past January, my good friend Earl Davis and I
(Greg Hall), left our homes in Western North Carolina
for a 10 day whitewater adventure in Southern
Chile. After traveling one third of the way around
the world we arrived at Spe's base camp on the
shore of the Rio-Futaleufu. Our expedition leader,
Chris (Spe) Spelius is a tall muscular guy with
straw-blond hair and a big smile. His base camp
is nestled between the Rio-Azul, the Rio-Futaleufu,
and a 7000 foot snow-capped triple peak called
the "Three Monks". It's winter back
home, but here it's summer and the air is warm
and fragrant. The valley floor is covered with
grasses and wildflowers. That night seven more
trip members came in.
follows is the complete river trip from top to
bottom. We ran these sections several times over
the course of seven days, starting with the easier
(?) sections and working up.
shuttled the 12 miles upstream to the town of
Futaleufu. We put on the Rio-Espilon, a tributary
of the Futaleufu. This was the clearest river
I had ever seen. The rocks on the bottom were
shimmering as the sun shone through the light
green water. After a mile of class 2 we flushed
out into the Rio-Futaleufu.
guides were Phil DeRiemer and Mary Hays. We couldn't
have asked for more competent safety on the river.
When he is not leading expeditions or guiding
river trips, Phil is a photographer and teaches
kayaking. Mary got her nursing degree and would
probably be in a hospital somewhere taking care
of patients to this day, if she hadn't taken that
first river trip. She traded in her stethoscope
for a paddle and now leads river trips around
the world. These two "world-class" paddlers
were ready to lay it on the line if someone got
soon the rock walls began to loom up on the rivers
edge marking the beginning of one of the toughest
sections of the river, "The Upper Canyon".
One of the ominous features of this section is
that due to the shear vertical canyon walls, portage
is not an option. The sun had disappeared and
the sky was growing dark. Was this a foreboding
premier for what was to come? I was more than
the first of six rapids in this one mile section
have been named. We bank scouted the first rapid.
. . . "Inferno". Wow! What a sight!
The normally 250' wide river is seriously constricted
by the shear 200' tall rock canyon walls. Between
the 12,000 CFS flow and the massive gradient drop,
this is one Mother of a rapid. The correct line
consists of running a series of huge diagonal
waves coming off of the river left wall, then
turning right to slip between a pourover to the
left and a mega hole to the right. Then, powering
through monstrous waves while crossing the main
flow to avoid getting smashed into the river left
canyon wall. The fact that this is where a raft
had flipped and two of the paddlers had drowned
a few months before entered my mind. But . . .
. I was ready. This was it. No use thinking about
anything but running this rapid. I entered with
my boat pointed left and powered through a series
of 12 foot diagonal waves. Then I angled right
and (whoops!) eddied out in a section of slightly
less swift water. After a couple of sweep strokes,
my bow was pointed back downstream, but I had
moved a few feet off line to the right. I missed
the pourover to my left by a comfortable margin,
but caught the left edge of the huge hole to my
right. I was stopped and wham, it felt like my
boat was knocked out from under me by a big sledgehammer.
After a brief thrashing the hole released me.
Thank-you river gods! I rolled on the second attempt.
The water was total chaos. Tall waves were shooting
up with no pattern. Whitewater was everywhere.
It looked like Tomahawk Missles were being fired
into the river. I powered right harder than I
have ever paddled. My Corsica S moved nicely to
river right. I clipped the left edge of another
hole, but leaned forward and powered through it.
Nine-tenths of the river moves left and slams
into the canyon wall. There were several other
flips in our group, but the rolls were good and
the must make moves were done successfully. OK,
through "Inferno"- one down.
next rapid was not too hard, just stay upright
and out of the unfriendly eddys. On this river,
you can clean a rapid only to get hammered in
the eddy. The water level in these eddys can undulate
up and down two feet. You can be caught between
two boils and be absolutely munched in the fold.
Whirlpools suddenly appear and disappear. The
third rapid down was a baddie. The river drops
hard with almost all the water piling up against
the vertical rock wall on the left. Spe refers
to this one as "The Wall Shot". The
trick here is that you have to move right before
you think you have to move right. I peeled out
of a squirrely eddy and entered the speedy downstream
flow. Man, this baby was cookin! I cocked my boat
30 degrees to the right and began digging in.
I saw Phil and Mary in the river right eddy at
the bottom both making frantic "paddle like
hell" motions with their hands. I could tell
by their expressions that they felt I should have
started moving right before I actually did. Again,
the water was pulsing, frothing, and pitching
back and forth. I was moving at breakneck speed
towards the wall shot on river left. I have never
been in water moving this fast. Suddenly, I was
stopped on a 10' breaking wave, backendered, and
was upside down. If I ever needed to be up on
the first roll, this was it. I focused, my paddle
broke through, I swept, hipsnapped, and was up.
