By Brian E. Clark
One hundred and twenty four days through an arduous, 4,000-mile paddle down the Amazon River, Darcy Gaechter was losing it.
Frustrated by the slow pace, she slapped her kayak paddle at a plastic jug floating nearby, screamed in rage, lost her balance and tumbled into the muddy water.
“I pretty much threw a fit,” said Gaechter, whose book, “Amazon Woman,” details her exploits on the way to becoming the first woman to kayak the globe’s biggest river from its source high in the Peruvian Andes to the Atlantic.
“As I swam, I started laughing and realized how ridiculous my attitude was,” explained Gaechter, whose voyage included perilous Class V rapids at the start and thousands of miles of exceedingly slow-moving flat water.
“Once I made that mental shift in my brain, I was immediately happy to be there and I no longer cared how fast or slow we paddled,” explained Gechter, who was part of a three-person team that included her long-time partner, Don Beveridge, and Englishman David “Midge” Midgley. Their journey took almost five months and nearly cost them their lives.
“My feelings were so night-and-day after that swim,” she said. “It made me realize the importance of a positive mental outlook. I know it sounds cheesy, but I’d never experienced such a stark contrast in how I felt about something. That helped me finish.”
For the three-week period prior to her swim, Gaechter – who acknowledges that she lacks patience – said she was pretty much hell to live with.
“I was really in a bad place where I would get up every morning and say to myself ‘who cares how fast we paddle or how long we paddle,” she said.
“I tell myself I should just enjoy being on the Amazon and not get upset. But by the end of the day, I would be very angry and trying to get Midge to paddle faster. It was a bad cycle of about 21 days of driving myself crazy and throwing immature temper tantrums. That was when I tried to demolish the piece of floating trash.”
Gaechter, who co-owns the Ecuador-based Small World Adventures kayaking school and guide service with Beveridge, began the journey in 2013 with her partners on the Montaro River at the lofty elevation of 15,000 feet in the Andes. It was her 35th birthday.
“The plan to paddle the entire river as actually thought up by Midge,” said Gaechter. “He’s a brilliant computer programmer from London who had something of a midlife crisis and decided he did not want to spend his entire life sitting behind a computer writing code.
“He thought if he could do one big adventure, he would be satisfied,” explained Gaechter, who grew up in Aspen, Colo., the daughter of two ski patrollers. “Midge, who financed the trip, decided Everest had been overdone. A lot of others had sailed around the globe. And he learned that more people had walked on the moon than had descended the Amazon from its source to the Atlantic.”
Midge also discovered that while a few others had rafted most of the river, no one had kayaked its entirety, said Gaechter, who became a raft guide after high school and then took up whitewater kayaking. Though a natural athlete, she struggled as a novice kayaker. She prevailed and soon reached expert status, though at 5 feet 4 inches tall and a woman, male kayakers often doubted her abilities – which she resented mightily.
Unfortunately, Midge had never kayaked in his life when he settled on his Amazon quest, Gaechter said. He first took lessons in Scotland and then began coming to Ecuador to train with Small World Adventures from periods ranging from two weeks to two months. After eight years, he was a Class IV (skilled) boater.
The trio was on the Montaro River for more than three weeks. The river was extremely challenging, with continuous big rapids and at least one several near-fatal miss through what Gaechter calls “one of the most amazing canyons I’ve ever been in.”
After the Montaro joined the Apurimac River, the name changed to the “Ene.” It flows through a part of Peru that was once controlled by a Communist rebel group called the “Sendero Luminoso,” or Shining Path. They also had to pass through a region where the indigenous Ashaninka people live. Though hostile to most outsiders after centuries of exploitation and abuse, the trio made it through safely.
“They were kind to us, but not to others who came to rip them off,” she said. “Right before us, they’d killed eight Peruvians who they thought were coming to do illegal logging.” Two Polish kayakers had also perished at the hands of the Ashkaninka.
By the 60th day, they were at the Brazilian border and well into the flat water section of the expedition.
“Prior to reaching the border, we’d had about a month of boring paddling,” she said. “At that point, things got interesting again because of strong upstream winds. We also so started encountering tides – which come hundreds of miles up the Amazon – and really big electrical storms.
“For the first week, we could successfully paddle against the incoming tides. But after that, it was fruitless. So we’d paddle for five or six hours while the tide was going out, then wait for an equal amount of time and then paddle again. But if we stopped paddling, we’d get blown back upstream. When working with the tide, we’d still only go three or four kilometers (2 to 2.5 miles) per hour.”
They pushed on and 148 days after starting, arrived at the Atlantic Ocean.
“The hardest part of the trip for me was the mental challenges of the flat water because one of my personality flaws is that I want people to do things on my schedule, which a lot of times means to go faster,” she said.
“Midge was not on board with that plan, so I struggled convincing myself to go with his plan and accept that that was OK. That didn’t work until well into the trip. And he was passive-aggressive, so we clashed. We were not doing each other any favors. While I never thought of giving up, I did think of ditching Midge and finishing the trip without him.”
Though Midge was not thrilled with the book and her portrayal of him and Don, she said that she and Midge are still friends and remain in touch.
“When we started the expedition, we made a pact that in a decade after we finished we would paddle from the source of the Thames, England’s longest river at 200-plus miles, to the sea,” she said. “Midge liked that idea because at the mouth of the Amazon, the Amazon is wider than the Thames is long. The plan is still on, so I guess he’s not that mad at me.”
And Beveridge, her long-time beau?
“He also thinks I was unfairly harsh on him at times,” she said. “But overall, he was pretty OK with it. We are still business partners and boyfriend-girlfriend after 17 years. So nope, we didn’t break up after the trip or because of the book.”
As difficult as the trip was, getting the memoir written and published was an equally trying endeavor, one that took more than six years.
Geachter said it wasn’t easy finding an agent to represent her book to publishers.
“Once I had one, I naively thought the work was done,” she said. “But over two years with my first agent, we got a big pile of rejection letters from publishers.
“Then I switched agents and we revamped my proposal to be more of a memoir. Within two weeks of being with her we had four offers from publishers. That was a learning experience.
“A lot of people encouraged me, but it was still hard for me to transform the book from “We went kayaking down the Amazon” to an actual memoir project.
“I’m not super open about my feelings, so it was particularly hard for me to share them in the book. Once I started, though, I could immediately see how much better the story was. It paid off, but it was mental torture for a year to force myself to do it.”
Because she has been underestimated her entire life, Gaechter’s book – which was published by Pegasus – has been described as something of a “feminist manifesto.”
“I’ve always liked doing things that are necessarily normal for women to do,” she said. “I’ve heard throughout my life that I was ‘too short to play volleyball, too small to be a kayaker.’
“And when I was getting ready to do Class V (extremely difficult) rivers, guys who didn’t know me would come up and say ‘You’re so little. Are you sure you are up to this?’ and crap like that.
“I can’t say that it didn’t affect my confidence some that strangers would question my abilities. But I was able to overcome it. And I never thought ‘the world doesn’t think I can do this, so I’m not going to try.’ I had the attitude of ‘F*ck them!’ I’m going to prove them wrong.’
“So I hope one takeaway that people will get from my book, whether they are a woman or anyone else, is that it’s important to find your own way and try.
“Don’t let the doubters define you. It’s way better to try and fail rather than never attempt something at all.”
To order, go to Amazon Woman
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.