When he set off to paddle the Amazon, Mark Kalch was chasing the adrenaline high of extreme adventure. He definitely found it but, along the way, he realised the stories of the people he met were the most fascinating things about his quest to paddle the seven longest rivers in Earth’s seven continents…
RSNG You spent 153 days paddling the entire 6,680km length of the Amazon – including the rapids – did they ever catch you out?
MARK KALCH, EXPEDITION PADDLER ‘We had almost finished navigating the whitewater of the upper Amazon, the Apurimac River, deep in these steep canyons with 6000m peaks rising above us. All of a sudden the river constricted itself to just a few metres wide between huge boulders. We couldn't believe it! Trying to back paddle to avoid it we were sucked in. It turned out to be a two-drop waterfall. By pure luck we stuck the first drop, but the second flipped us and we were swimming. All of us spent longer underwater than we had ever experienced. To the point where you just kind of think: “Oh well, this is it, the game is up.”
‘The raft was being recirculated in the maelstrom – I had lost a shoe and was in shock’
RSNG How did you get out of that one?
MK ‘All of a sudden we are spat out, two to one side, one to the other. The raft was being recirculated in the maelstrom. I had lost a shoe and was in a kind of shock. The raft eventually popped out and careered off down the river through more and more rapids before disappearing round the corner. There we were with nothing but the river clothes we wore. It took us hours of climbing up and down the cliffs, and through jungle to locate the raft. It was upside down on rocks in the middle of the river. It looked impossible to retrieve.’
RSNG How did you continue the expedition with your boat stuck in the middle of the rapids?
MK ‘As we climbed out of the canyon we came across some fisherman who were adamant, without even having seen the raft, that they could help us rescue it. It was enough for us to give it a shot. I positioned myself by the side of the river 100m below the raft with Phil on the other side while Nath jumped into the water and let the river take him down towards the raft.’
‘In a kind of superhuman display he managed to climb on top of the raft and after several attempts managed to free it. He floated it upside down through more rapids as I swam out to meet it. We couldn't believe it. We had out raft back and we could go on. In 48 hours we had almost lost our lives, lost our raft and come out shaken but able to continue. What a ride that was!’
RSNG And weren’t you shot at by the Army at one point?
MK ‘Getting shot at the first time on the river was definitely sketchy. It was likely groups who were moving cocaine in the Apurimac-Ene Valley area, one of the highest cocaine producing areas in the world. When the military, who are also stationed there, opened up across the bow of our raft with automatic weapons fire it was more of an annoyance. They wanted us to pull over, which in the fast flowing river was going to be difficult.
‘Kind of foolishly, I stood up in the raft and told them to go f**k themselves, such was my anger. Probably the most bone-chilling run in with guns on the river didn't even involve any shooting. We had floated into a small town in darkness and were searching for a place to moor up. This floating house, or boat, with no lights on looked like a good option. As we pulled alongside and tied up, through the darkness, the silence was broken by the charging of a pump-action shotgun. We rolled out our best and fastest Spanish (still in Peru) explaining just who we were and what we were up to. The owner of the boat, mercifully acquiesced to our request.’
RSNG What about other ‘interesting’ moments?
MK ‘The Amazon being so massive allows ocean going ships to ply its waters. Everything from cargo ships, cruise ships and even oil tankers. Most of them travel by night, as we began doing, in order to cover more distance. In Brazil there remained just two of us. Six hours on, six hours off, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. One very early morning, in the pitch blackness I was on the job of steering the raft. Slowly, slowly the sound of rushing water grew in volume. Not unusual being that we were on a river. But this noise was different. A swishing noise, a little like whitewater. I craned my neck around to try and pick out the source of the noise up ahead; nothing.’
‘Just a metre away the impossibly enormous rusty black bow of a petrol tanker sliced past’
RSNG So, what was making the noise?
MK ‘With no warning and just a metre or so away the impossibly enormous rusty black bow of a petrol tanker sliced through the water. By luck, the wave of water being pushed off the bow, which was making all the noise, drove us away. We slid down the side of the ship being thrown this way and that until we spun off its stern and back into the night. For the whole ship just one meagre light shone on its deck. It happened so fast and without warning that we barely had time to react. To imagine what might have happened was difficult to consider.’
RSNG What was it that drew you to paddling rivers to begin with?
MK ‘In the first place it was just purely for fun! Whether I was paddling sea kayaks in the Noose Everglades in Australia, or rafting whitewater in Africa, it was just such a blast. It was multi-day paddling which really excited me. A day of awesomeness, camping up with friends and then doing it again the next day was hard to top.’
RSNG Can you just sum up your long-distance paddling achievements for us?
MK ‘In regards to my ‘7 River, 7 Continents’ project, to paddle the longest river on each continent from source to sea I have completed these:
Expedition Amazonas, Peru/Brazil 2007/2008 – source to sea paddling descent of the entire Amazon River. The 4th team in history and 7th person ever – 6,680km in 153 days.
Missouri – Mississippi River, USA 2012 – solo, kayaking first descent from source to sea of the entire river from south east Montana to the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana – 6,083km in 117 days.
Volga River, Russia 2014 – solo, kayaking first descent source to sea of the entire river – 3,700km, 71 days.
