’re going to do the same thing you did before.” You’re going to keep going towards that goal.
And then you reach it.
And then there’s this empty space right? It’s a vacuum almost. How did you navigate through that? And how long did it take? And what were some of the steps? And where’d you end up?
Midge went home to London and resumed his computer programming, which is what he really loves to do. As far as I know he was pretty happy to go back to his old life having accomplished this goal.
And Don and I went back to Colorado and – because we’d been working in Ecuador during the winters for so long – we hadn’t had a winter, a real winter, for a long time. So we went to Aspen, rented an apartment, and got jobs in the ski industry and just had a winter of skiing.
And then we both decided that we missed kayak guiding and that lifestyle. So we started a new adventure kayak travel company. And we ran that for a couple years. And then we actually ended up buying Small World Adventures back in 2016. And some ironies – because when I got fired from the company, I thought, well, this might be a perfect transition point in our lives, because we had only been “kayakers.”
And even though we ran our own business, people were always asking us, when would we settle down and get “real jobs”, be serious, and grow up and do all those things that normal Americans are supposed to do?
So Don did not share this feeling. But I thought, “hey, this could be our chance to springboard into all this stuff that we’re supposed to be doing.” And anyway, so I had that feeling as we left for the Amazon.
The guy who bought our company … he was an engineer for Apple. And he wanted to get out of normal American life, do something different, do something adventuresome, and escape from the rat race, so to speak. And so he did that for three years. Don and I tried to do our normal thing for three years.
And both of us realized that it wasn’t working out for either of us. He wasn’t happy owning the company. Don and I really missed it. And we decided we weren’t really cut out to be “normal Americans.” And so we ended up buying the business back in 2016. And now we are back running that.
So you’re, you’re back. Before you go back to the kayaking adventure business. You’re doing life like “normal Americans.” What was going on? How crazy were you going, and why?
We actually never really succeeded in being normal Americans, because Don was working for the Aspen ski company. I was working for a ski shop. And I guess we were being normal ski bums in Aspen and trying to ski as much as possible. I was working on my book. And we were mainly doing a lot of brainstorming about how we would enter normal American life, but we actually never succeeded in entering it.
And everything that we thought – maybe I could be a nurse, or a physical therapist or something that still involves athleticism – but on a different scale. But neither of us thought of anything that we were really passionate about. We were just thinking of things that we could deal with – that we could live with doing. And we both realized, well, we’re going to hate it if we’re not passionate about it. And we don’t need to make ourselves miserable to try to find whatever social acceptance that we feel like we’re lacking.
And so it was kind of a good downtime for us. I mean, honestly, me mainly, I don’t think Don feels a lot of pressure to conform. So that’s good for him. But it was good for me to talk myself off the ledge of trying to conform.
We know you can’t do normal. Normal is just not something you can do at all. You get back to your normal – which is everybody else’s like wild dream. And you’ve been doing that ever since – right? – since the trip. You guys are running the kayaking journeys and all of that?
That’s right. We’re still running Small World Adventures down in Ecuador in the winters, and some U.S. based trips like Middle Fork Salmon and Grand Canyon in the US. And now, as of March 3rd, I’m also a published author, which is exciting for me – because I worked almost seven years on writing the book and getting it published, which was an adventure of a whole different time for me.
Do you want to talk about that adventure just a little bit?
So I had always enjoyed writing. But I had always written really short things like articles for kayaking magazines, or history papers in school and stuff like that. And when we left for the Amazon, though, I thought, “Oh, if we actually succeed in doing this, this would be something worth writing a book about.”
So I kept notes the whole trip, and then I got back and I kind of thought, as I often do, like, “Oh how hard can it be? I’m just gonna sit down and write a book this afternoon.” And then seven years later I actually finished. Me – I was totally clueless going in and had no idea what a literary agent was, and that you needed one if you wanted to get a publisher, and how that whole world worked.
And all just the organizational skills needed to write a book … I was unprepared for that. And I did a lot of trial by fire learning in the early days. But for some reason, I just decided it really was something I wanted to do. And so I persevered, but really faced tons of rejections – first from literary agents. And then when I finally got one, about 18 months of rejection letters from publishers, and then ended up switching literary agents, and finally got a publisher about one year ago. And then since then, it’s been doing edits and other things like that with the publisher.
And it’s been very hard, but also fun and rewarding and I’ve learned a lot. Like the most annoying thing about book publishing is now that it’s out – well, coronavirus is the most annoying thing about the book publishing right now – but take that out of it.
The most annoying thing is now I’m finally like “Yes, I have my book. It’s finished. This is so awesome.” And everyone “Oh, have you started working on your second book yet?” I’m like, “No, can I just enjoy the first book? Like please let me revel in this!”
What was your biggest challenge in writing the book, or maybe the top two or three?
I’m really bad about being open about my introspection and stuff. Early drafts of the book are like, “well, we woke up and we went kayaking, and it was kind of hard and yay.” And all the feedback early on was, “This is nice, but no one’s gonna read it, and no one’s gonna care unless you talk about yourself, talk about fear of not being normal, and not having a retirement account”, and all these sorts of things. And so really putting myself in the book was the hardest thing for me. But I got there eventually.
So being vulnerable?
And expressing that?
