i2P Amazon Expedition Report

On October 19, 2010 I left for a 14-day expedition into the deep Amazon jungle where I would hike 100 semi-supported miles as part of the impossible2Possible (i2P) team. i2P is an organization that was founded by Ray Zahab and Bob Cox to educate, inspire and empower youth around the world. The Amazon Expedition was the third youth expedition where we take young adults on the trip with us (prior expeditions were in Baffin Island and Tunisia). For each expedition we create educational resources pertinent to the geographical region we are visiting (for the Amazon, it was biodiversity) that are distributed for free to schools worldwide (this trip: 15,000 students!). We also did video conferencing into the schools from the jungle to make it truly an experiential learning program.  Each daily conference that we hosted had nearly 10,000 students participate- it was incredible!

Check out an example of a conference we did from the jungle!

We spent 3 days traveling in each direction (flying Pittsburgh-Charlotte-Miami-Manaus-Belem-Santarem then boating 15 hours down the Tapajos river) and another 8 days hiking about 100 miles (the GPS was spotty so we’re unsure of our exact mileage) with packs carrying food, water, emergency supplies and communication and photography equipment. The hiking varied from uphill climbs that were so steep they required scrambling and pulling at trees with your hands to deep swamps with waist-deep mud that required very careful navigation. There was also one river that we had to cross with neck-deep water that made me very thankful for my background as a swimmer and a lifeguard. There were some days with flat terrain but those days were brutally hot- over 100 degrees and nearly 100% humidity. One of my teammates who ran across Tunisia said that he had never experienced temperatures that felt as warm as the Amazon. Although it was hot during the day, at night it got cold. One night where we slept on the beach I kept waking up to add layers of clothes, only to finally wake up in the morning wearing shorts, pants, wool socks, a t-shirt, a wool pullover, a Gore-Tex shell, a wool hat and wool gloves. If you would have seen me you would have thought I was in Antarctica, not the Amazon!

The hardest part of the trek was knowing that everything in the Amazon wanted to eat or harm you. Tree trunks were ringed with giant spikes that would penetrate our protective leather gloves and we saw many dangerous types of wildlife including poisonous snakes and spiders.

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We saw vipers right off the trail and some would cross the trail in front of us. The spiders looked like nothing I had ever seen before. Some had giant bulging bodies and others were brightly colored as a warning- red, orange and yellow means stay away. We also were swarmed by bees on several occasions (You can even hear my voice in a clip aired on CNNi saying “Has anyone been stung? I have a venom pump!” I am such a dork.) and saw bullet ants- inch long ants that feel like a gunshot if they bite you.

We were in the area of the jungle with the highest density of jaguars and although we spotted paw prints and fresh urine, I think we were all thankful not to see a jaguar firsthand. One night when we slept deep in the jungle we had our camp surrounded by armed military men to protect us in case our camp became interesting in the evening. We travelled with a comprehensive team of “bomberos,” (firefighters/paramedics/jungle experts) who helped protect us in the harsh environment so I felt very safe when I was on the trail. However, at night and when I had to go off the trail to use the bathroom were absolutely the scariest points. One time I went off the trail and narrowly avoided a huge and giant red/orange/yellow spider and then almost squatted on a swarm of fire ants. Every step I took I was terrified I’d step on a snake. I am so thankful for indoor plumbing. Although everyone on the team avoided serious nasty bites from deadly terrible things, we were all still bitten pretty badly. We were all covered in mosquito bites, bee stings, tics and rashes. One of the worst things was waking up in the morning to find what creatures had been sleeping inside your mosquito net with you all night.

Spending time in the local villages made me realize just how many creature comforts I have. Typically we would hike throughout the day and sleep in the villages at night. We slept in hammocks, ate fish from the river, rice and manioc (a tuber that is ground into a flour-like consistency) and played with local children. We stayed in one community, Taquara, where we are raising money to rebuild the school that was damaged by flooding (if you’d like to donate, please visit here). The community was so thankful to have us there that they showed us their traditional songs and dances, welcomed us as family, and gave the Youth Ambassadors gifts of jewelry made from small coconuts and jaguar teeth. This community is one of the few that is indigenous to the Amazon; they live so remotely that our local guide thanked us because he had never been able to access an indigenous group before.

