Saving the Marañón, South America's Last Wild River

In the middle of the great rapids at Samosierra, in the heart of northern Peru, the Marañón River makes a sudden right turn. More than 500,000 cubic meters of water per second slam into a cliff shaded by half-mile-high canyon walls, throwing up eight-foot waves that break hard over the rubber raft I'm in with three Peruvian guides. Their faces are grim. "When the river is high, hombre, it's bothered," Edgar Vicente, our captain, says. "Until it takes someone, it won't rest."

As fate would have it, the night before, a local fisherman got tangled in his net and drowned. Ever since, the water level has been dropping. The Samosierra is a Class IV now, scary but manageable. "Adelante, chicos, adelante," Vicente yells, urging us forward, and we pull hard, digging our oars into the waves. A hole opens beside the boat; I swing at empty air and feel myself falling before another wave catches the raft and knocks me back in. "Adelante!"  The raft hits the new current around the bend, and we're through, laughing like madmen. "Look at it, boys," one guide says, whooping. "The mother to the greatest river in the world!" That night, as we pass around a bottle of pisco by our driftwood fire, under banana trees growing out of the rich muck of the last flood, I am haunted by the idea that the river is alive, willing to deal out life and death with the same hand.

ALSO: The Fight for Europe's Last Wild River[1]

The Marañón runs from the high snows of the Andes down to the jungle, where it forms a main source of the Amazon. For 400 miles, it slithers like a golden serpent — to borrow the name of a 1935 book about the river — through a vast canyon, often a half-mile deep, marked by Class III to Class V rapids and rustic farming villages.

Unfortunately for the region's inhabitants, the Marañón's narrow passages and high volume are also ideal for hydropower: The huge Brazilian construction company Odebrecht plans to build the Chadin 2 dam, part of a building craze that might result in some 20 dams on the Marañón in the next decade. If the dams are built, they will raise the water level more than 300 feet in places, drowning rapids and river towns alike, breaking the serpent's back with locks and reservoirs.

I am going down the last 200 miles of this route with a group of Peruvian and gringo guides led by Benjamin Webb, a 27-year-old Australian with blond dreads and a bone-dry deadpan. The trip is meant to be a sort of local hearts-and-minds campaign for whitewater rafting. In Peru, there is a long history of grassroots protests and rebellions stopping big-money mining and dam projects. Webb hopes to bring Lima kids and village kids alike down the river, putting badly needed money in the hands of valley organizations fighting the dams.

Class III to Class V rapids abound.

Over our two-and-a-half-week trip, we watch while the landscape changes with meditative slowness from high desert that looks like southern Utah down to what Peruvians call la ceja de la selva, "the eyebrow of the jungle." Ferns sprout among the cacti, and chattering green parrots appear in the mesquite trees. Above us rise high sandstone walls, their faults twisted almost vertically with the violence of the mountains' creation, rayed with the lines of hundred-year floods from cataclysms past.

MORE: The Grand Canyon Under Siege[2]

Though locals have run the Marañón on balsa-wood rafts for centuries, the river is new to commercial rafting. In 2012, Rocky Contos, an American kayaker and explorer with a slate of solo first descents of rivers in Mexico, became the first person in a generation to run it. Since then, Contos has been working to open up commercial rafting along a 406-mile section of river, offering trips of one to five weeks down what he calls the Grand Canyon of the Amazon. "There just aren't many rivers where you can do an expedition this long," Contos explains in the market town of  Bagua Chica, a few miles from the Marañón, before our trip. There are fewer every day: The Marañón dams are part of a worldwide rush to dam the last great wild rivers. The Yangtze is flooded, and plans are under way to dam the Blue Nile and to continue work on the Mekong as well. Contos ticks off rivers on his fingers. "If the Marañón goes, it would be like flooding the Sistine Chapel," he says.

