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Apr 16, 2020

Chased by a Jaguar in the Heart of the Amazon

They ran into all sorts of trouble—including a hungry jaguar who chased them up a tree. (Photo: Photocech/iStock)
American jaguar in the nature habitat of brazilian jungle

The longer we’re stuck at home, sheltering in place, the greater our hunger for tales of far-flung journeys. For this week’s episode, we’re offering one of our favorite adventure stories from our archives, about a daring crew of twentysomethings who, back in 1970, had a idea to canoe remote rivers though the Amazon Basin. Their half-baked plan was to hunt, fish, and forage for food until it wasn’t fun anymore. They had no jungle experience and few supplies beyond a machete and a small rifle. Not surprisingly, they ran into all sorts of trouble—including a hungry jaguar who chased them up a tree.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast.

Michael Roberts (host): If I were to ask you right now to tell me the favorite part of your day, what would you say? It's a hard question in the middle of a pandemic, right? I know because I've been asking people and most of them hesitate before responding and it's not because of a crappy video chat connection. Our days are confusing and we are all struggling to find normalcy, let alone moments when we're not feeling anxious or downright terrified. Thinking about the highlight of our day -- that's tough, but actually I know mine. It's the howl. 

(audio of howl)

This is Michael Roberts and like most of you, I'm sheltering in place right now and while I feel very lucky to be healthy and at home with my family, being stuck mostly inside, it's rough. It's getting rougher. But every day at 8:00 PM in my neighborhood in Northern California, I join forces with my community to howl about it.

(audio of howling) 

We howl to show gratitude for the healthcare workers on the frontlines of the Coronavirus; we howl to connect with each other; and we howl to remind the world that we are very much alive and that at some point we're going to get out there again. The howl is happening every evening at 8:00 PM all over the country. If you're not already howling, you gotta start. Even if you're the first person in your neighborhood, even if you live way out there and nobody will hear you. Trust me because the thing is we really are going to get out there again and you want to keep feeding that hunger to run loose. In the weeks ahead, that's one of the goals here at the outside podcast, which is why we're going to be bringing you a number of stories about far flung journeys: tales of climbing, remote mountains, paddling massive whitewater, swimming with the biggest creatures in the sea. And we're going to start today in the Amazon with one of the most gripping stories we've ever told on this show at first air back in 2017 and was co-produced by our former host Peter Frick-Wright and begins right now. 

(jungle sounds play in background)

Bruce Frey: I remember I had this cold feeling of fear, just this cold feeling of fear. We were totally drenched because we had been moving as fast as we could through the jungle and yeah, I felt like we were in serious trouble. 

Ed Welch: Yeah. I mean it didn't feel safe being on the ground. The tree was probably under a hundred feet tall, but we were not all the way up into it. So we were probably up the tree maybe 20 feet up. 

Frey: And this was kind of the culmination of everything where we're just stuck and we have to survive the night. So we had the .22 which was the first line of defense, and then we had the machete. 

Welch: The person with a .22 was obligated to stay awake. 

Frey: You could not see your hand in front of your eyes. It's totally dark. 

Welch: So we had to listen. We were listening.

(sounds intensify, culminating in a jaguar roar, fade out)

Frick-Wright: Do enough big adventures, and pretty soon your friendships start to have origin stories. I'm not talking about how you met. They’re stories about the time things went south. Stories you tell forever. This is one of those origin stories or rather it's a story about one of those stories, because in this case, the story survived, but the friendship did not. 

But the reason this friendship broke down is not because of some betrayal or unpaid debt or broken promise. Just bad luck, bad decisions, and death. By the time I heard about it, Bruce Frey and Ed Welch hadn't spoken to each other in years, so I talked to them separately a few weeks apart about a chapter of their lives so long ago now that it's almost like it happened to other people. 

Welch: So my name's Ed Welch and I was born in Medford, Oregon. 

