Select Page

Revisiting Adventure on the Amazon After Back Surgery

Submitted by Chris Korbulic

As a paddler just as intrigued with the geographic interest of a river as the whitewater and its physical dimension, few places are so irresistible as the Amazon. It is a river of superlatives and needs little introduction. Over the last decade I have seen much of the Amazon Basin and it’s rivers, but never any of its primary high Andes headwaters. Those years of travel, kayaking, carrying heavy loads on expeditions, general overuse and lack of maintenance had taken a toll on my body though.

In January 2023 I had surgery to remove an extremely painful section of injured lumbar disc, which left me worried that I might never be able to enjoy the wonders of international kayaking adventures again. After months of rest, months of physical therapy, a few days kayaking and constant strengthening and improvement, by October I was amazed and thrilled to just be able to consider a kayaking trip. I only had to deliberate a few minutes when my old pal Chris Gabrielli called with the idea of going to the headwaters of the Amazon, Peru’s Rio Maranon.

A river that had long interested me but lacked some of the foundational elements of a typical adventure of my pre-surgery planning, it would be the perfect place to dip back into multi-day kayaking. Relatively easy access with multiple exit options, class IV whitewater, no or few portages, great camping, landscape, and warm weather forecast, it didn’t take long to hit go on the trip.

The first strokes on the Maranon were some of the most distinct and satisfying I can remember, having doubted ever being able to make those inaugural stirs in the current again. Halfway through the first day though, I was hurting from feet to shoulders and revisited my doubts about this being a good idea. Was it the days of travel, bad sleep, and no PT that led to the pain, or something more, I wondered. I hoped the night of riverside rest would reset my body for the remaining 300 miles of paddling.

It did, and we carried on through the Grand Canyon of the Maranon. It was full of whitewater that allowed me to paddle only as hard as I wanted, never demanding the full power strokes or reactionary twisting movements that could cause little zaps of pain. A few days into the soaring canyon walls and spectacular broad open valleys as my comfort level with the loaded boat and whitewater increased, I could feel my paddling muscle memory energizing allowing for a few more hard strokes and more challenging lines. I’ve never been so elated in class III and IV whitewater.

The desert canyon ran north, tributaries and rain continued to increase the flow and whitewater remained class fun with harder lines always possible. In a tight ferry away from a wall, I misjudged the boils and relaxed my paddle to soon, resulting in an unintended boof off the end of the wall and catching my paddle on a small outcrop. The quick snag pulled my paddle and knuckle to my eyebrow and split an old scar into a small but profusely bloody wound. Towns, rain, and agriculture turned the river a deep brown with significant trash and sewage runoff content and made splashes to my freshly bandaged face mush less appealing. I stuck to the fun lines when possible and both my healing face and back were pleased.

At the end of our Maranon journey, my body felt stronger, refreshed, reinvigorated for river adventures.  Fortunately we were at a tributary with a known runnable and beautiful canyon section, the Rio Silaco. After a day of rest, we put on what felt like a tiny creek but was a welcome change with clean and fun whitewater. A final night of camp in a cave overlooking the river and we finished the class IV canyon back to the Maranon feeling healthy, stronger, and excited again for the potential of future river adventures.