on the bank of what may be the finest whitewater
river in the Andes, Mike Hipsher looks every bit
the world class kayaker that he is. Framed by
a backdrop of rock, ice and sky, Hipsher begins
his warm-up stretching routine, a series of precise,
gymnastic, movements that flow as smoothly as
the green water beside him.
is an impressive sight, especially to a local
man who is making his way across a wooden suspension
bridge just downstream. Eyes fixed on Hipsher,
the man is paying little attention to the pair
of oxen he is leading across the bridge. They
are enormous, yoked together and pulling a hefty
load of timber. And they, too, are staring at
the kayaker -though not in admiration.
all hell breaks loose.
ox closest to Hipsher, frightened by the kayaker's
strange movements, starts to retreat. In the process,
he collides with his companion, sending one of
that creature's hindlegs off the bridge into midair.
For a moment, everything hangs in the balance.
The oxen snort and shuffle and pull against one
another in a desperate attempt to regain their
equilibrium. If they fail to do so, they will
slip off the bridge, freefall sixty feet and flush
into a rapid that doesn't end for more than a
will, in other words, be a disaster - not only
for the oxen and the man leading them but also
for Hipsher and a small group of other kayakers,
who are trying their best to convince the local
population that whitewater boating is, indeed,
a good thing for their community.
battle for hearts and minds has been going on
for the past year or so, ever since a Chilean
company declared its intention to dam the river
- the Rio Futaleufu - and use its energy for hydropower.
Doing so, company officials say, will help bring
much-needed development to the Futaleufu region,
an extremely rugged section of Northern Patagonia,
where electric power lines were first installed
only a decade ago and horseback is still the main
form of transportation.
there will, of course, be a steep price to pay.
Though details are sketchy, the dam could destroy
a vast section of this river, a magnificent, high-volume
plunge from the Andes to the Pacific. Lost forever
would be an almost countless parade of rapids
so thrilling that any one of them would be the
highlight on an average river elsewhere.
of these drops - and two in particular - are orders
of magnitude more powerful than anything even
strong kayakers typically run. But much of the
Futaleufu is considerably more manageable, within
the reach of mainstream boaters with solid rolls
and bracing skills. Typical is the stretch just
below the swinging bridge, where Hipsher frightened
the oxen (they recovered, by the way).
to its relatively moderate gradient, this section
is fast but not overwhelming. Still, it is nothing
to scoff at as anywhere from 9,000 to 20,000 cubic
feet per second of Andean snowmelt, depending
on the time of year, crash over and around boulders,
forming holes, pourovers and thick, jade-colored
waves that collapse and reform like ocean swells.
A quarter mile later the only respite is a bouncy
eddy on river right, where paddlers catch their
breath while peering downstream at more of the
same. And so on.
all of this is framed by a setting so beautiful
it seems like virtual reality. The mountains of
the Futaleufu valley, though not as tall as other
parts of the Andes, are extremely steep and rocky,
often culminating in whimsical, multi-spired peaks
- Gothic architecture on a continental scale.
Further down-slope, closer to the river, are wide,
grassy pitches where chestnut-colored horses feed
in a timeless pastoral scene. Far overhead, condors
glide by, black dots against a pale Patagonian
wonder this river is gaining a reputation as the
continent's finest boating destination. Every
season, a growing number of visitors make the
4,000 mile trip from the mainland United States.
Some - especially those with a lot of time to
spare - come on their own, arranging for themselves
the complicated logistics needed to boat in Patagonia.
Most, however, use guides - veteran American paddlers
like Hipsher who either own or work for one of
several companies that operate on the Futa, as
they affectionately call it.
few in number and limited in resources, these
gringo river guides are now engaged in a desperate
effort to save their whitewater utopia. Over the
past year and a half, they have been orchestrating
a slick, public relations campaign, bringing the
plight of the Futaleufu to airwaves and printing
presses throughout Chile and beyond. At the same
time, they have started a fund-raising drive in
the U.S. to pay for p.r. and legal work (see sidebar).
the most part, their efforts have been well-received
by the local community, especially the region's
many small-time ranchers and farmers, who could
potentially lose their ancestral lands to the
dam. Indeed, the farmers and ranchers have formed
their own grass roots organization to fight the
hydro project and view the boaters as allies in
it is a somewhat tenuous alliance, this bonding
of kayakers and campesinos and one that, like
the oxen yoked together on the bridge, has the
potential to fall suddenly out of balance, given
the proper catalyst.