Yeah, so this is a very telling story. My mom gave me a card for my birthday or something right when we got back from the Amazon. And it said, “Here’s all the things I like about you. And you know, a Hallmark card, pre-made. And there’s all these attributes and vulnerable was one of them. And I marched into her house and I made her cross that one off before I would accept the card!
So what is it about being vulnerable that get … I mean, you’re somebody that can do some of the most challenging whitewater in the world. So facing fear is not a big deal for you. Well, it’s a deal, but you do it. So is this a different kind of fears? What’s underneath it?
Definitely a different kind of fear. And I think – part of what I talked about in the book too, is I am really short and skinny and a woman – and so a lot of my life growing up, I always wanted to do what the boys were doing and do a lot of sports.
And I heard a lot of “You can’t play volleyball, you’re too short. You can’t go skateboarding, you’re a girl. You can’t … “ the list just goes on and on. And so I, from an early age, just decided I’m going to prove all these people wrong. I’m not going to listen to them. I’m not going to get my feelings hurt when they say this kind of stuff to me, and I’m Just gonna shut out everything and prove everybody wrong.
And I think, from a young age, somehow being vulnerable was contrary to my goals to prove everyone wrong If I was vulnerable, I would start listening to them and start to feel weak, or short, or whatever it was they were accusing me of being. And so I closed that door of my emotional spectrum.
So how’s that served you in the long run? How’s that working out for you?
That’s a good question. Well, in some respects, it worked out well because I was able to not listen to those people. I think I’m pretty lucky in the sense that, when Midge asked if I would come with him to connect the Amazon, I never had a second of thinking, “Oh, I wonder if I can do it?” It was just “Yes, I can do it.” And I knew I could do it. And I always know that I can do everything, even though I’m quite often wrong.
And it turns out I can’t do everything. But I go into it with an attitude of “Yeah, I can do it.” And so I think in that sense it served me well. But in another sense that I realized recently – is it kind of deadened the highs and the lows of my emotional spectrum. And I kept a very even keel. I wouldn’t let people bother me – what they were saying.
But then on the other side of that spectrum is – I never got really excited about anything, either. And when people told me “good job”, I just be as equally like, “Oh, yeah, whatever” as when people told me I couldn’t do something – “Oh, yeah, whatever.”
And so that deadened my emotions to a certain extent. And I realized that a few years ago – and I’ve been trying to, and it was included with this book – trying to work through that so I will have more lows, but I also have more highs
And maybe be more in touch with your emotional world?
Right, which I don’t love doing. But I’m giving it a try.
So what’s working for you? What is working out in being able to soften that edge and to just lean into it, and not be like “it’s a thing”? Know what I mean?
Well you know, what’s funny about that is – somewhere through my book writing journey – some friend told me to look up Brenee Brown. I had not heard of her. But I looked her up. And when I first saw her website, I was like, “Oh, what does Brenee Brown have to offer me? She’s just some pop culture “something” I didn’t even look at it long enough to figure out what she really was doing.
But then for some reason, a little while later, I watched her TED talk about vulnerability. And I loved how she presented it because she was exactly like me saying “Vulnerability is for the birds. This is horrible. Only weak people do it.”
But then just the way she came about on her journey, it was like, “No, it’s not for weak people. It’s for strong people.” And I loved her TED Talk. And so that was pretty helpful for me in terms of seeing it differently than I had my entire life.
Yeah, I think it’s going all right for me so far. I mean, I’m still pretty reserved or closed off when it comes to emotional stuff, but I’m trying to get better at it
Good on you! I used to have the same issue; I still do to a certain degree. We’re both in the head triad of the Enneagram. So we often go up into our heads, and it can be hard to access that emotional world. We just can close it off. Other types cannot.
I guess I would say real quickly – I think that shutting off emotions has actually kind of helped me in kayaking, because I don’t get really overly excited or really overly fearful. I can think about what I’m feeling and talk about it in my head to myself like “okay, here’s what you need to do.”
If I’m really actually feeling scared like I won’t let myself run a rapid when I’m feeling true fear because I’m like, “no, that could trigger the panic response and we don’t want that.” So I have to talk myself into a place where it’s like “Oh yeah, being nervous is okay, but actually feeling fear – if that’s how you feel right now – no, you have to walk the rapid.”
And I can get away from this fear feeling to just feel like focus, nervous feeling. So I think in being able to control, or not letting emotion overcome me very easily – I think it’s helped in kayaking
To be able to manage it?
As a kid, can we move to your formative years? How big is your family and where are you in the lineup of kids? And where’d you grow up?
There’s me and my sister. I have one younger sister, and she’s three years younger. And and we grew up in Aspen, Colorado.
An outdoor recreation town. Right from the get go you’re exposed to recreation – skiing, climbing, the whole ski town quiver of sports. So your mom’s shuttling you to the ski slope?
Yeah, and I think it was a really nice place to grow up. My parents could just put us on the bus to the ski hill, and we’d come home six or seven hours later. They didn’t have to worry about us too much. And a lot of freedom as a kid because it was a small town, and they would let us ride our bikes to town, or take the bus to go climbing or skiing or whatever we wanted to do. I think it taught me to be more independent from an early age …
Were your parents pretty supportive of you going in kind of adventuring?
