Erik Weihenmayer, the adventurer best known for becoming the first blind person to climb Mt. Everest, recently ran into a spot of trouble while kayaking in Peru. He and a large team of paddlers were making a descent of the Marañón River when an angry group of locals, mistaking the group as a scouting party for commercial damming efforts, confronted them and prevented them from continuing down river. The incident resulted in the entire team being detained over night until their identities could be verified.
Weihenmayer was on the Marañón, a major tributary of the Amazon, as a training expedition for an attempt to paddle the Grand Canyon next year. The group, which consisted of more than 20 paddlers, were stopped by a mob of locals at one of the villages that falls along their route. Upset over announced plans to build dams along the river, the villagers confronted the team under the erroneous assumption that they were there to scout a location to build a dam. Any such structure would not only alter the flow of the river but would likely permanently submerge villages upstream as well.
Because of this potential looming crisis to their way of living, the villagers have been quick to react angrily toward outsiders who have visited the region in recent months. Fortunately for the paddlers, their team was led by James “Rocky” Contos, who is a conservationist and filmmaker when he isn’t working as a river guide. Contos has already made a film spotlighting the plight of the Marañón, which helped to convince the locals that he wasn’t a dam builder at all, but was in fact on their side. The kayakers were held over night before being released to continue along their way.
Building dams on South American rivers has become a topic of much debate in recent years. Not only do Peruvians living on the Marañón River vehemently oppose such plans, but many Chileans are facing similar battles in their country. The dams do create hydroelectric power of course, but they also disrupt the ecosystem in ways that are not often felt for decades to come. On top of that, most of the dams are being built and operated by foreign corporations which end up making billions of dollars in profits along the way. This makes for a combination that is bad for the indigenous people in so many ways.
As for Weihemmayer, this encounter was just another adventure on an already impressive resume. Not only has he climbed Everest, but he has also completed the rest of the Seven Summits too. He has competed in marathons, adventure races and even the Leadville 100, one of the toughest mountain bike races in North America. He has only somewhat recently taken up kayaking but has already set a goal for himself to paddle the Grand Canyon next year. That’s an epic challenge for someone with excellent vision, let alone a paddler who is completely blind.