One of the most inspiring chapters in whitewater history was written by an unlikely group of young Polish men who slipped under the Iron Curtain in 1979 and, without money, proper gear, or much of a clue, pioneered many of the classic river runs from Mexico to Argentina. Their landmark achievement was the first descent of the world’s deepest canyon in Peru, an 11-day epic they did on five days’ rations, but that’s just the hook, says filmmaker Adam Nawrot.
“Colca has the superlative and they all agree it was the hardest thing they did on the expedition, but what really makes it exciting is that it’s a great vehicle to learn a little bit of history by accident,” he says.
“Yurek was pretty much convinced that the pope’s life depended on their success in the canyon.”
The story has been told around campfires and river put-ins for decades, and in books and magazines, but until now it had never been the subject of a feature-length documentary. After screening Godspeed, Los Polacos, which makes its U.S. premier Friday at Mountainfilm in Telluride, we have to wonder why it took 40 years for this extraordinary story to be told in film.
Nawrot has an answer for that too.
He grew up in New Jersey, the son of Polish emigrants who fled the same political upheaval that later ensnared the river-runners. One of them, Jurek Majcherczyk, also landed in New Jersey and became a friend of the Nawrot family.
The story of the kayakers was always in the air, together with tales of the Polish climbers who imported their distinctive brand of winter alpinism to the Himalaya, simply because by the time they arrived all the summer firsts had long since been claimed. In 1980 they stormed up Everest in the dead of winter, leaving a picture of the new Polish pope on the world’s highest summit.
Nawrot grew up with those stories and became a filmmaker and a river-runner. But every time he broached the idea of a film, Majcherczyk demurred. “I had approached Yurek multiple times over the years, but he knew me as a kid who would show up to barbecues at his house and just run around his back yard,” Nawrot recalls. “He said, ‘This is much too much movie for you to handle.’”
Nawrot persisted until Majcherczyk finally sat for an interview. Nawrot and his partner in the project, producer Sonia Szczesna, had planned to make a short film, but the threads Majcherczyk spun out in that first interview pulled them in to a project that would consume three and a half years. The result was an award-winning feature documentary and a journey nearly as winding and unpredictable as that of the adventurers themselves.
The team grew out of the Bystrze student kayak club in Krakow in the late 1970s, when Poland was under the Soviet thumb and socialist sports clubs provided cover for free spirits to roam. “The outings provided sanctuary from the watchful eyes of government apparatchiks who lurked everywhere,” writer Tyler Williams explained in his definitive Canoe & Kayak magazine feature on the team, who called themselves Canoandes, a contraction of canoe and Andes. “To get anything done in Poland in 1978 required finagling one’s way through layers of bureaucracy, building bridges at every step until finally, if luck and the proper officials smiled upon you, the golden goose might offer an egg.”
The egg in this case was a paddling expedition to Argentina, secured through crafty diplomacy inside the Krakow club, the national youth club, and finally the central communist committee. When the government finally issued them visas and a six-wheeled army truck, the men couldn’t believe their luck. “The opportunity to travel abroad—to run rivers in exotic, sultry South America, no less—was as irresistible as it was rare,” Williams wrote. The idea pretty much sold itself, even to cinematographer Jacek Bogucki and photographer Zbigniew Bzdak, neither of whom had any whitewater experience. Chmielinski’s recruitment of Bzdak was typical.
Chmielinski: “Do you want to go to Argentina?”
Bzdak: “Maybe, when do we leave?”
Chmielinski: “In two days.”
Bzdak: “Okay then.”
Planning for the expedition was, by necessity, equally spontaneous. When tensions with Chile brought Argentina to the brink of war, the team switched their destination to Peru. Then, when the politics there got too hot there, they shifted their staring point again, this time to Mexico.
They arrived by boat with ten paddlers and 21 boats and the massive army truck, which in Williams’ telling “looked more like a tank than a shuttle rig.” One of their first Mexican forays was on the Río Pescados, now a classic Class III-IV run in the mountains of Veracruz. It was a massive step up even for the hottest Bystrze paddlers.
“There’s basically one Class III rapid in Poland, and they would run it over and over. That was their experience,” Nawrot explains. By the end of their first day on the Pescados, seven of the team’s 21 kayaks were broken or missing. Humbled, the men went north to regroup with the only person they knew in North America, a Bystrze club paddler who had emigrated to Casper, Wyoming, a few years before. They rolled into town in the army rig, causing quite a scene. The local paper ran a story under the headline “Warsaw Pact invade Casper,” but the town took them in. The ten of them lived all winter in their compatriot’s basement, painting houses and stringing barbed wire fences to earn their way onward.
By early spring on 1980, officials in Poland were getting restless and ordered the Canoandes and their truck to get on the next boat home. The team agreed that five of the ten would return from Mexico, after first running the Grand Canyon. The route to Lees Ferry took them through Las Vegas, where a troupe of Polish acrobats spotted the flag painted on their ungainly rig as it lumbered down the Strip, and gave chase. They quickly caught up (the army truck topped out at 35 mph) and after a backstage tour and several days of revelry, the acrobats offered their old Chevy pickup as a replacement. It would carry the five die-hards all the way to Argentina and back, though not in anything resembling a straight line.
They never did run the Grand—even in 1980 permits were hard to come by—and they were skunked by low water in Copper Canyon. Their next Mexican conquest was another classic-in-waiting, the Río Santa Maria. They’d bought a raft in the States but had no idea how to rig it, so when they flipped on the second day of the six-day trip they lost most of their food. In Williams’ telling, hardship that would have fractured lesser teams brought them closer together. “The Canoandes gritted through without argument, and reveled in their good fortune when they found a catfish trapped in a backwater on the fifth day. They caught it barehanded and shared it 10 ways.”
