Photos and Words by Jess McGlothlin
"People are changed by the jungle."
The words came from the darkness next to me, tinted with the lyrical tones of a Peruvian accent. We were all exhausted; soaking from a late-afternoon deluge as we'd stopped to unload the boats for the night and worn from a week of travel. But it was a satisfied exhaustion, one where life is just as it should be.
When in the midst of good people in an exceptional place, it's hard to be anything but satisfied. And in these places when life is drawn down to its most simple aspects, it's possible to see just how much experience changes us.
Our mission, on the outside, was fairly simple: mount our standup paddleboards and explore a region of the Peruvian Amazon in and around Manu National Park. Pepe Lopez, the expedition's organizer, had assembled a largely-Peruvian team made of savvy river men, whitewater kayakers and seasoned standup paddlers.
We were eager to see what the jungle might hold for us. The goal was to accomplish the first SUP descents on several Amazon tributaries, including the Queros, the Pini Pini, the Tono and eventually the Upper Madre de Dios.
Our group started high in the Peruvian Andes, crossing over the mountains as we drove the two-day trek from Cusco into the Madre de Dios region. After a few days spent tracing the headwaters of the jungle rivers high in the Cloud Forest, we proceeded to follow the rivers, dropping further into the jungle and meeting muddy waters with a mere one to two inches of visibility and hot temperatures.
The team performed admirably, meeting the calmer, darker waters with laughter and plenty of bug spray. We camped several nights in the jungle, treated to superb camp cooking from various members of the team and parsing the next day's gear by the light of our various headlamps. Offer good food in great company, and it doesn't matter where you sleep.
The trip was a success, but the accomplishments seemed to pale in the scope of the sheer hungriness of the place around us. Some environments seem to be passive, others even supportive. Not this place -- the jungle tests you. Pushes you. There's no room for weakness. And there's a visceral glory to that.