Living Death On The Amazon River

by Captain Bill

A First Hand Account Of The 2012 Great River Amazon Raft Race

A guest post by Kate Hagstrom

Kate Hagstorm at the finish line of the Great River Amazon Race in 2012

Our team arrived from Canada, consisting of myself Kate Hagstrom, Martin Dennis and Karen Hnatiuk. Arriving on Fisherman’s Island opposite Nauta, amongst the chaos of some 35 teams, piles of logs and mud, the searing heat suddenly reminded us of the task which lay ahead.

Fortunately for us, our team mate from Brazil, Katoo had a plan on how the raft should be constructed. With some help from a local with a chainsaw we worked until dark until finally our floating home for the next few days was complete.

Murilo "Katoo" Reis at the finish line of the Great River Amazon Raft Race in 2012, on the Nanay River with the Amazon River in the background.

The festivities through the night and a hard sleep on the beach ensured a tiring start in the early morning on the Amazon River

The Race Begins

We were expecting a challenge and were not disappointed. Our raft was good by design however the wet logs provided by random(?) challenged our every stoke. A fast start, go, go, go, go, with every stroke motivated us ahead of the slower rafts.

It was clear that the Peruvians were stronger, had better rafts, and looked impossible to catch.

We persevered to our first leg stop in something like 6 1/2 hours arriving worn out, sore from sitting and paddling on little but a small piece of foam and logs, and thinking that this day one is a short task. We were surprised at our finish, placing about 10th overall, but more importunely the first international team.

Festivities and another restless sleep, prepared our tired muscles for the task ahead. The longest leg of the race…on to Tamshiyacu.

Paddling through the pain, absorbing the beauty of the Amazon our motivation was that with every stroke we were one stroke closer. How much farther?

A storm was brewing just as the finish was in sight but fortunately for us we missed the brunt of it. Paddling hard into the wind we managed a ninth place finish and again the first international team.

A warm welcome and festivities were to come but nourishment was priority. The support team did not disappoint and we soon set up camp in the local school with our comfortable 1/4 inch foam on a concrete floor.

A talk from the local mayor welcoming the teams and an entertaining display of dance was soon followed by torrents of rain falling from the sky that would almost drown the music from the wedding taking place in the adjoining building lasting through the night. Sleep is overrated!

Martin at the finish line of the Great River Amazon Raft Race with the Hunting and Fishing Club in the background

The Finish Leg

We were optimistic that the last leg home to Iquitos was the shortest, however 16 hours of paddling only reminds you of the pain ahead. A waterlogged raft is apparently harder to push through the water and watching other teams seemingly glide over the water with what seemed like little effort only motivated us more to dig in with every stroke.

Traveling near the shore one has a sense of speed, floating with the current it would seem we would be at the finish in short order. Traveling on wider sections almost felt futile, inching our way down the river. As Mike Collis mentioned at the reception in Iquitos before the start, “just keep paddling!” That we did.

Dragging our wet bodies and balsa log raft over sand bars on the entry to Iquitos we knew the final section was uphill and we needed to keep up our strength. With dog fish jumping all around and onto our raft, we turned the corner for the finish. What cruel person would put a finish upriver after almost 30 hours of paddling? With each stroke we gained an inch clawing along the shoreline knowing that giving up a stroke due to fatigue would cost us greatly. The rain started to fall. I welcomed the cool shower as we arrived at the finish. Tired is an understatement. If not for the guidance of our Brazilian captain Katoo and perseverance from the team we could not have finished, let alone at the top of the international contingent.

Karen Hnatiuk at the finsh line of the Great River Amazon Raft Race 2012, With the Amazon River in the background.


The 2012 Amazon Raft Race was very well run and we thank all of the organizers and volunteers who put this amazing event together.

We leave tired, worn out, and full of memories of people and sites and knowing that the generous prize money will go to a worthy cause, promoting animal welfare and preservation.

A First Hand Account Of The 2012 Great River Amazon Raft Race

Guest post by Kate Hagstorm.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Greg Harris September 25, 2012 at 3:39 pm


That was a nice recap. Thanks for doing that. With articles like yours and the other great articles on the Dawn of the Amazon site, I’m looking forward to a visit to Peru and Iquitos in particular.

Three of my Canadian buddies and I are thinking about entering the race next year. I wouldn’t mind speaking with you about a few things, if you had a moment when you get back to Canada and are settled. You can email me at and we could set up a time to chat. Thanks.

