Getting to Florida
The Missouri Basin
My boat and I are in Utah. Except for Nevada, Utah is the least promising state for starting a river trip in North America. The Colorado River does run through here, but it is a wild and unforgiving waterway that eats wooden boats for breakfast and amateur river runners for lunch. Kobuk is wood and I am an amateur, so that option was ruled out early on. Kobuk can be trailered, however, and the most promising option seems to be the Missouri River system. To follow it would be to travel in the steps of Lewis and Clark, and that could be interesting. I decided to launch Kobuk in the Wind River that runs north from the central part of Wyoming, changes identity to become the Bighorn River, merges with the Yellowstone, and eventually joins the Missouri more or less at the Montana-North Dakota border. The town of Riverton located next to the Wind River, close to the mountain range of the same name, may be about as far upstream as I could hope to get Kobuk into the water. In the near distance to the southwest of Riverton, the Wind River Range provides the headwaters for the Wind River and carries the continental divide separating the Colorado and Missouri River systems. The road from Utah into Riverton crosses the Wind River on the south side of town, and I hope to put in beside the bridge there. In that location, the river is about 4900' above sea level.
The Bighorn, Yellowstone, and Missouri are not without their hazards. The first problem is sufficient water flow in the Bighorn, which this far upstream is exceedingly shallow. Kobuk only draws about a foot of water, but the idea here is to get into the river as far upstream as possible, and that increases the risk of grounding. The headwaters of the Bighorn issue out of the Wind River Range, and the spring melt of their winter snows should peak in early June. If I am late getting ready and do not make it up there until after the peak flow, it may be necessary to go farther downstream before launching.
The Bighorn also has two reservoirs--the Boysen and the Bighorn--and in each case I will have to find a marina where someone with a trailer will be able to pull Kobuk out of the water and launch her on the downhill side of the dam. This should not be difficult, but it will be a recurring problem; there will be five more dams to get around on the Missouri River alone. Even the Yellowstone, which National Geographic recently celebrated as the last undammed river of any size in the lower forty-eight, has a couple weirs for diverting irrigation water--and these are not the sort of thing you can just run over the top of.
Below Boysen Reservoir, the Bighorn cuts through the Bridger Mountains in a notch that creates class two and class three rapids. Jet boats are capable of running gentle rapids if the pilot is knowledgeable about local conditions, but I am a novice and will have Kobuk hauled around this stretch of river. Once safely moored downstream, I will return to the reservoir dam and run the whitewater canyon in a cheap inflatable kayak that will be stowed on Kobuk and generally used as a tender. Downstream from the Yellowtail Dam there is another stretch of the Bighorn that is off limits for powered boats, and so a similar strategy will have to be used there.
From Montana to the Mississippi, the Missouri River descends in a series of steps--large reservoirs that often back up more than a hundred miles behind their dams. Lake Sakakawea, Lake Oahe, Lake Sharpe, Lake Francis Case, and Lewis and Clark Lake--these "water improvement projects" completed and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers are heavily used by boaters and should be easy to navigate. Downstream from the Yankton Dam, though, large boats can navigate the Missouri, and so from there to the confluence with the Mississippi the waterway is wide, maintained to some depth, and presumably busy with large boat traffic. Before the Army Corp of Engineers went to work on it, the Missouri was a notoriously hazardous river with a strong current, constantly shifting shallows, and a perversity of submerged snags waiting to puncture your boat. Given the rather uneventful journey of William Least Heat Moon up this waterway a few years ago, it seems safe to conclude either that the hazards are not extreme or that he was remarkably lucky. Let us hope it is the former. In any event, running downstream is by nature more hazardous because greater speed is required in order to keep headway and obstructions sighted at the last moment are harder to avoid.
The overall trip plan calls for a rate of progress of around 1000 miles per month, but the first few months will require a much more rapid pace if Kobuk is to avoid being caught in the mid-latitudes for the winter. Assuming that November 1st is the very latest that Kobuk should head south from New York City, the 6000 miles between Wyoming and there will have to be covered in about three months, or 2000 miles per month. This is feasible given the capabilities of Kobuk, but it applies even greater pressure for a timely departure. If I don't get under way until sometime in July, the time remaining to get to New York becomes distressingly short.
