Aus­ti­nite kayaks Ama­zon

Voy­age cov­ers river’s en­tire length – 4,200 miles to At­lantic.

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By Sarah Cop­pola scop­pola@states­man.com

Aus­ti­nite West Hansen and David Kelly of Cal­i­for­nia were rac­ing on part of the Ama­zon River in 2008 when they won­dered what it would take to kayak the river’s en­tire 4,200 miles.

That thought turned into a grand ad­ven­ture.

Ear­lier this month, Hansen re­turned to Austin af­ter four months of kayak­ing the Ama­zon from its source to the At­lantic Ocean.

Austin res­i­dents Jeff Wueste and Ian Rolls pad­dled with him for all but the first 500 miles. The trio en­dured ex­haus­tion, ex­treme weather, rough wa­ters and a run-in with ban­dits.

“But the hard­est part was be­ing away from my fam­ily, from my wife and daugh­ter,” said Hansen, who, upon ar­riv­ing at Austin-Bergstrom In­ter­na­tional Air­port, was cheered by a group of fam­ily and friends.

Only eight other peo­ple have pad­dled the Ama­zon from source to sea, the first in 1985, Kelly said.

Kelly helped plan and man­age the ex­pe­di­tion, along

with a sup­port team of two dozen peo­ple, some of whom kayaked with Hansen for parts of the trip.

The jour­ney “has epic mag­ni­tudes,” said Kelly, who lives near San Fran­cisco. “More peo­ple have left our planet to walk on the moon than have pad­dled the en­tire length of the Ama­zon.”

“At a time when peo­ple say all the ad­ven­tures have been had, West was in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing what few peo­ple had done,” Kelly said.

Hansen, 50, is a so­cial worker who has kayaked for nearly three decades but had never at­tempted a trip this long.

“I’m a pretty av­er­age per­son, and I’ve read books about th­ese in­cred­i­ble, larger-than-life ex­plor­ers, and it makes me feel good that I’ve been able to walk in their foot­prints,” he said. “It just takes get­ting out there and do­ing it, one step in front of the other.”

The jour­ney took 111 days (90 of them pad­dling), from Aug. 17 to Dec. 5, and it bested a record by one month.

The ex­pe­di­tion be­gan high in the Peru­vian An­des, where the Ama­zon’s source is nar­row enough to step over, and ended in Brazil, where the river runs through the jun­gle and be­comes more than 90 miles wide.

The kayak­ers faced bl­iz­zard con­di­tions in the An­des and scorch­ing tem­per­a­tures in the jun­gle. They saw pink and blue dol­phins. They pad­dled through calm wa­ters and surg­ing rapids.

They were robbed once by ban­dits and held a few times at gun­point. But they also met vil­lagers who of­fered kind­ness and help, such as food and shel­ter.

“We slept. We ate. We pad­dled. Ev­ery­thing else was sec­ondary,” Hansen said. “It was much more dif­fi­cult the closer we got to the ocean. No one had done it at this time of year, and the tides were much stronger than we ex­pected.”

They slept mostly in tents, ate freeze-dried foods and drank pow­dered mixes added to river water that was run through a fil­tra­tion pump. Twice, fam­ily mem­bers met up with them and sup­plied treats from the United States, such as Oreos and M&M’s.

The trip cost about $110,000, Hansen said. Na­tional Ge­o­graphic paid about a third and will chron­i­cle the trip in a fu­ture is­sue, he said.

He said he, fam­ily mem­bers and other West Hansen makes a call on a satel­lite phone on the Ama­zon River while Ian Rolls looks ahead. donors paid the rest of the cost.

Hansen is writ­ing a book about the ex­pe­ri­ence. And he’s al­ready think­ing about plan­ning his next river jour­ney — “One that has never been done be­fore,” he said — to a place he didn’t want to re­veal just yet. Con­tact Sarah Cop­pola at 912-2939.

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