Frick-Wright: Ed Welch's gray hair, pulled into a ponytail. He's quiet and thin and grew up poor in rural Oregon. He was a pretty timid explorer, so it was fortunate that he met Bruce while they were both living in Santiago, Chile. 

Frey: We were both based in Santiago, so we knew each other through the Peace Corps. 

Frick-Wright: Bruce Frey is bearded and bald, a fit and trim guy with a pointed face, and he still moves like someone 40 years younger. If you met him, you would not believe that he's in his seventies. 

The other character in this story is Vicky, who was living in Bruce's house in Santiago at the time. She wasn't in the Peace Corps and she's just an American kid who had driven south from Chicago looking for adventure. More on this later, but we're not going to be hearing from Vicky, even though this whole thing was her idea. As Bruce and Ed were nearing the end of their time in the Peace Corps, she proposed an expedition through the Amazon jungle. They traveled by canoe paddling down the Mamore and Madeira rivers, which form the border of Bolivia and Brazil. They'd hunt fish and live off the jungle. 

Frey: And then work our way down, as long as it was fun basically. 

Frick-Wright: it was a crazy idea, but Vicky wouldn't let it go. Bruce, who previously had another adventure planned, signed on relatively quickly. 

Frey: She's one of these people who can just gin up enthusiasm in lots of people around her and that's how that happened. 

Frick-Wright: But this wasn't something Ed would normally do. Vicky had to work on it, but eventually he said yes. Vicky was equally persuasive as stubborn. 

Welch: Plus, by that time, I was really attracted to her and I wasn't not going to go if she was going.

(music starts)

Frick-Wright: The group started out big. The plan is for two canoes with three or four people in each, but as they got closer to setting out, it whittled down until it was just Bruce, Ed, Vicky and another friend Kathy. They'd be on the river several months with nothing but a .22 rifle, machete, canoe, and everything they learned about the Amazon -- just to say, not much. 

Frey: None of us had a clue about jungle survival or anything like that and so one night we all went out to a Tarzan movie in Santiago to learn all about jungle life. We were just flying by the seat of our pants, which was fun and we were in our mid twenties and immortal and could do anything and nothing would hurt us and that sort of thing. 

Frick-Wright: Their staging point was a little port town in Northern Bolivia called San Francisco and once they got there, they realized, Oh yeah, we do need to figure out what we're doing. They hired a guide who had 10 days to teach them how to survive. They learned what plants they could eat, how to find water, how to fish, how to deal with mosquitoes -- but mostly they learned how to hunt. 

Welch: So he taught us what animals to eat, how to catch the fish. He took us to a lagoon where we could catch piranhas. He was basically fearless. 

Frick-Wright: They picked up on that fearlessness and after 10 days they were on their own. They paddled out into the current piranha filled river curling through a jungle so thick it could swallow them whole and no one would ever know what happened. 

(rainforest sounds begin)

Frey: And our routine was getting up and breaking camp, eating breakfast, and then heading down the river, and then making camp again that night. Everything was so alive, there's just such a high density of life there. It's just mindblowing and it's beautiful. The Howler monkeys at first sounded like big wind storms. These insane sounds and we couldn't imagine what it was. I finally decided that it was a weather phenomenon, a tornado sort of phenomenon that we were hearing. 

After about a week out there on our own, once we set out on our own, I felt totally protein starved. We were always hungry. We were always hungry for meat. I don't feel like we ever had really enough. So it just became kind of our way of life was hunting for what we could, when we could get it. 

Welch: I remember having the gun and being able to take aim and I saw the mother carrying the baby and I couldn't pull the trigger. 

Frey: And then we went through another period of protein starvation... 

(gunshot sound effect, screaming sound effect) 

And I shot a monkey. 

Welch: It was really, really traumatic to see the emotional expression on that monkey's face when it was dying. It felt like it was a human really. 

Frey: That didn't even enter my mind. I just had him slung over my shoulder holding onto his tail and he just felt heroic coming back to feed the family with this monkey that I had caught. So slowly we just got more and more at home with being in the Amazon jungle. 