Getting to the Ocean
The Missouri River joins the Mississippi just north of St. Louis. From here, a downstream run past New Orleans and out into the Gulf of Mexico is the quickest route to sea level, and Mark Twain's masterpiece makes this an appealing option. But every choice exacts an opportunity cost, and Kobuk and I would prefer to see a little north country before heading into the tropics. Given this irrational choice, the most efficient route would be the Illinois River and Canal that connects the Mississippi to Lake Michigan and allows for a transit involving no portages at all. But would it not be more intriguing to journey up the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers to the town of Portage, get the boat hauled to the Fox River, and then run down into Green Bay? The countryside would be more appealing and the route caters to the alluring prospect of following in the canoe wakes of those early French Trappers. Also, it might be safer to start my Great Lake boating in the relative protection of Green Bay rather than at the extreme south end of unpredictable Lake Michigan, which has relatively few good harbors along its entire western shore. The Wisconsin route, though, will require four more haul outs--three for reservoir dams and one to get across the watershed divide at Portage. Time, unfortunately, is likely to emerge as the situational dictator: if there is enough of it we will push on to Portage but if not we will go see Chicago instead.
The Great Lakes are likely to be the first real test of Kobuk's seaworthiness in open waters. The large reservoirs along the Missouri will give an introduction to exposed conditions, but probably will not serve up anything much worse than has already been encountered on Lake Powell with its venturi tube canyons and wind-whipped chop. But the Great Lakes are a different matter, With far greater fetch, there is the potential for far meaner waves. Kobuk will be kept within striking distance of shore along planned legs that minimize the distance to a protective harbor. The irregular coastline of Michigan's Upper Peninsula offers better options for protection than the long, straight stretches of coastline farther south. The same coastal harbor-hopping strategy will be used to work along the north shore of Lake Huron, a remarkably irregular littoral with plenty of protected water but an obscene jumble of rocky outcrops. To inadvertantly go ashore here is to land on a rock. It should be good training for the Maine coast.
At the southeast extent of Georgian Bay, not far from the town of Penetanguishine, Kobuk will enter the Trent-Severn Waterway, a serene and picturesque waterway that links together a string of lakes and makes it possible to transit the Ontario Peninsula. It should be a welcome relief after the long stretches of watchfulness and anxiety of the Great Lakes, but the negotiating of locks may turn out to be more stressful that a novice might suppose. Still, in this stretch, errors of judgement are more likely to result in reparable damage rather than in utter disaster. The Trent Severn Waterway will deliver us into Lake Ontario at its eastern end, right near the start of the St. Lawrence River.
After passing through the Thousand Islands region, the St. Lawrence runs down to the sea, initially with New York to the southeast and Ontario to the northwest but eventually through the lowland heart of Quebec. Just upstream from Montreal, the Lachine Rapids may require the use of bypassing locks, but perhaps this is one whitewater area that Kobuk can navigate. We shall see. In any event, an arrival in Montreal will conjure nostalgic images: in the early 1960's I was an undergraduate student there and spent more time soaking up the city than I did studying. It has been nearly 40 years since I spent time there. From Montreal to Quebec City, the St. Lawrence lowland with its long lot farms and French Canadian villages will flank the route on both sides. Off to port, the Laurentian perimeter of the Canadian Shield will offer occasional glimpses of forested hill country in the distance, but to starboard flat farmland will sweep back from the river. When at last the city of Quebec comes into view, a 4000-mile traverse of the North American interior will come to an end for now the fresh water of the river begins to mix with the salt water of the St. Lawrence gulf.
The Northeast Coast
Now we come to the real reason for bypassing the lower Mississippi. Much I have seen of North America--not just in the United States but in Canada and Mexico as well--and yet the far northeast has never been part of my journeys. The Gaspe and the Maritime provinces are an unknown world of rocky promontories and thinly settled landscapes that I must see it before I die. At first, the Gulf of St. Lawrence is little more than an overwide river, but eventually it broadens out to embrace a fair bit of sea. Even so, its gaping mouth is littered with obstructions--large islands like Newfoundland and Cape Breton--that protect it from the full force of the North Atlantic. This modest porotection recommends it as a place to first do a little ocean voyaging. And yet, it is the inital departure from Quebec City that is most likely to offer the biggest challenge for the coast of the Gaspe Peninsula along which Kobuk will proceed is a long, steady stretch of straight running headlands with few harbors or protected waters along the way. In such a situation, the question will always be: "Will the weather hold?"
