author: Marcin Jamkowski








Correspondent at the source of the world’s largest river

 Amazon at the source

 Story by Marcin Jamkowski

 Led by Poles, an expedition under the patronage of the National Geographic Society has pinpointed that the River Amazon takes its source from a tiny mountain pond – McIntire Lake. It’s a genuine breakthrough as for 17 years the origin of the world’s mightiest river was believed to be the creek Apacheta.

 I had the pleasure to be a participant of the expedition and see for myself scientists at work at the point of origin of the River Amazon. Results of research conducted by expedition participants were announced in Washington at the headquarter of the National Geographic Society – one of the most renown geographic societies in the world – which was the sponsor of the “Source of the Amazon 2000” expedition.

 Action at the source

Scientists studying the origins of the Amazon agree it takes its source in southern Peru, high up in the Andes, and that its longest headstream is the River Apurimac. Several dozen years ago, everyone agreed that pinpointing the origin of Apurimac would stand for identify the source of the Amazon. Almost 30 years ago, in 1971, Loren McIntire of USA, one of the most celebrated Amazon experts, identified that the longest headstream of the Apurimac River is the creek Carhuasanta. That  scientist, journalist and successful writer reached the source of the stream and determined that it springs out from a tiny mountain lake situated on the snow-clad slope of five-thousand-meter high Nevado Mismi. To pay homage to the leader of the expedition, other participants called it Lake McIntire and the name made its way into the world literature.

Twelve years later - in 1983 – a Polish expedition, including Jacek Bogucki, Zbigniew Bzdak, and Andrzej Piętowski – reached the source of the Amazon. They were vaulted to fame by crossing of the world’s deepest canyon – Rio Colca located on the southern slopes of Nevado Mismi - in a canoe! Their maps and observations indicated that the Amazon does not spring out from the lake indicated by McIntire but the Apacheta creek situated several kilometres away.

Two years later – in 1985 – “From the source to the mouth of the Amazon” canoe expedition set off from a point beneath the Nevado Quehuisha peak whose slopes house the source of the Apacheta. A plate marking the start of the canoeing journey is still visible on the rocks beneath the peak. After an 7-month long expedition, only one of its members – Polish-born Piotr Chmieliński of Rzeszów residing in the US, one of the conquerors of the Colca canyon – managed to navigate the entire River Amazon. Even today, he is the only man who had canoed the whole River Amazon.

11 years later, Jacek Pałkiewicz, a Polish-born Italian traveller, arrived at the source of the Amazon. Measuring not the length of rivers, but the amount of water they carry, scientists who accompanied him, confirmed the Polish theory indicating that the Apacheta is the source of the Amazon.

Satellite View

The concept was undermined when portable GPS equipment – mobile navigation devices - hit the mass market. A device not larger than a calculator is now able to identify one’s location at any point on the Earth with an accuracy within a range of several to several dozen meters. The accuracy of the range could be higher had the owner of satellites emitting signals – the US Army – failed to introduce minor redundancies. Those slight distortions made the military system impractical for other armies and useless for accurate navigation of missiles.

“It struck me in 1998 that if I walk armed with a GPS equipment along a stream and frequently record my location, I would be later able to work out which of the Apurimac headstreams is the longest one,” said Ned Strong, an Explorers Club member who works at Harvard University. Finally, he put his plans in place in the spring of 1999. Results were truly astounding – the source of the Amazon is not the Apacheta  but the next stream – the Carhuasanta born in Lake McIntire! With mobile broadband technology plus GPS equipment, Lake Mcintire would be worth revisiting once again.

“There was only one thing that bothered me. The accuracy of Ned’s measurements was insufficient. No serious hydrologist would ever dare to start a discussion about rivers which are several kilometres long and were measured with an accuracy within a range of several dozen meters,” said Polish-born Andrzej Piętowski, the leader of the “Source of the Amazon 2000” expedition who lives in the US. “In such circumstances, we had to find a man who was able to improve the accuracy of Ned’s computations,” adds Piętowski. His man was Andrew Johnson, a geographer working at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, who agreed to join the Amazon Source expedition. His idea was to use much more precise so-called deferential GPS. Johnson is convinced that the accuracy of the measurements is within a range of one meter. “The range of accuracy could be even raised to several centimetres, but why would one measure river length with such an accuracy?,” he adds.

The Worst Migraine in Life

The expedition set off for the mountains in July 2000. The patronage was assumed by the Geographic Society of Lima and the project was joined by Dr Efrain Salmon, one of its most celebrated Amazon experts. “I went to the Andes with several other international expeditions but none of them attempted at pinpointing the source of the Amazon with such accuracy and diligence,” recalls Dr Salmon in the evening   having returned to the base after taking measurements.

The base camp was located high in the mountains – at 4800 meters above the sea level. It was made up of over a dozen tents put on in the centre of a giant empty valley where Indians pasture lamas on low sharp grass. We got there on our Land Rovers, travelling on mules, and then hiking along an old trail delimited by the Incas. Used by messengers travelling to fortified strongholds, the route was set long before the Spanish conquista. And although all members of the expedition completed intense acclimatisation a week before reaching the valley (everyday we used to hike to higher altitudes in the mountains and move our camp several hundred meters up every night), we stood no chances to jog along the Inca trail. Trigged by low pressure, we were haunted by altitude sickness, and shortage of oxygen on high altitudes deteriorated everyone’s capacity. The first night brought sleeping problems and the worst headache in my life. Several other colleagues vomited and were affected by diarrhoea. But when Brian Gee, the doctor of the expedition, prescribed diamox – a medication preventing  altitude-caused oedema – we felt that we could fly. “I worked with several expeditions that reached the source of the Amazon,” said our guide Alberto Velarde-Noa. Alberto suffers no altitude disorders – he is an Indian from the Ketchua tribe who dwell in the Andes for thousands of years. “I even saw an expedition whose members ignored acclimatisation. After their first night on high altitude, they were not able to leave their tents,” recalls Alberto. „What could I do? We packed them on the mules, took to the mountains for several hours and then transported them half-dead to lowland as soon as possible. It yet did not prevent them from publishing articles about discoveries they made on the River Amazon,” he bitterly adds.

Return to the Source

Throughout our expedition several research teams used to leave the camp to explore the mountains. Their goal was to measure the length of selected streams. Luckily, streams are not very long – they sport the length of seven to eight kilometres but on such high altitude walking along the entire river and measuring its length took up a day’s work. In the evening, Andrew Johnson collected GPS devices from all groups and transferred data they contained into his computer. We could practically witness development of a 3-D map of the valley on daily basis. A day before the expedition ended, when three last explorers ascended the Nevado Mismi peak and returned with measurements of the last stream, Andrew Johnson announced: “Gentlemen, springing from McIntire Lake, the stream Carhuasanta is the longest headstream of the Amazon”. And so, after 30-year long wandering, the source of the world’s mightiest river returned to the place identified many years ago by Loren McIntire.


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Article was published in Polish in Gazeta Wyborcza in 2000
Translated from Polish by Agnieszka Chrościcka


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