With steady paddle strokes we entered a small tributary that led upstream into a maze of sloughs and tiny islands. After only a few turns we were surrounded by dense jungle. Our canoe slid over submerged roots, passed under fallen trees, and meandered around massive ficus trees that lined the channels in a formation of giant guards. Their extensive buttress roots formed a fortress-like bulwark, and thick strands of lianas dangled into the water from above. An Amazonian kingfisher made its rattling call from a nearby tree and then disappeared in the thicket. The turbid water below us was alive with movement. Branches bobbed in the weak current, fallen leaves circled in the calm eddies, and fish were jumping in a never-ending game of predator and prey.
Suddenly a loud snorting noise in the water interrupted our quiet passage through the channel. We were so startled that we sent the canoe into a rocking motion, swinging left and right like a cradle. A river dolphin appeared out of the depth of the murky water, then another, and another, until a school of river dolphins appeared on the surface and began to circle our canoe.
These pinkish-gray dolphins, or botos, as they are called, have no dorsal fins as common dolphins do, but instead have a long hump on their backs. When surfacing to breathe they showed their bulging foreheads and long beaks with white teeth. They are the largest mammals in the Amazon region and grow up to ten feet long. Seen from the canoe only a few feet away, they were powerful animals to watch, and we continued upstream with cautious paddle strokes. After watching their playful maneuvers for a while, we became more comfortable in their presence and joined them in their game of hide and seek. They never came to the surface when we rested our paddles to take pictures, and only stuck their heads above water as soon as we started paddling. The dolphins enjoyed their game so much, they followed us through the flooded forest until the late afternoon, when we returned to the ranger station of the biological reserve, where we were staying.
This Brazilian biological reserve is located in the vast flood plain of the Guaporé River, a tributary of the Amazon that straddles the border between Brazil and Bolivia in the Southwestern part of the Amazon region. Each year the melt waters from the distant Andes and heavy rainfall flood the wide valley, turning grasslands into lakes and flooding vast swaths of rainforest. This unique ecosystem is home to a rich diversity of fauna and flora that is well adapted to the annual floods that spread nutrients and food fifty miles beyond the riverbanks.
Our plan was to explore the flooded forest at the reserve for a few days and then paddle 100 miles downriver to the nearest town. On the last evening before our departure, while feasting on fried piranha, we talked to the rangers about our upcoming adventure.
"Are you really going downriver in your canoe tomorrow?" the chief ranger asked. "I just want you two to be very careful," he continued. "There are very dangerous animals out there—caimans, snakes, and very big fish. And there are very few people along the river. Be prepared for a lonely adventure."
"We are well equipped and it's only three days," I said.
"Three days and hundred miles of solitude. That can be a very long time in the Amazon."
Later that night, my girlfriend and I talked about the challenge ahead, and after carefully considering our options, we both agreed to depart the next morning. After all, it was adventure that we were looking for.
Meet the River People
Early the next day, we quickly went over our expedition essentials and provisions and pushed the canoe out into the river. Within moments after waving goodbye to the rangers, the strong current took us around a turn, and we were now alone on the coffee-colored river. It was an overcast morning and eerily quiet. The silence was only broken by our steady paddle strokes and the occasional birdcall. A yellow-capped heron watched us from a tree while flapping its wings, and a black hawk soared above our canoe. The flooded banks were bordered with floating grass and water hyacinths with large white flowers. On the Bolivian side of the river the green forest wall was painted with the yellow highlights of flowering trees.
Several hours in we spotted several thatched huts on a bluff. When we landed in a small cove, two old men welcomed us to their village of Santo Antonio. José and Jordan, as they introduced themselves, invited us on a tour through the sleepy village. As we walked past the modest thatched huts, the two men told us about their village. Santo Antonio was a community of descendants of escaped African slaves who had settled here over a century ago.
"Isolation is our greatest problem." Jordan explained. "The nearest town is two gas tanks away by motorboat, or three days of paddling. We have no electricity, clinic or any other government service, except the monthly riverboat that brings supplies from downstream."
I asked him about natural rubber extraction, which had once been the region's main economic activity. "I am from a family of rubber collectors," the old man said slowly, "and we were poor all our lives. After the Second World War, the demand for rubber tires went down and the region's economy collapsed. All of a sudden our families were alone on this forsaken river with balls of latex that nobody wanted to buy."
The river had once teemed with steamers and smaller boats transporting rubber, we learned. There were rubber colonies and small settlements everywhere along the river. But once rubber prices collapsed on the global market, people left as quickly as they had arrived. And today the banks of the Guaporé River continue to be scarcely populated, remote, and underdeveloped. After visiting the small chapel dedicated to Saint Anthony, the children in the village followed us down to the water, and we pushed our canoe out into the river before a small waving crowd.
The river continued in gentle meanders in a westerly direction and our only companions that afternoon were a flock of neotropic cormorants that fled from fallen tree to fallen tree as we paddled closer. We kept our eyes open for a suitable place to spend the night, but the river was unusually high for this time of year. The sandy river beaches we had counted on for camping were still submerged.
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