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CB-FH Photographer: A. Andis Location: Tena, Ecuador

The feeling has left my hands. It’s farther away than the car, farther than the tea and whiskey in my thermos. It’s long gone, and since I can no longer feel them, I have to trust that my fingers are still wrapped around my paddle.

Despite my best efforts to stay upright, my kayak tips over and the space behind my eyes lights up when my face hits the water. I’m suddenly aware of the matter inside my skull, the pieces of my head I don’t feel when the temperature is reasonable. It’s fall-turning-to-winter up here, and in a few weeks I’ll go to the equator, to warmer waters that don’t steal the sensation from my fingers, to warmer air that doesn’t burn my lungs when I breathe too deep. And once the heat thaws me, I will pour myself into work, which, for now, is an attempt to prove the inherent value of a free-flowing Amazonian tributary.

Up north, the water is heavy with sediment and it scours my ever-numb hands. Swimming black bears have pawed at the bow of my boat. Chinook salmon shimmer as they leap, attaining the impossible, always moving upstream. Down there, on the equator, there are butterflies and ancient languages and feral forest voices I’ll never be able to identify.

Why does a far-away river matter so much?

Perhaps it’s because we’re taught as kids that the Amazon is our planet’s lungs, and when we see that forest burn, we raise our palms to our own chests; maybe we breathe a little deeper. Maybe it’s because the rainforest is so vastly different from the boreal forest and tundra I grew up on and I can’t bear to see either of them go.

The rivers that flow into and through the Amazon Basin quench the burning; they keep the smoke from stagnating so the respirations may persist.

Maybe it’s a matter of privilege: I’ve enjoyed the time and resources necessary to experience things opposite my reality, to know rivers far from my home. I can compare and analyze and breathe as deeply as I want. We don’t all claim those luxuries. Or maybe it’s because it is there, as it is here, just water moving downhill, day by day, down to the ultimate sea. And if it matters here, then it matters there, and I desperately want it to affect the parts of my head and my heart that I can’t otherwise feel, and I’m in love with it all, everywhere.

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Chandra Brown is an Alaska-born river guide and writer currently based in Missoula, Montana. She is co-organizer of Jondachi Fest, a grass-roots kayak race and community river festival in celebration of the Jondachi River in Ecuador. 

A. Andis is a conservationist, paddler, and photographer. See more of his work at NunatakDesign.com.

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CB-2 Photographer: A. Andis Location: Jondachi River, Ecuador
CB-3 Photographer: A. Andis Location: Hollin River, Ecuador
CB-5 Photographer: A. Andis Location: Beasa, Ecuador
CB-4 Photographer: A. Andis Location: Cuyabeno Reserve, Ecuador