Darcy Gaetcher is the first woman to kayak the Amazon River from source to sea. A hugely influential figure in the world of white water kayaking and an ever present inspiration to women across the planet, Darcy has taken up the mantle of environmental awareness, writing and public speaking.
Darcy grew up in Colorado. Playing outdoors was a big part of her childhood, though she didn’t get into whitewater until I was 18. When Darcy was a kid, her dream was to become a ski patroller at the Aspen Highlands ski area just like her dad, but her life took a different turn! She still love skiing, but love kayaking more. Here she tells Paddler Magazine about her career in paddling.
Interview: Peter Tranter
Photos: Matt Power, Don Beveridge
Right out of high school, I got a summer job as a raft guide in Colorado. I was 18, and all the other raft guides were in their 20s, and I looked up to all of them. Many of them went kayaking after work, so I decided I better learn how to kayak so I could hang out with them. Another woman raft guide leant me all of her kayaking gear because she’d had a bad experience and was taking a break from the sport. I had a rough learning curve. I jumped right into the Class III run that my fellow guides were paddling without learning any skills—I didn’t even know how to wet exit the first time I went and ended up bashing my knees through the spray deck when I had to swim. I kind of hated the sport at first because I was so bad at it, but that also made it elusive and intriguing to me. I stuck with it and slowly built up some actual kayaking skills, which were extremely helpful! After my first full year of kayaking, I ended up going to Nepal with a friend. That experience of travelling with a kayak (it was my first time outside of North America), doing multi-day river trips, and seeing Nepal as not many other tourists got to is what hooked me on the sport. It was a challenging trip because I still wasn’t a very good kayaker, and we were running some more challenging rivers. Still, the experience stuck with me and motivated me to improve my kayaking skills and seek out more opportunities to travel with my kayak.
I’ve enjoyed writing since I was young. I used to love Stephen King when I was a kid and even tried to write a horror story—haha! After the Amazon, I guess I felt that I had finally done something worth writing a book about, so I set out to try. I figured it would take me 8-12 months. Well, 6.5 years later, I had a book, a literary agent, and a publisher! It was incredibly challenging, but I learned so much along the way and am so grateful for the process. I would write a totally different book if I set out to do it again today, but I suppose we are constantly evolving, so you can never write the same book twice ;-)
Playing volleyball with the local Peruvian women. One night when we pulled into a small town to camp, I went walking around and discovered an intense volleyball match. It took me a while to muster up the courage to ask if I could join because the women were such good players and were pretty serious about the game. When I finally did ask, they were sceptical, and I could tell they didn’t want to let me join, but I persisted and told them I knew how to play. They relented, and I took my place with one of the teams. I played volleyball in college, and it was all I could do to keep up with them. These women are amazing—they are incredibly strong players, and I still think about them all the time. I got to play in four games before we hit the Brazilian border, where they didn’t play volleyball. Getting to share this time with the local women created some of the most memorable trip moments for me.
Greed, corruption, and overconsumption of resources.
As far as I know, we don’t have a single unified force or organization (like BC) to bring more women into the sport. Still, there are lots of individual companies, organizations, and people working towards this goal. A few that immediately come to my mind are Cali Collective, run by Melissa DeMarie; Mind, Body, Paddle run by Anna Levesque; and The Green River Takeover, organized by Laura Farrell. But many others are working towards this goal, like Diversify Whitewater, run by Antoinette Toscano and Lily Durkee. I feel bad as I know I’m leaving many folks out, but there are too many to mention!
Random luck brought me there first. I had a ticket for a solo trip to Nepal (I wanted to return after building up some more kayaking skills), but it was when the Maoist insurgency was getting quite strong, and I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea to go. A group of friends said they were going kayaking in Ecuador, so I changed my plane ticket and went with them. I had to look up Ecuador on a map, and I was pretty clueless about it. I did, however, immediately fall in love with the country. The people are incredibly friendly; the landscape is varied and amazing—from sea level to 6,263 metres – and, of course, the rivers are amazing. Now it’s our local staff—guides, drivers, and cooks – that keep me coming back year after year. We have such a solid team it feels like going home to family. We all still have the fire for showing people the rivers of Ecuador, getting them excited about South America, about kayaking, and hopefully about river conservation.
We chose to cancel our Ecuador season for 2020/2021 winter. Ecuador was allowing tourists to come, but we felt that cancelling the season was the most responsible thing for Small World Adventures to do as to not encourage international travel “just” for the sake of kayaking. Our top concerns were causing a COVID outbreak in the small town we operate out of, as most people there don’t have many resources to deal with a serious illness. We worried about our clients' health while travelling internationally. We were devastated to cancel the season, but we were able to keep our Ecuadorian staff on the payroll for most of the winter thanks to generous donations from Small World Adventures’ clients and some internal funding. To be sure, the entire SWA team is extremely fired up to get back to running trips in Ecuador this October!
SWA added more domestic trips in the USA for our clients who live here. Many of them were looking for river trips that they could drive.
On a personal level, it’s meant more time in Colorado exploring my backyard. I’ve also dived head-first into the world of Zoom, webinars, and virtual speaking gigs, which has been fun and new, but I am certainly excited to get back to the point where I can do all these things in person.
Prior to the Amazon Expedition, I attacked most challenges in life very physically. I’d train for both strength and cardiovascular—you know, if you are getting worked in some giant hydraulic, being very cardiovascularly fit is helpful! Before paddling the Stikine, for example, I was lifting weights to get stronger and swimming laps underwater to work on how long I could hold my breath. I was also trail running in the mountains, and I kayaked as much as I possibly could.
But the Amazon taught me that the mental and emotional challenges are just as strong as the physical challenges on most expeditions. So now I spend a lot of time working on my mental space. I’ve been studying a lot on the Flow State – seeking it both in my kayaking and everyday life. I’ve found that working on my mindset, specifically having a positive mental outlook, really helps my attitude on expeditions. I’m more patient, more expectant and ready to improvise when things don’t go as planned. I spend a lot of time practising what I like to call the “adventure mindset", which is an attitude that expects the unexpected and is prepared for on-the-fly problem-solving. A mindset that accepts that there will always be obstacles to anything we try to do, and is ready and willing to tackle each problem as it comes....
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