If there is time, a side trip up the Saguenay would be an unforgettable experience. This glacially scoured river course that slices through the perimeter of the Laurentian Shield would be about as close as one could get to cruising an east coast fjord--unless one is to seriously contemplate the prospect of heading north along the coast of Laborador (if only the summer season were not so brief). The Saguenay option is a real possibility, but only if Kobuk manages to get ahead of schedule. To get there would involve following the north shore of the Gulf rather than the south, and then crossing back over to the Gaspe side.
The small, French villages along the forbidding coast of the Gaspe will offer refuge in their diminutive harbors, but they are far apart and few in number; for a few hundred miles, straight coastlines of grass-crowned bluffs will drop precipitously to the sea. It is altogether fitting that a place of such rugged beauty should carry a faint scent of navigational risk. But then the peninsula rounds to an end and Kobuk rides down into more protected waters with a gentler landscape and a more frequently indented coast. The Baie des Chaleurs, Mirimachi Bay, Northumberland Strait, St. George's Bay--these havens will give Kobuk a respite from the anxious thoughts of getting caught on a lee shore with a stalled engine and rising waves. The Maritime provinces are little known and underappreciated, a godsend in this modern world of glitz and growth. Here in these more peaceful waters I will read Anne of Green Gables and rest up for the upcoming foray into the coastal waters of the Atlantic.
I had thought it would be advisable to get Kobuk transported across the narrow neck of land separating the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Bay of Fundy, for the distance is only 15 miles and the alternative route down the east coast of Nova Scotia is raw and exposed. Still, the Bay of Fundy is remarkable for its tidal extremes and so I decided in the end to leave Kobuk in the water and risk going the long way around. After all, the east coast of Nova Scotia is not that different from the Maine coast whish must eventually be traversed anyway. Both have numerous capes and bays and rocky outcroppings that can on occasion be thickly cloaked in fog. Both are facing the open Atlantic with its attendant risk of gales and storms. And both are, of course, peerlessly beautiful.
South from Maine, the major risk ceases to be fogbound rocks and ocean storms. Instead, the clutter of marine traffic becomes the major danger. Boston, NewBedford, Providence, New Haven, and finally New York are the origins and destinations of countless ships that come in all sizes, the larger of which often do not keep a human watch for traffic (and could not, in any event, swerve to avoid a collision) and the smaller of which often are crewed by mistake-prone amateurs like myself. The farther south one goes through this zone, the more frenetic the ocean traffic will become. After crossing the harbor approaches of Boston, and cheating the coastline in the Cape Cod Canal, and running down through Buzzards Bay, the ultimate leg to New York harbor is a 150 mile traverse of Long Island Sound dodging the big ships.
Shortly before arriving at New York, there will be two layovers. New Haven on the Connecticut coast is where Michelle and Carl and Rowan live, and I will spend some time there reminding myself of what it means to be a father and agrandfather. Then, on Long Island, not far from New York City, Port Washington houses the manufacturing facilities of Rotary Power Marine Corporation, the company that provided the the engine for Kobuk. I will spend a few days there being trained in engine maintenance and repair. Finally, the East River will take me to New York harbor. If I can arrive by the middle of October then it would be safe to spend a week or two seeing the sights, but if November is already upon us as Kobuk and I enter the harbor, then there will be no time to spare, and at least for a few more weeks we will have to keep moving, moving.
The Intracoastal Waterway
All along the coast from New York to Miami the continent slips into the ocean like a cautious cat slinking under the covers. Unlike the Maritimes and New England where glacially scrubbed hills march off into the sea, the nearly flat coastal plain south of New York intersects the ocean at an angle so acute as to be almost invisible. Long, straight stretches of sandy beach string together all along this coast; bluffs and headlands are virtually nonexistent here. Deep water is distant from the shore and the broad shallows stretching out to sea deform the incoming waves to create a zone of compressed wave trains with each heightened crest pressing up against the one in front of it, like cars in slow moving traffic.