Yeah, they definitely were. They were both ski bums; that’s how they ended up moving to Aspen. And they traveled around the U.S. a lot – pursuing skiing for them. But they understood, and I was pretty lucky. I didn’t get much – or really any – pressure from them to get a normal job.
They did force me to go to college. But beyond that they were always very supportive of what I wanted to do. And they’ve kind of said, “As long as you’re happy and you can support yourself, you can do whatever you want.”
Quick question, why did you study in college?
I got my bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in environmental history, which I found – in my “normal society soul searching – that those things didn’t set me up for a whole lot.
So this is kind of interesting. You didn’t really want to go to college, but you got a Masters?
Yeah, I didn’t want to go to college because I went to Aspen High School, which was half a mile away from Aspen Highlands ski area where my dad had been a ski patroller. And I just wanted to go be a ski patroller.
So in my mind, like, “What do I need a college education for?” But started at Skidmore College because I figured, if my parents are going to force me to go, I’d go to the farthest away college that would take me to get back at them. But then I really missed skiing and outdoor things, so I transferred to Montana State. And that’s where I finished.
But then oddly enough – and the professor’s there, I just connected with them a lot more because they also went skiing and mountain biking and kayaking – but then they also have this academic career. And to me it was a cool balance to see both.
And I got really into school when I was at Montana State. And then right after I graduated, I started working at Small World Adventures in Ecuador. And I was kind of in a – you know, that was my early 20s – and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And one of my professors at Bozeman just said, You’ll you should apply to graduate schools and see what happens.
Well, I took a few years off. And then I decided I would try to go get a PhD and become a history professor, because in my mind, I was like, “Oh, they get summers off. They get a month at Christmas. This is like the perfect real job to have with tons of vacation time.”
And then I started my master’s and realized that all my professors worked so hard in all of their free time – because they were trying to publish books and get tenure. And it really wasn’t this glorious job that I had envisioned it to be where you teach for a few hours a day and get six months of vacation a year.
And so I stopped after the masters and went back to the kayaking.
So let’s get into the kayaking part. When did you first go kayaking? How old were you?
19 – the first time I kayaked. And after graduating from high school, I was walking around Aspen looking for a landscaping job because I wanted to work outside. And that was the only outside job that I could think of at that time. And I ran into a middle school track coach of mine who was a raft guide in the summer.
And he was ‘Don’t be a landscaper; you should come be a raft guide.” And so I got a job as a raft guide, which was probably a lot more fun than being a landscaper. And all the other raft guides went kayaking afterwards, so I started going with them.
So was there a moment when you were kayaking when you went “Oh, I really like this. I’ve gotta do this at a higher level?
Umm, I didn’t quite have that moment. I really sucked at kayaking when I started. These guys would let me go with them. But they weren’t really interested in teaching me anything – like how to roll.
So we would just go to a class 3 stretch, and I would swim all the time. And I found it really frustrating. I had never really been bad at something before, so that was really irritating to me. And some of them had been kayaking six or seven years. And I remember thinking like, ‘I don’t know if I can wait six or seven years to be good at this. This is so frustrating, this sport.”
But after I learned to roll, life got a lot better. And the time when I knew that I wanted to spend more time kayaking – I think we have a mutual friend: Adam majors – but I met him at Montana State. And he asked me to go kayaking, to skip fall semester and go kayaking in Nepal with him. And I still suck at kayaking in that point. But I was like, “Oh, sure. That sounds good.” And so I went.
And actually it was a really hard trip for me because I was always running rivers that were over my head, and frustrating, and I couldn’t keep up with Adam. And I have a lot of difficult or bad memories from the trip. But I also remember thinking somehow “this is what I want my life to be like, I just have to get better kayaking so it doesn’t suck so much.”
Okay, so you just stayed with it, so that you wouldn’t suck as much at it.
Exactly, yeah. And then I started working in Ecuador. And Don Beveridge and Larry Vermeerion were the two owners of small world at that time. And they were both very good kayaking mentors. And I got a lot better pretty quickly with them and just thought it was so cool kayaking the rivers in Ecuador and exploring new stuff. And that’s when everything really started to click.
When you’re kayaking do you feel like – let’s see if I can find the right words – I find that kayaking is like a dance with water. There is this sensual feeling once you know your boat, and how to work it, and you can read water and all of that. There’s this incredible experience that comes out of it – where it’s almost like otherworldly.
Do you experience that? And if so, can you describe that?
On a good day, yes. And it really is an amazing feeling when you feel like you’re working with the river, and you can anticipate a couple seconds before it happens when something’s gonna happen – if a wave is gonna push you to the left or to the right, or you need to jump over a hole. And you feel like you’re just moving fast and floating on the water and everything’s going well, it can be a really amazing feeling.
But the flip side of that is there’s also those days where you feel like, “Man, everything I’m doing, I just feel like I’m fighting the river.” And “everything I do, the river counteracts my move.”
And yeah, I think one thing I like about kayaking is the river is so dynamic, and you are so dynamic, and getting the two to merge can be quite difficult. But when it actually happens the feeling is so good that it, you know, always keeps you wanting more
Hmmm. Let’s go onto some other questions. A North Star Do you feel like you have a North Star in your life that helps guide it in your life decisions, and in how you move through life? And, if you do, what does that North Star look like? How do you know when you’re on it?