Murray-Darling River, Australia 2017 – solo SUP descent, source to sea of the entire river – 3,700km, 121 days.
Not on river but as special to me was my walk across Iran. Expedition Iran, alone, on foot across Iran in 2010. I crossed the entire Islamic Republic of Iran from the Caspian Sea in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south – 1,930km in 63 days.
RSNG At what point on the Amazon paddle did you realise that your whole approach to paddling and adventure might be missing something?
MK ‘It was probably once we had successfully run the whitewater of the upper Amazon and cleared the Red Zone, or the area most well known for its prevalence of cocaine production. To some degree we could relax and just get on with things. That meant I could appreciate exactly how fortunate we were to be paddling the entire length of the world's largest river. What a privilege.’
‘The adventure and adrenaline was definitely a key part of it, but seeing what was going on around us on our little jaunt was supremely interesting. Looking back, for me, the most beautiful moments of that descent were when we got to visit with people for whom the Amazon was their home, their lives. They welcomed us and gave us a little peek into what that meant.’
RSNG So, when did you change the kind of stories you told on social media and online?
MK ‘I am a big fan of adventure and excitement but on these long journeys that aspect is kind of a given. I had grown tired of repeating ad nauseam my tales of derring do while ignoring stories, that to me at least, were even more interesting. Imagine spending your life living high in the Andes or on an island in the middle of the Amazon River? Meeting up with your university friends for a coffee in Tehran while the whole world seems to discuss your fate? Sleeping in the back of your car in Williston, North Dakota by the Missouri River while you work an oil job paying $100,000 a year?’
‘All this going on while some random bloke fleetingly passes through and shares his ‘adventure' selfies on Instagram pretending he is some sort of hero. The world and indeed life on its longest and largest rivers provide infinite stories that can be shared, so why not?’
RSNG What’s been your most surprising day in a kayak?
MK ‘On these big descents it seems every single day something unexpected occurs. Saying ‘g'day’ to a topless French girl sunbathing by the Murray-Darling in the middle of the Australian outback, far from any town, or spending the afternoon drinking vodka and alternating between the banya (sauna) and jumping in the Volga River with new Russian friends.
‘Watching a giant cruise ship glide by near the town of Santarem, Brazil on the Amazon River, 1000km from the ocean while its passengers leaned over the rails to take photos of us. Celebrating my very first 4th of July in Great Falls, Montana while paddling the Missouri-Mississippi and then meeting up with a friend who was setting off to swim 1000 miles of the same river. So many days to remember and cherish.’
‘What did I see? Snakes, crocodiles, Russian battleships, overhead waves, bikini models, sunken churches and a swimming moose’
RSNG What are the challenges of paddling solo for 12-14 hours a day, in terms of endurance and solitude?
MK ‘It really is the combination of sustained, peak physical output and that solitude, which makes for the challenge. One or the other alone is pretty easy to deal with, together it takes some work to overcome. The first 10 days or two weeks of my long descents can be jarring. I go from being super comfortable, eating whatever I want and being with my family to the exact opposite of that.’
‘Keeping your mind in check to get beyond that period is paramount. I wouldn't say it’s a breeze but realising that I voluntarily put myself in these positions, that I leave my little kids by choice, I don't really have a valid excuse for moaning, for giving up.’
‘After a while I’m in a rhythm, a pattern. All the processes become pretty slick. Wake up, put coffee and porridge on, pack camp, eat, pack gear onto SUP/ raft/ kayak, paddle, eat, hydrate, make camp, cook, admin of GPS, journal etc, read, sleep, repeat. At the end of a lot of days I wonder how I am going to do the same thing again tomorrow, but after a feed and sleep, somehow you do.’
RSNG What’s been the most amazing sight you’ve seen on the river?
MK ‘Sorry, I can’t choose just one! Class VI whitewater, snakes, crocodiles, dolphins, Russian battleships, fur seals, overhead waves, hydrofoil ferries, bikini models, kitesurfers, sunken churches, tropical islands, paddle steamers, lightning storms, water spouts, swimming moose, eagles; the list is almost endless!’
WHAT NEXT? If you’ve ever wanted to step into a kayak or onto a SUP then you’ll should try to use Mark Kalch’s advice for efficient long-distance paddling:
‘There are some pretty key differences between paddling a raft, kayak or SUP board, not to mention the type of water you are on, but they all share some common traits:
‘Relax – thinking that you are going to power through a 12-hour day of paddling in changing conditions is futile. I cover a lot more distance if I appreciate that the day ahead is going to be tough no matter what, so I just chill. This doesn't mean I take a lot of breaks, quite the opposite. I just relax my body and paddle. Rather than super, tense powerful paddle strokes with gritted teeth, my body can be flexible and long. It's worked so far.’
‘Reach – with my body relaxed I can place my paddle blade much further in front of where I am. I’m not reaching with just my arms, which is far too limiting. My torso is turning, my arms are stretching and I can catch the water as far forward as possible to make the most of the stroke.’
‘Release – in order to maximise efficiency you need to ensure you are pulling your blade from the water as easily as possible. Particularly for SUP paddling, you must feather or angle the blade. This means you don’t waste the power portion of your stroke or waste energy lifting the paddle from the water.’
Follow Mark Kalch’s adventures @MarkKalch (he is sponsored by Red Paddle Co. and Alpkit)
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