Life of a River Gypsy

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This article first appeared in the May 2013 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine, in a feature they called “Covert Operators.” About the seven boaters featured, they said, “The most remarkable paddlers are often the ones you’ve never heard of. These fiercely independent characters go their own way, without seeking attention or praise in, say, the pages of a magazine. Consider these seven covers blown.”

Well, Lacey wasn’t flying under everyone’s radar. In 2012 we ran three articles on some of her Mexico Boating Adventures: Part I, Part II and Part III. She’ll also be penning a series of articles in the coming months about recent and upcoming trips. Read here on how she has come to live the life of a…

River Gypsy

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Lacey taking a break from a long day on the oars. ©Lacey Anderson

When Lacey Anderson was held captive by an angry mob in farthest Guatemala, she came to a stunning epiphany. “I realized,” she recalls, “that this could be my last day.” For Lacey, the cold realization of mortality came with more irony than most. Lacey grew up in Southern California as a “wild child,” she says; reared through the foggy lens of addiction, growing into another high school dropout. Fortunately, an innate connection with nature provided some peace. She read how-to books on camping, and took her first backpacking trip at sixteen. Nature’s solace led her back to school, where she earned a GED and a teaching degree, and eventually her own classroom of sixth graders. She had two daughters. Life went on.

Then, Lacey took a raft trip on the South Fork of the American. Her guide was female, and Lacey thought, “I can do this.” A part time guiding career followed, both on rivers and trails, but it wasn’t until her two daughters were grown and she tired of education’s bureaucracy that Lacey redoubled her river interests and made it her life. Since 2009, Anderson has lived primarily out of her tricked-out Toyota camper truck, following runoff seasons from Idaho’s snowmelt to Mexico’s monsoon. In the extra cab of her truck rides a custom built SOTAR cataraft, perfect for the small and obscure rivers Anderson seeks.

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Lacey rowing her cat on the Rio Tehuantepec, state of Oaxaca, in Mexico. ©Lacey Anderson

Lacey’s travels crossed paths with kayaker Rocky Contos a couple years ago, and the two have since completed over two dozen multi-day rivers throughout Mexico, from Sonora’s Aros to Oaxaca’s Atoyac. Several were first descents, not an endeavor normally suited to bulky rafts, but Anderson’s extra small cataraft with 8-foot oars makes portaging a relative breeze, and she knows how to go light.

Several years ago while running support for kayakers on the Middle Fork of the Salmon (a river she regularly guides), Lacey organized impeccably gourmet meals without the use of a cooler. Her well-fed paddlers insisted that she publish the magic menu, and thus came Camp Cooking Without Coolers, a guide to tasty river meals attainable without burdensome blocks of ice. Her backpack boating style has helped Lacey go deep in search of jungle rivers like Guatemala’s revered Copon, where her river-liberating film party was mistaken for corporate dam meddlers, and held at gunpoint while villagers threatened live immolation as punishment. Brave negotiations from the river parites’ Guatemalan companions allowed Lacey her release, and she knew it wasn’t her “last day,” after all. It was just another life lesson, one she’ll hopefully not have to employ on Peru’s Maranon, a storied Amazon source river that Lacey hopes to row next winter. It’s a long way from her Southern California roots, but for Lacey Anderson, maturing river gypsy, it’s home.

Canoe & Kayak staff writer: Tyler Williams