News & Politics » Our Town

It's a Big World After All

Andrew Pietowski set out to find the source of the Amazon and discovered there was at least one frontier left to be explored.



Flipping through a stack of snapshots, Andrew Pietowski stops on one taken at a recent award ceremony in Warsaw. It captures him with his eyes closed, a little off balance, his arms wrapped around a large trophy shaped like an Easter Island monolith. "Look at this moment of reflection," he jokes. "Twenty years ago they didn't want me in Poland. Now I am back."

Pietowski would like to be the Clark Kent of high school math teachers. He planned to lay low this spring, subbing only a few classes at Maria High in Marquette Park. Mostly he wanted to hole up in a bedroom at his mother's house in Summit to type his memoirs into a laptop. But since the National Geographic Society announced the findings of an expedition he led last summer to the Peruvian Andes, his cover's been blown. Reporters call from Australia at 5 AM, the Polish government showers him with laurels, magazines beg for his byline, and he's become a draw on the adventurers' lecture circuit.

In July 2000 his team pinpointed the source of the Amazon--a comparative leak in the rocks leading to the mother river. Geographers and explorers have squabbled for centuries over its precise location. Pietowski and company were looking for the farthest point from the mouth that flows year-round. Carhuasanta Creek--along with four other branches of the Apurimac River, a tributary of the Amazon--had been a contender for decades.

The task of finding the Amazon's source was aided by satellite-based global positioning technology, but Pietowski didn't lead the mission just because he's good with numbers. In the late 70s, as a student at Krakow's University of Mining and Metallurgy, he joined a canoeing club, Bystrze ("Rapid"), and enjoyed the trappings of semicelebrity for the first time. The group was known for navigating rivers all over Europe, including Yugoslavia's treacherous Tara, and had written a guide to that country's mountain rapids. "It was hard work, but there were lots of parties," he says. "There were girls. There was everything. It was beautiful."

But it couldn't last forever. Graduation would mean a government posting to a dreary factory, so Pietowski and nine of his comrades began planning a final adventure--on the Andean rivers of Argentina. They spent a year preparing for the trip: studying maps, securing sponsorships, building their own kayaks, and scrounging supplies and gear. In June 1978 they were ready to weigh anchor with 21 kayaks, tons of equipment, and a three-axle all-terrain military truck, when border tensions with Chile delayed the trip. Later the Argentine government denied their visas--possibly, Pietowski says, it feared ten communist subversives destabilizing their rivers. The destination shifted to Peru, but the excursion was postponed a third time when the Baltic ports froze and yet again when Peru entered its own period of political instability. After a year's delay, the group, dubbed "Canoandes '79," finally set off for Mexico, which seemed the safest alternative.

Once on the other side of the Atlantic, they found the bureaucratic hurdles began to ease. Government officials, realizing that tourists often follow explorers, greenlighted visas and wrote letters of introduction to their counterparts in other countries. Polish expats provided food, shelter, and sometimes work when funds were low. "People just liked us," Pietowski says. "We were singing. We were fun. We were young. There was no obstacle. They were changing something in their lives looking at us. 'Look, this group is moving. They don't have money but they are moving. They function.'" In the overwhelmingly Catholic countries, they found they could sometimes break the ice by invoking the name of John Paul II, the Polish pope.

Over the next 13 months they ran ten rivers in Mexico and the U.S., where they wintered in the basement of one of Bystrze's founders, then living in Casper, Wyoming. Half the group returned to Poland, while Pietowski and four others decided to have a go at Argentina after all. En route they navigated rivers in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and Peru, where they encountered the most varied and challenging stretches of water.

Many of the Amazon's tributaries begin in Peru as rapids rushing down from peaks through tortuous canyons and over seemingly impassible rocks. In seven months Canoandes ran and mapped four rivers, and they were the first to run the Colca Canyon, arguably the deepest canyon in the world. In 1981 they published In Kayak Through Peru, a meticulously detailed bilingual guide for the Peruvian Tourism Promotion Fund. For a scruffy band of students from the Soviet bloc they had a very Western sense of marketing: the book featured author bios indicating their single status and an ad for a car dealership showing them posed manfully with their kayaks and a couple of Fiats.

