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Adventures on the Amazon : After Years of Silence, Explorer Loren McIntyre Recounts His Harrowing Journey to Reach the River’s Source

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lost in the Amazon rain forest, Loren McIntyre stumbled into a clearing. Probably carved as a helicopter pad for an oil-exploration team, the rare opening might mean the explorer’s salvation. Sunlight poured down, boiling the humid air. A double column of ants marched back and forth across the beckoning space. McIntyre followed the ants.

At one end of the column he found a conical anthill. At the other he found the remains of four bodies. An arrow still protruded from the chest cavity of one. The ants had devoured just about everything, except for jacket zippers, a baseball cap and, of course, the bones. A rusting chain saw lay nearby.

This horrifying discovery occurred a long time ago, in 1969. But the incident--a brief moment in a far larger adventure--is only now coming to light because a persistent writer cornered McIntyre on an Amazon riverboat in 1987.

The fruit of that encounter--"Amazon Beaming"--has finally been published by Petru Popescu, Romanian writer who lives in Los Angeles. The book’s some 450 pages recount two high points in McIntyre’s South American sojourns: His capture by an “uncontacted” Indian tribe and his discovery of the source of the Amazon River, an accomplishment claimed by many. It was during the first adventure that McIntyre made his grisly discovery in the wilderness clearing.

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Popescu, a self-declared “exploration junkie,” novelist and screenwriter, hopes the book will help elevate Seattle-born McIntyre from relative obscurity into the ranks of two of his own heroes, African explorers Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, who together sought the source of the Nile in the 19th Century.

After reading “Amazon Beaming” some might wonder why McIntyre isn’t famous already. Avid readers of National Geographic will recognize him as the photographer-author of many of its South America articles. But until now, the life story of the energetic 74-year-old has been largely unknown because nobody made him tell it.

“He is always in the bush,” Popescu says. “He doesn’t have time to sit down and write.”

Recently, McIntyre and Popescu have been traveling together to lecture on “Amazon Beaming,” a joint effort containing several chapters of McIntyre’s “notes” on his capture by Mayoruna Indians and the three-man expedition he led in 1971 to the Peruvian mountain lake that is the source of the Amazon. McIntyre, a former Navy officer who fell under the spell of the Amazon while still in his teens, also has simultaneously published a coffee-table book of his South American photographs, “Amazonia.”

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At first glance, McIntyre and Popescu make an odd couple--the voluble 46-year-old Romanian and the more self-effacing, matter-of-fact McIntyre. Indeed, their relationship at first was distant. Popescu recalls writing letters to McIntyre and firing them off in the general direction of South America, hoping they would find him at a river outpost or some other remote spot.

McIntyre admits to a “certain reluctance which I didn’t overcome for two years” regarding Popescu’s book.

On the other hand, Popescu, author of several novels and the screenplay for the movie “The Last Wave,” says he became fascinated with McIntyre the first time he saw him in Manaus, an Amazon river city in Brazil.

Popescu and his wife had gone to South America so he could find material for a book, probably a novel. One night in the Manaus opera house, Popescu saw a camera-toting man dressed in khakis “scaling the wall to get into the box of the governor, which was locked. . . . I asked: ‘Who is that?’ and someone said: ‘This is Capt. McIntyre.’ I said: ‘Who the hell is Capt. McIntyre?’ ” (At the time, McIntyre was photographing for a magazine assignment.)

When Popescu was told he had tripped across the discoverer of the source of the Amazon, lights went on in his brain. Learning that McIntyre was to lecture on a cruise ship plying the river, Popescu and his wife booked themselves aboard. And then he waylaid McIntyre.

“I hit him then with this idea,” Popescu recalls. “I said: ‘If you don’t write this (your adventures), you have to find a writer to write this.’ ”

McIntyre’s initial reluctance sprang from a core experience, his strange, almost inexplicable months of captivity with the wandering Mayoruna, a tribe that had never been contacted by civilizados . The elusive tribe lived far up an Amazon tributary, hidden under the forest, glimpsed only rarely by missionaries and other travelers.

In 1969, McIntyre went looking for the Mayoruna, following reports by a bush pilot of a clearing in the forest that might indicate a Mayoruna village. Landed by float plane on the Javari River that marks the border between Brazil and Peru, McIntyre made camp on the riverbank. He was supposed to be picked up in three days.

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But he made almost immediate contact with the Mayoruna, who accepted his presents of mirrors and cloth. Impulsively, he dropped a few rolls of film in his pocket and followed the small group of Indians to their camp. Too late, McIntyre realized he could not find his way back to the river alone. He was trapped with a group of hunter-gatherers who made necklaces of human bones and used skulls for drinking cups. He had no common language with his inadvertent captors. Worse, it soon became clear that not all the tribe had good intentions, particularly a warrior McIntyre called Red Cheeks because of his face paint.

For the next two months, McIntyre was forced to follow the Indians as they ceaselessly moved through the jungle, breaking camp frequently and for no apparent reason. He lost the few possessions that connected him with his civilized life. The Indians burned his tennis shoes and his watch. A monkey destroyed his camera and a roll of his precious film. Once, he became lost and made his grisly find of the ant-devoured bodies.

Soon after his accidental captivity, a disbelieving McIntyre found that he seemed to be communicating wordlessly with the tribe’s leader, an elder he nicknamed Barnacle because of his warty skin. This telepathy seemed at times to include the indecipherable background “buzz” of the entire tribe’s mental activity. McIntyre came to call the phenomenon “beaming.”

The tribe was on a magical spiritual journey, McIntyre eventually learned. Led by Barnacle, they were hurrying to a mythical “beginning of time” that would be beyond the reach of encroaching civilization.

At the beginning of the rainy season, McIntyre made a dramatic escape aboard a balsa raft. In the following years, McIntyre maintained a discreet silence about his time with the tribe, especially about the telepathic interludes.

The narrative of how the Mayoruna eventually reached this mythical beginning and their rituals for greeting the dawn of time is a glimpse into ways of thinking that are alien to modern man, the down-to-earth McIntyre says.

“I’m pretty reluctant to voice very much about the beaming experience because I didn’t want my friends to think I’d gone around the bend. ‘What is this? The guy’s hallucinating?’ ”

Under the pressure of Popescu’s persistence, however, McIntyre agreed to tell this aspect of his past, crazy as it might seem. Although he has had encounters with more than 30 other tribes and briefly saw the Mayoruna again in 1977, McIntyre never has had a similar experience, he says.

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Perhaps to make the idea of telepathy more palatable to skeptics, Popescu tries to make the beaming seem almost humdrum, explaining that communication occurs on many levels besides speaking.

“I don’t think it’s so terribly outlandish,” he says. “It wasn’t as if he received on high frequency a code. Basically it was the result of the situation. If you are intuitive, you read that situation.”

By comparison, McIntyre’s expedition to the Amazon’s source was a Sunday stroll, although the trek involved altitude sickness, an earthquake and being lost--again--this time in freezing temperatures on a mountain.

But that trip was scientifically provable, at least. Ultimately, the source found by McIntyre was certified as the beginning of the Amazon, giving him a place in the history books--and the Guinness Book of World Records.

Now McIntyre and Popescu are turning their attention to other projects. They would like to make a return trip to find the Mayoruna, the descendants of the people McIntyre knew.

Leaning over a map of Brazil and Peru, McIntyre points to an area in far western Brazil. There, he says, is the last area that might harbor uncontacted tribes, the final remnant of a way of life that began to disappear with Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492.

“And that’s about it for South America,” he says. “That’s it for the Americas. This is the end of the process that began 499 years ago almost to the day.”


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