2 Mike Collis September 26, 2012 at 8:29 am

Hello Everyone,
Welcome to this new rafting blog with a fantastic article by Kate Hagstrom to start it off.
Apart from the weather I thought that this year’s race went off really well. The Regional Government did a fantastic job, the food was great
and the organization excellent. Well Done Norma Cordova.

Now I know some thiongs could have been better so this forum is the place to tell us about your experience on the race this year. Tell us all warts an all.
We want next year to be even better, so lets start off here so we know how to improve things. Thank You

3 Dale Baskin September 26, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Congratulations to everyone who participated in this year’s race! Having to paddle that last bit upriver is a sinister twist after so many hours (days!) of paddling. Mike, I seem to recall a big grin on your face as you watched teams do those last few hundred meters. Must have been fun to observe!

4 Loren Whisenhunt September 27, 2012 at 8:29 am

I have wanted to witness this great raft race for years and this year was finally my opportunity. I was on the support boat and had the best of both worlds, I could witness the most grueling raft race in the world laying in my hammock and then go down just two flights of stairs to the support boat tienda and have an ice cold beer!

5 Billy Preece September 27, 2012 at 9:48 am

I thought this event was great and the organisation very, very good.

I thought it a shame that those US Peace Corps teams took it on themselves not to try at all, in fact even tried to be last. I know this caused the organisers much stress and caused them much expense in sending out rescue boats to pull them in.

6 Cédric September 27, 2012 at 11:57 am

Indeed the organization was a good level this year compared to the previous editions even if there are still some parts for improvement.
GOOD: Tools for the construction, a tent for each group, good schedule, very good food, good care and transport of the luggages, translator Spanish/English the first day (gracias Walter)… and a real smile on each face of the organizers! Probably more…
BAD: lack of communication (before and during the race, very important), not enough logs for the construction of the raft the first day, no translator the following days and gaps in the monitoring of the judge(s) (lifejacket to be used on the raft, etc).
Anyway the GOOD precedes the bad and I am very happy with this third experience, THANKS Norma, the Team, the local inhabitants and the supporters!!!!

7 Cédric September 27, 2012 at 12:14 pm

One example of lack of communication…
I read now that the provided logs in 2012 are (normally) 4 meters long which is different from the 5 meters in the previous editions and as indicated on another official blog. My Team AMAZON BISTRO has received 5 meters long logs (and even more as we had to wait a new supplying), so we have constructed based on the 5 meters rule and we did the race with this longer raft like other Teams also did while some had the chance to have the 4 meters as indicated.
We had only one captains meeting the first day with the judge but nobody insisted on the rules.
Being Captain, I take part of the responsibility but communication REALLY HAS TO BE IMPROVED!!!!

8 Adrian Walker September 27, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Well done to everyone who took part in the race, participants in particular, you’re all admirable. Organisers, a tough job, but seems as if one mostly well done. Always things to learn so better next year but above all, great for Iquitos which really needs the positive publicity and good energy the rafters bring with them. Thanks to you all.

9 kazjaz September 29, 2012 at 8:56 pm

I made a little slide show with a couple of clips – thanks to Loren for many of the photos (hard to take pics when you are rowing!).
Thanks everyone! I hope you enjoy this…….

hugs to all
love Karen
(Rafting for Bears)

10 Murilo Reis October 4, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Now after nearly 2 weeks of this great adventure, i would love to thanks Kate , karen and Martin for the generosity. This race was a great challenge for all of us and I could see this Canadians gave every single drop of their energy and I could hear the strokes of their padlling even when i was resting in my tend.
The organization was great, and for the next year i have a suggestion, in the web site of facebook page, have a person to respond and interact with people tyhat are interested but have no experiences, so people are not ” a merce ” of the “experts” that show on the last minut at the beach. I think some people after realized that it was dificult and not only “drifting ” along the stream , just relaxed and enjoyied. good on them.
Not to forget the great among of amazing peple from all over the world that this event got together to exchange experiences of life and make new friends.
This is a first great step I see the city of Iquitos makes to make up to the Amazon wonder . promoting a great event witch promote in real the nature as atraction. Responsable consume and heathy tourism actitude.