Many streams flow across the coastal plain and end their journey in these offshore shallows where their currents decelerate to a stop. Sediment carried out onto this shelf is deposited there and offshore ocean currents shape it into a string of long, low, sandy barrier islands behind which lies a network of lagoons and estuaries. These shifting islands usually are separated from each other by narrow gaps and passages through which the ocean's tidal action ebbs and flows. All those protected waters between the mainland and the islands have become the basis for the Intracoastal Waterway, a boat channel that starts in New England and runs all the way to southern Florida. Much of the time the Waterway uses the protected lagoons for its channel, but in many areas a canal has been excavated to transit sections of the coast otherwise lacking in total protection from the vagaries of the open ocean. For the most part, the Intracoastal is used by pleasure boats and not commercial ships. It has, of course, the sorts of businesses arrayed along its flanks that one would expect to find next to a busy transportation corridor: marinas, restaurants, boat repair facilities, bars, and all the other accoutrements expected by the modern American traveller.
Kobuk has a choice therefore: to glide along in the protection and convenience of the Intracoastal or to challenge the open ocean beyond the barrier islands. At this stage, while Kobuk and I are still inexperienced, the safer option is the only reasonable choice. Perhaps at times, if conditions will permit, a day's run outside the islands will provide a respite from civilization, but for most of the journey Kobuk will follow the Intracoastal.
The main risks associated with cruising in the Intracoastal are running aground or colliding with other ships. Since speeds are limited in the narrower parts of the Intracoastal, any heightened risk of either type is likely to occur when boat speeds are relatively low. Because it is so busy, running the Intracoastal is indeed a risky business, but the consequences of a disaster are less likely to be trip-ending than are the various evil scenarios that must be avoided along most other legs of the journey to Argentina.
Although much of the Intracoastal involves a sedate passage in a relatively narrow routeway, there are a few exceptional areas where wind and waves can whip up a nasty brew. Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay may be protected from the ocean, but their broad dimensions make them comparable in size to small Great Lakes. So too with Pamlico Sound, the enormous lagoon splayed out behind North Carolina's notorious Cape Hatteras. Even so, the irregular nature of the coastline fronting on these large bodies of water means that whenever the weather deteriorates a protected bay or inlet usually will be near at hand.
Across the Caribbean
Some may doubt that a boat like Kobuk, designed for protected waters, can expect to transit nearly 3000 miles of open ocean. She is not designed for ocean cruising, after all, and her low freeboard is a real disadvantage in a high wind and rough sea. But if Kobuk is going to go to sea at all, where better than in the tropics where temperatures are warm and the trade winds blow predictably? It is true that the northeast trades can kick up a nasty sea, and especially in confined straits between islands, but rarely do atmospheric depressions invade the region--except during the hurricane season--and so truly threatening conditions should not much occur in the winter. Winter is the time to cross from Florida to Venezuela, and that is when Kobuk will do it.
Throughout the Caribbean, small, undecked fishing boats go offshore daily only to return late in the afternoon. Many of these cannot be any more seaworthy than Kobuk, and so she should be able to do what they do. Although Kobuk will have to voyage farther from shore than most fishing boats do, the island of departure will not slip below the horizon until the island of destination begins to rise up out of the sea. When Cuban refugees set out for Florida they must cross 100 miles of open ocean and this is farther than any of the crossings Kobuk will have to make to get to Venezuela. When Haitian boat people do the same thing they face a 600 mile journey, although at no point are they more than 70 miles from Cuba or one of the Bahamian islands. Most of Kobuk's passages will be less than 40 miles, and these can be done in daylight. There are four exceptions. Getting from the coast of Florida out to the Bahamas will require a crossing of about 65 miles, and this is likely to be with a strong setting current and contrary winds. From Great Inagua Island at the south end of the Bahamas it is about 65 miles to Haiti--although it is only 55 miles to Cuba, and then another 55 to Haiti. The Anegada Passage that separates the Virgin Islands from Anguilla is about 80 miles across, although there are a couple very small islands in the passage that could provide temporary protection if needed. After that, the little Windward Islands are strung so close together that each new destination should be in sight almost as soon as a crossing starts. Only at the very southern end is there another long passage: an 80 mile leg from Grenada to Trinidad.