Maybe? I don’t know if this is exactly going to answer your question, but always being open for new experiences has served me quite well. I am not really like a grandiose idea haver myself. Like I love coming up with ideas and challenges, but kayaking the entire Amazon wasn’t my idea. I just said “yes” to Mitch who asked me to go with him.
And that’s kind of been a pattern for me. The raft guiding job, like “just be a raft guide” and I said “yes,” and that steered the direction of my life. “Come kayaking Nepal with me.” I had never left North America before. But I just said “yes”, and that changed the direction of my life too.
And when I feel bad, like I’m not living my best life, is when things are static, or maybe mundane, and I’m not challenging myself. I’m not getting a little out of my comfort zone.
And I don’t just mean in whitewater kayaking. It can be in anything like writing the book was definitely out of my comfort zone. But I just kind of dove into that project. And so when I’m constantly looking for the new and the unknown, and I feel ready to say “yes” is when I feel the best.
So it’s more about opportunities showing up and then you deciding whether to say “yes” or “no” to it?
Yeah. And I do like to create my own opportunities, too. I guess I shouldn’t sell myself too short on that. But some of my biggest life things, and events that have directed the course of my life the most, weren’t my ideas. It’s just things I said “yes” to.
Do you go bonkers when you have to stay in one place too long?
A little bit. I always find ways to deal with it. But two summers ago I turned 40. And I always try to do some kayaking adventure on my birthday. But we were kind of stuck in Colorado, and Colorado didn’t have any water. And so I knew I couldn’t do a kayaking adventure and was getting a little restless.
And so I decided that I would run 40 miles for my 40th birthday. I’m not really a runner, so that was also a different challenge. And so I definitely – yes, I get restless. And I think of maybe stupid ideas when I’m stuck in one place too long – like running 40 miles.
What does hell look like to you?
Hell looks like a cubicle with one week vacation every year.
When are you in your bliss?
When I’m kayaking a hard river and things are going well, and I have that feeling that you were talking about – the “dance with the river.”
Where do you feel that dance in you? What is the sensation? What informs you that you’re in the dance?
I just have the feeling like I’m really working with the river, and we’re not fighting. We’re in harmony.
Something I’ve noticed – you push things a lot, kind of challenge them. And then you also lean into this harmony piece once in a while. It’s interesting. That would be reflective of that 8 wing of yours – the “Challenger.” Just sayin’ …
From all of this, what are your three biggest life lessons?
From the Amazon trip?
The Amazon trip, and also this lifestyle- this non-normal lifestyle that you’ve pursued.
Well, the lifestyle aspect, I really like my lifestyle. And I feel quite happy, which I think is more than maybe a lot of Americans can say these days. But I do also feel a pressure – and it’s both external and internal to conform a bit more in it. Like it stresses me out that I don’t have a retirement fund. And so I grapple with that a lot.
But one thing I learned from the Amazon in life after the Amazon is that one thing that I really want to work on is just being comfortable with my life – because it does make me happy. And who cares if I’m living up to social expectations or not. So yeah, there’s one life lesson – is to try to let societal expectations get to me as much as they do.
Another life lesson is that the little things really don’t matter. You know, some of my worst times on the Amazon was when I was dwelling on little things like Midge not paddling fast enough. And I write about this in the book.
But during my darkest time, I did luckily have a really immature temper tantrum and tried to beat up a floating piece of trash with my kayak paddle and ended up tipping over out of my sea kayak and swimming. And that ridiculousness really grounded me and made me realize having the opportunity to kayak the Amazon, and I’m seeing amazing things like dolphins and awesome sunsets every day – like who really cares how fast we’re paddling.
like this little shift in my brain made everything a million times better. So keeping perspective is second life lesson, I guess.
And what’s the third one? Oh, we’ll go back to Bernie Brown. And I’ll say I can keep on working on trying to be more vulnerable because it’s okay to be that way.
Expand on that a little bit. Be vulnerable about that.
Oh boy. Try to not be so closed off. And, you know, some of the criticisms I’ve gotten from close friends is I don’t give other people compliments enough, and I don’t open up enough. You know, people will ask “How was the Amazon?” and I’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, I was fine. Thanks for asking. Let’s move on.”
So just try to be more in tune that other people want to hear compliments, other people want me to ask them questions about their lives. And when people ask me questions about mine, I should give them honest answers and not just try to brush things aside to not have to talk about potentially difficult conversations.
Okay, here’s another question. If you could do it again, and let’s choose the Amazon trip for this, what would you do differently?
I honestly wouldn’t go down the Amazon again, because I do feel like luck had a big part of the reason that all three of us survived. But luck.
I think, you know, under different circumstances, in an alternate universe, we could have had a different outcome. I don’t want to tempt fate like that again. But in terms of a long trip like that, again, I would do a better job of mentally preparing myself before the trip. Like I was quite physically fit before the Amazon, because kayaking was what I did for a job, and I was kayaking every single day. So the physical aspect was wasn’t a problem at all.
But the mental aspects, and again just being patient with Midge, not being so hung up on my own time schedule – because who even cares about a time schedule when you’re in the wilderness and you’re gonna be there for the next five or six months anyway – having a bit more of a relaxed mental and emotional state going into it.
