530 KM On Rio Maranon

By Bethany Hughes

“It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.” -Edward Abbey

Before it was called the Amazon the largest river by volume in the world was known as the Río Marañón (translation: cashew). Springing from the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the waters once flowed west. The rise of the Andes 15 million years ago rerouted it dramatically, carving canyons over 3000 meters deep (more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon) earning it the title “Grand Canyon of the Amazon.” This past June and July we had the fortune to paddle over 300 miles of the upper section which flows northbound for 500 miles before turning east to join with Ucayali River.

Image: National Geographic

The Río Marañón is unique in many facets, ranging from its formation to the ecological diversity it hosts. With no single major source, the river is filled by dozens of small mountain streams, the first of which are glacier melt from some of the last remaining tropical glaciers. It was striking to watch the color and character of the water change at each new confluence as the river descends at a rate of roughly 15 to 30 feet per mile.* 

Beyond feeding one of the most ecologically diverse and important biospheres on the planet, the Marañón itself hosts a number of endemic species including over 60 variety of birds of which 26 are endemic only to Peru. One example we saw along one very specific 100 mile rain-shadow canyon, was the Yellow Face Parrotlet. A canyon which would be underwater if one of the 20 proposed dams is built. 

Yet, human interest along this river drives much broader and deeper than the quest for energy production. The families who have populated and farmed these banks for generations draw their livelihood and identity from these waters. Originally the waters were traveled by balsa rafts, which you still see afloat. Though now there are also long motorized boats in some navigable sections. In his first book, “La serpiente de oro” Ciro Alegría vividly tells the story of life, love, and loss of the “valley people.” The remains of his home overlooks the schoolyard of Calemar where we stopped to chat with the village teacher and a cluster of school children.

[Photo Credit: Lauren Reed]

The river has also long called to adventurers. The 1930s saw Herbert Rittlinger make the first attempt to paddle it. In the 1950s Sebastian Snow (who, among his many expeditions, like us once sought to travel the length of the Americas by foot) trekked most of the river, starting from the source and proving the glacial lake Ninococha flowed into the Marañón.

It was the 1970s, however, which saw the first successful navigations of recorded long distance water travel. Specifically, as the film Confluir details, in 1977 Tom Fisher, Steve Gaskill, Ellen Toll, and John Wasson spent over a month descending the upper river with kayaks and a raft. In 2004, Tim Biggs and companions were the first to kayak the entire river from the Nupe River to Iquitos.

Since 2012 the river has entered nascent stages of commercial rafting, with the few companies afloat on the river having a heavy bent toward data gathering and proliferation of information both to visitors and locals regarding the importance of conservation.

We were fortunate to join forces with Maranon Experience for this leg of our journey and got to experience the force of the wild waters as more than just a river crossing. As a being primarily made of water, on a planet primarily covered by water, I see no question as to how water pulls at the human being. The force with which these waters moved me, however, was beyond words.

Wild waters roared into the narrative of the Her Odyssey journey in the first months as we hiked across Patagonia. Yet, in over 10,000 km of walking and paddling, the story runs the same: remote and sparsely populated regions fight tooth and nail against government who quickly grant concessions to international industry giants who conduct hasty Environmental Impact Studies.

The survival of the river, residents, and surrounding valleys are under constant threat from mining, pipelines, deforestation, and dams. Already we floated past several large scale mining operations driving after minerals as well as dozens of artisanal gold mines along the water’s edge. Oil pipelines to the north and south of the Marañón transporting crude oil from the rainforests to refineries along the Pacific Coast are built across the seismically active Andes. Deforestation is most pronounced in the Huallaga Basin, around Iquitos.* 

The government has granted many concessions in both mineral and water rights, claiming they are “in the national interest.”* For now, these interests are manifested by numbers and shapes spray painted on cliffs along the waterline, denoting where foreign interest companies are in process of developing dams. Over 20 such dams have been proposed, in varying states of development. It was breathtaking to stop along the river, exploring cliff dwellings and active communities, knowing they would be underwater if one of these dams go into place. Taken together, the proposals would turn the Marañón into a series of lakes, with some of the dams standing over 600 feet tall.

That is why experiencing it yourself is the truest path to giving this river a chance. Because one day soon, it may no longer be accessible and the stories of portaging Wasson’s Landslide, of taking a spin in the huge hole, of an afternoon of cliff jumping, may only be stories and memories.

Or, if enough people from around the world come to know this river as we did, if they fall in love and are willing to study and stand together with the locals, maybe together we can keep this river free and healthy, feeding the Amazon, which feeds the largest remaining rainforest, diversity and Atlantic Ocean.

Already, I see hope, as Conservation Areas formed by contributions and efforts of river lovers develop in uninhabited regions, giving the keepers grounds and a voice to stand against the dams. A chance to speak for the land and the water because theirs is a different language, yet one which flows true through anyone lucky enough to touch and be touched by them.

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