evidence, all you need to do is visit a place
called Campo Tres Monjas -something I did for
two weeks last February. This stunning 20 acre
spread at the confluence of the Futaleufu and
Rio Azul is the base camp of Expediciones Chile,
an adventure kayaking company owned by noted American
paddler Chris Spelius. Since he bought the land
from a rancher several years ago, Spelius (nicknamed
"Spe") has been slowly building up Campo Tres
Monjas each season. Now it is one of the finest
facilities of its kind anywhere.
various afternoons from late December through
March, clients can be found relaxing here after
a strenuous day on the river. Some retire to their
tents, letting the sound of flowing water soothe
them to sleep. Others lounge on a sandy beach
by the river or steam themselves into Nirvana
in a cedar sauna. Several sign up for hour-long
sessions with Jaqui, a professional masseuse Spelius
has hired. All stuff themselves with a never-ending
array of treats prepared by Ishmael, a Chilean
cook. Even the outhouse here is pleasant, offering
an unobstructed view of one of the most majestic
peaks in Northern Patagonia. In short, the whole
scene could easily be nicknamed Club Spe.
obvious prosperity has not escaped local attention.
Spelius recalls a recent radio call-in show, part
of the media campaign to save the river. Though
many of the callers were sympathetic towards the
cause of conservation, one lady had a very direct
challenge. "You gringos," she said, "what do you
do for us? You come here and get rich and leave
with pockets full of money."
all likelihood, the caller was related to a merchant
or laborer in the region's largest town (also
called Futaleufu). Here, less than five kilometers
from the Futa's aptly named Inferno Canyon, some
900 people live in and around a weathered plaza
that has hardly changed since it was built in
the 1920s. Those who own the humble general stores
or work as part-time laborers in the sporadic
construction business here view the dam as an
economic savior. It is, therefore, no surprise
they might resent the outsiders.
understands their feelings and says he is making
efforts to address them, such as trying to purchase
more of his supplies locally and encouraging his
clients to visit town and buy handicrafts. Furthermore,
Spelius points out, his operation, like most whitewater
related businesses, has a slim profit margin and
is by no means reaping "pockets full of money."
in a country where a whitewater kayak is worth
four month's wages for the average school teacher,
the point is moot. American boaters, simply because
of their passports, are naturally open to charges
of elitism, hypocrisy and meddling. In the final
analysis, help from gringos, no matter how well-intentioned,
will always be a double-edged sword.
it is a sword that must be wielded, Spelius and
the other Americans believe, because without it
the river will almost certainly be lost.
understand just how serious the situation is,
one need only see seven letters - ENDESSA - the
name of the company behind the dam project. A
Santiago-based concern, ENDESSA is a juggernaut
of an organization, the same company that is damming
another well- known Chilean river, the Bio-Bio.
With its close connections to Chile's financial,
political and military elites, ENDESSA almost
always gets what it wants.
this national power is another organization, the
"Corporation for the Defense and Development of
the Futaleufu" (CODDERFU). Though possessed of
an impressive- sounding acronym, the group is
hardly a force to be reckoned with; most of its
members are those same farmers and ranchers threatened
by the dam. Few have ever even been to Santiago,
some 700 miles - and another century - to the
the locals are so overmatched in this struggle
that they didn't realize they were in jeopardy
until it was almost too late. They only found
out about the project because ENDESSA, as required
by Chilean law, had to announce its intentions
in a regional newspaper. By this time, however,
the company was a mere 15 days away from acquiring
water rights to the river.
the farmers and ranchers learned what was up,
they mobilized as best they could, sending men
on horseback up and down the Futaleufu valley,
like Chilean Paul Reveres, to warn that ENDESSA
was coming. That evening, they held their first
meeting in a local school house.
was like something out of a movie," Spelius says,
recalling how someone passed a cowboy hat around
the room to raise funds for the battle against
one of the country's most powerful forces.
was a David versus Goliath struggle from the outset.
the gringo boaters are a wildcard. With their
experience from anti-dam struggles elsewhere,
they hope to balance the odds.
early in the morning on February 24. For the first
time in a week, the sun rises in a completely
cloudless sky. The effect is mesmerizing as it
gives us an unobstructed view of the mountains
that surround us, with their dark rocks, pockets
of snow and fancifully sculpted ridgelines.
around the Expediciones Chile van that morning
as we bounce along a gravel road, our boats piled
on a massive roof rack above us, I can't be sure
just what my fellow passengers are thinking. But
whatever it is, it must be serious. Everyone,
it seems, has his or her game face on. Today we
will descend Inferno Canyon, an extremely constricted
gorge where the Futa displays frightening power.
though, we make a quick pit stop in town for postcards,
sweaters and other items - part of the Spelius
program to win hearts and minds. There, in the
classically Andean central plaza, we are confronted
with an incongruous site - a thoroughly modern,
professional video crew, draped with the latest
high fidelity equipment. And the weirdest part
is that they are filming us.
the crowning achievement to date of his P.R. campaign,
Spelius has managed to get the attention of a
none other than Sergio Nuno, revered in his country
as "the Jacques Cousteau of Chile." Nuno's television
show, La Tierra En Que Vivimos (the World in which
We Live), is one of the most popular broadcasts
in the nation, almost - though not quite -on a
par with futbol. As such, it could do more to
advance the cause of preserving the Futa than
articles in any 1,000 North American magazines.
the next several days, the film crew will be our
intermittent - and sometimes surprise - companions.