Okay, next question. If you could write a letter back to yourself when you were, say 20 years old or 18 years old, what advice would you give yourself?
Well, this is gonna totally counteract my life lesson number one. But I would tell myself to develop more skills at an early age for a potential second career besides kayak guiding. Because one problem I feel right now is I don’t have many other skills. So part of my problem in this time off when I was trying to figure out what I would do next, I realized that my honest options were pretty limited.
And not that I wouldn’t necessarily jump to a different career right now if I had skills, but I wish I had the option open. I wish I had an engineering degree or something that had more practical applications, whether I used it or not.
Next one, what books have influenced you the most? And why?
Yes, I should have been more prepared for this question, because I knew you were going to ask it. But I’m not very prepared on the adventure side of things. Although I remember Touching the Void by Joe Simpson was one of the first adventure books I read that I thought was really well written. And I told myself – this was a long time before I even thought about writing my own book – I told myself if I ever read a book, I want to make sure that it’s well written.
Because you read a lot of adventure stories that maybe they don’t have enough introspection or enough about the person but then they read it and they just fall flat, because it’s just pure account of whatever adventure it was. And no matter how cool or badass the adventure was, if there’s not good storytelling or good personal story, it’s just not that enjoyable to read.
So I love Joe Simpson for his writing, and also his story is really amazing too – a feat of human endurance and perseverance.
A non adventure writer. I really love is Wallace Stegner and I love reading his books, and find him very inspirational in his writing style.
What book of his do you like a lot, specifically?
I’ve liked everyone that I’ve read. But The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Angle of Repose are my two favorites.
Other authors and books?
I also really like Peter Heller. I got introduced to him by reading Dog Stars, which is a fictional book. But he also wrote an account of the same Tsangpo expedition, which I can’t remember the name of it right now. But also really like his writing style. And yes, most of the people I’m naming, I’m naming them for their writing style, not necessarily their stories.
There’s a book I might recommend. It’s about a woman adventure, who was also one of the most incredible authors I’ve ever read. It’s called West with the Night.
And to be doing all of that in a very different time in our world to where women weren’t pilots.
And growing up with lions and tigers around them. Who are some of the people you most admire and why? Any genre – doesn’t have to be adventure.
Well, she’s not an author. But one person is Maggy Hurchalla, who is Janet Reno sister actually. And she now is 78 and is still a whitewater kayaker, and still loves to kayak class 3. And she’s also a badass environmentalist fighting against huge billionaires and corporations. She’s standing up against them and being fearless, and she is actually the recipient of a slap suit a strategic lawsuit against public participation.
She lost the initial hearing and was found to we four and a $4.5 million to this company. And her and her husband are at a time in their lives where it’s not ideal to lose everything. You know, it’s never ideal. But when you’re older and you want to retire, you don’t want to contemplate losing every penny that you own. And she’s still … the company said she didn’t have to pay them anything if she apologized to the company. And she said, “No, that’s against my morals. I’m not going to apologize to you.”
And she’s still fighting them. And I love her fearless aspect and the fact that she loves kayaking because it takes her out of her pretty stressful daily life, just allows her a really an escape that she loves.
What are the values that matter to you most?
Sticking to your morals. And I’m a vegan for animal rights reasons. And people often give me a hard time because I – for example, when we would get to a village in Brazil and they would offer me non-vegan food – I wouldn’t eat it. And it’s “Don’t you feel bad?” And I do really feel bad, but I feel worse for the animals – so I have to stick to it.
And so having morals and sticking to them is really important to me. Being honest is really important to me. And yeah, living your best life to try to make you happy, which sounds really selfish, but it makes you a lot better person for everyone that you interact with, and will allow you to do a lot more good for the world if you start with you and make yourself happy first.
Is vulnerability of value to you now?
I guess it probably should be a top value. It is a value, yes. But it was not in my top three.
I guess I still have some work to go, huh? Some work to do.
If you could have been born in another time, past or future, where and when would it be? And why? What would you be doing there? What would your life be like?
Well, luckily one of our kayaking clients who has come to Ecuador and the Grand Canyon loves to ask this question. So I’ve thought about it a fair amount. And my answer is really weird.
I would go back to the time of the Depression in the American West. And my reason is – I’m sure I wouldn’t like it nearly as much as my brain thinks I would when it really was real life survival – but I love the feeling on the Amazon or any other expedition, but the Amazon is the longest I felt this, where your only worry is survival.
We didn’t care who was emailing us, or what time we had to get to dinner, or none of the real world problems even entered our consciousness. And I really enjoy that way of feeling or that way of living. And obviously if I was really not doing well and the Depression and starving to death, I wouldn’t like it as much.
But my grandparents lived through the Depression and their stories of coming together with their community – everybody sharing, everybody fighting for the survival of themselves in the community – it’s maybe not a very pleasant way of living, but it’s a very simple way of living that I have appreciated. In my own expeditions, which I know is completely different because it’s self imposed, and I have the hope that I’m returning to normal society when it’s all over. But I think I’d still be willing to give it a try in the Depression
So what I’m hearing is simplicity, clarity of purpose.
Yep. And a bit of suffering
A bit of suffering and fighting the big battle it sounds like too.
I’m curious about this battle thing, this sort of ready to go to task, go down on the mat when it matters.