I was still on line and continued my march across
the main flow and arrived at the bottom right
eddy. But, no whoops and hollers yet, no indeed,
the mood was still very serious. We were only
half way through. The next two rapids were easy
by comparison - just try not to get eaten in the
sixth rapid down was another Goliath. I peeled
out of a boiling eddy with my boat cocked slightly
left and punched three twelve foot diagonal waves
that were coming off the vertical rock wall on
river left. I then angled right and threaded the
needle between a huge pourover to the left and
a mega-hole to the right. So far so good, but
the whitewater was now in total chaos churning
left towards a house size boulder at heart-stopping
speed. I powered across the current managing to
stay upright and arrived in-tact in the eddy to
the bottom right. As I looked back upriver, I
thought--damn, that SOB isn't even named. But,
I had made it through the Upper Canyon, and I
was still kicking! Talk about elation, I was one
a short section of flatwater, we arrived at one
of the Futa's premier rapids - "The Zeta".
This rapid has such a bad reputation that most
people know they're going to walk it before they
even see it. I took a look with an open mind and
decided one second later that I would definitely
be walking this one. The normally wide river necks
down to just 50' between shear rock walls rising
straight up out of the river. The river then drops
20 feet while turning an abrupt 90 degrees to
the right. The clean line run is very narrow,
and the approach is a nightmare due to a huge
diagonal breaking wave blocking the entrance.
If you're knocked off line to the left, you ride
up on the pillow and into a vortex that makes
the area to the left of Gauleys "Pillow Rock"
look comical. If you're knocked off line to the
right, you'll end up either slammed upside down
into the worst boiling eddy I've ever seen, or
in the next eddy immediately downstream, which
has vast quantities of recirculating lumber in
it. The logs swirling around in this eddy have
been there so long that the bark has been striped
clean and the smooth wood is bleached white by
the sun. There is a 2' depressed eddy fence between
either of these eddy's and the main flow. But,
the worst is not over yet. Immediately downstream,
the entire river slams straight into an undercut
rock wall. There are many, many ways to have a
bad day here. Our guide, Phil DeReimer was the
lone kayaker in our group to run this beast. He
had a perfect line and a perfect run. He made
it look so deceptively easy. Champagne like bubbles
rise to the surface for 300' following this rapid.
a short section of flatwater, we came to the grandaddy
of them all, "The Throne Room". The
water "powers-up" by dropping at a constant
steady angle. Fourteen foot diagonal waves form
in an inverted vee leading straight towards "The
Throne". The Throne is a long smooth rock
that looks like a giant scale ramp for water skiers.
Even though the throne is 150' long and 20' high,
the water is moving so fast it just slides right
up the ramp and over the top. The back side of
the throne is a 20' pourover. The correct line
includes avoiding the throne. Spe tells a personal
story of getting hammered in the diagonals and
rolling in the fast current leading to the top
of the throne. He was momentarily disoriented
looking back upriver, gaining altitude while being
swept backwards towards the top. All our whitewater
experience tells us that when in fast current,
the river looses gradient. Here, it's the opposite.
Somehow he managed to make it out of this situation.
If you go right, you enter either a monstrous
swirling 20' vortex beside the throne or get slammed
into a nightmarish eddy a little further right.
If you go left, you have huge holes to deal with.
The best line is right to left, avoiding the eddy,
the vortex, and the throne. No one tempted fate
downstream we entered a wavetrain which consisted
of eight to ten foot waves that went on for two
miles. You spend 3/4 of your time in the wave
trough with nothing but water all around. Then
you suddenly crest the top, get a look around
and plummet into the next trough. Some of the
waves had tops breaking back upstream in which
case it was backender time. No problem though,
just wait five seconds or so and roll. This was
just plain old fashioned exhilarating fun.
river right, marked by a flat sandy beach, is
Spe's basecamp. He spares no expense for his guests.
A Chilean cook prepares and serves you gourmet
meals. A masseuse massages your tired muscles.
There are hot showers and even a sauna to warm
and revive you after a long day on the river.
from camp we arrived at "The Terminator".
Several shouldered their boats and carried. Earl,
Charlie, Peter, Allen and I committed to run it.
The rapid is about 1/2 mile long, and consists
of four eddy moves on river left, then a peel-out
into the main flow for the final drop. The consequences
of missing an eddy means running this monstrosity
down the middle. This is serious class 4 if you
make all the right moves, and class 6 if you blow
it. There is a hole in the center of the river
about half way down that must be 35' wide with
a 20' backwash on it. The fourth eddy move is
the toughest. You have to power your boat through
a diagonal hole without getting stopped. If you
do get stopped, you'll be surfed out into the
maw of this rapid. I punched the hole low and
just made the eddy. On the final drop, I peeled
out of a squirrely eddy and into the main flow
to run right of a big pourover. The power of the
river was awesome but I managed to stay upright.
One of our group was not so lucky. Peter flipped
in the churning current, missed three rolls, and
swam. There is no good place on this river to
swim, but this was a particularly bad place. There
were several trouble areas immediately downstream.
But, no problem. He swam so fast across the current
to a river left eddy that he outran the rescue
boater. He later said, "I saw that eddy and
WANTED IT"! Unfortunately his paddle, which
had been his trusted companion for years (judging
by the extensive wear) was gone. Later, after
catching some grief about how well he had paddled
prior to the swim, he replied "I was reduced
from a stud to a geek in five seconds".
river began dishing out huge exploding wave-trains.