Their goal: to familiarize Chileans with the Rio
Futaleufu, including the controversy over the
dam. Also, one of the cameramen says only half-jokingly,
they wish to document "la vida secreta de los
gringos." That means impromptu shots of all sorts:
gringos kayaking, gringos eating lunch, gringos
lounging in the sand like pasty, self-satisfied
lizards and luxuriating in the camp's wood-heated
outdoor shower, set amid moss-covered boulders
the only place the cameras do not go is into steep-walled
Inferno Canyon. Here, the only reasonable access
is by boat, preferably one piloted by a very experienced
paddler. Ken Kastorf, one of Expediciones Chile's
top guides, has led perhaps a dozen groups down
this intense mile and half watercourse. "And every
time," he says, "my pucker factor has been off
problem is not so much the rapids themselves,
though they are wave-strewn, whited-out affairs
that bounce off the canyon walls and surge with
dangerous unpredictability. No, the biggest danger
is simply their continuity, a series of six drops
stacked on top of each other with little slack
water between. Studding both banks are horrendous
eddy lines that can backender - or even mystery
move - a full-sized kayak for no apparent reason.
A swimmer here faces the very real chance of flush
of course, the most technically difficult drop
as Inferno Rapid, it is essentially a chaotic
ramp that culminates in an exploding wave train.
You either break through the waves at just the
right moment, or risk getting caught in a typewriter
carriage return ride towards a cliff. The little
bell rings when you slam the wall.
no one in our group does slam. Nor do we have
any trouble later that day with the Zeta, a convoluted
mess of a rapid where the entire river narrows
down to the width of a two- lane road (all the
customers walk except for one, Anthony Kahn, an
exceptionally strong paddler from far Northern
California). Further downstream at the Throne
Room, the Futa's biggest rapid, Kahn remembers
how things went for him at the Zeta - let's just
say he was a tiny bit off line - and portages
with the rest of us.
night back at Campo Tres Monjas, the mood is one
of elation. Over empanadas, fresh guacamole and
Chilean wine, the talk alternates between tales
of whitewater glory and the best strategy to save
first step is to simply "educate people about
the resource down here," Spe says. Currently,
only a few thousand of the country's 14 million
people have ever heard of the Futaleufu, according
to Victor Gonzalez, one of the cameramen who works
for the so-called Jacques Cousteau of Chile. Perhaps
if more were aware of the river's beauty they
would join the campaign to protect it.
again, perhaps not. The environmental movement
in Chile, though growing, is not nearly as developed
as it is in the First World. A far more pressing
issue on most people's minds is the country's
economic development. Indeed, Chilean President
Eduardo Frei was recently quoted as saying "El
progresso viene primero, la ecologia despues"
(Progress comes first, ecology afterwards). Clearly,
some other argument will be needed.
idea is to point out that NOT building the dam
could be good business. Spelius does so whenever
possible, encouraging his clients to buy local
goods and directing private boaters who visit
the area to one of several campgrounds that have
sprung up recently. "Tell them more kayakers are
on the way," he says. In his heart, however, Spe
knows that kayakers alone - especially private
ones - will never save the river. Most of them,
he admits, "are dirtbag poor" and will try to
visit the region "the cheapest way possible, avoiding
any way possible of spending money."
eco-tourists might be more free-spending. Rafting
on the Grand Canyon, for example, generates 22
million dollars a year for Arizona, Spelius points
out. Ken Kastorf sees fishing, horseback packing
and mountaineering as complimentary activities
to prime the local economy. "This place has the
potential to become the Telluride of Chile," he
Telluride was not built overnight. "The cowboys
around here are great horsemen," Kastorf says,
"but that's a different thing entirely from running
a horsepacking trip for tourists. Someone would
have to work with them and show them how."
problematic still is simple economics. Rafting,
fishing and horsepacking may have the potential
to benefit the local economy of Futaleufu, but
a massive dam is a project of national scope,
one that proponents claim would advance the entire
Chilean economy. The power generated could be
sold for tremendous profit to nearby Argentina
or, perhaps, used to drive a rumored, but as yet
unbuilt, aluminum smelting plant to the south.