Welch: It just gets really hard to keep killing everything you see that was beautiful. 

(rainforest sounds fade out)

Frick-Wright: It went on like this, hunting in the morning, sleeping on sandbars at night, until they stopped at an oxbow lake, which is formed from water left behind when a river bed changes its course. This was either a few weeks or a few months into the trip. There's some discrepancy in the details. 

Welch: Earlier on... 

Frey: We were well into the trip then probably for two, three months at that point maybe... 

Welch: So within a couple of weeks... 

Frey: Probably three months. While we were, camped out there, these two Bolivian soldiers came along... 

Welch: Bolivian Navy people, just one guy... 

Frey: They said, we're gonna borrow the canoe. And they've got bigger weapons than we do for sure. And we said, sure, just bring it back. 

Welch: That day he came back, but he didn't bring the boat. 

Frey: ‘Oh, we left it down at the other end of the lake.’

Welch: They left it on the other shore and that was very inconsiderate of them to leave the canoe down there, but this is what it is. So we set out to get the canoe. 

Frick-Wright: But before they set out the soldier, or maybe soldiers, gave them one last bit of warning. 

Welch: They told us that the week before, a Bolivian military guy had been eaten out there by a jaguar. 

Frick-Wright: Near where you were? 

Welch: Exactly where we were. 

(rainforest sounds start up again)

Frick-Wright: Jaguars are the third biggest cat in the world and the apex predator of the Bolivian jungle. Nothing hunts them. They make a kill every four days or so and they stick around the same territory for several weeks at a time. Of course, Bruce and Eddidn't know any of that. 

Frey: So we took our machetes and the .22 rifle and set out for it. And there was a path along this oxbow lake for awhile then, and then the path left the lake and we figured just taking a shortcut cause the oxbow lake is obviously a curve. We followed this trail for quite awhile and then... 

Welch: I was in the front leading the way and all of a sudden I didn't feel the trail anymore. 

Frey: So we reversed direction and headed back to where we thought we would intercept the trail... 

Welch: And then it started to get dark. 

Frey: So you just can't go in a straight line. You're constantly having to go around things and trying to find the route of least resistance through the jungle. 

Welch: We came to this big area of tall grass, and it was like eight foot tall grass -- right when we reached the grass, we heard a jaguar.

(jaguar sound effect)

Frey: They have this very unique characteristic cough sort of thing that they make. . 

Welch: So we heard the sound over to our left and we just cut more to the right through the grass. We were going fast. 

(running through grass sound effect, drums in the background)

Frick-Wright: The ran through the jungle and eventually found a tree they could climb. (sound effects in background stop) It was a very mild sense of safety, but at least the jaguar could only come from one direction. 

Frey: They can climb trees. They're good at climbing trees. But at least we would probably hear it coming and maybe we'd be able to do something. So we climbed up. Ed went a little bit higher than I did. So we set ourselves up in the tree. Ed took off his belt and, and strapped his machete to a branch next to him and I took off my belt -- as I took it off, my sheath knife, which was on my belt, fell to the ground and I decided I wasn't about to go down and get it. Meanwhile, it was still here, the jaguar, not too far off. 

Frick-Wright: And let's just pause here to acknowledge how royally screwed Bruce and Ed are if the Jaguar decides to come after them. Case studies of Jaguar attacks note that a 150 pound Jaguar will routinely take down a 1000 pound cow and drag it off into the jungle. A big male Jaguar can easily be 350 pounds, which means it generally bends the whole jungle to its will. They'll attack massive caiman alligators in the water, dropping off of tree branches into the river, crushing the gator skulll with a single bite, and then hauling the whole thing up a tree. So that's what was waiting for them at their feet -- a creature that could end them for fun. It wasn't afraid of anything. 

Frey: And at one point I fired off a couple of shots (gunshot sound effects) to see if we can scare off the Jaguar. It didn't even change the rhythm of his breathing; it didn't affect him one iota. He just kind of planted himself near the base of the tree and it became clear, we're not going to get back to the camp site or to the canoe. We're going to spend the night in the jungle. 

