We’re switching it up, folks!
When Sis and Terry were here, we went rafting with Raft Amazonia, a Kichwa-run rafting company in Tena. We had THE BEST TIME! However, in this case, I don’t think my words can do it justice. On the other hand, Terry’s a storyteller; his words make you feel our experience.
So, with that, I’m handing it over to him.
Oh, and to avoid confusion, my sister (Kelsey) and I call each other Sis. So, the “Sis” in this story is me (Whitney).
January 2, 2023 – 5:15 am
It’s dark outside, the sound of heavy rain pounding in the courtyard and the roll of the thunder. A humming fan blows warm air onto the bed; the excitement of the adventure ahead looms, and it is hard to sleep. We finally gear up around 7:00 am and head outside to meet the guides at the office. Shane and I ran to the ATM, and in true traveler fashion, my card would not pull out any cash. Shane came to the rescue, and we rallied with Sis and Kels. We whistled down a cab to avoid a walk in the heavy rain, finally making it to the rafting office. Confirming the trip was still on, we knew it would be fun if they were going out in this weather.
We were going to conquer the Jatunyacu and Napo Rivers in the heart of the Amazon Jungle by white water raft!
Thirty minutes in a van brought us to our put-in spot, and we got to know our newest teammate, Molly, a Peace Corp Ranger on assignment in Tena. She was to be on the right side with Kels in the middle and Shane at the bow. Gregory, our local guide, gave us a brief lesson on the river and how to operate as a team. He commanded the helm on the left side, with Sis in the middle and I at the bow. Hush conversations of how crazy it was we were going to whitewater raft the Jatunyacu in this downpour. The company does not simply stop for weather such as this.
This is the Amazon Rainforest.
We geared up, loaded in, and responded to the commands as we began to pick up speed. Within two minutes, the river had picked up, and we were in it. We rammed straight into a giant boulder; Gregory commanded, “Inside!” We obliged by quickly throwing ourselves inside the boat instead of sitting on the side. The boat spun, and the command, forward, was issued. Quick glances assured one another that we were all surprised at what was in store for us ahead. The river beckoned our challenge and pulled us into a giant wave faster than expected. Engulfing the boat, I was knocked into the row behind and scrambled back into position with the aid of Sis. Shane managed to block most of the Jatunyacu with his face and chest. The sheer force was enough to shake you to your core, but the look on his face was what shook me. Almost concern washed across his face; we shared a moment of understanding. The Jatunyacu was not to be taken lightly; she has forged valleys and mountains, fed many, and created life.
The battle proceeded as it relentlessly rained, and the river gave us just as much as we could handle. It was us versus the Jatunyacu: the two power couples, Peace Corp Molly, and our fearless captain, Gregory. We were a force rarely seen by the Jatunyacu, and we begged her to give us everything she had. Rain fell, and the current ran us into rocks spinning us in and out, wave after wave.
Eventually, we stopped for lunch at a local Kichwa village. We were happy to buy some locally handcrafted items from the people of the river. Their ancestors have lived with this river for over 500 years.
We refueled with tuna burritos, Oreos, and Doritos, then hit the river for the second leg of our journey.
We fought valiantly! As the bow slammed into boulders, meeting massive waves cresting the boat, Kelsey was sure we were sinking there for a second! The current pulled us away, and the river roared.
The command echoed through our ears as the battle slowly began to subside. The Jatunyacu had given us everything we asked of her and then some. We met her every step of the way with a fierce will to conquer this beautiful river.
A calming float showed the beautiful life found on the river. The Jatunyacu carried us to beautiful waterfalls, breathtaking views of its landscape, and all the wonderful vegetation it is home to. She showed us the beautiful orchids that resided across the giant cliff faces carved by the life of the Jatunyacu. There was beautiful wildlife, with species of birds and even a few insects that didn’t stop for the rain either. We saw caves, crevasses, and cutouts under the cliffs; we were being shown the true beauty of Rio Jatunyacu. There were incredible sights, vast forests, and a true glimpse of the life she provides for so many. She also showed us her scars. Countless riverbanks are plagued by illegal gold mining operations. The rich soils of the Jatunyacu River are being stripped, altering the water flow and damaging the ecosystem that has adapted to its environment over thousands of years. Piles of debris from the “in-and-out” operations are left stretching hundreds of meters long. It showed the reckless nature of so many of us as we wage war with nature.
We began our final stretch, transitioning from the Jatunyacu to the Napo River, which started to pick back up. We had just spoken about how tame the river had become, and we must be close to the end. Conversations about how we made it and had won were quickly silenced by Gregory’s fierce “Forward!” command. Looking ahead, we stared directly into the mouth of the Napo herself. “Forward! Forward, team!” Gregory demanded from the helm. The river raged and refused our conquest. Crashing down the rapids, our boat crested a wave, and staring above us was the biggest wave of the day. The Napo opened up a couple feet above our heads and welcomed us to experience a mere taste of her power. The boat was pulled backward, then a powerful wave engulfed the bow and threw us overboard.
Flipping over the right side, Gregory, Sis, and I took a dive while Kels, Shane, and Molly were dunked under the boat. Each of us began our own battle. The current held me down as I pushed to the surface. After breaching the surface and taking in my first breath of air, I took a quick scan to locate the group, who looked slightly disconcerted. I had just enough time to take a breath before being slammed by another wave. The current pulled me down, denying my kicks to the surface. Finally, I crested, and, to my surprise, I was right beside Kelsey. She was feet-downriver (as instructed) after fighting off her own waves. We drifted towards our accompanying kayak guide while Gregory climbed on top of the boat, attempting to flip it back upright. Shane was underneath the boat, trying to stay afloat, managing to get out only to run into the river bank.
On top of that, I watched my croc float away and realized I wasn’t even wearing the other one; it’s a vision that will not be soon forgotten. But, Sis had made her peace with the Napo, quickly positioning herself to dare the bravest rescue of all… the croc. Meanwhile, Gregory flipped the boat and began to haul us in one by one. Finally, after getting situated and accidentally knocking a few folks down along the way, we were all together. I looked around and exclaimed, “my crocs are gone!” I had had them for many years, and they were just… gone. “They’re both there,” said a voice from behind. Sis looked at me and pointed to the floor of the boat. I looked down to find ol’ leftie wedged into the foothold and righty floating in the middle. Apparently, Sis had saved the right one as it floated down the river. A daring and selfless act, the truest characteristics of a hero!
And Molly? She was just cruising and laughing at the mayhem she was witnessing.
It was a hard-fought battle that I now understand why we lost. The Amazon is wild and free; we must respect her force or we must face the consequences. We enjoyed some well-deserved ice cream with cheese, a nice hot shower, and the best burgers Tena has to offer.
It was a life-changing day that I will cherish forever.