R. Valentine Atkinson
Published: February 16, 2008
MANAUS, Brazil — For several miles flying northwest in a small plane out of this city in the northern part of Brazil, where the Rio Negro and the Rio Salimoes meet to form the Amazon River, there was evidence of humans: the cutting of forests, clearings with crops, buildings and roads. But then, suddenly, as if we had left a coastal city for the ocean, the development ceased.
The sea before us was not blue, but green, the largest rain forest ecosystem in the world, the Amazon basin.
Here and there, if you looked closely, you saw a small clearing and a round building from the air. The home of an indigenous people? We were heading about two and a half hours into the jungle, to an upper tributary of the Amazon called the Agua Boa. Decades ago, a doctor from Manaus had negotiated a lease on this entire 160-mile tributary from headwaters to its confluence with the Branco. The river was patrolled to keep out commercial fishermen, so the pristine nature of the place was preserved. The only indication that a camp existed was a beige landing strip, like a stick of gum that sat in the forest perpendicular to the river.
The Agua Boa — which means beautiful water — is near the border of Venezuela, in Brazil. It is also adjacent to a reserve set aside by both countries for the largest extant tribe of Amazon peoples, the Yanomami.
The purpose of the trip was to fly fish for peacock bass. The peacock bass, or tucanare, is a golden-green fish with varied markings depending on the species. There is the spotted bass, the asu (which grows the biggest and has perch-like vertical bands), and the butterfly bass, which has three to four markings along its sides that look like Chinese characters.
The peacock bass is notorious for taking flies and lures with brutal predatory focus, and once hooked is a relentless fighter. I soon learned that these were not like largemouth bass (they are not closely related) when I attempted to land a 14-pounder by hand. The sandpapery teeth and steel-trap jaws shredded my thumb. As I watched the blood cascade down my hand and wrist, I momentarily woke from my jet lag and realized I was in the Amazon. Hearing the piercing shrieks of blue and yellow macaws overhead only made that realization more vivid.
I ended up here in late November by invitation of Lance Ranger, an Englishman living in Switzerland whom I met in Newfoundland last summer. Ranger, 47, bought the camp in the Amazon earlier that year. He fell in love with the raw beauty of the place when his brother-in-law took him on a fishing trip here. I met up with him at the camp, or, rather, intercepted him, as he was on his way to Antarctica to ski to the South Pole to raise money for his charity for disabled children in Mauritius.
One night I asked Ranger why he bought the camp. He laughed and said, “I’m looking forward to finding the reason.” He listed a series of personal setbacks, including the death of his father and a separation from his wife, that drew him to do it, then added: “I plan to spend as much time as I can here. This place has affected me. I want to be a good steward of this river, just keep it the way it is.”
What appealed to him most about the Amazon? “It’s all out there,” he said, and explained that he liked how nothing was concealing its true nature. “Everything wants to eat you.”
I did not have to own it to enjoy it, and I was not the only one looking to catch fish. Toothy critters are everywhere, and if something is not actively trying to eat something else, it has a poisonous defense, or mimics something poisonous. Walking through the jungle without a guide, or wading in the river without caution, is not encouraged. Besides many biting insects, there are beautiful freshwater stingrays that you do not want to accidentally step on.
There is always a chance that an ever-present caiman (a big, alligator-type reptile) will come after a fish on your line, as one did to mine. The caiman took the bass and crushed its head like an imploding plastic Tupperware container. It was the only fish killed on the trip. Several times peacock bass jumped in the boat, cornered against the bank and trying to escape us as we pushed up a small channel to enter a lagoon off the main river. In the lagoons the raucous sounds of bass driving bait against the shore echoed across the water. On the banks wading birds awaited the hoards that the bass delivered.
Ranger is not the first to find himself escaping to the river after a troubled time. Almost a hundred years before, Theodore Roosevelt came to the Amazon with his own series of setbacks (he had just lost the 1912 election, among other things) only to encounter more disasters on a harrowing near-death expedition down an unexplored tributary called the Rio da Dúvida, or River of Doubt.
In any case, Ranger has found a second home here, one that, hopefully for him and the wildlife, will be a river of promise.