The canyon is beautiful, but to Contos that is not what makes it special: It is special because it is wild. First, there is no official authoritative body along the river. Also, because the river is huge and undammed, it's the dominant force on the landscape, and it's an unpredictable one. "When you run a wild river, you just don't know what you're going to find," says Matt Primomo, a guide from Utah who is helping on this trip. He points downstream, toward a blind curve of Class III rapids. "We could come around that bend and find a huge landslide blocking the river. And then we'd just have to deal with it." This in a remote canyon, with no way to go but forward.

Among the river folk who farm the Marañón Valley, life beside the moody river has fostered a rugged and independent culture. We float through what feels like the old American frontier filtered through the tropics. It is populated by people whose families came, one woman explained to me, to escape highland estates — where "the landlords owned all the land and the crops and even your wife if  he wanted her."

Relaxing in one of the river's many waterfalls.

The ribereños — river people — tend fields of scrubby green coca and golden cacao under orange and mango trees. They live in fear of lake sirens and forest devils, panning for gold on the shores of a river capable of swallowing villages without a trace. In many of the Marañón towns, the men have formed peasant militias, called rondas, that keep out dam surveyors by force. "When we catch them, we discipline them physically," says Alvaro Huaman, a ronda member in the town of  Tupen Grande, an oasis of bubbling creeks and fruit trees groaning with passion fruits, bananas, and mangoes. "I want my children to know that I did everything I could to protect this land."

The ronderos are tough men, mostly farmers, on war footing ready to protect their villages against destruction by the dams: In 2013, ronderos from the villages of Tupen and Mendan brought Rocky Contos before a village tribunal. The hearing ended in an alliance: Contos donated money, which went to buy the rondas' uniforms and trademark leather truncheons, and he negotiated the rights to keep bringing tourists in. This year the ronderos welcome us royally, offering tropical fruit I could not identify, and get us drunk on moonshine distilled from local cane. I fend off a push to hook me up with a sexy widow whose husband died six months before of tuberculosis. "You are under our protection," says Oscar Solano, the head of the Mendan ronda. "Nothing will happen to you here." But he suggests that it's a bad idea to show up without someone the locals know — like Contos or Webb — lest you be mistaken for a surveyor.

Finally, in the middle of June, following 17 days on the water, the Marañón carries us to our take-out at the Pongo de Rentema, where it joins two other rivers and doubles its flow. Below the Pongo, the river's character changes completely, its lines dissolving into a chaotic mess of whirlpools and culminating in an eddy the size of a football field swirling by the little town of  El Muyo. As we surge toward land, trying to dock, the river spins the raft back like a stock car going around a track.

We struggle toward shore, fighting to free ourselves from the river's grip. The wonder of the wild Marañón, its aliveness and its terrible power, are all of a piece — and all conceal its vulnerability before the plans of civil engineers. If those men have their way, the river will become placid, safe, and dead. That force that carves through the tight canyon walls will be broken to the turning of turbines. As our raft crashes onto the smooth stones below El Muyo's wooden houses, the river surges on tranquilly behind us — all the while, in faraway capitals, men are plotting its doom.


  1. ^ ALSO: The Fight for Europe's Last Wild River (
  2. ^ MORE: The Grand Canyon Under Siege (

How to Ram Your Way Through an Antarctic Iceberg

Credit: From National Geographic's "Continent 7: Antarctica"

Due to white out conditions, the residents of McMurdo Station, the largest research center in Antarctica, are reliant on year-round shipments of supplies by sea. The one problem? Miles of unyielding ice extending out from shore. For this, the United States Coast Guard brings in its 16,000-horsepower, 12,000-ton icebreakers.

“Most mariners are paid to avoid hazards,” says Captain James Hamilton, Commanding Officer of the USCGC Healy, the largest and most technologically advanced icebreaker in the U.S. fleet. “We get paid to plow through them.” We spoke to Captain Hamilton, who was also followed by National Geographic for their Continent 7: Antarctica[1] series about how these incredible machines and crews accomplish their ice-breaking tactic, known as the “back and ram," depicted above.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Climate Scientist Gordon Hamilton Dies in Antarctica[2]

US Coast Guard

Ready Your Icebreaker

“The hull of heavy class icebreakers like the Polar Star is designed for breaking up to 21 feet of ice. It is made out of specialized steel and nearly two inches thick. Then it has been formed into a boat shape reminiscent of a bathtub, with somewhat of a hammer up front. Then you factor in their power, with these ships equipped with about 16,000 horsepower, with the momentum of 12,000 tons behind it. This is more like a pickup truck than a Corvette. These vessels are designed to hit things and hit them hard.”

