The Longest Days

An incredible journey made up of days that we never wanted to end; the aftermath was a series of days that seemed as though they never would end. Like those days, this post will be a long one, luckily its purpose is not so much to be read, but more just to be written. If you read it fully, I hope this helps you to find any answers or closure you may be seeking.

From the start the team came together as one, happy easy going unit. Buying food, medications and sorting gear in Trujillo was a breeze as everyone got to know each other. Far from a smooth ride to the put in, literally and figuratively (we’re operating in Peru here…) the bumps added character to the journey and everyone made the most of an interesting ride.

One of those special groups, where everyone got along straight away, worked together and just enjoyed life on the river. It didn’t matter that half the group didn’t speak the other halves language- we shared campfires, meals, jokes smiles and songs all the same.

Jhuliño was the baby of the group, just 18 years old. Everyone’s little brother; an enormous smile no matter what the occasion and always the first to share his enthusiastic, infectious laugh; I don’t think I will ever forget that innocent, joyous giggle. Excited to learn new skills, and see his home river from a totally different angle. From the village of Tupén he was the link between recreation and local people; between those visiting to help save a wonder, and those fighting to save their way of homes and way of life. Jhuliño embodied the happiness and purpose of our journey.

As we moved along the river, we started from the very basics, slowing down and focusing on why we do things a certain way, how we manage the risks in an inherently dangerous environment. Why we use life jackets, why we move down-river together, slowly, carefully and scout certain parts. I encouraged decision making and challenge by choice- no one should ever feel pressured or obligated in this kind of environment.

I remember on day 6 when Yuka, one of our guides decided to walk a larger rapid; Henry and I sat down with Jhuliño and applauded the decision, we talked about how in whitewater the things that you don’t run, the times when you show self-restraint and back off something- those are the times that make you a great guide or kayaker. We went through the use of life jackets and buddy checks not just once, but many times. We spoke about risks and how we go about managing them on numerous occasions.

Jhuliño was always full of confidence. He had grown up on the river, he had been swimming across it since the age of 12. He was an extremely strong swimmer, better than anyone else in the group by far. When we picked up two of his friends in Tupén and were going through some basic rescue/ swimming drills, I remember him saying ‘don’t worry, we grew up here, were all really strong swimmers’. We made sure they completed the drills anyways, but maybe those words should have raised alarm bells for me. At the time they were completely harmless.

Days 11 and 12 we ran some bigger rapids. Scouting, lining some boats and then setting safety for those that were to run. Two other young guys from Tupén showed a healthy, awed respect for the river making the decision to walk the biggest rapid.

Day 15 of this journey was one of my favorites. Although there were no rapids, it was a stunning day on the river. Kicking back on the rafts through the gentle class 1-2 riffles, singing and jamming on guitar and harmonica as floated past banana plantations and waving locals. That night we were rewarded with an incredible sunset-rainbow combination; not to mention delicious Papa Huancayina entre for dinner followed by an equally rich bannna-chocolate cake.

Our final river day, Day 16, 9th June 2015 started smoothly. Packed up camp for the last time. We had a detailed briefing about how the day was going to unfold, and the challenges of the 50km section ahead of us. For more than half an hour we spoke of the powerful boilers, whirlpools and sheer volume of the section. We carefully planned how the group would run through.

When we finally did get onto the river, there was a somber, alert expectation. Everyone was on lookout and putting on their game faces.

With two kayakers well up ahead, we were passing signals back to the rafts giving them plenty of time to make a move or eddy out in this swiftly flowing water. It’s not that the section is difficult, it’s just different. After the Marańon, Chinchipé and Utcubamba rivers combine the sheer volume of water makes a river of a very different character. The grade 2-3 lines are big and easy, but the consequence of a swim could be disastrous. On a raft you float gently above the huge boilers, pillows and whirlpools; without that flotation it’s a very different story. At times each of the kayakers felt the pull from below. I remember getting sucked into one unusually large whirlpool. The tail of my kayak was sucked down while the nose of my kayak pointed up as the sky started spinning in circles around me. A bit un-concerting, but as experienced kayakers we knew to wait, roll up and then paddle out of the boiler zone.

We had lunch in the town of El Muyo, the Piedra family took us in and made a lovely home-cooked chicken stew. While it was cooking people explored the town and a couple of kayakers scouted a nearby section of creek. It was good to go. While lunch was winding up myself and 2 other kayakers put on at the road bridge, no more than 200m before the confluence with the Marañon River.

Above the final drops, a kayaker paddled over an awkward rock, went upside down and swam. He swam over the final two drops between 1-2m in height. I saw him swim, jumped out of my boat and made to provide assistance. I saw him helped to safety by two other team members who were riverside below. I watched his boat continue floating into the massive current that is the Marañon River.

