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Matthew Power 1974-2014: A Giggle Memory

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Writer Matt Power (left) and photographer Pete McBride on assignment along the Amazon; Photograph by Pete McBride

As I step forward into my darkest fears, I hear next to me the last sound I’d expect—giggling.  I am chest deep in inky, swamp water. Somewhere ahead of me is dry land I hope, but it is nowhere in sight. Each foot forward, I expect something to bite, zap, or attack me—a lurking viper, an electric eel, or a patient crocodile. Spiny trees and razor grass, immersed throughout this flooded forest, grate across my shins–launching my imagination deeper into my childhood land of demons. No matter what comes, I won’t see it. The orchestra of jungle sounds that we hear at night, are oddly quiet now. A suspicious silence hovers around us: except for this occasional giggle that keeps floating my way.

I turn to locate the source. There, wading, floating neck deep below an oversized frame pack is writer Matt Power. He has somehow crept up behind me. All I really see is his ubiquitous toothy grin–glowing across the murk surrounding me. His glasses are completely fogged and his giggles continue, uncontrollably. Amazingly, I start to feel better. Safer.

“Dude, this is so absurd,” he says, smiling wider now. I nod my head. “I should feel more scared, but I don’t,” he adds.

“Why not? I’m kinda freaking out here,” I say sounding agitated.

“I guess I’ve given into the jungle–I can’t fight it anymore so I am going to drift with it. Try it, you’ll feel better.”

Matt glides past me; giggles ricocheting around him. I’m stupefied. We are miles beyond a laughing situation, neck deep in fear, not humor. But maybe he has secretly consumed some exotic plant. Elixir or not, I follow his lead. Clearly he is finding strength where I am not.

We came to the Peruvian Amazon to do … well … exactly this … “walk” the Amazon. We are doing a river story—and we both love rivers and the tales they inspire. Matt has already chronicled the Mississippi. And jointly, we have already paddled the Nicaraguan River–blind basically. That was without question one of the most unplanned, poorly thought out adventures ever concocted. It was also perhaps one of the best times of my life. Paddling a crooked canoe with bent gunnels and handmade oars that we “rented” (one we nicknamed the pizza spatula) down a lazy Central American border-river we didn’t know, made us both feel “alive beyond words” as Matt penned. We glided downstream guided by nothing but serendipity and the word of strangers we met on the banks. I never felt freer. I recall thinking how I had met an adventurous soul like no other. Nothing fazed Matt. It was as if fear didn’t enter his mind.  At the same time, he never acted reckless or threw caution to the wind. He simply chose to lead with his optimistic, curious mind. And his toothy grin magically opened every door before us—seen and unseen.

Our Amazon journey was more planned … slightly. It had to be. We were following Ed Stafford on his epic Amazonian walk—a logistical and physical mountain that took almost two years. Matt and I tagged along for merely two weeks to document the preposterous trek.

When I look back now, each day warps into weeks, even months, not for the physical challenge we shared, but because Matt brought a levity and enjoyment to everything and everyone around him. He found humor and brought light to the darkest places—even my darkest swamp nightmare. At the same time, his writings never painted an unrealistic picture. On the contrary, he found ways to describe the tapestry of the world, its challenges, and those in it, in ways that I often never saw or considered. After reading his work, I would wonder how I missed such wondrous details and insights. It was as if Matt had a vision of the world and its truth far beyond the image his fogged spectacles told.

Last Monday, on the banks of another fabled river, the Nile, Matt took his last step forward. He was somewhere in northern Uganda on assignment for Men’s Journal reporting another epic river adventure. Heatstroke is said to be the cause.  It makes sense that Matt was out exploring and following another river. But his departure at the age 39 makes zero sense. The world needs gifted souls like Matt—spirits who push fear aside to embrace life and those in it with joyful, giggling charisma. My mind will struggle to comprehend his early exit probably until my own departure.

I spoke to Matt by email a few weeks before he left. We had discussed teaming up on this Nile project to follow another river walker, Levinson Wood, as he chased the Nile by foot. I wanted to go but the timing conflicted. As usual, Matt brimmed with enthusiasm discussing his preparations: chopping his toothbrush in half to cut down on weight.

No matter what he did, nor where he ventured, he made me feel like anything was possible. Sometimes we crossed paths in New York and Matt would always arrive by motorcycle. Of course he did. He had ridden bikes all the around the world–why not commute via cycle in NYC. Such energy made me realize everything is an adventure if we choose, so why not embrace it. And from what I can tell, he did just that with all aspects of his life–the passion for his work (he wrote for scores of national publications), to friendship, and of course, in love. When he spoke of his dear wife Jess, he visibly beamed. (Jess, my deepest heartfelt condolences. I can’t comprehend your loss and feel for you). It often made me wonder if somehow, someway, Matt really did discover some exotic plant/some elixir of sorts in that swampy, flooded Amazonian forest and never told us.

Ironically, the news of Matt’s tragedy reached me two days late on another far-flung river–on the opposite side of the world (the lure of river tales). As I try to make sense of this profound loss—for the journalism world, the aspiring-fearless adventurers, the lovers, the optimists, the witty writers, the readers he inspired and the friends he elevated, I know I will be listening—hoping really—to hear the joyous echo of Matt Power’s giggle. I know it will guide me from any future, murky eddies.

Editor’s Note: Matt was part of our family here at National Geographic Adventure. We are devastated by the news of his death. Love to all the family and friends who were touched by his adventurous spirit. Read his numerous Adventure magazine stories here.