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Amazon Extreme
by Colin Angus with Ian Mulgrew
Anchor Canada
256 pages, $19.95

reviewed by Joe Wiebe
posted March 11, 2005

As you read this, Colin Angus should be in a rowboat along the eastern coast of Siberia. On June 1, he and Tim Harvey set out from Vancouver on bicycle with the goal of travelling all the way to Moscow completely under their own power. They have already endured several challenges that nearly ended their expedition: forest fires closed the only highway between Whitehorse and Fairbanks — undeterred, they bought a canoe, loaded their 700 lbs. of gear into it, and paddled 1600 kilometres in less than two weeks; later, on their first attempt to row across the Bering Sea, a storm blew up without warning and battered their boat, the Bering Charger (an eighteen-foot “trailer sailer” they converted into an ocean-worthy rowboat) for three days before they were finally rescued by a Russian research ship.

At press time, Colin and Tim had repaired their boat of the damage done by the storm, and started their second attempt to cross the Bering. Assuming they succeed, they will still have 13,000 kilometres (equivalent to crossing Canada twice) left to cover under their own steam, and much of that will take place in the depths of the Siberian winter, where temperatures can fall below -60? Celsius.

This is nothing new to Colin Angus, who has accomplished similar challenges before. In 2000, he became the first Canadian to run the Amazon from source to sea. In 2001, he followed that up by travelling the length of the Yenisey, a little-known river that runs from Mongolia through Siberia to the Arctic Ocean, and just happens to be the world’s fifth longest, at 5,500 kilometres. He has produced two documentary films about those expeditions, and his book Lost in Mongolia was released a year ago. Amazon Extreme originally came out in 2001, but the publisher folded soon after its release. Now, Anchor Canada has re-released it.

Amazon Extreme tells of Angus’ experiences as he and two friends, Ben Kozel, an Australian who also accompanied him on the Yenisey expedition, and Scott Borthwick, a South African, attempted to raft the length of the Amazon, starting in September 1999. Most people are familiar with the sedate lower Amazon that flows through the world’s largest rainforest, but where it starts in Peru (actually a tributary called the Apurimac), it “drops from 17,700 feet to 4,900 feet in only 37 miles.” In other word, “there had to be a wicked waterfall of a series of stepped cataracts to do that.” But there was no way to know ahead of time, since much of the Apurimac remains unmapped because of its remote location and the fact that it flows at the bottom of deep, jagged canyons.

Angus was not unprepared for their expedition — he spent a year working as a whitewater rafting guide in Canmore, Alberta to train for it — but early on in the book, it becomes clear that they could have done a little more research before setting off to cross South America. For example, the first, supposedly easy leg of their journey, was to hike from the Pacific shores of Peru to the source of the Amazon, only about a hundred miles east. However, between the coast and the mountains lay a thin stretch of desert. Their fifty-year-old map claimed there was an oasis town located conveniently about halfway across, but they never found it, and nearly died of thirst before they even saw the Amazon.

This sort of naïveté did not continue as they started down the dangerous Apurimac. At the end of their relatively easy first day on the river, Angus describes the sense of foreboding he felt: “It was as if the tranquility was begging for something more ominous to happen.” He knew what was coming would be much more intense: after all, “out of six attempts to journey down the Amazon to this day, only two had been successful. All the others ended in death, disfigurement, and tragedy.”

A definite strength of this book is Angus’ descriptions of how the three men’s friendships were tested by this challenge — both the frustrations they had with each other and the moments of camaraderie they enjoyed. Along the way, each of them made mistakes, sometimes life-threatening, and each of them made decisions that might have saved a life. Throughout, Angus describes each situation unflinchingly, and also puts himself under the microscope. He inserts appropriate memories at strategic spots in the narrative, sometimes delaying a suspenseful event to effectively tease the reader, but usually because the reflection has some bearing on the episode he is describing. This self-examination is useful in helping the reader understand his motivations in undertaking such a dangerous journey.

Angus also describes action sequences with mesmerizing intensity — and there is plenty of action here. Whether it is a particularly nasty stretch of whitewater or the time they were shot at by Shining Path guerrillas, scenes read like they were taken from an action thriller. Amazon Extreme is a real page-turner, even though you know its author succeeded. That is a testament to Angus’ ability to make good use of the fiction writer’s toolkit — believable dialogue, strong characterization, and a driving plot. Colin Angus does not need to tell tall tales, however; he creates more than enough real adventure in his own day-to-day life.

Follow along with Colin Angus’ current adventure at: www.vancouvertomoscow.com.

Joe Wiebe is a freelance writer based in Vancouver who considers a bike ride around Stanley Park to be an expedition.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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