Well, life is a struggle, right?
Suffering, it sounds very Buddhist.
When I’m most bummed out is when I’m worrying about things like “Oh Don, you know, Small World didn’t put up an Instagram post today.” And I hate worrying about all the things that we are forced to worry about in society now. And boiling it down to the absolute necessities is a much more sort of pure way of living for my brain
Purity. There’s a word that comes up a bit. That sounds like a value to you: purity.
Yeah, I guess you could call it that.
We may have covered this, but I’m might ask it again. Describe your relationship with risk. Do you get scared? If so what do you do?
I like a certain element of risk because it also presents itself as a challenge to me. And obviously you don’t have to have risk to life to have challenge. But I do get scared.
But like I was saying earlier, if I’m feeling truly scared at the top of a rapid or a climb or whatever it is, then I know I’m not ready to go down that rapid, or to do that climb, or to face whatever challenge it is. Because you can’t start from a place of fear and hope to have success, because your mind will be … you know, fear really does overtake people’s thinking and it makes you think and act differently than you probably would if you weren’t scared.
And so, to me, I really enjoy the mental challenge of compartmentalizing the fear. You asked earlier, and I didn’t quite address like having close calls on the river and how do you deal with that. And I think it’s really important to learn whatever lessons you can learn from close calls that you have on the river – like what mistakes did I make to put me in this position? How can I avoid this in the future?
But then when you get on the river next time, if all you can think about is “Oh, what if that happens again?”, then you shouldn’t go because you’re not in a mental place to deal with the challenges you’re gonna face. And kayaking is very physical, but obviously it’s very mental too. And I get equal rewards of overcoming the physical challenges as a mental challenges
You are in the mental triad. I wonder if there are times when you wonder if you think too much, and that the best move would be to somehow find a way to get out of your head and into your body more? I don’t know if that makes sense because you are in your body well, and you’re doing some amazing things.
I’m sure that there have been cases where that has happened. You know, when I get to a rapid I know typically within the first 10 seconds if I’m going to run it or not. You know I’m not one to stand around and think about something over and over and over again. So I don’t feel like I get trapped in my head too much. And yeah, I guess I’d have to think about that a little bit more. But my first thought is, I don’t think that’s a big problem, but I’ll think about it.
What are your spiritual beliefs? Does it influence your journey?
I don’t have a religious affiliation. But for me, going into the mountains or the rivers is sort of akin to a spiritual experience. If I’m having a really good time in life or a really bad time in life, where do I want to go – is to the river. And it is my happy place, my calm place. Yeah, I get my spiritual illness out of being in nature.
And especially on the river?
Especially on the river.
Have you had any near death experiences? And if so, can you describe it and maybe a takeaway from it?
I’ve had a couple. You know it’s always hard to say when you don’t die, like how close to death, but I actually come to dying. But the one that sticks with me the most, and that I actually learned the most from was kayaking on the river in California. And I was with Don and his brother, and it was just gonna be the three of us.
And I was feeling quite sick. I later found out that I had mono, but I didn’t know that yet. And I was just feeling really rundown and bad. But I decided to go on this class 5 river trip anyways, because I thought it would be unsafe to just leave Don and his brother – just a group of two. So I sucked it up and went.
And we got to a really big rapid and I told the guys I was just gonna walk because I wasn’t feeling good. But then also, without telling them, I decided to run the approach to get to a further-down Eddie to make the walk shorter.
And so I just get in boat – and they’re not ready because I didn’t tell them I was gonna do this – and I messed up the approach and I swam. And so I go swimming past my last chance eddy that I was going to catch and portage, and swam through this class 5+ rapid.
And Don and his brother were both on shore because, like I said, I didn’t tell them I was gonna run the approach. And so I’m just totally on my own. And this class 5+ rapid led into like a two-mile long series of class 4 and 5 rapids. And I definitely had a moment where I just thought, “okay, no one is going to help you now. You’re either going to drown, or you have to do something to save yourself.
And there was a big boulder in the middle of the river. And I saw it and like I knew I couldn’t catch the eddies on the shore because the current was just too strong, and the rapid was too continuous. But I saw this boulder and swam at it as hard as I could and ended up beaching myself on the boulder.
But this was after swimming a class 5+ rapid and probably being in the water a little over a minute. And I don’t think that I came close to dying on that experience. But it was very easy to imagine a scenario where I didn’t get on that folder and I did die.
And that taught me a lot about don’t just stupidly try to tough it out when you’re talking about class 5 whitewater – something that has real consequences when you make a mistake. And since that trip I’ve been much better about making smart decisions even if I’m not actually sick. If I’m just mentally not feeling it, I really have an easy time now walking away. Whereas before I didn’t, because I felt like “Oh, if you don’t go you’re not really a class 5 kayaker” or ‘if you don’t want run this route, but people will think you suck.”
And I have been able to really easily – after this experience – really easily push all that noise out of my head and make smarter decisions, which I’m thankful for.
Somebody asked here about plants … Nikki asked about plants. Did you know the plants going into there? Did you eat plants along the way? Or were you mostly just getting your food at villages and settlements along the way?
So I did like that question because the one plant that we did study up on before the trip was the coca plant – and for the sole purpose of not wanting to stumble upon cocaine-growing operations and get in trouble with the drug people. So we really knew what the coca plants look like, and we were sure to not stop when we saw any.