11 Melissa October 4, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Thanks for the great recap Kate (and Martin) 🙂
The race was amazing, and I was pleasantly surprised at every turn with how well things ran compared to some of the stories I had read and heard of past years.
Norma was especially wonderful and the whole team went to great lengths to take care of everyone. Having a tent to come home to every night, with your gear stashed and ready was such a relief, and the food provided looked wonderful (no, I couldn’t eat any of it, stupid parasites, but my team assured me it was tasty).
I have so many stories of caring attention – the medics helping every day to keep me in paddling condition, a lovely team member coming out to our hostel to make sure we got our dinner tickets, locals helping to launch our impossibly heavy raft (while asking if we really thought we could paddle that beast – lol), and so much helpful advice from people who have been involved in years past.
It really would have been helpful to have a bit more communication along the way though. More about what to expect, schedules, rules and plans would be helpful. Every night we were told to wait for an important captains meeting, only to find out it was the local village putting on a performance for us (but no actual information). I would love to have seen a communications center (even just a white board) with results, meal and meeting times, start times for the next morning and anything else deemed helpful.
It was great to have someone translating during the big kick off and final awards party – but might have been helpful to have someone throughout the weekend who would be available to help out. Luckily, I think every team had at least one person who spoke at least intermediate levels of Spanish, and I do know we are in a foreign country – but the organizers are specifically trying to draw in visiting teams. With a website and facebook page only in Spanish it will be hard to get the word about this fantastic event out to the world – I was very thankful for the Dawn on the Amazon blog and the Amazon Rafting Club’s Facebook page.
Each day started out with lots of contact with support boats and the medics, but it dwindled throughout the day, and hours went by, in the middle of raging thunderstorms, without any site of the outside world. On the final day, there was no way to even know where the tributary towards Iquitos was, and my only solace was that there were two other teams with us trying to figure it out – so we knew we would get lost together. Luckily a tour boat came by and we asked directions – we never would have seen the entrance past the sand dunes. For safety reasons, I would highly recommend better information about where to go and a few more appearances during the second half of the day by support boats.
On the first two stops, it was exciting and uplifting to hear the drums in the distance welcoming us, and see the big support boat docked ahead to know we were almost there! The shore was full of spectators and the local villagers showing their support. The final day, everyone was chased inside by the rain (you live in a rain forest – c’mon) and we slowly slogged our way through the currents, rain and wind to an empty beach – just hoping we were in the right place, dragging our shivering selves through the mud to the fishing club – to the site of a marvelous party, catered food, beer, music and celebration. Oh, there was the greeting!
My warmest congratulations to all the teams who tackled this race. Surviving it is no small feat. And no one who hasn’t been there could ever really know what you conquered!

12 Kate Hagstrom October 12, 2012 at 6:59 pm

I really don’t know where to begin but will try.

The first place trophy that we had made up in honor of my very good friend John Henry Mack (Montana John, who lived in Iquitos, and won the 2006 race with Dale Baskins and died shortly after in 2007), was to be the first place trophy for the international mixed team, then forgetting to pack it and leaving it on my dining room table in Canada. Sheesh….

We arrived in Iquitos 2 days before the race and stayed at a great hotel Amazon apart with a lovely swimming pool and great food.

Our first stop was Dawn on the Amazon Cafe run by Bill Grimes and his wife Marmelita. I had heard that Bill knew my friend John and was tickled to meet up with him and others who knew Montana John. I loved hearing the stories from the people that frequent Dawn on the Amazon, Mike Collis, Adrain Keatings (herbtologist and snake whisperer) the two Kevin’s and many other delightful people. By the way…if you are ever to head to Iquitos Bill has rooms to rent by the month and the food and bevvies at the restaurant are delicious. Small portions was the only draw back, because the food was extra good I really wanted more of it! Bill’s gucamole and lemonades are something I will crave forever!!! My husband could not get enough of the mango chicken sandwiches and our friend Karen being a vegetarian was really pleased with the extensive menu!
We would meet up with people in the day time and have evening drinks with our new friends, we felt safe and at home. Bill even called the money changers that came and changed our american dollars to soles.
Martin Green met us and became a great tour guide who took us through the Belen market, rented a boat to see how the Belen people live and when I had my camera stolen and lost all my pictures, told me he would send me pictures that he had taken! Thanks Martin!

Our team consisted of myself Kate Hagstrom 52, Martin Dennis 54, Karen Hnatiuk 45 all from Canada and Murielo (Katoo) Reis 47 of Brazil , whom I met on facebook and told him that we were gonna win and he should join us. I can only imagine the shock on his face when we met in person at his green track hostel. We do not look like winners!

The first evening of raft events started in Iquitos in a small square where we had a meeting with government officials and speeches for all the rafters, many cusquena beers and dancing and singing. There was lots of press at the square taking photos and videos and me yelling my Zena warrior princess call (got me lots of attention!!!)telling the camera crews that we were in it to win it! We were going to be first and just being cheeky. Then I looked around the square and checking out our competition…I wasn’t so cocky…beside us sat 4 big burly young men dressed in the Cambridge University black and golds…telling us they just won gold in the rowing competions at the olympics or something like that…oh oh, me and my big mouth! We were going to get squashed.
Young peace corp men and women were everywhere. Young, in shape and ready for adventure….crap again, me and my big mouth!!!

