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Joe Kane Ran the Mighty Amazon and Lived to Tell the Tale

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Some people will do anything to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. Bruce Block balanced 211 cigar boxes on his chin. Errol Bird yodeled for 26 hours. Janet Harris ate 7,175 baby peas—with chopsticks—and Frenchman Michel Lotito went several bites further by swallowing the parts of 10 bicycles, seven TV sets and six chandeliers.

Joe Kane, a San Francisco writer, inadvertently joined this flock of dubious achievers by risking his life. Kane, 35, is the first American to travel the full 4,200-mile length of what may be the world’s most treacherous river: the Amazon. But it was not the lust for glory that lured Kane to South America in 1985. He wanted to chronicle the adventures of a multinational expedition that aimed to trace the river from its source high in the Peruvian Andes to its union with the Atlantic Ocean, a feat that had never been accomplished. Of the original 10-member team, which traveled by foot, raft and kayak, only four went the full distance. Kane was one of them. Running the Amazon is his just-published account of that punishing six-month journey.

In July 1985, Kane was tapping out his weekly consumer-service column for the San Francisco Chronicle when he received a call from Francois Odendaal, a butterfly expert from South Africa who was then teaching at Duke University. A mutual friend had suggested Kane as a possible publicist for an Amazon voyage that Odendaal was planning. “I told him he had a book,” says Kane, who later nominated himself as author.

Bored with his job and growing edgy about his relationship with a longtime girlfriend, Kane joined the expedition without considering its perils. “I imagined white-water rafting on the Amazon would not be that different from rafting on the Sacramento, where you’d trail a six-pack of beer in an inner tube,” he says. “I thought, ‘Big deal. We’ll float down the river, see some jungle, meet some Indians. This’ll be great.’ ”

Six weeks later Kane landed in Lima, looking as if he had stepped out of a Banana Republic catalog. “I had the safari hat, the khaki shirt with epaulets, my Portable Conrad and an expedition bag the size of a desk top,” he says. “It’s embarrassing to think of it now.” Although he was a weak swimmer who had never kayaked, Kane considered himself fit from a daily routine of 200 push-ups. He also spoke Spanish and was acquainted with Latin American cultures.

The journey began in September with a trek high into the ice-blue Andes. The explorers included two Poles, two South Africans of British descent, three Afrikaners, a Costa Rican naturalist and a British doctor, the only female on the team. Up they climbed, fighting back nausea and thundering headaches, their kayaks teetering atop a procession of balky burros, until they reached the river’s source, a glittering icefall nearly 18,000 feet above sea level.

The more experienced watermen in the group launched their kayaks 30 miles below the source point on the Apurimac River, a fast, dangerous torrent that runs into other tributaries of the Amazon. Kane and three others followed unmarked trails parallel to the river, carrying 40-pound packs of food, camping gear and medical supplies. After withering 12-hour treks, the hikers settled down to pisco (grape brandy) and vacuum-packed stews perked up with wild herbs they had foraged. Each night, Kane would fill his notebooks with the day’s impressions, often nodding off mid-sentence.

Three weeks into the expedition, the hikers joined the kayakers on the river in a raft, headed for Peru’s deadly Acobamba Abyss, a 40-mile chute of roiling, roller-coaster rapids. “That’s when it really hit home that I was in way over my head,” says Kane. “I bounced through the rocks like a pinball.” Again and again the rafters were pitched into the river, and at one point Kane found himself trapped in a white-water hole. “I felt a tremendous force sucking me down. There was no light. I knew I was drowning,” he says. “In an eerie way it was peaceful. There was nothing I could do.”

Fate, however, intervened, propelling Kane out of the abyss into a patch of gentler water where a teammate pulled him to safety. For months afterward, Kane would relive the experience in nightmares. “It became not a matter of did I have enough to write about,” he says, “but would I live to write it.”

Not all the hazards on the journey were imposed by nature. On one occasion the voyagers unwittingly set up camp near a Peruvian drug lord’s cocaine compound; on another they dodged bullets in a war zone controlled by a brigade of Shining Path guerrillas. As dangers multiplied, so did tensions. Schedule setbacks, dwindling supplies and dissatisfaction with Odendaal’s leadership had fractured the expedition, which partially disbanded in mid-November.

Six members flew home. Photographer Zbigniew Bzdak and physician Kate Durrant made their way to the sea via motorboat, while Kane and Piotr Chmielinski, a strong-willed Pole who had drilled Kane in the art of river survival, paddled sea kayaks the remaining 3,600 miles through the Amazon basin. This more tranquil leg of the trip offered time for reflection. “I had learned the difference between travel and movement, fear and anxiety,” he says. “I learned to put my life in other people’s hands and have that faith rewarded.”

Kane also learned something about perseverance. On Feb. 19, 1986, he and Chmielinski dipped their paddles into the salty Atlantic. “We were so beaten up by then,” says Kane, who was suffering from malnutrition and inflamed wrist tendons, “that I felt relief more than euphoria.”

Writing his Amazon diary over the next 18 months helped ease Kane’s reentry. “It was difficult to adjust after learning to live in the open,” he says, “and my nightmares lasted about a year. But having been away also made it easier to be back home.” In 1988 he married the girlfriend he had left behind, Elyse Axell, 32, a lawyer, with whom he shares a cottage on San Francisco’s Portero Hill. “When he left,” she says, “I thought he would never survive. Now traveling is Joe’s line of work. That makes him more interesting than the average guy.”

Currently this not-so-average guy is editing a monthly rain-forest newsletter and contemplating his next trek into the wilderness. “It’s important to remember how wild and crazy the world is in its natural state and to really feel it,” he says. “This trip taught me the difference between knowing something intensely and experiencing it vicariously. Even now when I’m feeling my life makes no sense, it’s nice to have that in my memory bank—to know it was real and not a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie.”