MORE: A Mysterious Death at the South Pole[3]

Choose Your Ice

“There are a number of tools that we use to get the lay of the ocean and how the ice is sitting on top of it. The imagery equipment and radar let us know what to be prepared for before we get to Antarctica. That way once we are there in the sea itself we know where the edge of the fast ice is. That being said the best tool for any mariner is your own eyes and experience. So that is what we trust most when we are viewing the ice edge and deciding where the ‘back and ram’ will begin.”

Engage The Target

“I would say it is more art than science. You develop a feel for your ship and how it is going to react when it hits the ice. From there it is just about getting the ship in the right position before you push the throttle down to power the engines and start making your way through the brash ice, during that you are trying to climb to the ideal ramming speed, which is about six to eight knots. Eventually the ship rides up on top of the ice with all of her weight and all of her power, right before she slams down like a hammer and breaks it.“

Prepare For Impact

“There’s no other experience on Earth like it. I’d say it is like if you combined a roller coaster with an earthquake. That is where their polar-class icebreakers come in, taking 16,000 tons of ship with 60,000 horsepower and ram it into this ice around six knots, it’s a violent explosion. The ship will shake about with quite a bit of noise. That is factored in when we are considering the crew shifts; we try to give the guys plenty of down time. Since the Polar Star was commissioned in the 70s they unfortunately put the bunks at water line, so when the ice is being broken it is pretty loud and not easy to get that rest.”

Read Your Ship

“You want to be reading your ship and your surrounding throughout. I will put two crewmembers up in a station several decks above the bridge. These crewmembers are called ‘ice pilots’. One is looking far out to strategically see what the ice is doing overall. The other is tactically looking directly in front of you. They are working closely together to time the strike and seek the path of least resistance. If you can avoid the ice, that is what you want to do, but often that is not the option. For me as Captain, beyond making sure they have a good read, I’m paying close attention to the engine as well as the rudder to make sure everything is operating optimally. Because we are going to the very end of the planet, on our own, in what I would call a self-rescue situation. If you aren’t taking care of your ship, you’re putting yourself at a lot of risk.”

Rinse and Repeat

“There is no formula that will tell you how much distance you will cover in an hour, or a day. I’ve had situations where just turning a ship around has taken about two full watches, or eight hours. It all depends on what Mother Nature is giving you, then is up to you to use these incredible machines to the best advantage to accomplish your mission. Once you’ve broken that first ice you want to try and ride the momentum, ride that strike for as long as you can until you are stopped. Then it is time to do it all over again.”

Continent 7: Antarctica[4] airs Tuesdays on National Geographic Channel. 


  1. ^ Continent 7: Antarctica (
  2. ^ WHAT WENT WRONG: Climate Scientist Gordon Hamilton Dies in Antarctica (
  3. ^ MORE: A Mysterious Death at the South Pole (
  4. ^ Continent 7: Antarctica (

Gifting Inspiration for the Shopping Challenged

November marks the absolute busiest shopping month of the entire year and before you know it, the holidays will be upon us and the number of days left to take care of everyone on your gift list will have run out. But who wants to subject themselves to crowded malls? Or packed parking lots? Or managing a whole mess of online purchasing and tracking? It can be so easy to miss out the best parts of the holidays when you're too focused on crossing names off your list. 

Even if you avoid the madness of Black Friday or the endless website crashes of Cyber Monday, there are still plenty of ways to pick presents for your people without driving yourself crazy. Over leftover turkey sandwiches, I polled some of my savviest shopper friends to find out their tips, trick, and techniques for knocking out their holiday shopping without the stress--so take note, make a plan, and thank us later! 