For these longer passages, the crucial task will be to arrive before the end of day; a landfall at night is always a treacherous business and on this trip it is going to be avoided whenever possible. At full throttle and at sea level, Kobuk can easily cover 100 miles in three hours, but that presumes flat water which is highly unlikely in the Caribbean. It is far more likely that wind and waves will limit Kobuk's speed to the 5-10 miles per hour range, and this means that I should plan on about 15 hours of non-stop travel for the very longest passages. Since some of a passage would have to be done in the dark, the most sensible strategy would be to depart in the middle of the night and plan on arriving late the following afternoon. At such slow speeds it would be nice to rely on the auxiliary engine and its very low rate of fuel consumption, but there are a couple considerations that virtually dictate that a long passage will be done using the main engine. If conditions are rough, it would be preferable to use the main engine because the jet drive provides excellent maneuverability for shaping a course through the choppy water whereas the auxiliary has a steering system that responds slowly. If, on the other hand, conditions are favorable for a more rapid rate of progress, then the main engine can take advantage of the situation and deliver Kobuk to her destination as quickly as possible--which of course would limit the amount of time during which weather conditions might deteriorate.
The first part of the Caribbean crossing takes Kobuk through the Bahamas along a predominantly south-southeast trajectory. This zone has lots of shallows and low islands. In shallow areas, the wave trains that in deep water are broad and rolling become somewhat abrupt and choppy. Since the northeast trades will tend to bring in waves from that direction, Kobuk may find herself rolling uncomfortably as waves approach on the port beam. More serious, though, is the multitude of low islands and nasty shoals in this area. To avoid running aground on coral--a very unpleasant prospect--it will be necessary to keep a constant, careful watch and to navigate with the aid of good, updated charts.
Once south of the Bahamas, Kobuk turns left and travels many hundreds of miles on an easterly heading, passing by Hispaniola and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. There will be two main problems during this part of the Caribbean crossing, one of which is nautical and the other political. The navigational problem is that the easterly heading is likely to be driving Kobuk directly into the oncoming ocean waves, and that would exploit one of her greatest potential weaknesses: vulnerability to a harsh pitching motion in rough water. To deal with this, Kobuk will cruise along the southern coasts of both Hispaniola and Puerto Rico in the hope that the island masses will provide a little shelter from the northeast trades. Whenever there is rough water and harsh motion, though, the only option will be to proceed at a very slow pace.
From the Caribbean on, there is likely to be a somewhat higher risk of theft and piracy. Kobuk is an open boat outfitted with the usual diversity of desirable items--collapsible bicycle, inflatable kayak, auxiliary outboard, GPS, radio, laptop computer, and countless lesser items. The cabin can be locked up, but the aft area where the larger items are stored is completely exposed. Even the cabin would be easy to break into and everything on the boat has to be viewed as at risk. All that can be done, really, is to be cautious about leaving the boat, lock the cabin, anchor whenever possible, stay on board in busy ports, and pay to have Kobuk watched. As for piracy, it is less likely than petty theft but would be hard to thwart if it did happen. Many have suggested taking along a firearm, but it would never make it through customs when entering a new country and a hidden gun discovered by a customs agent would precipitate a nightmare of a different sort. Better to simply proceed alert to the risks and optimistic about avoiding them.
Through South America
To the Heart of the Amazon
Now begins a part of the voyage that pushes the limits of self reliance. In spite of the hazards and risks associated with crossing North America and the Caribbean, it is the problems of interior South America that present the biggest challenge. This is a region where towns are far apart and hundreds of miles of wilderness make breakdowns a thing to be avoided. The next couple thousand miles are short on ready assistance: no AAA here, no convenient marinas--or even grocery stores. People talk about the risk of pirates and mutter about the danger of drug dealers and cannibals, but I actually worry myself more about the prospect of running out of gas or having some sort of electrical problem that paralyzes both engines. Well, if that happens I guess it will be a long, slow drift downstream.
