2022: heart of suriname packrafting expedition
The jaguar was ready to pounce.
We locked eyes. His wild, amber irises, with pupils dilated to slits, bore into me. He lowered his shoulders and crept down the log. His tail flicked with anticipation. I floated by, less than fifteen feet away. In total silence, neither of us moved. I was mesmerised by his beauty for a long two seconds, and then yelled.
The other three in our group, also in Alpacka packrafts, were about 100 feet behind me.
The jaguar took another step. We were twelve feet apart now.
Ashlee yelled, “Hey! HEY!” Dave and Suhei started screaming. The jaguar’s head swivelled to look at them.
The current carried me on. I was too stunned to move. Now I was 15 feet away, and getting more distant. ‘Can jaguars swim?’ I wondered.
But the other still had to pass the pinch in the creek, less than 15 feet wide, which the jaguar occupied. He showed no signs of moving.
Dave led Ashlee and Suhei, and the three of them 12 feet away from the muscular feline. By now I was 30 feet away, standing up in my packraft above the muddy water, trying to look big. I blew my whistle. Dave splashed the jaguar using his paddle. The girls screamed and hollered, all of us trying to make it run away.
The jaguar sat down to watch us.
Ashlee and Suhei were now with me, 30 feet away. Dave stayed close. The jaguar, in one swift bound, leapt up an arcing tree. In seconds, he was 15 feet vertically above Dave.
‘Is this how Dave dies?’ I thought, still yelling at the creature.
The jaguar looked at Dave, lowered his back, and froze. Dave locked eyes with it, and floated with the current. In seconds, we went around a sharp bend, and the jaguar was gone.
It isn’t easy to ever see a wild jaguar. It’s even less likely to see one that isn’t scared of humans. Locals in Suriname that spend their entire lives hunting, guiding or foraging in the forest told us they may see less than a dozen jaguars, ever. One 58-year old local who had spent his entire life in the jungle told us he’d never seen one. No one could recall any encounter more significant than the jaguar immediately running away. Yet here we were, barely 24 hours after being dropped off by a helicopter in the middle of Suriname, paddling a river we believed had only been descended once before, and we’d nearly been mauled by a jaguar.
“I felt like crying after that,” recalled Dave that evening over dinner. We had a group hug, and went to bed anxiously. Only minutes after laying down in our sweaty tent, I felt a biting sensation in my groin area. I turned on my headlight, and found dozens of mites embedded in my groin. Something was itching on my back. A buzzing sound stayed constant outside the tent. I got up to pee, and accidentally urinated on a 10-inch long millipede. Fireflies flitted through the bushes, with the occasional mysterious crashing sound. “What are we doing in this jungle?” I whispered to Suhei. We fell asleep in a puddle in our tent.
* * * * *
Myself and Dave Weimer had spent a month combing satellite maps, looking for the most pristine, remote and majestic creeks and rivers in Suriname and Guyana. There are countless to pick from, but we wanted a river that would be relatively affordable to access by helicopter, and also able to be completed in less than two weeks. In the jungle, where your clothes and skin are constantly wet, skin infections set in after around a week. Past this, and the trip can leave the ‘fun’ style and crest into survival mode.
We contacted various locals and air charter services. After much research, I connected with Jerome, a helicopter pilot in Paramaribo, Suriname, and pitched our idea of Tanjiemama Creek to him. Jerome was fortunately skeptical, telling us we need to be experts, and well-prepared, as there is no rescue, no room for error, and no one to help. We convinced him of our wide breadth of skills and experience, and the team at Pegasus Airlines, and they agreed to drop us off at the headwaters of the creek. The four of us - Lukas Eddy, Suhei Eddy, Ashlee Lee and Dave Weimer - went independently, with no guide or leader. Though Jerome had been to the creek, he’d landed the helicopter at only a few parts, and did not know the entire ~46-mile waterway.
A birdwatcher and packrafter named Tony Henneberg is believed to be one of the only people to have descended Tanjiemama Creek, apparently in a small group. His descent was in 2008, and he warned me in an email of swift water racing into log jams, a few tricky portages, and maggots in his wounds. My kind of place! We bought plane tickets to Suriname, and were dropped off at the only potential landing site for miles and miles on the 14th October 2022.
Caimans. Piranhas. Chiggers. Tarantulas. Giant river otters. Wasps. The jungle is filled with the most amazing and terrifying creatures, and we encountered nearly everything except snakes. The jaguar encounter was the most intense obstacle we overcame, and in the end, we ended with terrific memories and a ton of rashes, bug bites, and itchy legs. The glorious heat, bathing in the hot river in the pitch black night, and the odd tranquility of a six-hour downpour were some of the many highlights.
More jungle trips are certainly in my future. It’s a landscape to be both feared and respected. If you go, be REALLY prepared, with antibiotics, soap, sandals for letting feet dry feet at camp, and a ton of mental fortitude. For more tips on preparation, see Dave’s article here.