That night I went to bed and wondered to myself “what did I get us into?” three days and 180km of hell….

Day1 we were bused to Nauta, about 36 teams of 4 and people from the support boat and helpers. We were all in great spirits…we reached Nauta and filed from the buses, some found seats set up under a tent and some of us sat in the full blazing sun…searing our heads…again to more officials and dancing and singing. Mike Collis had me get up and give a speech about my friend John and why we were in the race. After we all dispersed and tried to find a quick lunch before being hauled up on the support boat with all our belongings and extras we had picked up for the race. We got on the boat and Katoo realized that the helpers forgot the rebar on the bus, that was so important for building our raft. He jumped from the boat and was gone! The boat left without our Katoo! Panic…oh crap…lost the rebar and Katoo…we were calmed down and told not to worry, that all would show up, which after an hour Katoo showed up with more rebar and shortly after that more rebar showed up! ah…
We went to a captains meeting and we were told so many different things, my broken spanish picked up maybe every third or fourth word. Karen and Martin mutineed….sit, stand, don’t leave our belongings, leave our belongings, grab the logs, no not those logs, those logs, set up the tent, what do you mean we don’t have toilet paper! Toilet paper where the hell are the tiolets…one man pointed off into the distance….no trees to be seen, just small spindly bushes…oh dear. Nightfall and we were still trying to build the raft. Katoo and Martin trying to chop at the wood with machetes that would just bang of the wood, it was so hard. Finally someone came up with a chainsaw and all was better. A hand drill to drill through the wood and much hammering in the rebar, foot rests and some small squares of foam and that would be our home for the next three days. The drinking water ran out and we were dehydrated and cranky…Katoo tried to lift our sorry little spirits…hmmm. Hot, sticky, stinky…food came and it was delicious, after the food the bugs came out and into the tent we went.
Next morning we dragged the raft to the river, got our drinking water and breakfast and headed to the start line!
After what seemed like eternity and a sighting of my first pink dolphin, we got the green flag and where off! Paddling, digging deep, stretching our bodies….paddle, paddle, paddle. We started a grunt one person at a time would call….whho, whho, whho….minutes…hours…go by and we are digging….dragging….backs begin to break down, minds go blank…I start to count….one to 100, one to 500, by 2’s, by 4’s…up, down counting…trying not to think of the blisters that are forming on my hands and breaking open to form huge wounds…can’t stop paddling…rip open a energy bar and stuff it into our mouths….try to open the water bottle, my hands won’t work. Someone help me! Gobble the water….ok now it’s getting hot, really hot, Katoo sprays the dirty Amazon river water all over us…cools us for a moment…paddle…paddle…keep paddling….after 6+ hours we are almost to our first camp…a nice little town with more dancers and drumming and we could see our tents were already up and we landed….oh my…my legs wouldn’t work..cramps…leg and back cramps…I tried to stand and fell back into the water….clawing my way to the bank the water was so swift….after a walk and a beer and much high fiving that we not just made day one, but we came in first for the international teams…we ate and hung out watching the other rafters making it in. We crashed in our tents at about 8 pm.
Up the next morning for breaky about 5 am. Stuffing our food in our tummies and drinking water, lots of water….we got into the raft and watched the green flag…go! Again same as yesterday but this day was to be the most grueling….8+ hours of paddling…our backs were broken, blisters on our hands, bleeding and bruised…blisters where everywhere, you can’t imagine….the pain…we just couldn’t go on…somehow Katoo or Martin would get us going again and we would power up and do our whho whho whho chant…the news crews would fly by us in power boats and we would keep our heads down and chant…we are a machine…paddle paddle paddle….Katoo gives us hope, just around the point is the finish for the day…ha ha ha….like drunken sailors we believe! Wrong…the point took us forever to get to..hours…then after we finally reach the point the end is nowhere in site. Tamshiyaku….where are you? Paddle paddle paddle….we see what looks like a radio tower, could it be? Could this be the end?
We get to Tamshiyaku…I try to get my legs to work….my watershoe gets sucked into the Amazon mud and sinks in…I fall over with so much grace…plop into the water…again climbing out like a beaten drown rat….yeah we came in first in the international teams again…
We are taken to the school where they have set up tents for some paddlers, we are lucky enough to be placed in school rooms on the cement floor with nothing but a very flat mat (half the thickness of a yoga mat). Thank goodness that we all had taken an old sheet from home. Security was tight as I had already had my carmera stolen the first day and Martin had stopped a man from lifting his wallet from a zippered pouch on his pantleg! We felt safe and content…more food, dancing and singing. I fell onto my mat and I was done.