From Port-of-Spain, it is a minor crossing to the delta of the Orinoco, and the long trek upstream should be a fairly simple matter for Kobuk. There is a problem, though: a short distance upstream from Puerto Ayacucho the Atures Rapids block the way. They probably will not be navigable and Kobuk will have to be hauled around. There is a road on the Venezuelan side of the river in this area but the odds are high that it is little more than a rough dirt track. Still, it must exist: Don Starkell and his son used it to manually haul their fully laden canoe around the rapids when they passed through a number of years ago.
There is one hope for an upstream passage. The Orinoco runs through a tropical area with big seasonality in its rainfall--wet in the "summer" but dry in the "winter." The winter dry season greatly diminishes the flow in the river at which time the rocks and snags of the rapids will be exposed and navigation surely will be impossible. But in the summer the level of the river rises unbelievably and the rapids could become a zone of intensely strong current and extreme surface turbulence, but reasonable clearance of the rocks below. Trying to punch up through this kind of fast moving flood of jumbled water may not be advisable, but it may be possible. If this prospect holds any chance for success, it would be advisable to motor up the Orinoco in the summer wet season--an ideal timing since the crossing of the Caribbean could be done in the winter and spring immediately preceding. Isn't it convenient that the passage through that island strewn zone would have to be stretched out over the entirety of the hurricane-free season, the six months at the start of 2005? I wonder whether it would be better to idle away the time in Dominica or the Virgin Islands, in Guadeloupe or St. Vincent? Ah well, with Bike Friday on board I suppose I will be able to fill the void with leisurely trips around tropical islands.
Upstream from the rapids, the Orinoco continues to be navigable all the way to the headwaters wilderness where the Yanomami live. Only a short distance downstream from there, when the river already is snaking across the jungled flatlands of the vast tropical interior, its flow divides and a small part distributes into a curious stream called the Casiquiare that wanders southwest for two hundred miles before merging with the Rio Negro and eventually the Amazon. Humboldt was the first European to discover this hydrological curiosity and when he passed through he was so badly tortured by insects that his exploratory party was driven to sleep under nettings during the daylight hours and only cruising at night when the bugs were not about. On the other hand, Redmond O'Hanlon voyaged up the Casiquiare from the Rio Negro a few years ago and his amateur adventurers were little bothered by bugs. On the other hand, his side trips on the Rio Passimoni and Rio Siapa left him weak in the knees from mosquitoes, ants, black flies, hornets, and scorpions--so maybe their appearance on the Casiquari is just a matter of timing. Bugs or no bugs, there is little doubt that the Casiquiare is big enough to accomodate Kobuk: when he entered the waterway from the Rio Negro it struck him as being 1,500 feet across--and most of its water comes from the Orinoco.
The Rio Negro is, of course bigger, its dark waters the consequence of tanins released when lowland jungle vegetation decays. Only a few miles downstream from the merging of the two rivers, the small town of San Carlos sits on the left bank--Venezuela's southernmost outpost, facing Brazil across the waters. Not far from here the Negro becomes a purely Brazilian stream and the maps I have show no significant Brazilian towns or villages in that area. I do not know how one manages the formalities of this particular border crossing, but others have done it so it must be possible.
There appear to be villages scattered along the banks of the Rio Negro but all are literally dots on the map and have more the appearance of map fillers than legitimate towns. This is a matter of some consequence since the Rio Negro run from San Carlos to Manaus is 800 miles. Eight hundred miles of broad waters--often a couple miles across--with not towns of any significance raises the spectre of fuel shortage. If I use only the small auxiliary outboard and always avoid running the main engine, the two 25 gallon fuel tanks should move Kobuk 400-500 miles before running dry. Of course, the run is with the current and that should help considerably, but fuel is still a question mark on this part of the journey. In fact, the problem may even be more running upstream from Puerto Ayacucho on the Orinoco. It will be more than 300 miles against the current before turning right and slipping down the Casiquiare for another 200 miles--all without any significant towns en route. San Fernando de Atabapo may have fuel and could shorten that distance by a hundred miles, but in any event there is an Amazonian stretch of nearly 1,500 miles in which the prospects for getting gas are not good.That's like driving from New York to Kansas City with poor prospects for finding a gas station--much worse, in fact, since most cars get 20-30 miles per gallon whereas Kobuk will be lucky to get 10 even when there is no contrary current. This, I expect, will be the biggest problem traversing the lowland jungles of South America, and the coping strategies will be two: never set out from one fuel stop without learning from the locals the next sure source of fuel, and litter the aft area of Kobuk with as many extra plastic fuel jugs as seems prudent.
