Retiree Art Huseonica recounts his dangerous, record-setting ride down the Amazon River.

River Monster

Written by Wynter Holden Category: People Issue: April 2017
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Photography by Jim David

Record-Setting Seniors

When it comes to outdoor adventures, Art “Karts” Huseonica is in good company. Here are just a few of the brave Baby Boomers and beyond who have broken boundaries in recent years.
• Diana Nyad, 64
More than 30 years after her first attempt, American Nyad became the first person to swim the 110-mile route from Cuba to Florida in September 2013. She completed the swim in less than 53 hours, surviving sickness and jellyfish.
• Robert Marchand, 105
In January 2017, Frenchman Marchand bicycled approximately 14 miles in one hour at the Vélodrome National in Paris. While the men’s speed record is closer to 34 miles, it was a verifiable world record for Marchand’s age group.
• Esther Kafer, 84
Swiss native Kafer became the oldest woman to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro when she trekked there with her husband (also a record-holder) in 2012.   
• Hidekichi Miyazaki, 105
“The Golden Bolt” Japanese sprinter broke the centenarian Guinness World Record for the 100-meter dash in 2015 in 29.83 seconds.

At 66, Art “Karts” Huseonica isn’t ready for the quiet life. Sitting in the kitchen of his Sun City home, the balding, bearded former computer programming instructor and 20-year Navy veteran could be mistaken for the kind of grandfatherly snowbird whose greatest achievement is scoring five under par on the nearby Stardust course.

Huseonica’s appearance is deceiving. In the past decade, he has traversed volcanoes in Ecuador, weathered frigid temperatures in the Alaskan wilderness, climbed Denali and completed TV personality Bear Grylls’ intense five-day survival course. “Unless there’s some danger involved, I’m not interested. It won’t get me excited,” Huseonica says. “I’m always looking for a challenge. I gotta have something to plan on, to look forward to, especially as I get older.” While he spends some of his downtime at home with wife Karen or on local group treks with the Sun City Hikers, “Karts” (his trail name) is constantly looking for a new adventure.

On November 21, 2016, he completed his longest, most challenging trip to date: a 4,200-mile Amazon River trek. Along the way, Huseonica and six companions from across the globe faced the brutal realities of life in the jungle regions of Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, from narrowly escaping a group of murderous tribesmen to dealing with overzealous anti-drug task forces. “This trip really tested my body with the heat and humidity. It tested my mind. And it challenged my soul, because I experienced blatant discrimination,” Huseonica says. Reflecting on the 46-day trip, he’s just glad everyone made it back home safely.

The adventure began when Huseonica was contacted by British explorer Jacki Hill-Murphy, author of the book Adventuresses: Rediscovering Daring Voyages into the Unknown. Huseonica first spoke to her in early 2016 after reading about her idea to re-create the Amazon River journey taken by Isabel Godin des Odonais in 1769. After being separated from her husband for two decades, des Odonais sailed down the Amazon from Quito, Ecuador, to the colony of French Guiana in hopes of reuniting with him. According to Huseonica, des Odonais was the only survivor to reach the river’s end. “Everyone else died or ran away or was killed on the trip,” he says. “No one had replicated that journey in over 250 years.” Like race car drivers and pro athletes, explorers often solicit company sponsorships to help fund their trips. For this epic journey, Huseonica had seven sponsors whose products he used during the trek.

Hill-Murphy arranged the 2016 trip, contacting “fixers” to arrange visas, transportation, guides and supplies. Hill-Murphy, Huseonica and three fellow explorers departed the village of Canelos near Quito in a traditional dugout canoe on October 20, 2016. Navigating the Bobonaza River, a tributary of the Amazon, their first stop was Sarayaku, a semi-modernized village with solar panels and limited internet access via satellite.

Their host and boatman was Juan, the village shaman. “When I first met Juan, I tried to hug him,” Huseonica recalls, pointing at a photograph of a small-statured, dark-haired man wielding a spear. “Big mistake! I think he thought I was attacking him. That’s a hardcore dude.” After three days, Huseonica and his travel mates left with handshakes, their food supplies diminished by customary bribes. It was one of the warmest receptions they would receive.

Guided onto a sandbar, the group was confronted by angry fishermen from the neighboring Achuar tribe, a small but fearsome group known for violent attacks. For the first time since leaving Quito, Huseonica had serious safety concerns. “They kill more people than they talk to,” he says. “They’re former headhunters!” Huseonica slept fitfully on the river banks. His travel party quietly slipped out before first light.

That undercurrent of danger continued throughout the trip. “At any point, there was never a machete more than six feet from my neck.” Villagers stayed at arm’s length, fearing outsiders’ disease and corruption.

Even other outsiders created problems. After picking up two crewmates in Peru and transitioning to a roomier barge, they were searched by an international drug enforcement task force. “I had a GPS tracker with me, and they were picking up a ping from us that only drug traffickers use,” Huseonica says. Two American DEA agents let him go without confiscating anything. Twelve hours later, Huseonica was searched by a Brazilian security police commander. After a 30-minute inspection, he looked at Huseonica and told him – in perfect English – that his entire crew should be dead. “He was familiar with all the areas we went through, and he hadn’t known anyone to do that route and survive,” Huseonica says.

The most perilous part of the journey behind him, Huseonica and his companions continued navigating the river past the more developed towns of Manaus and Santarém in Brazil. They arrived in Belém in North Brazil two weeks later. Even after Huseonica was safe on dry land, readying to fly home, there remained the threat of being robbed.

Back in Sun City, the sexagenarian survivalist’s wife Karen feared for her husband’s safety. Huseonica carried the GPS at all times, and remained in contact by satellite phone. “She knows I manage my risk,” Huseonica says. “I like living on the edge, but I know where the edge is.” As he casually recounts his adventure, Karen’s face tells a different story. “I was worried about him every day,” she says through tears.

Four months after his Amazon voyage, “Karts” is scouting for his next adventure. While he’d love to undertake an epic Everest climb, his sponsors and wife keep him closer to home. “Art’s a very nice and generous guy,” says Dennis Broadwell, an Alpine guide who helped Huseonica climb Mt. Rainier in 2015. “I’m glad he was able to achieve his goal of reaching the summit.”

At press time, Huseonica was preparing for his next Humphreys Peak ascension, as well as a climb of Idaho’s Borah Peak with reality TV star Jeff Zausch of Discovery Channel’s Dual Survival. Asked if he ever plans to slow down, he chuckles. “Not until I die,” Huseonica says. “My doctor says that when I go, I’m probably going to go really fast because I’ll be doing something crazy.”