"I am not the craftiest person, but I do like to make gifts for the holidays. I keep an easy shortbread cookie recipe on hand and then whip up a batch of homemade jelly or even peanut butter to go along with it. Each of my close friends, neighbors, and extended family members receives a tin of cookies and spread. It takes me one weekend, and I generally invite some of my girlfriends and cousins over to do their holiday baking, which gives us time to hang out and be productive. I like making innovative combinations, like thyme and cheddar shortbread with jalapeno jelly, or lemon-almond shortbread with strawberry jam. I promise, it's much easier than it sounds!"- Shokay Capra, 34, magazine editor 

"My favorite thing to do is hit up a site like Zazzle and make personalized, practical gifts for everyone. My people like to take a lot of pictures, so I scour our Facebook and Instagram, pick some of the best pics from the year, and pick an item to personalize. Last year, I did calendars. Each month had a photo from the previous year, and I added special dates like family member's birthdays, holidays we celebrate, upcoming weddings, and reminders for us to call each other and hang out. I had so many people tell me they were doing the same thing this Christmas, so I know it was appreciated. This year, I'm doing collage mugs of people with their kids or pets--I love it. I hate the idea of giving someone something they won't use, and instead making a very personal, sentimental reminder of our shared lives." -Brandon Turling. 41, gallery manager 

"I am the worst at planning my time, so I always end up waiting until the last minute--which is great, because I've figured out the easiest, most fun presents to give my friends. I whip up batches of bath salts! It's so easy. You mix Epsom salts, baking soda, and sea salt--the Epsom salt helps relax muscles, the baking soda helps soften the effects of the other ingredients, and the sea salt soothes aches. Then I add a few drops of essential oil, my favorite being sweet orange, and then I sprinkle in herbs or flower petals I pick and dry from my garden. I grab a flat of Mason jars from Target and fill them. But here's my favorite part. I love poetry, so in addition to the bath salts, I print out a few of my favorite poems on cute paper and include it with each jar. Everyone I know loves the salts, and appreciates the reminder to chill out, especially around the holidays." -Emma Viclarson, 38, animator 

"Instead of dealing with malls or online shopping, I spend a weekend hitting up thrift stores, antique stores, and yard sales. My mission? Vintage Christmas ornaments. I find one for everyone I'm gifting to. I've scored everything from beautiful hurricane glass globes, to kitschy plastic icicles, to weird old elves, and amazing 1980s pop culture ornaments. You'd be amazed how many things you can find. It's not at all difficult, and it's so much fun sorting through all kinds of forgotten treasures. I like the feeling of responsible consuming, and you never have to worry about giving someone something they already have." Thien Nguyen, 33, chef 

"I second Shokay, my favorite thing to gift is food. Everyone loves it, and I don't stress about if I'm getting the right size or whatever. But I have so many friends and family members close by, that I just don't have time to bake--so I throw cookie exchanges! I buy tins in bulk and invite everyone over. I ask that they bring their favorite cookie, baked good, nuts, or treat and I give them all tins. Then we go through the goodie buffet and try everything. I ask my friends to email me the recipes first, and I print them into little books for everyone to take home. It's tons of fun."- Luis Baur, 36, retail manager 


The Day the Yellowstone River Died

Like many guides on the Yellowstone, Jason Corbin has been leading trips for years. Credit: Chris Douglas

I've always found it hard to trust a town that didn't have a river flowing through it. Livingston, Montana, where I've called home for the past 13 years, seems to be an eminently trustworthy place. This is due in large part to the Yellowstone River. The longest undammed river in the Lower 48, the Yellowstone winds north from the national park named after it and makes a big eastern turn in Livingston before heading toward the prairie and its eventual confluence with the Missouri. Most of the people I know here rely on it in one way or another for income, recreation, solace, or some combination of all three. We don't often call it the Yellowstone. To us it's just the river.

