Listen to Austin 360 Radio

West Hansen releases book on the Amazon, sets sights on Arctic

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
West Hansen, leader of the Arctic Cowboys, paddles into the surf at Padre Island National Seashore. [Contributed by Pam LeBlanc]

West Hansen has paddled the entire Amazon River and all of the Volga River, but today he’s plowing through the surf at Padre Island National Seashore, and things look like they’re not going so well.

The seasoned endurance paddler from Austin flips out of his sleek white Epic 18X kayak and can’t roll the skinny boat into upright position again without getting out. Minus all his expedition gear, he explains, the boat is too light and unstable in the crashing waves.

That’s OK for now. Hansen, 57, and two other Austin paddlers — Jeff Wueste and Jimmy Harvey — planned this trip to Padre Island National Seashore as a shakedown run to see what gear modifications they’d need to make before their Arctic Cowboys expedition next summer, when they’ll try to become the first people to kayak the Northwest Passage in the Arctic.

“We’re going to have to work on teamwork in case someone capsizes in rough water,” Hansen says, sipping a Topo Chico on the beach after 90 minutes of kayak wrangling.

A sturdy-looking man who looks like he could grow a beard overnight or squeeze water from a dry log, he drinks scotch and doesn’t scrimp when it comes to things like quality soap or good coffee. He always carries a pen and notepad in his front shirt pocket and has at various points in his life logged time as a high school football player, a collegiate cheerleader, a motorcyclist and a barn builder. An accomplished ultra-marathon canoe racer who has finished the grueling 260-mile Texas Water Safari canoe race 20 times and won the Missouri River 340 as a solo paddler, he’s also a member of the prestigious Explorers Club, whose members include astronauts, mountain climbers and underwater explorers. He made an unsuccessful run for U.S. Congress in 2018 and now works as a social worker for the family business in East Texas.

Today, though, he’s juggling a slew of expedition-related tasks. Not only is he preparing for next summer’s Arctic Cowboys journey to the Arctic, but he’s planning a release party for his first book, “The Amazon From Source to Sea: The Farthest Journey Down the World’s Longest River,” which documents the 2012 Amazon Express expedition. That event is set for 6-9 p.m. Sept. 7 at the Zilker Park Clubhouse, and the public is invited to hear Hansen read excerpts and sign copies.

The book documents an expedition that began with whiteout blizzard conditions at 14,800 feet in the Peruvian Andes and finished 111 days and 4,100 miles later where the massive river opens into the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil. Along the way, team members, in turn, paddled through boat gobbling rapids, were stalked by a puma as they camped, admired pink dolphins and a swimming sloth, saw lots of plastic waste and dealt with the monotonies of any large expedition — conflict among team members, logistics, and disagreements with one of the expedition’s major sponsors, National Geographic.

» RELATED: Meet the father-daughter duo visiting every Austin pool

One day, as the team rounded a bend in a narrow, channelized section of the river, they heard a series of explosions, followed by a barrage of microwave-size rocks that rained down from the canyon walls. The paddlers pulled under an overhang, then waited for a break in the action to sprint through the danger zone, where a dam was being built.

The team was held at gunpoint five times, but Hansen says he only feared for his life once, when a group of twitchy teenagers looking for drugs pulled guns and machetes on them.

“I thought they were going to shoot us by accident,” Hansen says. “We had pulled off on an island to camp, and they came at us with their weapons drawn. That was the only time during the whole trip I wished I had a gun.”

The bandits rooted through the team’s gear, snatching the team’s video camera before they retreated.

One day, the paddlers discovered about 20 bales of marijuana the size of small suitcases floating in the river. More and more bales started turning up. “Finally, paranoia crept in and we realized this was a lot of pot, and someone dangerous was missing it,” Hansen says.

The paddlers stashed the weed in a cave, and Hansen announced to the team that he would have no knowledge of what happened to the drugs from that point forward.

“It miraculously disappeared,” he says.

Despite the challenges, Hansen says he never doubted the team would meet its goal.

“Between me and (team members) Ian (Rolls) and Jeff (Wueste), there was no question we would finish. We knew we’d accomplish it,” Hansen says. “That’s not bragging or being pompous, it was just in our skill set to do. If I didn’t think I could do it, I wouldn’t have started.”

He holds the same confidence about the Arctic expedition. “On the adventure side, we want to be the first to navigate the entire Northwest Passage in kayaks, and we want to be the first to do it in one season,” he said. “It’s extremely rare to find a passage or a route that hasn’t been completed in our ever-shrinking world.”

A handful of explorers have traversed the Northwest Passage in kayaks, but they traveled partially over land and took several years — a pertinent distinction from ocean navigation in a single season.

Besides getting another dose of adventure, Hansen says he’ll use the upcoming 1,900-mile expedition to further what another Austin explorer — swimmer Ben Lecomte, who is swimming across the Pacific Ocean — is doing. Lecomte is drawing attention to the problem of plastic waste by documenting how much of it winds up in our oceans. Hansen hopes his own expedition will illustrate that what we do in our homes and towns has an impact on the rest of the planet.

“Any time we use a straw, it has a greater, cumulative effect. Plastic doesn’t go away,” says Hansen, who never goes to a restaurant or fast food joint without asking the waitstaff to make his dining experience entirely free of single-use plastic.

“We want to carry on studies and observations to see what effects plastics are having upon our waterways, including the Northwest Passage,” Hansen says, noting that recent studies have found significant amounts of microplastics in seal and whale guts, as well as in glaciers.

Later that night, after spending a few hours battling the surf at Padre Island National Seashore, Hansen kicks back in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniels and initiates a comparison of battle scars among the other members of the Arctic Cowboys. Hansen wins, revealing a jagged white line where he once impaled himself on a chunk of broken glass.

Talk turns to the Arctic expedition, where the paddlers won’t face narco-traffickers or pumas, but they will likely encounter wind, crushing ice floes and, possibly, the dreaded polar bear-grizzly bear hybrid, which has been recorded in the Northwest Territories.

“It’s like sharktopus all over again,” Hansen says, chuckling.

Hansen says he hopes his expeditions show people that such experiences are more accessible than most people think.

“The first expedition I was 50 years old, and I just made up my mind to do it. It didn’t take any Herculean effort — I just decided to do it,” he says. “I’m in no great shape. I possess no particular strength or endurance skills. The point is, financially and physically, these experiences are accessible.”

He’s currently seeking financial donors to help fund his Arctic trip, which he estimates will cost about $150,000.

IF YOU GO

West Hansen will read passages from “The Amazon River From Source to Sea: The Farthest Journey Down the World’s Longest River” at a book signing 6-9 p.m. Sept. 7 at the Zilker Clubhouse, 200 Zilker Clubhouse Road. The event is open to the public. The book is available through his website at westhansen.com or (at a higher cost) through amazon.com.