When the tall lady in the sun hat came wading ashore from the dugout canoe, in the battering heat, deep in the Amazonian rain forest, it was an ideal moment for a memorable greeting, H.M. Stanley style. In the event, though, my words came lamely: "Oh, uh, there you are, Kay!"
Her response was altogether more relevant, sharper. "Splash!" she called. "Kick your feet up!"
I stopped as I waded out from the sandbar to meet her. "Why?" I wanted to know.
"Stingrays," she said brusquely. And that was the first piece of jungle-river lore that Kay Brodney, 61, head of the Life Sciences Subject Catalog Section of the Library of Congress, had to impart. And she elaborated: that in the Amazon system, stingrays will lie in the shallowest, warmest water; that if you step on one you can expect 12 hours of pain so intense that victims have broken their own limbs in their agonized thrashing; but that if you splash as you wade, the rays will scuttle out of your way.
However, when both of us were on dry land, shaking hands, Brodney was careful to avoid drama. "People think that I'm a mad, brave old woman to come out fishing in a place like this, living like an Amerindian," she said. "But, hell, I've been robbed twice on the streets of D.C., and each time it was more frightening than anything I've met in a rain forest."
The baking sandbar on which she now stood was about 3,500 miles from D.C. as the vulture flies. It was one of the bleached, dry-season bones of the Rio Branco, which flows south out of the highlands of Guyana into Brazil to join the Rio Negro, which, in turn, meets the Amazon at the city of Manaus. On the map that she had sent me months earlier, Brodney had circled Manaus in red ink. Alongside she had written laconically, "Beds. Ice." On our Rio Branco sandbar, those beds, that ice, were more than 300 tortuous river miles distant, a two-week journey, give or take a day or two, by a chugging old river launch.
It was from Manaus that photographer Mick Brennan and I had set out to rendezvous with Brodney and her companions in the Amazonian wilderness. They had set out 10 days earlier, from the northern Brazilian town of Boa Vista, way upstream on the Branco. From there they planned to truck down to the village of Caracarai, below the last rapids on the Branco, pick up boats and meet us at the tiny settlement of Santa Maria, halfway to Manaus and 40 miles south of the Equator.
"We'll have done all the scouting by then," Brodney had written me. "We'll have the fishing pinned down. [In the dry season in Amazonia, the fish tend to mass in tributaries and lake systems.] We can fish the Itapera, a veritable brood-pond of large tucunaré, arawana, trahira, pirapacu. There may be some arapaima."
Those are the Indian names, half-rendered into Portuguese, of fish that only the head of the Life Sciences Subject Catalog Section was likely to be acquainted with. Fish, one was tempted to imagine, that were caught using alligator tails for lures. Or maybe live snakes.
But one would be wrong. Brodney had made it clear that she would be taking only fly-fishing gear into the jungle, and she would be making no compromises. Into the simmering Amazonian hothouse she would bring the ethical standards of the purist fly-fisher. And those crazy-sounding species, she promised, would be worthy of them.