Upstream to Bolivia
Manaus, the former rubber capital of the world, that isolated metropolis in the heart of the Amazon, is a great city of sorts with plenty of fuel and probably more than a few touts and thieves. It will not be easy to pass it by, but Kobuk will be at risk as long as I stay there, I imagine, so I will try to find a way to restock, refuel, and recharge--and then be gone. Getting from the Caribbean to Manaus will have been one sort of challenge; heading south from Manaus will be of a totally different sort. Now the problem is going to be a long upstream run with many, many rapids--and then an imposing river basin transfer from the Amazon to the Paraguay-Parana.
By the time the Rio Negro reaches Manaus it is headed due east towards the South Atlantic, and only a few miles downstream its black waters are laminated up against the muddy, brown flow of the mainstem Amazon with which it joins at an acute angle. So large is the Rio Negro that its volume of flow challenges--and may even surpass--that of the Amazon. These two behemoths keep to their respective sides of the broad channel; I wonder whether their distinct waters will still have failed to mix completely by the time the Madeira joins their flow from the south, about a hundred miles downstream from Manaus.
I will turn right and head up this Amazonian tributary, a very large river that in any other context would be the biggest and best known. When we start to challenge its massive flow, Kobuk will already have put a hundred miles between herself and her last fuel fill. Now there lie ahead two hundred more miles pushing against a 3-5 mile per hour current before reaching Novo Aripuana, a small riverside settlement with no connecting roads to anywhere--but whose status as a town promises fuel availability. Here's the problem: Kobuk's powerful main engine can push her at 35 miles an hour but will deplete the 50 gallon fuel supply in about 175 miles. The small outboard auxiliary has far greater range--about 450 miles--but can only drive Kobuk at 6-7 miles per hour. Simple math suggests that pushing against the river current will cut its range in half. Since the hundred miles of downstream run will have consumed some of the fuel aboard, it is unlikely that Kobuk can make it to Novo Aripuana without running dry.
The next leg in the voyage is similarly problematic. Humaita lies 250 miles upstream from Novo Aripuana and there appear to be no significant settlements between them. Fifty miles of upstram travel probably will consume more fuel than a hundred miles running with the current, so this stretch poses an even bigger problem with cruising range. All through the Amazon basin it will be necessary to lash on board a number of plastic jerry cans filled with gas. If four five gallon containers can be carried inboard and two tied outboard, the additional thirty gallons of fuel may be enough to solve the problem.
Manaus is the only location in the heart of the Amazon basin where a highway reaches the riverside. From Puerto Ayacucho to Manaus there are no roads; so too from Manaus to Humaita. But here in Humaita--this rapidly growing town of about 20,000 inhabitants--a highway aspires to cross the Madeira and the absence of a bridge means that a ferry must make the connection. Upstream from here, a highway will be parallelling the river--not next to it but a small distance to the west. In other words, there is at this point a temporary return to the edge of civilization and this will improve the chance of getting help if something bad happens. Only a couple hundred miles farther upstream is Porto Velho, a real city with a bridge across the river.
