Black Water and A Pebbled Rainbow
The canoe slides along the river in eerie silence, and I recall from my last trip to the Amazon that the jungle is like this—so quiet, even though we are surrounded by life. The stillness carries a sense of expectancy, and I strain my ears for any sound that might herald a sighting. Mostly what we hear are birds, and these occasional cries seem distant.
The only consistent sound is the paddles. They slip into the water with an almost musical rhythm—dip, rush, drip, dip, rush, drip….
My eyes study the chaotic jumble of plants as they flow by, but I do not know the way of seeing in the jungle; everything becomes a blur of tangled bark and smudged green. And then there is the black river passing beneath the boat.
Dip, rush, drip….
The water resembles black tea, and I wonder what lies hidden beneath its surface. It is, quite literally, black. The larger rivers in the Amazon basin are fed with melt-water from the ice and snow of the Andes, but most of the smaller rivers and creeks are created by rainfall. The rain seeps through the soil and rotting vegetation, collecting tannins which turn it black. It’s fascinating, but the jungle is enough of a mystery without the river also masking its inhabitants.
Arriving at this primordial place, at this moment, has felt something akin to a journey back through time.
From Quito, the capital of Ecuador, we took a short flight over the Andes cordillera and then set down in a town besieged by the jungle. A short bus ride took us to the Napo River, where a bizarre suspension bridge thrust above the water like an alien tripod from The War of the Worlds. We climbed into a motorized longboat and sped two hours upriver. After that, another hour and a half passed in a much smaller canoe powered only by two paddlers and a guide. The canoe had a shallow draft, and the gunwales were so close to the water that every careless motion threatened to capsize us.
As we travelled, every successive change of transportation, each more primitive than the last, drew us father and farther from the modern world. Sitting in the canoe, gliding by a landscape of virgin rainforest, I could almost delude myself into believing that I had journeyed a thousand years into the past. The trip engendered a sense of duality, for the digital SLR in my hand kept pulling me back to the twenty-first century.
The culmination of our regressive journey came when the river we travelled opened into a small lake, and on its western shore, we could see the lodge where we would stay. The small patch of land had been carved from the jungle. All supplies arrived by canoe. There were no roads, nothing to connect it to the outside world except the waterway we had just traversed.
As we crossed the short distance to the lodge, our guide, Juan, cautioned us that the lake was not for swimming. Lurking in the water were things that could kill us. He listed several dangers: poisonous snakes, electric eels, anacondas, and then he described the black caiman.
I had seen many caimans in my travels, and I thought I knew what to expect. Most often, I’d seen them lazing on riverbanks. At night, I’d shone a light over the water and seen their eyes flash out of the darkness. I had always considered them to be the insignificant cousins of crocodiles—fearsome looking in detail, but miniature in size and hardly worthy of consideration. The black caiman, however, exceeded my expectations—frighteningly. Several large specimens inhabited the lake before the lodge, and Juan informed us that they could grow up to five metres long, sixteen feet. It was a sobering revelation, and I knew my trip would not be complete until I had seen one of these monsters.
Juan then cautioned us that we had to be especially careful at night. A concrete pier stretched out from the lodge into the lake, and at its end was the platform that we would use to climb in and out of the canoe. It was safe enough in the daytime, but in the darkness, the big caimans could be found slumped on its edge. A midnight stroll to the end of the pier could very well become a stroll to the end of one’s life.
Early the next morning, I watched a canoe launch from the pier and set off across the lake. The flat light of the newly risen sun was mirrored on the water, and the world could hardly have been more serene. The small boat took only moments to reach the opposite shore, and then it disappeared into the jungle. I felt a stir of unease; with nothing to mark its passing, the canoe might never have existed at all. Once again, I felt a sense of duality: in the blink of an eye, the pre-historic had reasserted itself.
At that moment, Juan came down to the pier to organize the morning’s excursion, and I considered the direction that his life had taken. He’d been born in the rainforest and had grown up hunting animals with a blow dart. (I had a difficult time wrapping my head around that reality.) Then the outside world had descended upon his village, and he had been yanked from the stone age into the space age. As a child, he had lived a role in The Gods Must Be Crazy. As an adult, he could watch that movie on his iPad.
We walked the length of the pier, stepped down into our canoe and set out from the lodge. We crossed the small lake, and then we too disappeared from sight. Very soon, we would come eye to eye with a black caiman.
Dip, rush, drip…the canoe slips through the black water. The jungle has wrapped around us. The air feels damp. We now move through shadow. I watch my companions, our paddlers, and our guide all search the gloom for wildlife. I can feel that familiar rush of adrenaline—what will we see?
At the front of the canoe, Juan leans forward and stares toward the bank. He’s noticed something. A bird calls down from the trees, but he mutters, “Toucan,” and dismisses it with a shake of his head. His eyes never waver. Then he points toward a fallen tree. In the water beneath, we can just see the head of the caiman.
The canoe slows. Then, with a stroke of a paddle, it stops. There are hushed exclamations of awe. Only the top half of the head is visible, little more than the eye and the ridge of brow above it. We see the suggestion of a body, but the dark water conspires to hide it from our view. It hardly matters; what we can see is mesmerizing. For a moment, two species regard one another in silence. Then cameras are levelled, and a frenzy of photographs swirl about the humid air. I snap the obligatory amount of pictures, then let my camera rest in my lap and savour the experience of exchanging a long look with that cold-blooded killer.
The eye—I struggle to find language adequate for its description. The word “alien” comes to mind, but that is merely an impression. I could liken it to marble cut and polished by that Michelangelo Evolution, but such a comparison would fail to capture its complexity and precision. The vertical pupil is at once beautiful and chilling.
The arc of brow above the eye captures my attention. It hardly seems organic—more like molded plastic or wind-sculpted stone, and the tiny segments that line the ridge remind me of pebbles. Like a miniature rainbow, they have a bit of an iridescent sheen that reflects a myriad of colours.
How wonderful it is to float there, so close, and study this creature. It is not a monster of fifteen feet (we will see one close to that length a few days later), but the encounter is nonetheless remarkable.
Such moments never last. Attention wanes, and we paddle away to explore another part of the river, eager for other experiences. On our return trip, we pass by that same spot, and the caiman has not moved – what alien patience and immobility. It seems frozen into that image of watchfulness, but I can imagine the explosive action that could shatter this illusion of calm.
We slip by, not unnoticed, but certainly regarded with reptilian indifference.
A short time later, we reach the lake and cross back to the lodge—our small outpost on the edge of the primordial past.
Kenneth D. Reimer
In addition to this non-fiction piece, my experience on the river also inspired a poem that I have posted on the poetry page. Feel free to check it out.