I smiled to myself, relieved and happy to see that my friend was safe. A lost boat is a small cost and there is always the chance of recovering it later if it floats into an eddy. No worries.

I could have easily run up, grabbed my boat and chased down the lost kayak solo. I didn’t. The most basic whitewater teaching told me not to proceed alone, and as group leader it would be have been irresponsible to leave everyone. Also that is an example I did not want to set; there is no need to heroics when it is just a piece of plastic. Life and group security first, then worry about gear.

We checked the kayaker quickly for injury, he had escaped a rather nasty swim with nothing more than a bruised ankle. I told the group members present at the scene that from there on we would slow right down and regroup before proceeding. Experience told me that when people get worried or excited at moments like these, that’s when mistakes happen. It was time for everyone to get together slow down and proceed as normal.

I headed back into the town of El Muyo, spoke with various members of the team to get everyone together, paid for lunch and then coordinated with a couple of team members who were departing the group at that moment. After approximately 45 minutes, somebody told me that Jhuliño was not in town. Jhuliño had not been at the site of the swim, and had not seen the boat floating downstream. We were told that in the minutes following the incident on the creek, a villager had told Jhuliño that the boat had escaped into the Marañon. Upon hearing this Jhuliño jumped onto the back of a local boy’s motorcycle and they took off together downstream. He didn’t consult anyone, didn’t tell anyone where he was going and didn’t take a life jacket or helmet .

Upon hearing this information, I was a little worried, it’s never good to have a split group. I imagined that they had gone to the following community of Montenegro and were coordinating with locals who own wooden motor boats, or that they would be waiting riverside somewhere downstream. It never really crossed my mind that he might try to jump into the river- we had spoken at length that morning about the dangers of this section, we had all witnessed first-hand the power of the whirlpools that would try to suck a kayaker and his boat under the water.

I knew that Jhuliño was 45 minutes ahead of us by motorbike, there was little chance of catching or finding him now. I knew that he would be somewhere in the 15km between El Muyo and Montenegro, hopefully waiting for us riverside. We readied the group and proceeded with normal caution, on the lookout for our friend.

Approximately 5km downstream we came across a young boy waiting for us riverside. He was the boy who had ridden the motorbike with Jhuliño. He told us that upon sighting the kayak from the road, Jhuliño had suggested they should both enter the river to rescue the kayak. The boy had refused to enter the river- the locals do not swim in the river they have seen too many people drown in its awesome power. Jhuliño took off his clothes and swam out into the middle of the river, climbed on top of the kayak and proceeded to paddle it like a surfboard. The boy lost sight of Jhuliño around the next bend. The boy had then gone downstream and found the kayak in an eddy beside the river, but no sign of Jhuliño.

We continued downstream, now moving as quickly as possible. We asked every local person beside the river if they had seen anybody swim past, if they had seen anything at all. Nothing. We spoke with cable car operators and children playing on the river banks. Nothing. We arrived at the take out at Montenegro, where the motorcycle boy and his mother were waiting for us. They asked us if we had found Jhuliño. No sign. We quickly made some calls to local community members using the sat phone, then 3 of us headed back up to El Muyo in a moto taxi. One of the longest rides of my life. I was hoping to see Jhuliño waiting for us on the roadside, thinking he might have swam downstream and taken some time to fight through the undergrowth to get back up to the road. We asked people along the way- they had heard no sign.

We went directly to the National Police in El Muyo, and quickly told them what had happened. They started to ask for ll kinds of seemingly irrelevant information in that moment, wasting time with bureaucracy. I barked at one of the officers- Lets just go, lets talk with the communities riverside and find him. We got into the officers truck and went downstream. We crossed cable cars to access the native communities on the far side of the river. We spoke with village Apu’s (chiefs) and asked them to let us know if they found or heard anything, also so they could pass the message downstream to other riverside communities.

Night fell, with no sign of Jhuliño. I went down with the police to gather the rest of the group. We left the gear riverside and spent a very hard night in one of the worst hotels imaginable.

At 6am, after very few hours sleep I woke to the sound of the police chief yelling up to the balcony “Benjamin! Benjamin!”. He told me they had heard that Jhuliño was safe on the far side of the river in one of the Awajún communities. We went to investigate, but it turned out to be nothing but rumors. With no news, we were still hoping against hope that Jhuliño was alive and just stuck in some hard to access place along the river.

Later that day Tomi and I did another lap of the section of river from El Muyo to Montenegro. This time we knew the location where Jhuliño had jumped in. We stopped here. The river was flowing swiftly, but more or less calm. I imagined how it might be inviting to an 18 year old, full of confidence in his own abilities to swim, just as he had swum in this river hundreds of times before. Hoping to be a hero, hoping to rescue the getaway kayak.

