PrologueThe water roiled and bucked in large waves as the river was squeezed between the sheer walls. The air was a haze of cool mist, and a persistent roar filled my ears. I saw the raft teeter on a huge standing wave just inside the canyon as Ben struggled, pulling madly on the oars.
My kayak was incredibly maneuverable, but I had to be careful about some of the bigger rocks. I slid off a two-yard wave and down into a great recirculating hole. The gaping mouth of the vortex boiled and sucked at my tiny vessel, and I dug frantically to escape its grasp. My heart pounded from exertion. Where were Ben and the raft? I had lost him somewhere in the white fog of spray.
My lungs burned as the merciless river pushed me hard toward the canyon wall, threatening to pin the kayak to the jagged rocks. I struggled to get turned back downriver. A large hole appeared that was impossible to avoid -- its swirling, circular current swallowed nearly the entire river. I dug hard with my paddle, hoping to generate enough speed to propel the kayak across the boil.
Dig! Dig! Dig! I screamed at myself. Pull! PULL!
I had barely made it to the middle of the hole when the rotating maelstrom pulled me backward and then under.
Everything went black.
I held my breath as the current battered and pulled at me, as if some malevolent force wanted to rip me from the kayak's cockpit and consume me. It pummeled my chest like a boxer. My lungs ached for oxygen as I spun around upside down. I was helpless, a plaything of the river god. The kayak did numerous cartwheels and then, as quickly as I had been pulled under, I was spat out downstream. I was wet, cold, out of breath, and chastened.
But I was alive.TWO YEARS EARLIER . . . August 22, 1999
"The Nile, the Amazon, the Yangtze, and then the Mississippi."
"So what's number five then?" I asked.
Ben looked up from the National Geographic Atlas
. "The Yenisey River."
I'd never heard of the Yenisey, yet it was listed as the fifth-longest river in the world. According to the map, the Yenisey's headwaters were in the heart of central Asia and its mouth was 3,450 miles to the north, on the Arctic Ocean. Had anyone ever traveled its full length? Through what kind of landscape did it flow? My imagination conjured up scenes of a thunderous whitewater torrent on its way to the sea, dashing down the flanks of the Hangayn Mountains, roaring through steep-sided canyons, and cutting across expanses of frozen tundra peopled with nomads who lived in tepees.
"It looks like Camana, on the coast of Peru, would be the best place to start," Ben said.
We were in the Banff Public Library researching our upcoming expedition down the Amazon River. We were due to leave in two weeks, and it was no time to be daydreaming about other rivers.
Ben's face was tanned from the weeks we'd spent honing our whitewater rafting skills in the Rocky Mountains. Underneath the healthy glow, though, a world-weary tiredness had set in. His curly hair was slightly greasy and hung listlessly across his forehead and over his ears. Large, dark bags hung below his bloodshot eyes -- the result of too much worry. I knew my own face looked about the same.
We were about to run one of the world's greatest rivers, and we were counting pennies and budgeting beyond belief.
I filed the Yenisey River in the back of my mind and devoted my attention to the maps of South America in front of me. Still, a seed had been planted.February 28, 2001
More than a year later, after we'd run the Amazon, Terry Spence, the radio host at CFAX in Victoria, B.C., leaned closer to his microphone and said, "Tell me now, Colin, why is it that you want to travel a river -- which nobody has ever heard of -- that flows through remotest Mongolia and Siberia? Wasn't the Amazon enough for you? I mean, you guys were almost killed in South America. Haven't you heard of gardening or cricket?"
I laughed. What could I say?
It was true. We had successfully completed our voyage down the Amazon, facing death on numerous occasions. Many people believed that it was blind luck that had carried us across South America from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe, but we accomplished what we had set out to do: We had traveled the length of one of the most famous rivers in the world. We had voyaged every inch of it, from its source in the remote mountains of Peru to the northeastern shoulder of Brazil, where it finally empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
In spite of the pain, the rot, the smell, the arguments, the gunshots, and the altitude sickness, I had never felt so alive or engaged. You cannot capture that feeling in a photograph or on videotape, or adequately convey it in words -- much less experience it on one of those tourist bus excursion trips. It wasn't just the dramatic scenery and the fascinating people that had left their mark on me. It was the unique way in which, the more I shared time with the river -- five months in total -- the more I came to feel and respect its spirit and energy. That is what was tattooed on my soul.
For me the Amazon offered a view of the world that could never be re-created by a textbook or a documentary. The river ran past both the squalid and the sublime with indifference, offering to each a constant but ever-changing face. Old man river truly rolled along -- a mile wide sometimes, swollen with the runoff of a continent. It was both creator and destroyer, depending on its mood. Its banks were testament to its generosity and its rage. It carried us through folded, rugged countryside, its currents sweeping us along like riders on the back of some giant, serpentine beast.
A river is the lifeblood of the land it flows through. Few parts of the earth are untouched by the sculpting force of water. Every organism is part of an intricately woven network of life that is nurtured by a watershed. The sap that rises in the trunk of a eucalyptus tree and the blood that pumps in the heart of an iguana are essentially the same fluid that permeates and flows across the landscape, that saturates the atmosphere and falls from the sky.
Rivers have always been key to the development of complex societies and the rise of civilizations. Irrigation, transportation, hydroelectric power, and food are a few of the gifts a river offers. That is why they fascinate me. Whether they are mythical rivers such as the Styx, historic rivers such as the Rubicon, or the mighty rivers of my homeland, such as the Fraser, I am compelled to learn all I can about them and experience them as fully as possible. From the moment it occurred to me that nothing was holding me back, I had to live and breathe the Amazon River, not just learn about it from books.
When I read Steinbeck's Cannery Row
as a boy, I envied the idle lives of the indigent characters. Sitting on a dock, feet dangling in the water, tippling on a jug of wine -- to my young mind it seemed the perfect lifestyle. That was before I felt the pull to explore and achieve. Whether this drive is conditioned or genetic, I have come to believe that in life you must strive to achieve -- or your spirit will fade.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Lost in Mongolia by Colin Angus. Copyright © 2003 by Colin Angus. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.