Piotr Chmielinski, Godfather of Amazon exploration (Interview Part 1 of 3)

30 years ago, 1985-86, Piotr Chmielinski became the first person to complete the entire distance of the Amazon, source to sea, by kayak and raft. For history-in-making visual trip, check eight images above (to be continued in the next two parts.)
(Correne Coetzer and Tina Sjogren, Edited Dec. 4, 2015) Chmielinski’s kayak adventures started in 1974 during his University years in Poland, on the Vistula River in Kraków. His expeditions started in 1976 when as co-organizer/kayaker of the Polish Student Kayak Expedition to Yugoslavia. This led to Expedition Canoandes-79 from the USA to Argentina. During this expedition he became the first person to kayak Colca Canyon, the world’s deepest canyon.

In 1983 Chmielinski established Canoandes Inc., a non-for-profit organization and remains the President through which he coordinates expeditions and facilitate endeavors related to geographical explorations (e.g. supporting Aleksander Doba’s Atlantic crossings and now coordinating media coverage of Biking the Amazon River Expedition).

Born in Poland, Piotr tells Pythom/Explorersweb how he became persona non grata in his home country and stateless in the world in the 1980’s. Today he lives in Herndon, VA, with his wife Dr. Joanna Chmielinska, a researcher at the George Washington University Medical School. “We have two sons, Maximilian, GPrep-2009, currently a graduate student at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA and Alexander, GPrep-2015, currently an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia.”

Over the years, Amazon adventurers and Polish adventurers, have knocked on Piotr’s door for advice and assistance. It gives him a lot of satisfaction to help them, he says to Pythom/Explorersweb.

When not busy mentoring and mentoring adventurers, Chmielinski is President of the firm HP Environmental, Inc. since 1991, dealing with indoor and outdoor environmental issues, e.g. evaluating environmental hazards in Ground Zero after September 11, 2001 attack. Currently his company is responsible for environmental issues during renovations of the Capitol Dome in Washington, DC.

Here go Pythom’s interview with Chmielinski, plus many archive photos from his Canoeandes 1985-86 expedition through the Amazon:

PYTHOM: Why did you decide to run the Amazon?

PIOTR CHMIELINSKI: I think every explorer has some places in mind that become a special goal, top of the dreams. Since I started kayaking in the academic club “Bystrze” in Krakow, I was fascinated with the Amazon, the largest river in the world. The first thought of running the entire length of it came into my mind in 1981 when within Canoandes-79 expedition* I had an opportunity to paddle the first 100 km on the white waters of the Amazon and again in 1983 with National Geographic sponsored expedition under my leadership. That idea became more realistic four years later together with the invitation to participate as the co-leader and co-organizer with the international expedition from source to the mouth of the Amazon. I just couldn’t refuse.

* Canoandes-79 – the Polish expedition that in 1979-1982 kayaked 23 rivers of North and South Americas, including the first descents of 13 of them. In 1981 seven of its members: Jacek Bogucki, Zbigniew Bzdak (support), Piotr Chmieliński, Stefan Danielski, Krzysztof “Biczu” Kraśniewski, Jerzy Majcherczyk and Andrzej Piętowski (leader) carried out the first descent of the deepest canyon in the world, Canyon Colca in Peru.

PYTHOM: What attracts you about the Amazon?

PIOTR: First of all the Amazon attracts with its immensity. The Amazon as the largest river on the earth crosses different geographical, climate, environmental and cultural spheres. This diversity makes the kayaking not only a kind of sport achievement, but also the beautiful journey in the surroundings of amazing fauna and flora and possibility of meeting wonderful friendly people. It was interesting and fascinating for me to get to know each point, each mile of the river length. It was even more exciting to do it as the first man in the world.

PYTHOM: What made you successful in 1985?

PIOTR: Most of all, the determination to meet the goal. I didn’t take into account the possibility to stop and not to get to the end of river in the Atlantic. The kayaking the entire length of the Amazon as the first human in history of exploration was our aim and despite any problems and troubles there was no other way than to go forward and make it.