But we didn’t eat any plans on the way. We brought dehydrated meals for the first 50 days of the trip, and we’d have one for breakfast and one for dinner. And then after 50 days, I kept eating a lot of dehydrated meals because of being vegan and there wasn’t a ton of vegan options.
But the boys ate a lot of fish. And for me, whenever I could find in villages, beans and rice or vegetables, I would eat that. But whenever there wasn’t other food available, I kept eating my dehydrated meals, which there’s only five vegan flavors. So I got pretty sick of them after awhile.
How’d you deal with the bugs while holding a paddle with both hands?
That was a good one too. So luckily on the river they weren’t that bad, and mainly because it was almost always windy. But in camp they were really bad. And the mosquitoes weren’t as bad as I thought they were going to be. But the sand flies were really, really horrible. And the sand flies would go away at night.
But every daylight hour they were out. And we really had to train ourselves to get up and go to the bathroom in the morning before the sun came up, before the sand flies came out. Because otherwise every single piece of exposed skin – you would have thousands of bites on. That was unpleasant.
Did you ever worry about piranhas, crocodiles or anacondas?
There’s no crocodiles. They have cayman on the Amazon River, and we weren’t too worried about them. Piranhas, we were worried about. But every time we get to a village and ask if we could bathe in the river, or if the piranhas would eat us, the people in the village would laugh at us and tell us we had been watching too many gringo movies about piranha attacks, and they don’t really do that. And so we actually never saw a single piranha. We never got attacked by one.
But after our piranha conversations with people in the village, they would almost always warn us about sting rays; I guess that’s the biggest thing they worry about in the river. And they would say you shuffle your feet when you walk in, and splash around with your hands to warn them that you’re coming. And anacondas – we saw a little baby one, one time, but that was it.
And the Amazon River is really quite populated. And once we hit the flat water, we never went a full day without seeing at least one village and a lot of boat traffic. And I think most of the wild animals that are still left are really scared of people and do a good job of hiding. So once we got out of the whitewater, and out of those canyons, we didn’t really see a whole lot of wildlife besides birds and fish other than piranhas.
Here’s another one from Glendle … what is the weirdest thing you ate on the trip?
Well, that’s not so good for me because I’m vegan, so I don’t eat that much weird stuff. But the boys ate a fish called arapaima when we were there. And the arapaima fish, it’s a huge fish in the Amazon River – like bigger or as big as a human. And they have scales like – almost like armored plates like armadillo gales. And the boys ate that one time.
But that was it. We didn’t eat super weird stuff. You know like in Ecuador they eat guinea pig and they eat grubs. But the guys weren’t really seeking out any of those adventuresome food kind of things. They just wanted some calories and get it over with.
So your friend Adam majors asked, Will you go kayaking in Nepal with him? But it sounds like you already have …
Been there done that Adam.
And then a serious question he asked is did you suffer? Where, and how hard?
There was a lot of physical suffering, but we already kind of enjoy that part of it. Then, you know, the whitewater was physically demanding. We were kayaking 8 to 10 hours a day when we were in the whitewater canyons.
And we had all our stuff in our boat. So they weighed probably 70 or 80 pounds. And we did have to do some portages where you’re trying to push these really heavy kayaks up and over giant boulders, and there’s definitely physical suffering in that regard. But that part like I didn’t mind so much.
My most painful suffering was we were taking doxycycline for malaria prevention, and it gives you a sensitivity to the sun. And I think that the doctors didn’t believe us when we said we would be in the sun every minute that the sun was up, because they said “you’ll be fine if you just use sunscreen.”
But our fingernails started getting irradiated, and I think it was from the sun bouncing off the water. But when you hit your fingernail with a hammer, and it falls off – that started happening. But I don’t know if irradiation was the true cause, but that’s the theory we came up with. And so our fingernails started separating from our skin and it was insanely painful. And if you snagged your fingernail on your shirt or something, it really was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced. So that was suffer-full.
But my worst suffering was two weeks of mental suffering when I lost my perspective, and I was letting Midge’s pace get to me so much. And I knew on some level how ridiculous it was that I was being so bothered by it. I wrote in my journal at one point like “this is the most miserable time of my life because my life is not my own. I have no control over my schedule, my actions anything,” And looking back on it now it’s like “Oh, it’s so stupid.”
Again, like I’ve already said, “Who cares how fast you paddle the Amazon? But for me the mental suffering was the worst until I finally got over myself and started doing enjoying it for what it was.
Okay, next question, what was the oddest experience you had? And what would you advise another woman who wants to do the same trip? This comes from a woman named Melissa,
The oddest experience. In Latin America I feel like people are not nearly as worried about time as we are in North America. And from my many years of working in Ecuador, and I’ve also spent a lot of time besides this trip in Peru, time is always a point of contention. Someone tells you they’ll be there at eight, you’re lucky if they show up at 10.
And when we were in Brazil, we had an experience in the tidal zone where we had waited out the top at a guy’s house. And then it was getting dark, and we wanted to leave our kayaks at his house. And we were going to motor to this other village to camp at. And first he didn’t want us to leave them. And again, he was worried that we were some weird assaltantes or trying to rob him or do something weird.