Although the experience of traveling to the Amazon was incredible, I think that most spectacular part of the trip was the amazing team. We were roughly divided into educators and adventurers (although by no means are those mutually exclusive categories). As part of the education team, I held lessons about biodiversity, wrote lesson plans that were distributed for free to over 100 schools worldwide and recorded videos to answer the amazing questions asked by our students (see an example here). We were so fortunate to have the original educator and our science director Dr. Ewan Affleck with us.  Because I am in an academic setting I am very lucky to work with many bright people on a regular basis, but even then Doc stands out as brilliant. Not only is he exceptionally bright, he is sharp, funny and is skillful in translating material in a relevant and exciting way.

I will be very honest in that I was intimidated to be on the same team with many of the adventurers. Even though I trained hard I was worried I couldn’t keep up. Although my fears were unfounded, it is still something else to be on a team with incredible athletes like Ray, Marshall Ulrich and Hannah McKeand. I was expecting to be impressed with athletic feats (the members of the team held multiple world records, have three transcontinental crossings, and have summited the 7 Summits), and I was. It was awesome being on the trail and hearing people tell stories about their adventures. There was one moment, where, after staying back to get pictures, Marsh and I had to run to catch the group and I had this total groupie moment of “OMG I’m running, in the Amazon, with MARSHALL ULRICH!”

But the thing that was far more impressive than their physical feats, which were exceptionally impressive, was their character. When I met Bob and Ray in August at the i2P fun run, I was blown away that there were people who were doing the right thing, in the right way for the right reason. I have no idea how they compiled such a stellar team (other than the fact that good people attract each other, of course), but everyone was bright, funny, athletic, hard working and caring. Only one of many examples of the character of my teammates: After a day of hiking, we had 3 local dogs follow us. In developing countries the local dogs are likely to be unvaccinated and can be dangerous because of various diseases, etc. Any travel doctor will tell you not to touch the dogs. It began to rain and we had to be evacuated because of the risk of flash floods. One of the dogs was limping so badly it could barely walk (and would be unable to make it the several miles home) and we suspected that it was bitten by something in the jungle. After leaving the dense part of the jungle I put my gear down, and I turned around to see Marshall coming out of the jungle, soaked to the bone, carrying the wet, injured dog. He not only carried it from the jungle, possibly risking his own health, but he insisted that we get the dog care and/or to its owner. It was truly an incredible moment to witness and it is only one example of the care, compassion and moral compass of my teammates.

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My amazing teammates

Going to the Amazon was the experience of a lifetime and I left with lots of stories, amazing friendships, a few bug bites and hopefully no lasting ill effects (thanks, in part, to the half dozen vaccines and prophylactic medications administered). I also came back with 1,900 pictures which I distilled to less than 200 that are broken into the following categories:

Plants (including the spikey ones) and animals (including the dangerous ones): http://on.fb.me/c9Xdv3

Scenery (I know it looks like I spent a week at the beach, but I swear I was in the Amazon!): http://on.fb.me/cgs0EK
People of the Amazon (including the indigenous tribe): http://on.fb.me/bh5led

I am so thankful to so many people for such an exceptionally wonderful opportunity.

First, I need to thank Ray and Bob for not only inviting me on this amazing expedition but trusting me as someone to help support their incredible organization. I know that they put blood, sweat and tears into making i2P an amazing organization that helps children and it is truly an honor to be one of the people that helps them do it.

I also need to thank my partner, Dave, for supporting me throughout my training and the expedition. Whether it was joining me for hikes, letting me borrow his dog, Tyke, for company, getting me audio books so I didn’t get bored on long training days, or lending me gear, he was just the best support I can imagine and I don’t think I could have done it without him.

I am so thankful to John Zahab, David Okuda and Dr. Gwen Sowa for helping me rehab my back so that I was able to train for and complete this expedition. All of them went above and beyond in helping me, which truly speaks to them as professionals and people. I’d also like to thank Dr. Charles Crispino for making sure my heart was ready to go and that I had a plan in case my heart decided not to cooperate while I was in the jungle.

I couldn’t have gone on this expedition without permission from my exceptionally supportive boss, Brooke, and my clinical supervisors Dana and Kim. I’m also thankful to Sarah and Cynthia who helped me with my clients while I was gone.

And last, but certainly not least, the companies that keep me fueled and geared up. I’m proud to be a member of PowerBar Team Elite and a Sugoi Brand Champion.

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I know that I am biased, but i2P is an incredible organization. Please support us by following us on Facebook or learning more at www.impossible2possible.com.

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