The success of the Amazon Source-to-Sea Expedition of 1985-1986 was due to the involvement of all of its members, but the most important were the great kayakers, Jerome Truran and Tim Biggs (both South African). As well, the final success would not have been achieved without Joe Kane, Zbigniew Bzdak, and Kate Durrant.

Additionally, without the support of Jack Jourgensen, Bryce Anderson, Jacek Bogucki, friends from Casper, Wyoming and many friends in Peru and Brazil the expedition would not even have had a start.

PYTHOM: Three most scary passages / experiences?

PIOTR: The passages that were not even scary, because there was no time for scare, but one of the most dangerous moments I experienced happened in Black Canyon and Acobamba Abyss at the end of the upper section of the Amazon. There is no way out after getting inside these two rock corridors where the river flows rapidly inside deep canyons. As they were never descended before, they were completely unknown and unrecognized at that time so it was a challenge to get in there and to get out. The other risky situation took place in the area controlled by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). We were arrested by the group of guerrilla insurgents. Fortunately they respected the Pope John Paul II and became merciful for his countrymen, all of us declared to be from Poland at that moment. So they let us go.

PYTHOM: Was it life changing?

PIOTR: The Amazon expedition made more ascertained that everything was possible if really wanted. I found my own “Amazon” that is not just a river. In everyday life, personal and work life, each task is such “The Amazon” – I do my best to reach the goal, not to give up somewhere in the middle, to accomplish what I began and enjoy it.

PYTHOM: How did you find funds for it?

PIOTR: Main source of funds for Amazon Expedition came from private donors (Jack Jourgensen and Bryce Anderson) through Canoandes, Inc., not for profit organization, I and other friends from Canoandes established in 1983 in Wyoming and additionally we received support from Knopf-Random House (book advance – for later published classic book “Running the Amazon” by Joe Kane), Outside Magazine (story advance) and from friends from Casper, Wyoming (Zbigniew Bzdak and I lived there before Expedition). National Geographic was not interested to get involved until we completed successfully our expedition and with the story “Kayaking the Amazon” written by me and published in National Geographic in 1987 – we had opportunity to pay our debts.

PYTHOM: Wasn’t this during the Soviet occupation of Poland – how did you get permit to go abroad?

PIOTR: The end of 1970s was the time of communist regime that hadn’t been easily adopting the idea of travelling abroad, particularly to the western countries. The system of holding individual passports in deposit and limiting permits to leave Poland was a serious obstacle. While preparing for the trip to Argentina in 1979 (the initially planned destination of Canoandes) we sent the request for permit to the Minister of Tourism and Sport. He found our idea of kayaking rivers in South America so crazy and so impossible to accomplish, that he accepted our application just not be bothered by us anymore. Almost 20 years later this man became the President of Poland and presented us the special explorers’ award for the expedition he actually supported with his decision.

PYTHOM: Why did you move to US?

PIOTR: The political situation of Poland in 1981 became really tough. I and some of my Canoandes colleagues didn’t follow the demand of immediate return to Poland from Peru where the information of the martial law in our country found us. Moreover, in Lima, we got engaged in the political protest against this decision and following actions of the Polish authorities. These made us persona non grata in Poland and stateless in the world. In that situation, we decided to go back to Wyoming where we already had spent some time and had friends. We obtained the American resident status thanks to Wyoming Senator Alan K. Simpson who was at that time in charge of the immigration issues in US Congress and he understood that aiding members of our group to become residents of Great State of Wyoming will be beneficial to both sides.

NEXT: Piotr Chmielinski: True Source of Amazon River (Interview Part 2 of 3)

BACKGROUND: During the 1985-86 Amazon Source to Sea Expedition, Piotr Chmielinski became the only member of the 13-person expedition who managed to navigate the Amazon River entirely from Source to Sea, about 4300 miles. Joe Kane completed the entire river by walking the first section of the Apurimac’s white water and finished the rest by kayak and raft. Zbigniew Bzdak and Kate Durrant completed the entire River by walking the first section of the Apurimac’s white water and doing the rest by raft and motor boat. Their adventure is described in the book Running the Amazon by Joe Kane, which is now considered a classic of adventure literature.

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Previous: Initiation on waters of Amazon – Part 3, by Piotr Chmielinski