In two and half years Canoandes traveled 23 rivers, 13 of them previously uncharted. News of their trip through the Colca Canyon had made them overnight celebrities in Peru, and their mapping work had engendered lots of goodwill. They'd had the adventure of a lifetime, and it seemed like the right time to return home. In 1981, just before Christmas, they'd sent all their equipment back and were waiting for a plane out of Lima, when the Polish government arrested the leaders of the Solidarity trade union and declared martial law.

The group received word of the crackdown at the Polish embassy by way of an official communique from Warsaw. "The language, the wording, was so communist, so awful," says Pietowski. "We just exploded, because we were completely free. One day we just woke up and said, let's do the Mara–on River. And suddenly they are giving such bullshit." The group denounced the Polish government on Peruvian television. They organized a protest committee with writer Mario Vargas Llosa and marched to the embassy at the head of a throng of 5,000. "We just vented all this stuff," Pietowski says. "And this way we burned our bridge." Members of Peru's communist party were split over the controversy. "We brought up such a clear issue that people said, 'No, I can't support this.' We should have been paid by the CIA good money, but nobody gave us any." Pietowski says some local communists began harassing them, and fearing for their lives they applied for asylum in the U.S.

They were laid up in New York City for a brief period, battling various tropical parasites, then they received word that Jacques Cousteau wanted to meet them. The explorer had heard of their exploits and wanted the Poles to accompany him on an expedition to Brazil. Their visas were still being processed and U.S. immigration wouldn't allow them to make the trip, but Cousteau flew the group to Washington and introduced them around the National Geographic Society.

They settled for a time in Casper, obtained green cards, found work and wives, and began to drift to different parts of the country. Pietowski's mother, who had already emigrated and was living in Summit, knew a professor who helped him obtain a scholarship to graduate school at Bowling Green University, where he studied math for four years.

But the members of Canoandes didn't stop exploring. National Geographic sent them back to the Colca Canyon in 1983 to film and take photographs. By now the group had incorporated into a nonprofit organization to help attract funds from donors. Two years later member Piotr Chmielinski, in his kayak, became the first human to navigate the more than 4,200 miles of the Amazon, a six-month trip, recounted in writer Joe Kane's 1990 book, Running the Amazon. Kane and four members of Canoandes--Pietowski, Chmielinski, Jacek Bogucki, and photographer Zbigniew Bzdak--returned to the Colca on the tenth anniversary of the first trip and ran it again.

In the mid-80s Pietowski moved to New York City, and after driving a cab for a year he became a math teacher in the public school system. Teaching agreed with him. He spoke fluent Spanish, like most of his students, and he applied his experiences to the classroom. The mathematics of determining altitude, water pressure and velocity, temperature, and atmospheric pressure while on whitewater or in the rainforest can bring life to an otherwise dull math class. As one of the first people to take kayaks to the upper Apurimac, Pietowski also gave his students motivational lessons.

"Projects? You cannot abandon them," he says. "This is what I am trying to tell my students, 'Your project is to graduate now. Your project is to enter college.' Kids don't have this, they don't try. Kids have low ego, low self-esteem. And parents don't talk to them like this. I'm trying to insist that really valuable things don't come easy."

Teaching also gave him freedom to travel. He led several other trips to Peru in the late 90s to the sources of the Mara–on and Urubabma-Vilcanota rivers. Last February he was living in Carmel, New York, when National Geographic offered him $45,000 to settle the question of the Amazon's source once and for all. He knew that organizing the expedition would require over a year's worth of concentrated logistical work and supplemental fund-raising, so he quit his job and started piecing together his team.