Even the most thriving eco-tourist industry pales
in comparison to such fiscal clout.
with this harsh reality, those who would save
the river must come up with an entirely new strategy,
something that defies the irrevocable logic of
think they just might have found it.
hundred years ago, the Futaleufu region was a
true frontier, a place where the native Mapuche
tribe still fought bitterly against western colonization.
It was only in the 1920s that the first white
settlers established a permanent presence here.
These people were offered free land by the Chilean
government if they would relocate to the Patagonian
wilds and raise families.
goal was to populate the area with Chileans, thereby
fending off any potential claim from nearby Argentina,
Chile's geopolitical rival. Today, the descendants
of these settlers are known as the "Hijos de Colon"
(Sons of Columbus) and are viewed with great respect
by urban Chileans, according to Ruben Torres,
a public relations person who has been hired by
the river guides.
whose father used to be a policeman in the Futaleufu
area, says that this story - proud, self-sufficient
locals versus a huge, bullying power company -
is a tale that could win hearts and minds throughout
Chile. It is this version of events that he hopes
order to do so, however, he will obviously need
backing from the Hijos de Colon. Without them,
there is no viable opposition to the dam.
the time being, the locals seem reasonably united.
Spelius estimates that some "60 to 70 percent"
of them are vehemently opposed to the dam. This
figure, however, is down from nearly 100 percent
opposition when the plan was first announced last
year. The reason? "People are starting to dream
about the work."
visit to town seems to confirm Spe's version of
events. "I'm in favor of the dam," says one woman
who owns a ramshackle little store selling cheaply
made dry goods. "It would bring jobs. We'd all
be able to raise our standard of living." Several
others, including a baker, a laborer and a telephone
operator, express similar views.
just as many agree with Gladys Pinilla, a CODDERFU
supporter who runs a more upscale store, selling
sweaters, hats and other items to tourists, most
from nearby Argentina. "There would be work for
a little while, during construction itself," she
agrees, "but afterwards the jobs would disappear
and we'd be left without our magnificent river.
The town as we know it would die. It would become
name, Trevelin, could become a touchstone in the
effort to maintain a united, anti- dam front.
It is a village in Argentina, a once-thriving
place that has been transformed into a dusty ghost
town by the only dam on the Rio Futaleufu. Before
that dam was built, the people of Trevelin, like
those of Futaleufu, were told how beneficial the
project would be.
should make a video of the bloody mess they've
made up there," Kastorf says, "and show it all
around. We have to be as vivid and as graphic
as possible because ENDESSA's gonna come in here
and promise anything it takes."
there is evidence that ENDESSA is fighting a successful
propaganda campaign of its own. For starters,
the company has not yet released solid information
about how large the dam will be nor how many farmers
and ranchers will be displaced by it. Futaleufu's
mayor (and president of CODDERFU), Belarmino Vera
Vera, estimates the number at more than 100.
fears the company may decide to build a dam that
would de-water - rather than flood - the valley,
which would pose less of a problem for the farmers,
thereby splitting the kayaker-campesino axis.
Or, ENDESSA might simply offer the locals cold,
hard cash for their land.
they won't take (the money)," the kayaker confidently
predicts, "these people are proud."
the community does resist ENDESSA's offers, the
company could always fall back on an old ploy
- stirring up Anti-gringo sentiment, a strategy
that worked well in ENDESSA's successful damming
of the Bio Bio.
prospect of such an us versus them campaign is,
perhaps, part of the reason a slightly paranoid
state sometimes seems to overtake the small community
of boaters here. Phil DeRiemer, another world
class kayaker who sometimes guides for Spelius,
recalls how last year the paddlers were freaked
out by a helicopter that appeared out of nowhere
and hovered for a long while above the river.
Some thought the chopper was from ENDESSA, perhaps
part of a strike force to perpetrate some unspecified
evil deed. It turned out that it actually belonged
to Sergio Nuno.
story making the rounds says that one of the leading
Futa-based river outfitters had his life threatened
by ENDESSA. Whether there's even an ounce of truth
to the story is anyone's guess.
spite of such pressure - real or imagined - the
boaters at Campo Tres Monjas show no evidence
of backing down, not as long as their Chilean
neighbors stand with them. "It's a moral obligation,"
Spelius says. "For us to enjoy the Grand Canyon
or the Cal Salmon or even the Chatooga River,
someone had to put in a lot of time and effort.
It's our time to do that now."
Note: Class V kayaker Howard Davidson gave up
professional journalism to attend medical school
at the Universiy of Pittsburgh.
American Whitewater , Nov/Dec 1995