Amazon Express Pioneer

By Carrie Barrett – April 1, 2014
Photography by Erich Schlegel, Amazon Express Expedition

You've seen the black and white stickers on the backs of cars—13.1, 26.2, 140.6. If you live in the world of endurance racing, you instantly recognize those distances, but did you know there's a car in Austin driving around with a similar sticker of 4,103.2?

Just who is this endurance freak, and what did he do for more than 4,100 miles?   

That Austinite is 52-year-old West Hansen, a long-time ultramarathon canoe and kayak racer. And that sticker? Well, that sticker put him in the history books. From Aug. 17 to Dec. 5, 2012, West and his whitewater and flatwater crews became the first ever to paddle the entire Amazon River, from its newest discovered source at 14,000 feet on the Mantaro River in Peru, to the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil. This record-setting Amazon Express Expedition was sponsored in part by the National Geographic Expedition Council and collected data for the Pacific BioDiversity Project that monitors changes occurring in the Amazon Region.

As one can imagine, ample adventure took place during those four months and 4,100 miles on the Amazon. Much of it was expected, including the Class V whitewater rapids in the first 500 miles, the altitude adjustments from 14,000+ feet to sea level, and even the blizzard-like conditions just days into the expedition. Being held at gunpoint five times, however, was not part of the plan, and neither was tearing a shoulder muscle on Day Three, finding copious amounts of marijuana floating down the river, or facing 12-foot high waves just miles from the finish.

“You definitely have to have a sense of humor and flexibility, especially when you're going places no one has gone before,” said Hansen, who was the leader and self-proclaimed chief bottle washer of this expedition. “A good leader has a strong sense of self and knows how to make firm decisions, but also listens to others, especially when tough decisions need to be made.” The leader and his crews were faced with many precarious moments and, many days, it seemed like paddling was the easy part.

Hansen’s journey as a central Austinite turned ultramarathon canoe/kayaker and leader of an historic expedition all started in college. He was born in League City, Texas and went to college at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos. He took a class on whitewater kayaking in the early 1980s and was hooked. He's been paddling and racing ever since.

“What's funny is that I'm not even fit right now,” the 52-year-old social worker laughed. “I had shoulder surgery in early December, and I can't run, ride, or do anything that would jar loose the work they've done.” Unfortunately, he's no stranger to surgeries, having endured four of them as a result of decades of ultramarathon canoe racing. “There are ways to not get injured,” he reflected when asked if injury is just part of the gig, “but probably not if you want to win.”  

Hansen has won his fair share of ultramarathon races throughout the years and holds speed records in the 260-mile Texas Water Safari and the Missouri River 340. When prepping for a long race like the Texas Water Safari (billed as the World's Toughest Canoe Race), there is no substitute for practicing on the water. However, he also does a lot of dryland strength and intensity work, and he credits local trainers—including David Goodin from Shredderbuilt, Lance Hooten from Hooten Sport Performance Training, and Brook Jones from Hyde Park Gym—for whipping him into shape when he needs it most. When preparing for the Amazon Express Expedition, Hansen also spent time at the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Training Center in Charlotte, N.C., honing his whitewater skills on Class V rapids.

Hansen’s racing days aren't necessarily behind him. In fact, he hopes to race the Texas Water Safari this June. Racing did, however, take a backseat to the rigors of planning and completing the Amazon Express Expedition. “There is some overlap between racing and expeditions,” he said. “Racing helps you prepare mentally, but expeditions are much easier on your body as you slow the pace down, establish a rhythm and a consistent daily routine. The only time we felt pressure on the Amazon was getting back to our families.”  

It was hard to adjust and disconnect at first, but this expedition also gave Hansen a fresh perspective and appreciation for seeing the world at a pace that our senses can actually absorb. He doesn't like to call it “slowing down” as much as he calls it, “correcting” our natural pace.  “It's cool to be on a rocket,” he joked, “but it's just not natural.

“Racing is like being on a rocket. An expedition is like being on a long hike. You may pass by the same objects, but you just get to see them differently.”

Hansen's approaching his post-50th birthday years that way, too. But why live in Austin, seeing as it's not totally conducive to whitewater training? “Because it's Austin,” he replied right away. “It's home. I love the lifestyle, the political flavor, and the creative energy here.” He's definitely taking advantage of that creative energy—Hansen has hired all local editors, graphic designers, and musicians for his forthcoming documentary about the expedition, called “Peeled Faces on the Amazon.”

Currently finishing up his documentary and simultaneously preparing for the next top-secret, history-making paddle expedition taking place this month, Hansen plans to tackle some dryland adventures after that. He’s taking on the Tour Divide Mountain Bike Ride, Leadville Trail 100, and the entire 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. “As I've gotten older, my stamina and endurance have actually increased,” he said. “I can persevere and endure more discomfort than I could when I was younger.” Based on his passion and enthusiasm for ultra endurance events, he's not stopping anytime soon.

So, if you're driving down the road and you pass that car with the 4,103.2 sticker, know that West Hansen paddled every mile, from source to sea, along the entire Amazon River.


Related Articles