Last July he led 24 people from five countries to a camp near the base of 18,363-foot Nevado Mismi. Five creeks issuing from the glacier, none more than ten kilometers apart, feed the Apurimac. After one week spent acclimating to the altitude, Pietowski sent teams up each one of the five creeks, plotting their positions into handheld computers every few hundred yards. Two members had to be sent home after succumbing to altitude sickness, but in just over a week the remainder of the group logged about 40,000 points into the system, enough to create the most detailed map ever produced of the area, accurate within three to six feet. On the seventh day, the expedition's members crammed into a tent to watch a laptop download the first points of this map. "We started screaming like children," Pietowski recalls.

Carhuasanta Creek, long favored as the source, is not a raging torrent, but there's enough water to bathe under it as it pours from a cliff. There was no triumphant moment when Pietowski stood before it and shouted "Eureka," though he was in awe standing on the summit of the glacier. "You look down and you are thinking, 'Gee, it is 4,000 miles plus to the ocean.' At this point you are making a ball of snow and you know in four months it will come to the Atlantic."

The creek was confirmed as the source of the Amazon in December at the Smithsonian Institution, when geographer Andrew Johnston completed an analysis of the data. But there is already dissension. A Czech professor who measured the creeks with a laser just before the expedition arrived in Peru argues that the Carhuasanta can't be the true source of the Amazon--the other creeks that feed the Apurimac are higher, drain more area, or bring more water to the system. To Pietowski this is academic balderdash. "Longest is longest," he says. "I like what Andy Johnston said. He said, 'Andrew, at the end of the 20th century you cannot be the first one. Almost everything has been discovered. But we will bring the proof. We will be the last one.'"

After the expedition, National Geographic contracted Pietowski to write a book on his experiences. Recently separated from his wife, he moved to Chicago for a fresh start and to be near his mother. But he's had little time to write, packing up his old house in New York and trying to lose some of the ballast of the last 20 years. "It's a terrible thing we accumulate so much," he says. "For God's sake the people in Peru can put their things on their back and go. I came to this country with one backpack and now I need a huge truck to move my stuff." He's donating most of his library and papers to the Polish Museum of America in West Town.

Pietowski's postexpedition activities--he calls them "postproduction"--have also interfered with his writing schedule. He's flown to Poland twice in the past two months to accept awards, the second time at the invitation of president Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist who rose in the party ranks after martial law was declared. Pietowski calls the invitation "a sort of reconciliation for all of us."

He's also in the midst of a full-scale publicity blitz in the local Polish media in anticipation of a pair of lectures he'll be giving at the Field Museum on May 19. Chmielinski, who lives in Virginia, and Bzdak, who lives in Flossmoor and works as a photographer for the Munster Times, will be there, and the trio will discuss the trip in both Polish (at 1 PM) and English (at 3 PM). Publicity is part of his mission. "You go and you do something that other people cannot do for many reasons, and there is usually a hundred or so people who are supporting you. So when you come back from this exotic area you have some results, you are obliged to share it."

The pace won't be slowing any time soon. He has a new assignment from National Geographic, in Costa Rica, and thinks he'll have to postpone another trip this summer, to climb Kamet in the Himalayas. He has to work for a living. "This is like a cancer to people who have free spirits," he says. "They really love the planet. They want to go places and they have to pay for that. They have to support their families. It's really beautiful when I'm taking off and I'm going. I feel how the stress is just going away. Then I'm coming back. Everyone is asking how it was, what you did. And you are sort of a celebrity, but then you have to open those envelopes and pay your bills. Not always you can just sit down and write an article or book. You have to go and work like everybody else.

"And here is this incredible contrast. There is this song, and Julio Iglesias is singing: 'Soy un truh‡n, soy un se–or.' Truh‡n is like the name for beggar, like bum. Se–or in Spanish is like lord, like gentleman. And I think that this is me: I have days, I have weeks I am really living on top of the world, and then I have some periods of time where I am really working very hard to pay my bills."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Zbigniew Bzdak/Nathan Mandell/illustration/Zbigniew Bzdak.

Add a comment