We paddled onwards. Around the next bend the river turned into a pulsating whirling monster. The current hit a wall on river right, creating boils, whirlpools and pillows of eddy’s. It all made sense.

I knew in that moment that Jhuliño was surely dead. I stopped hoping. Nobody could swim through that and survive, especially without a life jacket or any flotation. Jhuliño would have been paddling on top of the kayak as he rounded that bend, paddling towards the river right bank where the roadside awaited. He would have been paddling straight towards the ugliest part of that whole section of river. A section that made us nervous in kayaks, with life jackets and safety gear and our friends close by. Maybe with a life jacket you could swim through and survive; maybe. The extra flotation hopefully helping you to the surface before you black out from being underwater for so long. Without a jacket though, you just wouldn’t stand a chance. How Jhuliño came to make that decision, how he didn’t think about what might be around the next bend we will never know.

Later that day we spoke with a local man organized to send two teams of locals to places on the river where flotsam usually gather. People told us it normally takes 3-5 days before a body will start floating again. We had time to make the next plan.

We took the equipment back to Bagua Chica and began coordinating with representative groups from the Awajún communities. We spread the word of what had happened, hoping that if anyone found the body it would be returned to us to provide peace for the family. We sent out messages on the radios to inaccessible native villages. We made the difficult decision that we should not enter the section below at the present time to start a search party. The risk to the group was too high, representative groups from the local communities advised against it, especially in wake of us sending out word of a young Peruvian who had just drowned- nobody knew what rumors that might start within the communities.

Jhuliño’s family arrived in Bagua on Thursday 11th of June, two days after Jhuliño had disappeared. They were distraught, there were some very difficult moments. The group travelled with his family back to El Muyo. Minutes after our arrival, the police chief received word that a local fisherman had found a body outside of Imacita, 60km downriver.

I was thankful, and hopeful. Hopeful that this was the body of Jhuliño, because the not knowing, the unanswered was far more difficult. This would provide closure and peace for the family; for all of us. That the body had been found so quickly was incredibly lucky; in other cases in this area it had taken weeks or even months for bodies to be recovered.

Henry, Matt and I went to Imacita in a minivan with Jhuliño’s father and uncle. We arrived around midnight. After going through details with the local police, they showed us a body on a stretcher on the ground out the back of the local hospital. Jhuliño’s father made a positive identification; difficult to do after two days in the water. The police went through formalities and it became apparent that we needed to take the body back to the morgue in Bagua straight away; there was nobody else in the small jungle town who was going to do it. Work was required of Matt, Henry and myself which I don’t think any of us ever could have imagined or considered. I want to thank both Matt and Henry for the incredible strength they shared through that night. We arrived at the morgue around 4am.

Friday started early at 7am. Making funeral arrangements, buying clothes, arranging transport so that Jhuliño’s body would be returned to his home in Tupén. That evening we travelled by car high into the mountains, carrying the coffin with us. We arrived at 4am.

After a couple of hours nap, hike began at dawn on Saturday. Family, friends and members of local villages came out to help carry the coffin on the 8 hour journey over mountainous tracks, back into the village of Tupén. 6 members of our team went on this journey; we were originally worried how we would be received by the people of the village, whether they would be angry or blame us. These fears were misplaced. A group of boys carrying coconuts and oranges met us on our epic descent into the village. A kind gesture that made us feel welcome.

The people of Tupén were welcoming and treated us as family; they were grateful of our support through this difficult time, and grateful that we had made this journey to honor their fallen son. We recounted the story to them, offering a bit more understanding about how this could pass. It was great to get to know Jhuliño’s family better, and see their healing process start with closure after such an ordeal. The family was anxious to see us again, asking when we were going to return. I knew in that moment I could not give up on this project, and had to see it through to the end.

There were moments in the past week where I though the project might be over as far as I was concerned, where I could not continue. I seriously contemplated going home for the first time in a year and a half. I had thought that maybe the local people and family would not want me to continue in this project. Seeing their strength, kindness and fighting spirit gave me the will not to give in. To stop now would be to dishonor Jhuliño, it would be a waste of years of effort, right when we are on the cusp of bringing it all together.

Jhuliño, we will never know what thoughts crossed your mind in those final minutes. We do know what an incredible journey those 17 days were for you. It was the time of you life, shown through the hundreds and smiles and laughs you shared with us, you were truly a river person at heart. When I set out on this journey, that is exactly what I wanted to create. Incredible, unforgettable moments of a group of strangers coming together as family and making their way through the challenges and stunning beauty of a river journey. I am sad that this is the way it ended; you will forever be in our hearts and minds, on every river and future journey. We will carry your memory and continue this fight; inspired to go on by your incredible strength.

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