Roberts: We'll be right back. 

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Frey: So we weren’t really thinking about how quickly the sun goes down in the tropics. It's just like down and then it's dark. We were up in the tree, we're going to stay awake all night cause otherwise we'll fall out of the tree and... 

Frick-Wright: Can you see each other? 

Frey: No, you can't see anything. It's just completely black. You’re just kind of totally lost in space. 

Frick-Wright: When we realize that we're in a situation where we might very well die, our bodies respond physically. We tense up, ready to jump into action iff something happens and we start breathing more deeply, building up oxygen in the muscles in case we need it. The adrenal glands start making cortisol and epinephrine, the stress response hormones, which causes the liver to release more glucose into the bloodstream so that we have the energy to run or fight. Non-essential bodily functions also shut down digestion, defecation, urination, and your mouth will probably go dry and you stop producing saliva. Your brain changes too -- young men actually get dumber. Recent studies show that in adolescent males. stress limits the activation of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where we do complex thinking. You can think of it as your mind being too busy interrogating every stimulus in order to respond faster. It puts other thoughts on hold. Adolescent females interestingly showed no change when stressed. 

Frick-Wright: The body can maintain low grade anxiety for months, but an acute stress response peaks after about 10 minutes and then begins to fade no matter your gender. Bodily functions that were shut off because of stress start to reengage. Even if you're still in the same danger, you'll start to calm down. Men regain access to higher brain function. 

Frey:To me, I'm not sure if this is really true, but the idea I had in my head, and I think I still do, is that the jungle cleans itself out at night. The weak creatures that just aren't going to make it, don't make it through the night. And we were pretty poor excuses for monkeys. So I felt like, we're really in trouble. 

Frick-Wright: For Ed and Bruce, there was nothing to do but wait and think. I felt like, we hunt, we get hunted, that seemed fair. And I remember thinking about that, that now I'm the hunted and that's the way nature is, and that seems in the greater scheme of things, like a fair way for it to be. And that really is the way that it is in the world.

Frick-Wright: Up in the tree, shut off from their vision, their other senses started to compensate. Studies show that 90 minutes without being able to see is enough to measurably improve your hearing. So that night they heard the jungle, like few people ever have. 

(rainforest sounds get louder)

Frey: This cacophony of sounds, this loud sort of almost white noise. 

Welch: They were crescendos of loud sounds and then they would be kind of harmonics of different tones that came with other insects or the same ones. 

Frey: Meanwhile, it was still here, the jaguar, not too far off, but he had that rhythmic kind of combination of breathing and growl the whole night. I honestly did not think we were going to make it through the night. And I felt like we had done everything we could do, but chances are we're not gonna make it through the night. 

And so I thought about that a lot and I kind of made peace with myself. I felt like, well, there's not that much in life that I want to do that I haven't already done. Kind of ridiculous at age 26, but anyway, that's what I told myself. And I felt like, if I'm going to die, this is a pretty good way to die, and I'll always be part of this jungle ecosystem. So I felt as good about it as I could feel, but I really wanted to make it through the night 

After kind of an eternity up there,Ed said, it's starting to get light. I said, no, it's not. It's your imagination. He said, no, look at the ground, you couldn't see anything and ow you can see a little bit. I looked at my hand and I said, by God, I can see my hand a little bit. You're right. 

Once it got light, the jaguar disappeared. He wandered off and we never saw him. So we waited up there for quite a while to be as sure as we could that he wasn't just playing a trick on us to encourage us to come down from the tree. And so Ed let himself down. I covered him with the .22 and nothing happened and I climbed down and then we set a compass course for where we thought the Lake would be and we saw the canoe not far from where we hit the lake. And so we made our way over to the canoe, got in the canoe and, and paddled back. 

(sound of paddling)

Welch: Ever since then I've been able to do any trip. Like I haven't shied away from any kind of trip. 