We take our kids and dogs there to learn how to swim. We walk to it at night when we can't sleep. It's the place for first dates and last rites. People I know have pledged themselves to each other on its banks. People I knew have lost their lives to its current. If you could somehow measure it, I think you'd find that the pulse of the river is inseparable from the pulse of the town itself.

MORE: Fly-Fishing Confidential[1]

So it's a strange feeling to wake up one morning and quite suddenly find the river gone.

In mid-August, fishing guides, myself included, started noticing an unusual number of dead mountain whitefish. The species, a sort of unglamorous cousin to the trout, gets a grudging amount of respect from fishermen, especially guides, who appreciate their voracious appetite and willingness to eat the poorly presented offerings of the average client. Though not often the target of our serious piscatorial pursuits, the sudden appearance of dead and dying whitefish was of major concern. It is generally believed that whitefish need colder, cleaner water than most trout, and thus they assume the role of indicator species — the canary in the coal mine.

This past winter the Yellowstone drainage received lower-than-average snowfall, and that, coupled with an early summer heat wave, resulted in near-record small stream flows. In such conditions — warm, low water, which has become increasingly common — some fish mortality is to be expected. But this year, as the days went by and the whitefish continued to line the banks in an ever increasing and stinking number, it became clear that something more was going on.

ALSO: The Fight for Europe's Last Wild River[2]

When the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) weighed in, it was with unprecedented severity: The river and all its tributaries — from the boundary of Yellowstone National Park downstream to the town of Laurel (some 183 miles) — were now closed to recreation. In San Diego, this would be like roping off the beaches of Southern California.

When the announcement came, I was on the river, guiding a group from the East Coast, an annual reunion of college friends, a trip that I'd been working for years. They're all nice guys and each pays thousands of dollars for several days of fishing and lodging. We'd been having a decent morning of fishing when my phone started erupting, to the point where I could no longer ignore it.

The FWP had released an email statement advising us on Governor Steve Bullock's decision to close the river. Effective immediately. I read this email on my phone, twice, at first not believing it, sitting in my boat while my clients fished away obliviously. Eventually I had to break the news that our day was over.

"Seriously?" one of my guys said. "They can do that?" Apparently so. We reeled up the rods, and I started the long row down to the takeout. One of the guys had a bottle of whiskey, and we broke that out. Each floating whitefish corpse that washed by seemed like another repetitive verse in the same evil portent. Clearly this was bad.

The official word was that the whitefish were falling victim to something called proliferative kidney disease, a microscopic parasite that previously had been documented on rivers in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, with the potential to cause a 20 to 100 percent mortality rate among certain species. The river would be closed indefinitely to prevent people from unwittingly spreading the disease to other rivers, via boats and waders, and to reduce stress on fish from fishing. The warm waters this summer had made the fish particularly vulnerable.

Dead white fish, one of the first signs of an unhealthy river. William Campbell / Getty Images

The Murray Bar that night was full of fishing guides, as usual. The owner, Brian Menges — himself reliant in large part on fishing tourism — instituted an open tab. Despite this, the mood was decidedly somber. Half the crowd was on their phones canceling trips or trying to reschedule clients on other rivers, scrambling to salvage the wreckage of what is normally the most lucrative time of year in a strictly seasonal business.

Soon after the closure, a state of emergency was declared, releasing public funds to help support those of us affected by this decision. In one meeting, the subject of "retraining" was broached. At the bar that night we all got a big kick out of that one. Most of us became fishing guides, in part, because we've been actively resisting training our whole lives.

With the river gone, the repercussions began to pile up. Fishing and rafting guides, shuttle drivers, restaurant owners, and lodge proprietors — every one of their operations ground to a startling halt. Recreation brings in some $6 billion to the state's economy, and this closure — painful but necessary — was a massive hit to everyone.

In recent years there have been a string of similar closures around the country: hiking and hunting bans in national forests in New Mexico and Washington primed for megafires; beaches in Florida and the Gulf Coast closed off because of dangerous algae blooms. But there's something decidedly different when it's your forest that needs closing, your beach, your river. More than a few of us wandered around like we'd been gut-shot.

