The big Amazon paddle: ExWeb interview with record kayaker Christian Bodegren

Posted: Aug 10, 2012 05:01 pm EDT

(Tina Sjogren) First time we heard of Christian Bodegren he was in an Egyptian oasis haggling for three females to bring on a 7000 km east-west expedition across the world’s largest desert, the Sahara.

The Swede went for Raifa, Kasala and little Marianne. Following seven-months of adventures together, Christian sold the dromedaries and returned North to top up his bank account.

When he re-emerged the next year, Christian was paddling against the current in the Orinoco flow.

Into the Amazon deltas

It was early September 2011 and Christian was headed south, "to experience the great continent before it's all gone" he told us. He launched his kayak in Tucupita, north in the Orinoco delta, and went straight for the thick of the jungle.

It was a huge expedition, probably a first, and many said it couldn't be done. For the distance obviously but also the style: unguided and counter current on wild rivers bloated by the massive downpours of the rainy season. "That my stubbornness lasted much longer than their doubts just feels extra nice now," reflected the explorer on a beach in Argentina, 280 days after the start in Venezuela.

Nearly a year of wet pasta and crocodile camps were over. In their stead: a melancholy familiar to explorers ending an extended journey. "The mind is clear and free from all confusion and everything is suddenly very obvious," Bodegren wrote, "only in the wilderness, I can feel it, and will miss it."

ExplorersWeb caught up with Christian over email for an interview soon after he got back home. Here goes.

ExplorersWeb: Hi Christian, congratulations! First of all, how did you come up with the idea to kayak the Amazon?

Christian: I always was interested in the nature and animal life of South America and read books about the first humans traveling the rivers.

As I started to study the different river systems the idea came to me about this expedition. Paddling a kayak seemed a good and inexpensive way to get around, watch the wildlife and meet the people.

Traveling this way would give me a chance to document the different lifestyles and how the river is faring in terms of pollution. When I found examples of people paddling parts of the area I realized it would be possible.

ExplorersWeb: Why counter current?

Christian: That was the only way to get down south and it proved the biggest difficulty for me in the start. I didn't know if going counter current could be done at all on the different tributaries because a river is a living element that changes constantly such as with rainfall.

You could paddle one stream easily one day but the next it would have changed completely. Sometimes a slow river is very fast around the corner which can get you in trouble quick enough if you paddle counter current.

Explorers Web: How did you choose the route, is this the longest paddle to your knowledge?

Christian: No, other people have probably paddled longer then I have in total. But I don’t think anyone has paddled along these rivers alone in one long expedition before.

I have never been into firsts or record times which seems to occupy many people out there. In my mind I’m always going to be the first to see, feel and get inspired in my own personal way.

I chose to go south from the top after studying maps, and after seeing what others had done there previously on different rivers and expeditions. I realized that if people had paddled some of these rivers before it must be possible to do it now.

Explorers Web: Did you have to carry the kayak at some points?

Christian: Yes, four times in total because of water dams, waterfalls and land between the rivers. I had not planned for it and had no contacts along the way. I was lucky to meet people around the river to help me, such as on the last overland leg when I was forced to catch a lift with my kayak from a gas station along the road.

Explorers Web: How often were you around people vs camping alone?

Christian: Most of the time I camped alone in the jungle, and many times I actually tried to avoid people because in some areas they will get you in trouble more than the animal life.

In parts with heavy drug trafficking I would be more careful than normal and hide when camping on the riverbanks. Where the banks were too steep I would ask small communities if I could camp there. Further down south where the beaches became more urban and crowded such as in Argentina I would ask permission to camp as well.

ExplorersWeb: Did you ever have crocs approaching your camp or kayak? How did you guard at night?

Christian: I slept in a hammock and was really careful about not leaving food and things out that could attract crocs and other animals.

I had a close encounter with a crocodile on the Orinoco river in southern Venezuela. I was rounding a corner and spooked this Jacare-acu (ed note: local for black Caiman) who tried to escape in the narrow section of water between my kayak and the riverbank. He kept bumping my kayak very hard, I was losing balance and nearly fell into the river.

I found the big ones less afraid and very curious even, sometimes I would have to scare them off when making camp. My biggest problem though were insects like ants and big clouds off mosquitos.

Explorers Web: How did you deal with the critters?

Christian: I kept everything closed up, sprayed the boat and hammock rope with insect spray almost daily, and tried to leave the kayak in the water as much as possible.

Armies of ants constantly tried to colonize the boat and in Paraguay a snake got on board. I was lucky to notice and remove it. Ants, spiders and similar insects always wanted to enter the hammock. Huge swarms of mosquitoes made relaxing very hard, and sometimes impossible to stay in the hammock after sundown. Just to undress without too many mosquitoes bites took planning.

Explorers Web: Other animals?

Christian: I did see poisonous snakes sometimes when making camp, but most animals fear us more than we should fear them. There were monkeys, river otters, and once I believe I saw the back off a big cat in the distance which could have been a jaguar.

Explorers Web: How did you research what gear to choose? What's most important: easy dry, lightweight, sturdy etc?

Christian: I had some jungle experience from my previous travels such as on Borneo in Asia.

I bought the old plastic kayak in Venezuela from my friend Aramis who actually was supposed to come with me but had a motorcycle accident one month before the expedition. I brought light clothing but still suffered heat rashes because off the humidity. I was very careful to clean my clothes every day so i wouldn't attract insects, and to prevent infections.