Frick-Wright: It's nearly impossible to talk about a 47 year old story without the lessons learned coming off as hindsight. But for whatever it's worth, Ed says that the legacy of that night is a sense now that he can handle himself in a tricky spot. After the night in the tree, he felt like he could hang with Vicky on any trip she could dream up. And he did. After they were done in the canoe, they traveled through South America together for another few months. And then when they got back to the U.S., they got married and started a dairy farm together. 

Frey: I felt like we had been to the heart of the jungle, and survived. 

Frick-Wright: And Bruce says if Ed got courage, he got focused from that night. He says now that that was when he stopped floating around and decided that he had to be someone who did something with each day, cause you never knew when a jaguar might chase you up a tree. 

Frey: Every day has to count, and if you're not finding everyday satisfying or fun, then time to do something different. 

Frick-Wright: He says this kind of outlook on life led him to medical school and he had a second career as an oncologist, a cancer doctor. 

Frey: And I probably took too long to decide to make that transition. But it's a big decision. 

Frick-Wright: They all stayed friends and traveled together as they got older and had kids and moved around the Pacific Northwest. But if you remember, this is a story of a broken friendship. 

Frey: I can tell you about it, but I don't think I want to do it on the record. Cause we came at it from very different points of view. 

Frick-Wright: I asked Ed about it and here's what he told me about their fallout. In 2011, Vicky was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was very treatable, not quite routine, but with a very high survival rate. Vicky, however, with the same bottomless enthusiasm and energy and stubbornness that got them all out on this life changing river trip -- Vicky dove into alternative treatments. 

Welch: Yeah, it was really bad. She had the natural treatments first and they really didn't do anything to stop the massive tumor development. 

Frick-Wright: Ed described it as trying to fight tumors with herbal tea and no one, not even her husband's oncologist best friend could talk her out of it. So Ed had to pick a side and because of it, he lost Vicky and Bruce. 

Welch: And I didn't even realize that I was depressed. It was like, I basically just worked. So I'd get up in the morning, milked the goats, do my chores, take a nap in the early afternoon, and then do the evening chores and I just did that for the whole year. 

Frick-Wright: After a year, he started wandering around the world, traveling to rough parts of Asia, climbing Kilimanjaro, doing the kinds of things that he thought Vicky would want to do herself and that he would have never done if Vicky hadn't spent her life pushing him to new places. 

Welch: I think doing that first trip just allows me to do anything really. I can do whatever I feel like I want to do. Just seeing how my wife was really helped me to overcome fear and just do things that I wanted to do. 

Frick-Wright: When I first reached out to Bruce, all he knew was that Ed had recently been somewhere in India and he wasn't sure where he was now physically or mentally, or if he'd want to talk. Since Vicky's death, they've both considered their friendship another cancer victim, but it turned out that Ed was back and he said yes that night in a tree with a jaguar, that was something he could talk about. In fact, after he and I sat down, Ed told me that he loved to get together with Bruce sometime, tell the story again, see if they remembered it the same way. He said it sounded like a lot of fun. When I talked to Bruce and he said the same thing. So far it hasn't happened. Cancer and jaguars are totally different beasts and Ed and Bruce climbed different trees this time. They haven't come down yet, but it looks like it's starting to get light. 

Roberts: This episode was produced by Peter Frick-Wright and Alex Ward, with sound design by Robbie Carver. This episode was made possible by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science, technology and economic performance -- more at sloan.org. 

Special thanks to Daan Hendricks, spelled D-a-a-n for his recordings from the Bolivian jungle. The recordings of the jaguar you heard are from the amazing Bernie Krauss of wildsanctuary.org. Bernie was featured in our February episode, “What AI hears in the Rainforest.” If you missed that one, it's worth listening to. 

This episode is brought to you by Spearfish, South Dakota. Get a free adventure guide to this unique destination visitspearfish.com. This episode was also brought to you by Audible. Get a free 30 day trial membership to Audible that includes one audio book and two Audible originals by visiting audible.com/outside or texting Outside to 500-500. 

We'll be back next week.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.