Friends and family and fishing clients from around the country began calling. What's the deal with the river? Is it as bad as I read in the news? It was something I don't often think about, but, as I heard the dismay in their voices, I realized that even people who live far from here care about the Yellowstone. They need to know that rivers like this still exist. They may only visit once a year, or less, but having that experience factors into the stories they tell about themselves, and it's an important part of who they are. For every fishing guide in Livingston, there are hundreds of people who have busy lives in big cities who go about their day never fully able to get the river off their mind.

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon with nothing much to do, I went down to Carter's Bridge, one of the busiest boat launches on the river. In what would normally be peak season, it was eerie to see the parking lot nearly empty. There were a few other folks like me, standing beside our cars, watching the water go by. It was strange to see it there, still flowing. I hadn't been out guiding on the river in almost a week, my longest stretch of the season, and I stood there experiencing something that must be akin to the phantom-limb pain amputees feel: an uncomfortable, simultaneous presence and absence. I know I'm not alone in my habit of taking my problems to the river. What to do then when the river is the source of the problem itself? What to do when it's the very act of our loving these waters that is contributing to the fish's demise?

At a meeting in August, officials announced that "retraining" would be available for fishing guides. William Campbell / Getty Images

I don't think I'm the only one who views the events of this season as a harbinger of things to come. The greatest concern among people I know is that this might become the new normal. Is low, warm water and all the problems that come with it going to become our yearly reality, a recurring symptom in a world facing greater global climate change?

The river will reopen fully at some point — probably once the winter snows come — but a situation like this is a harsh reminder of both the fragility of our natural resources and the tenuousness of the jobs that rely on them. Deep down many of us realize that guiding for trout is not a sustainable occupation. But that doesn't mean we want to do something else. A guide friend of mine stood up at the meeting that day and said, "Retraining? I don't need retraining. I'm damn good at what I do."

I feel his indignation, too. We've devoted ourselves to learning the nuances of the river, to knowing the eddy lines that hold big fish and the bends that obscure upcoming whitewater. We find pleasure in sharing that knowledge with others, and those interactions fuel our existence. When it comes down to it, guiding is less a way of making a living than a way of living itself. In this context retraining is not an affront but an omen. It means learning to live without a river that's become the heartbeat of our town. It means embracing an untrustworthy state of existence. It's something I hope we never get comfortable with.


  1. ^ MORE: Fly-Fishing Confidential (
  2. ^ ALSO: The Fight for Europe's Last Wild River (

If You Have One Day, What's Your Adventure? Seamus Mullen in Vermont

On Friday, October 14, we will remind all of you of your God-given right to ditch out of work to raft, hike, learn how to surf, or take a motorcycle tour — basically to do any fun outdoors thing you've been putting off. National Day of Adventure is a skip day for adults where we encourage you to take a single-day adventure that will turn your sick day into a sick! day.

ALSO: 14 Epic One-Day Adventures[1]

Here, we asked renowned chef Seamus Mullen what adventure he'd take on if he had one day to do it. Here's what he said.

Matthias Giraud's Epic Day in Oregon[2]

“For National Day of Adventure, I’d basically load up a bike and blaze up I-87 or the Taconic north to Albany, and then cut across into Vermont, and then to the town of Bristol, which is where I would start my adventure. And basically, what we would be doing is called a “Six Gap Ride.” The gaps are Lincoln Gap, Appalachian Gap, Roxbury Gap, Rochester Gap, Brandon Gap, and my favorite of all, the Middlebury Gap, which gives you the most epic of descents ever on the far side [of the gap]. You can cruise down, and easily get up to 60 mph on your bicycle. And when you get to the bottom you can get ice cream at probably the best ice cream shop I’ve ever been to, get some snacks, and sit down and have a cup of coffee and relish the fact that you’ve only got another 30 or 40 miles to go to get back to Bristol and finish up your ride.”


  1. ^ ALSO: 14 Epic One-Day Adventures (
  2. ^ Matthias Giraud's Epic Day in Oregon (