Big-Hearted Rivers

I saw the film Big River Man yesterday, a documentary about Martin Strel, the fiftyish, overweight, beer-and-whiskey drinking Slovenian who swims the great rivers of the world. Strel has taken on the Mississippi, the Yangtze, and the Amazon, swimming them from end to end in great marathon gulps of about 50-60 miles per day to call attention to environmental issues.  Big River Man is about his Amazon swim, starting near Machu Picchu in Peru and finishing up at Belem, Brazil. In between there’s some beautiful footage of the Amazon jungle and an incredible story. The story is narrated by his son, Borut, his closest companion and chief dogsbody. Borut gets to watch his father push himself to a point of madness and imminent death, knowing that he can’t stop him. It’s intense, often funny, but it left me with a lingering sadness about Strel and the demons that drive him to such extremes.  See it if you can. There’s more about Strel on his website.
Strel’s feats made me think of other people who have taken on rivers–but they’re usually in boats. There’s Joe Kane, a journalist who joined the first expedition to kayak the Amazon from the source to the sea and wrote about it in Running the Amazon. It’s a terrific adventure story, full of suspense, as they navigate impossible rapids, but it’s also riveting for the interplay of personalities. These folks did not get along in spectacular ways. The book has become a classic in the adventure-memoir genre.
In Shooting the Boh: A Woman’s Voyage Down the Wildest River in Borneo, Tracy Johnston signed on for what was supposed to be a well-scouted trip down the Boh river in Borneo. When she lost her luggage at the very beginning, it was a signal that all would not be as promised. The rapids that the group encountered were far more dangerous than advertised, they were swarmed by sweat bees, suffered from jungle rot, and dealt with other rain forest delights. Johnston faced her worst fears yet managed to be a keen observer of the people and places she saw.

Kira Salak paddled solo 600 miles down the Niger River in Africa, retracing a trip made by the explorer Mungo Park, as she recounts in The Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu. Parts of the river are just as Park would have seen them two hundred years ago, and Salak coped with some of the same problems:  hippos, tropical storms, dysentery, and campsites in places of doubtful safety. Her account is filled with determination and the exhilaration that comes from testing limits.

Jonathan Raban, in Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi, paddled the river’s length in a 16-foot motorboat, exploring the way the river changes and how it shapes the communities on its banks. Raban has written two other books about the boat trips he’s taken: Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings and Coasting: A Private Voyage, in which he circumnavigates England.

Rosemary Mahoney succumbed to the fascination of the Nile and determined to paddle solo along a 120-mile stretch despite warnings that a lone woman in Egypt could never do such a thing.  She faced major challenges in obtaining a boat, evading police patrols, and avoiding harassment from predatory males. Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff  records how she pulled off the journey.

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