Finally, he let us leave the kayaks at his house. And we said, “we’ll be back at eight tomorrow morning.” And we showed up at 8:15, and he was really mad at us that we were late. And I have never ever had an experience like that in a South American country where I was the one getting in trouble for being late. So that was the oddest experience I had.
By 15 minutes no less … only 15 minutes.
I really would not advise another woman to do this trip. In 2016 there was a woman named Emma Kelty who was kayaking down on the Amazon by herself – the flat-water part. And she got murdered in Brazil by people that wanted to rob her.
And a big part of why we made it was just luck. And even though the majority of the people on the Amazon River are really nice and really kind, there’s a small percentage that are bad. And they really wreak a lot of havoc down there. So I don’t know that I would advise someone to do it again.
But just in terms of any woman that wants to do anything out of the ordinary, or anything challenging, or something they really have dreamed of doing, I would say, really try your best to not listen to the people who tell you that you will fail or that you can’t do it. And find people who support you and believe in you and cling to them, and do your best to ignore the others.
And just know that it’s going to be hard, that there’s going to be a lot of failures, but it’ll be worth it in the end. Whatever your energy you can pour into it, it’ll be worth it.
What was your favorite moment on the river?
I had a lot of favorite moments. I think my top few were seeing the pink Amazonian river dolphins, because I had read a lot about how their numbers were declining, and I didn’t know if we would see any. We actually saw them for the first time on our 30th day. And then we saw them every day, but four or five, till the ocean.
So that was pretty awesome – because you know when you were bored or feeling down or something – they’re such weird, ungainly and cute animals, that it was really fun to see them.
Olaying volleyball with the Peruvian ladies was definitely a highlight of the trip, because it was a fun way to bond with people there that otherwise I didn’t have a ton in common with. And it was cool. They always were a little bit hesitant to let me play. But once they did let me play, and saw that I was pretty good, they got really excited about having you on their team. I mean probably the volleyball playing was the highlight of the trip for me.
This comes from Michael. What did you learn about yourself and what’s forever changed?
Working on the being more vulnerable, working on being more patient, and not expecting other people to conform to my idea of the world or my schedule. Those two things I maybe knew about myself before, but those points were really driven home on the Amazon River.
And went into the Amazon trips, thinking that, or hoping that, it could be huge mother of all adventures that could satisfy my adventuresome drives and allow me to put this chapter of my life behind me.
But what maybe has forever changed is now I don’t have any desire to put this chapter of my life behind me. I just want to keep doing it for as long as I possibly can. And then when I’m no longer able, I’ll figure out the next step.
And that kind of leads into the last question. Gail asked “Why?” She just says why, but why this adventure? And I think you were touching on that in your previous answer.
So when Midge asked me to go with him, it was a flippant decision because it just sounded like a good opportunity. And I thought, “Why not?” So I just said yes.
But as things evolved in my life and like I said, I got fired – I got myself and Don fired from our company – I thought that it was gonna be my big last adventure to get this thing out of my system.
And I don’t know how much that was a reason for going or how much I just created it as meaning after the fact. But I like the unknown, I like adventure, didn’t ever cross my mind to say “no” once Mitch asked me. Kind of had meshed with all my life choices up to that point. So I figured “why not?”
She asks why, you say why not.
Okay, that’s it for the questions. Is there anything else you want to add to this? Talk about your book, your websites, all of that.
So the book is called Amazon Woman. It was released March 3, and you can buy it at your local bookstore if they’re still open. I know a lot of them are allowing curbside pickups for people that don’t want to go into the store.
You can also buy it on Indiebound org, which is a small form of Amazon I guess. And as a last resort, you can buy it on amazon.com.
My website is DarcyGaecther.com. Spelll my name, yeah, that’s a good point. Darcy – D-A-R-C-Y. And my last name is Gaecther, which is G-A-E-C-H-T-E-R. So DarcyGaecther.com.
And you’re going to talk about …
Yeah. Going back to the question of what advice would I give other women who wanted to do this trip? And I’m not sure if I answered that question well enough. But one big part for me of my book is this whole thing – and I think life inclusion, support of women – I think it’s getting a lot better every year in sports, in work in all aspects of life.
But I still know that it’s still hard to be a woman doing things that aren’t typical for women to do. And still every time I get to a hard river, without fail some guy will come up to me and say some comment, like “Are you sure you’re up for this?” or something like that.
And so a big part of my book is encouraging women or anyone else who’s been told “no” or who people are skeptical about their abilities, is it can be really hard to shut out all of that noise, because sometimes it can feel really constant.
But like I said, you just have to believe in yourself and find people who encourage you, or who – when you get to the put-in – they say, “Oh, it’s so awesome to see you here!” And really cling on to those people, those messages that they’re sending you, and do your best to shut out the negativity.
Because in the end, you’ll be so much happier if you do what you want to do, pursue your goals and don’t listen to the people who tell you no.
All right, anything else?
That is it!
All right! Darcy, thank you so much for your time and sharing your – both your inner world and your outer world with us.
Thanks for having me, Doug. And thanks for making me talk about the tough stuff.
This is Greene with WhatReallyMattersInterviews.com. And you can see this podcast and other interviews I’ve done with adventures, authors and amazing people at WhatReallyMattersInterviews.com.