The raft added an essential dimension to the expedition, allowing Bogucki and Bzdak to accompany the kayakers everywhere with their equipment and reels of film. Both became competent river-runners, and Bogucki captured motion footage of whitewater rapids and deep Andean canyons unlike anything the world had yet seen. Forty years later, it brings Nawrot and Szczesna’s feature film to life.
Argentina at Last: The Canoandes in Tierra del Fuego. From left, Piotr Chmielinksi, Jurek Majcherczyk, Zbigniew Bzdak, Jacek Bogucki.
When they got to Veracuz, five men left with the army truck and the core group bounced southward from one adventure to the next. They ran rivers in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In Costa Rica they made the first descent of the Río Pacuare—yet another instant classic—after making a wrong turn on the way to the nearby Río Reventazon. By the time they reached Peru their kayaking skills were edging from what modern boaters would call “intermediate” toward a charitable definition of “advanced.” Explains Chmielinski, “We learned by being beaten on the head by the river, many times.”
In Peru they ran the Marañon, a big-water tributary of the Amazon, and the Urubamba beneath the ruins of Machu Picchu. Their accidental masterpiece was the Colca, a skinny desert river flowing through the world’s deepest canyon. In true Canoandes fashion, they brought five days worth of food for an epic that would stretch to three weeks. After an initial 11-day push, they hiked out to resupply and patch up wounded men and gear, then returned to run the deepest part of the canyon in a second 10-day effort.
They had started the descent the same day the Polish Pope, John Paul II, was shot in Rome, and for some of the adventurers the struggle in the canyon felt like a way to share their strength and resolve with the stricken pontiff. “Yurek was pretty much convinced that the pope’s life depended on their success in the canyon,” Nawrot says.
When they emerged from the canyon John Paul was on the mend, and the ragtag group of adventurers had graduated to the status of true explorers. In Peru they’d become minor celebrities, as much for their exotic bonhomie as their history-making first descent. After their Colca Canyon triumph they finally made it to the long-sought Argentina—all the way to Tierra del Fuego in fact, in the old Chevy the acrobats had gifted them, and then back north to Peru.
That’s where the Canoandes, who had cheerfully endured so much danger and hardship, faced the truest test of their conviction.
So here’s that accidental history lesson. As the crew explored rivers from Mexico to Argentina, Poland was in the midst of a cultural and political upheaval that would eventually pull down the Iron Curtain. The kayakers had found freedom on the rivers and roads of the Americas, but they hadn’t been at home fighting for it, Nawrot says.
“We do all this groundwork in the beginning of the film to establish where they came from and what inspires their motivations, but they’re out just kind of gallivanting around for two years while Poland is going through the most significant political turmoil of that era,” he says. “And they’re absent for it. They’re not there to be in solidarity with their countrymen.”
In Lima, they got their chance. After the Polish regime declared martial law in December 1981, the Canoandes organized a pro-Solidarity march through the streets of the Peruvian capitol. It was a calculated act, as brave as anything they’d done in the depths of Colca Canyon. After the march, they knew they wouldn’t be able to return home to families and loved ones—at least not as free men. Friends warned them to stay clear of the Polish consulate, implying that Warsaw had issued orders for their arrest.
“They do all these incredible things that are on the edge of death, countless times, and their reward is to be received as heroes back home,” Nawrot says. “And they sacrifice it all because they believe that supporting the Solidarity movement is the right thing to do.”
The Canoandes slipped out of Peru with the help of travel documents drawn up by a new friend in the American embassy, on the pretext that they were on their way to Arizona to run the Grand Canyon. They never did run the Grand, but the papers got them safe passage to the States, and the five eventually made new lives there or in Canada. Members of the team would return four times to Colca Canyon, and in 1986 Chmielinski completed the first source-to-sea descent of the Amazon River with journalist Joe Kane, who wrote the adventure classic Running the Amazon about the expedition.
Bzdak photographed the historic descent, rafting the whitewater crux and later following in a motor boat as Chmielinski and Kane kayaked to the sea. Bzdak went on to an illustrious career as a Chicago Tribune photographer. When Nawrot first approached him to take part in the film, the photojournalist didn’t see the point.
“He’s this classic hardcore photojournalist, and he was saying ‘This story has been told; there’s no point telling it again,’” Nawrot recalls. But his intention wasn’t simply to retell the story of river descents and road-trip follies. He saw the film as a window into the political struggle that changed the world and had a profound effect on his own family.
Godspeed, Los Polacos delivers on that ambitious vision, without skimping on the endearing hijinks and bold descents. The film has wracked up accolades in film festivals around the world—screening virtually this pandemic season at the Banff Mountain Film Festival (Best Mountain Feature), Ottawa Adventure Film Festival (Best in Show) and Santiago Mountain Film Festival in Peru (Best Picture). It won the Exploration Award at the mountain film festival in Krakow, where it all began.
The feature also won over its subjects, including the skeptical photojournalist Bzdak and Majcherczyk, who realized there was more to the story than even he had imagined. Perhaps they were just too close to the story, Nawrot says. “I don’t think you could make this movie about an expedition that was happening now,” he says. “It’s a story that can only be told with the perspective of time, and yet it’s incredibly relevant today. More and more the outdoor industry is realizing that it is a cultural force, and it can use that platform for political change.”
Godspeed, Los Polacos screens at 8:30 p.m. Friday May 28 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday May 30th at Mountainfilm in Telluride. Screenings are free and open to the public. In August, Nawrot and Szczesna plan a small theatrical tour, playing art house theaters in mountain towns. The film will be available for download and streaming in September. Info at SourlandStudios.com.
Top photo: Zbigniew Bzdak