I was pitched so high off the crest of a wave
that I went airborne into the next trough. I was
having more fun than I thought possible. Charlie
got a taste of the rivers power while sitting
in the (safety?) of an eddy. Two humps of water
appeared on either side of his boat and a strong
whirlpool formed under him. His kayak was sucked
down horizontally and he went spinning downriver
submerged to his neck. What we saw was a helmet
with a head in it doing 360's.
a 1/4 mile long wave-train called "The Himalayas",
we came to the next, and one of the more memorable
rapids, "Mundaca". This rapid culminates
in four twelve foot waves, one right after the
other. The waves pulse at regular intervals. First,
the wave forms clear and tall for about five seconds.
Then the top of the wave breaks back upstream
with a loud ka-whump! At this point if you are
entering it, you might as well prepare to get
battered. After taking a few licks, you're released
and can roll. I peeled out from the eddy above
into the power of the river. The first wave was
clear green-water and I went up and over (open
window). The next wave was open for a second,
then the top 4' broke back on itself- uh oh (closed
window). I made the classic mistake of not leaning
into this exploding wave. I entered it with my
boat angled up at 30 degrees in an upright paddling
position. I took the wave in the chest and face
and was slammed back so hard I heard my helmet
hit the stern deck. My boat "looped over"
and now I was upside down in this monster getting
the "from the waist up" massage of my
life. After several seconds the wave-hole released
me and I rolled just in time to be eaten by the
next wave/hole. Again, I was slammed upside down.
The main problem was I hadn't gotten a breath
since before I was munched the first time. I was
getting pretty low on air. A sinful thought crept
into my mind. I told myself "ya know, a person
could wet-exit in a situation like this".
But, I persevered, telling myself "not this
person", and rolled. The windows of the next
two waves were open and I managed to stay upright.
Next, Dick encountered a closed window and got
looped. After getting pounded while upside down
in the next two wave/holes, he began trying to
roll. After four failed attempts, Phil got to
him. He was still in his boat and hanging on to
Phil's bow with his head above water. But, he
had been beaten up so badly by the power of the
river that he was too weak to hipsnap his boat
up. Phil grabbed the inverted boat and muscled
it up. In the next rapid Dick flipped and swam.
In a valiant effort, Phil got him to shore. Following
this experience, Dick took up reading for the
rest of the trip.
have to admit, that during a trip on this same
section several days before, my paddling had been
somewhat raggy. Because of day after day paddling,
fatigue had seeped in. Phil and Mary had been
bitching at me to paddle harder. I didn't mention
that I was paddling as hard as I could. It felt
like I was paddling in wet cement. Before long
I got caught in a hole and flipped. I rolled,
but it felt weak. I began to get a little worried.
In a flatwater section, I was lost in my thoughts,
and failed to notice the river piling into a vertical
rock wall on river left. Half of the river turned
90 degrees to the right and went downstream. The
rest turned 90 degrees to the left and went upstream
into a huge 300' eddy. I missed the downstream
flow and took a left into the eddy. The center
of the eddy was boiling and didn't look particularly
friendly. I decided to stay on the eddys edge
by the river bank and ride its fast flow upstream.
At the top, I attempted to peel out, but was carried
downriver on the eddy line. Paddling furiously,
the river wouldn't admit me to the main flow.
I realized that I was dealing with a depressed
eddy. After all that effort, I hadn't moved my
boat out of the eddy one little bit. The rest
of the group had disappeared downstream, and I
was on my own. I was moving towards the same place
where the river piled up into the vertical wall.
I really didn't want to take that upstream trip
again, so with 50' to go, I sumoned up all my
reserve power and managed to cross the eddy line.
I was close to the rock wall riding the right
edge of the pillow, plopped into a small hole
at the base of the pillow and flipped. I was beginning
to really have a bad day. I flushed out upside
down and rolled just in time to have my stern
sucked down by a whirlpool. I flipped again and
went spinning around and around. I began to get
giddy imagining this is what it would feel like
to be flushed down a huge toilet. I was tired,
out of breath, and worried about being alone.
I made an onside roll attempt and was unsuccessful.
I knew the reason I didn't get up was because
I was working against the swirl of the whirlpool.
Prior to being accepted into the trip, Spe asks
all potential trip members fill out a skills assessment
form. Under "biggest weakness", I listed
that although my offside roll is bombproof, I
have a reluctance to use it in a clutch situation.
Well, here I was in a clutch situation. I went
to my onside again (of course) and this time made
it up! Welcome to flatwater hazzards on the Rio
Futaleufu. I joined the group downstream and told
them about my misadventures.
too soon, it was time to head back to the states.
On the way to the airport we spotted a huge blue-ice
glacier snaking its way out of a mountain valley.
From Chai-Ten we boarded a charter plane to Puerto
Montt. From there it was commercial airliners
back to civilization. Earl and I lucked out and
got seats in the business section for the all
night flight from Santiago to Miami. Man oh man,
those wide glide reclining seats sure felt good
to this tired but happy paddler. I'm definitely
going to check into that mode of travel next year
when I return to whitewater heaven in southern