With food for about 15 days, the old kayak and all, I packed almost 90 kg which is a lot. But then I carried a week's worth of extra food in case I got sick somewhere in the jungle.

Explorers Web: Any infections? How did you heal?

Christian: Small cuts got infected very quickly. At one point my hands got sores that became a big problem. I had to stop paddling for a while and get on antibiotics. In the end of the Guapore river I caught a strange cold with a fever. I lost all energy, my entire body and joints were hurting, and it took a while to regain my strength.

Explorers Web: How did you cook, what did you eat and drink?

Christian: I mostly ate pasta and canned food like Sardines. I used a gas stove for the first 5 months until it got tired and broke. In the end I would just soften pasta in water for a few hours before camp, and fish occasionally (but that takes time an energy too). I sterilized the river water for drinking which worked very good.

ExplorersWeb: How did you fix broken gear?

Christian: I used dura poxy, a two component clay, to fix everything from a hole in the kayak to my glasses. And I would never leave without duct tape. I fixed my paddle with it when it broke in the lock.

ExplorersWeb: Did you swim in the river? How did you wash/shower?

Christian: I didn't swim in the river unless I saw other people doing it. Mostly I took bucket showers on the river banks because of the piranhas and stuff.

ExplorersWeb: What were people like? When I was on the Amazon some years back we had a few religious sects hiding for doomsday along the banks, what were your encounters?

Christian: Yes, people were very weird in some isolated communities. They didn’t greet me and just stared empty when I tried to communicate with them. In a few places women would become very afraid and rush into the jungle screaming when I approached in my kayak.

Explorers Web: Your three best advice to others in your footsteps?

1. Prepare mentally to paddle counter current because it's very hard to constantly be pushed back. I had moments screaming at the river for not getting anywhere. Remember that most rivers have a bracing point where the flow gets calmer and you can paddle more slowly again.
2. The humidity will destroy tech and electronics very fast and you need to find a solution for it.
3. Prevent infections such as heat rashes with good hygiene. Anti-mosquito clothes such as a hat with a net will help a lot around camp and in the kayak sometimes.

Being two people or more is helpful in difficult river areas and so is to take it easy, as your body will need some time to acclimate to the humidity.

Explorers Web: What was the hardest on your trip?

Christian: To paddle counter current in the rainy season.

Explorers Web: Most unexpected?

Christian: The heavy traffic in some parts of the river.

Explorers Web: How did this compare to the camel expedition?

Christian: If you plan well with food and water a desert expedition is easier. The climate is better and riding on dromedaries means you can rest. This adventure was more difficult compared to that. I had a hard time in the jungle with the humidity and the rainstorms.

Explorers Web: Have you got any media? Offers to give talks?

Christian: Not from Sweden. Only you and a Kayak magazine in US.

Explorers Web: What happens now, are you going back to the oil-rig?

Christian: Yes, hopefully I'll get my old job back.

ExplorersWeb: Next expedition?

Christian: Everything comes down to money and bureaucracy. Having solved the two, in 2014 I hope to go east. Don’t won’t to say too much before I know it’s going to happen though.

Christian Bodegren lives alone ("because it's hard to find someone who accepts my lifestyle") in a small apartment atop an old library in the village Marmorbyn (300 residents), surrounded by forests and lakes in Sweden. Coming from an outdoorsy family of five he loves to hike, bicycle and run.

To save up money for expeditions, he works on an oil rig and in construction in Norway, and as a carpenter in Sweden.

Books: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho was a good one.
Food: My mother’s home made Basil pie.
Music: Depends on what I'm doing. Maybe some Guns and Roses when putting up scaffolds. Folk music like the Swedish Cornelis Vreeswijk or Evert Taube when doing my dishes.
Hobbies: What I’m doing now. Also to hike in the forest back home, or cover a few miles with my old Volvo PV or on a MC.


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Christian Bodegren, paddling against the flow.
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
Big adventures are still out there.
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
His research showed it was probably doable, and a good way to experience the wilderness on the cheap.
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
He'd camp alone in the jungle, doing his best to stay stealth in drug-trafficking parts.
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
Spiders scrambled to enter the hammock while armies of ants tried to colonize the boat.
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
Infections set in, then a strange fever and cold.
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
Morning goodbyes.
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
"The old kayak and all, I packed almost 90 kg which is a lot," Christian says. "But then I carried a week's worth of extra food in case I got sick somewhere in the jungle."
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
A black Cayman almost flipped the boat.
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
Armadillo hitching a ride.
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
"In a few places women would rush into the jungle screaming when I approached," Christian said, but for most part people were nice.
Image by Unknown courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
It was a record breaking voyage. No guides, no support, from top to bottom, during rainy season, and counter current. "Have you got any media," we asked? "You and a Kayak magazine in US," Christian said.
Image by Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
Elevated sleeping camp. Ants, spiders and similar insects always wanted to enter the hammock. Christian sprayed the ropes with pesticides.
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
Time to finish this.
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE
"The mind is clear and free from all confusion and everything is suddenly very obvious," Bodegren wrote when he was done, "only in the wilderness can I feel it, and I will miss it."
Image by Christian Bodegren courtesy Christian Bodegren, SOURCE