After the anxious days of monitoring fuel and avoiding pratfalls in the Amazonian wilds, this leg of the journey should be somewhat less stressful. But upriver from Porto Velho a new unknown obstructs the way. The Cachoeira dos Morrinhos, the Cachoeira Galdeirao do Inferno, the Salto do Jirau, the Cachoeira Tres Irmaos, the Cachoeira do Paredao, and the Cachoeira Pedemeira: these are the little blue landmarks indicated on the map--names for rapids and waterfalls. And this is only in the mainstem Madeira up to the Bolivian border. Beyond that and continuing on up the Rio Mamore tributary (which we must take) are the Cachoeira das Araras, the Cachoeira dos Periquitos, the Cachoeira Chocolatal, the Cachoeira Ribeirao, the Cachoeira de Madeira, the Cachoeira das Bananeiras, the Cachoeira Guajara-Acu, and the Cachoeira das Sete Ahas. Between Wyoming and Buenos Aires there is nothing more likely to derail the grand plan than these unknown stretches of whitewater. They may be passable; they may not. They may be circumventable; they may not. But one thing is for sure: they are numerous.
For the first couple hundred miles voyaging up the Rio Mamore, Brazil will be to port and Bolivia to starboard. Then the duties of border demarcation are assumed by a tributary of the Mamore--the Rio Guapore. Where the Guapore joins the flow of the Mamore a decision will have to be made. On the one hand, Kobuk could continue on southward up the Mamore for about 600 miles until reaching a major highway that runs east-west between Bolivia's lowland city of Santa Cruz and Brazil's Matto Grosso. A few hundred miles east of where the highway crosses the Rio Mamore it reaches the Rio Paraguay, and that is the intended conduit for an unobstructed downstream run to Buenos Aires. Santa Cruz is a relatively large city where it should be possible to hire a truck and trailer for transporting Kobuk, but there is something aesthetically dissatisfying about hauling her such a long distance overland.
On the other hand, Kobuk and I could head up the Rio Guapore following that southeastern course which forms the border between Bolivia and Brazil. After navigating 600 miles on this stream, Kobuk would be positioned for a 30-50 mile portage on a bad rural road that affords access to a small tributary of the Rio Paraguay. Whether the Rio Guapore could be navigated so far upstream is not a certainty. Whether the bad road is a feasible transit route for Kobuk is even more doubtful. Still, this is the vastly preferable option not just because a short portage would be more in the spirit of the whole venture but also because it would get Kobuk into the Rio Paraguay farther upstream where the Pantanal--an endless maze of rainey season swamps--is home for a peerless abundance of wildlife. And that is not all: passage up the Rio Guapore would pass along the flank of the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, a remarkable plateau that is removed from the surrounding subtropical lowlands by cliffs that drop away on all sides. Over a hundred miles in length and more than a thousand feet elevated, it is a world apart from its surroundings. It is, in fact, the presumed inspiration for The Lost World, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's science fiction classic about British explorers who deep in the interior of South America discover a fabulous plateau on which survive in splendid isolation not just prehistoric humans but apelike humaniods and pterodactyls as well.
Downstream to Buenos Aires
I have searched but cannot find any serious problems to anticipate in this final leg of the voyage. It is true that the wet season inundates the Pantanal; it becomes a maze of tangled swampland so extensive and so disorganized that the course of the river is hidden. Still, this does not sound like such a big problem. What does it matter if Kobuk and I are lost for a few days? Surely, in the end the best route south will reveal itself and the main channel of the Rio Paraguay will carry us on toward the final destination. Once past the Pantanal, the river runs broad and unobstructed for about 1600 miles--no dams, no rapids, no waterfalls, no shallows (as far as I know). It will be 1000 miles to Ascuncion--the first big city--but there appear to be plenty of large towns and a few small cities along the way for buying fuel. Another 250 miles and the Rio Paraguay joins with the much larger Parana to form a big, broad river of Amazonian dimensions. From there to the estuary the river should do most of the work; Kobuk and I will go with its flow.
The estuary of the Rio de la Plata, that trumpet horn of broadening sea waters wedged between Uruguay and Argentina, acutally serves the Rio Uruguay, but the Paraguay-Parana joins if from the west only a short distance before Buenos Aires appears on the horizon. What will it be like to arrive at that grand city? Will it be exciting to achieve the aim of this strange venture or will a melancholic soberness sweep over me as I approach its harbor? I imagine a blend--a peculiar blend of both. I suppose it is presumptuous to think about a successful completion of such an odd venture, but what choice is there. Should I imagine any other outcome? I think not. Whether my image of success is realistic is beside the point. Only the idea of arriving will keep the us on the move--Kobuk and me.