People were not well, many people had taken ill. One girl was really sick and I felt so sorry for her. Nothing we could do…
Karen, Martin and Katoo went to the meeting and we were presented with a trophy for coming in first….some beers and they were all asleep quickly.
The next and final day we are up and eating and sucking back the water and find that because we are first inernational we get to start first, but on one explained that to the other rafters, so jockeying for the front no one waited for the flag and we were all off again
Soon it was just us and the Peruvian machines….we paddle like hell today…blisters wrapped in climbing tape and gauze taped in places you don’t want to envision…paddle, paddle, paddle. 5 hours goes by, the river gets shallow, the support boat gets stuck on a sand bar, the police boat shoots past us and boom, stuck on a sand bar! We get stuck on a few sand bars…Katoo jumps off and pushes us as we dig our paddles into the sand….off we go again…paddle….up comes the Belgian team with a fresh Peruvian made raft and a Peruvian paddler, gaining on us….pulling up along side us telling us that they don’t want to beat us…but they don’t know that with a fresh new boat and a new substitute paddler they have been docked 2 hours! So on we paddle….one more turn in the river, another…we can now see what Mike Collis has been telling us…the end of the race is the hardest, the hardest thing you could imagine. After 3 days of paddling we now paddle against a new current..a strong current. We start to get ready and little dog fish are jumping out of the river, kind of like they are cheering us on…flopping onto the raft, Karen takes a moment to save a few…more yelling from the back. “Karen, paddle in the water, paddle paddle paddle. You can feel the current swelling we paddle like hell…one inch one inch one inch, muscles aching, twitching, breaking….one more inch…we see the rowing club in front of us but we aren’t going anywhere, “paddle hard, stretch it out, dig deep, tit’s to yer knees” I yell. Trying to get us all is sync….whho whho whho we all chant in unison…”we’re a machine, paddle hard” we can taste it, we can feel it, we inch forward. People are cheering us on, cameras….it is raining, rain keeps falling and it is getting heavier…we realize that we can’t dock we have to go around the green flag….the rain is in torrents now, the wind is picking up and we only have feet to go! Dig in and paddle we make it to shore…men help me off the raft…someone wants to take us to the hospital…they see our hands…bloody open blisters….but no way! We want pictures with the Cusquena girls!!! I find Martin and give him a kiss, high five Karen and a few tears, no one can see through all the rain and then hugs for Katoo! Paddles in hand we make it up the slippery steep slope and are greeted with beer and the sky opens up and buckets of rain fall…washing all the muck and goo from our spent souls…food is waiting and we gobble it up…we watch for other rafts to come in. So much rain and wind alot of the rafters miss the turn off for Iquitos and keep paddling only to be turned around by fishermen pointing back….the support boat still grounded on a sand bar and only wet clothes to stand around in….shivering like drown rats…we wait for hours to get trophies and hugs and high fives and money! We donated our winnings to Katoo’s Tapiche Ohara’s Reserve! Check it out on the net…and his hostel too! Green track hostel.
Yup, I would do it all again in a heart’s beat..if Katoo would come with us! Katoo you are a great soul….we could not have done this without you. You kept us safe and built a great raft, read the river, kept our spirits alive! A really special man.
I would also like to finish this post by saying a really really big thank you to Norma! She did everything possible to make our adventure as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. The Peruvian Government for the food (incredibly yummy and lots of it), lodging, new tents and everything else. Bill Grimes, Mike Collis, Lorne and Martin Green and the wonderful Spainish man that was on the support boat that gave me his roll of tiolet paper and hugs and put iodine on my hands…best adventure of my life
I have probably forgotten alot of what I wanted to post and some of the warm and sweet people that helped …but we will ad more later. hugs n love!!!

13 rob miller December 23, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Does anyone have the dates for the 2013 race?

14 David Parenti January 8, 2013 at 9:11 am

Where do we find info about entering the 2013 race?

15 Captain Bill January 9, 2013 at 9:17 am

Hello David, The regional government will set the dates for the raft race. So far there is no word on that. Until then, we are in limbo. When the information becomes public I will post a new article for the 2013 raft race.

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