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Kayaking First Class on Chile's Rio Futaleufu

by John Arthur

Maybe you've heard the hype. “It's the best river anywhere,” they said, “You gotta see it.” Maybe you're a bit skeptical. After all, it’s a long way to southern Chile, and you don’t expect you’ll find a decent pizza place when you get there. Well, some things are beyond hype. This river is for real. Picture 15,000 cfs of warm, crystal-clear water. Picture roller coaster rides on 20-foot swells. Picture a surfing wave they call Aquarium, so smooth you can watch the fish. Picture alpine scenery with craggy peaks and glaciers hanging over lush green meadows, and deep gorges with sheer rock walls. This is Futaleufu country.

Of course, beauty this grand doesn't come without a certain raw edge. There are monster holes, terminal eddies, huge swirlies, rapids called Inferno and Terminator, and several gigantic class 4+ rapids that aren't even named. Nobody shreds here; one merely survives. From the little town of Futaleufu, near the Argentine border, to the last major rapid, Casa de Piedra, the river runs nearly 30 miles at an average gradient of 50 fpm. The upper half has long flatwater sections interspersed with nasty class 5 and class 6 gorges. The lower half is a nearly continuous sequence of big class 4 and 4+ rapids with short pools. Road access is available at several points on the lower half, but the upper canyons feel very remote.

My trip to the Fu was arranged (catered is probably the better word) by Chris Spelius and his company Expediciones Chile. Spe has assembled a primo team consisting of himself and Ken Kastorff as guides, Pedro the shuttle driver and shade tree mechanic, Ismael the gourmet wood stove chef, Desireé the masseuse, and Juan Pablo the photographer. Along with eleven other lucky paddlers, I traveled by jumbo jet to Santiago, by small jet to Puerto Montt, by bush plane to Chaiten, then by dirt road three hours to join this crew in a rustic schoolhouse near the banks of the Fu. The total travel time from my home in San Francisco was a remarkably short 30 hours. The adventurers came from all parts of the U.S. and from England, and included a number of professional kayak instructors. Four out of the twelve of us were women.

We were introduced to the Futaleufu by way of the Rio Azul, a tributary that intersects at the start of the lower Fu run. The Azul is born among glaciers, and its beautiful cold milky blue water drops through class 4 boulder gardens in a valley that seems transported from Switzerland. The hot February sun felt great as we stretched our winter muscles. We had lunch at the intersection with the Fu, on Spe's land. He owns the confluence. That's one way to ensure river access.
After lunch, we peeled out into the Futaleufu. It was immediately apparent that it was time to pay attention. This rio was BIG. Though the flow approached warp speed, the water gave the curious impression of being viscous; it seemed hard to accelerate or spin one's boat. Slowly we all learned to loosen up and adjust to the futility of trying to fight this river. Then we came to a rapid. Huge chaotic exploding waves, no way to see what's coming, just hang on and hope there's no hole ahead; at the bottom: “Wow, Ken, that was wild. What's it called?”
“What's what called? Listen up, guys, we're about to get to the first rapid.” Gulp.
Fortunately, Ken and Spe have this river wired, and we were nervous enough to listen closely to their directions. They introduced us to the sneak route through the Terminator, down the left shore. The sneak route is class 4+ with two must-catch eddies, and is basically the only sane route, though Spe talks of running a center route some day. The Terminator itself is a hole that occupies the right half of the river midway through the rapid, and looks like it could very well contain lost civilizations. Just below Terminator is a deceptive rapid mined with hidden holes. One member of our group had the misfortune to fall into one of these holes twice. The first time, he managed to fight his way out upside down but still in his boat. The hole remembered that.

On succeeding days we paddled the Terminator again, and continued on through the Himalayas, a wave train very much like Hermit in the Grand Canyon, and through Big Pillow, Chaos, Casa de Piedra, and at least a dozen unnamed but noteworthy rapids. These rapids typically involve dodging a couple of pourover holes while riding up and down on a train of 10-foot waves. At Big Pillow, one drops sideways off a smooth wave onto a river-wide seething pillow, which slings one into an eddy. Fasten your seat belt. Chaos offers a battle through huge lateral waves before a jump into a giant breaking wave hole. It makes Last Laugh on the Bio Bio seem like a mere chuckle. The concentration and consistent high quality of this stretch of rapids is simply incredible. We were glad to have two opportunities during the week to paddle these rapids; most of us needed more than one shot to get a clean run. In fact, on the last day a majority of the boaters elected to pass up a second chance at the upper run in order to take a third trip down the lower section.

In the middle of the week we drove upstream to put in just outside the town of Futaleufu. We had heard that the upper section was tough, and the fact that Ken and Spe seemed nervous did not help us relax. Moreover, it was raining. We began to talk seriously about taking a rest day. Then Pedro played his bluegrass tape and the sun came out. Re-inspired, we put on just above a small gorge. In less than fifty yards one swim and several rolls reduced the general level of confidence. Then the river turned a corner between two massive pillars and vanished behind a horizon line. This was the beginning of the Inferno gorge, more than a mile of steep, fast, turbulent, vertical-walled insanity. Ken told us to “Just stay away from that wall down there,” and peeled out. We watched him get thrown up on the cushion inches from the wall. Spe tried it, and he kissed the wall, too. The next boater didn't even make it to the wall before being thoroughly spindled and mutilated in the turbulence. We watched as he vanished around the bend, swimming, with Ken in hot pursuit. Spe signaled: “Next.”

Well, we managed to get through with only one swim and a lost paddle, but everyone rolled at least once and we were all relieved to find a few miles of flat (but fast) water below the gorge. After lunch, we came to the rapid called Zeta, where rock walls squeeze the entire foaming river around two bends through a 30-foot-wide chute. Potholes and arches carved in the rock and the large amounts of water boiling up from under the bank 50 yards downstream attest to the undercut situation here. Spe and Ken and superboater Chris Wilcox from Colorado all ran it more or less under control, but the rest of us were happy to drag our boats up and over the hill through dense underbrush to an elegant 15-foot seal launch into the pool below the rapid.

It turned out that Zeta was not the most terrifying rapid on the upper Fu. A short ways below lies the Throne Room, a quarter-mile gorge in which the river drops more than 50 feet. At the bottom lies the Throne, an immense rock blocking the way. Even the river doesn't know how to get through this rapid -- the pillow in front of the Throne is 30 feet high. Only Spe felt like risking this drop; the rest of us were happy to cheer him on as he successfully powered his way through the left hand slot. Below Throne Room, a few miles of continuous waves and holes led to the take out at Spe's beach.

After each day's paddling, we would pile into Pedro's van for the quick ride to camp. Ismael served dinner late, and it didn't get dark until 10 pm, so every evening there was plenty of time for fishing, massage, and ping pong (Pedro was once a nationally-ranked player). It was worthwhile just to sit and watch the clouds get caught on the mountain peaks surrounding the camp. On the clear nights I slept outside in order to watch the strange stars wheeling around the Southern sky, and Orion upside down with his head under the horizon. One week was simply not enough of this place. I can’t wait to go back next year.

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Expediciones Chile specializes in adventure travel vacations in Patagonia Chile. Rafting in Chile on the Futaleufu River. Torres del Paine, Cerro FitzRoy trekking in Patagonia. Off season skiing in Chile and Argentina. Equestrian vacations and mountain biking holidays in the Futaleufu Valley. Whitewater kayaking in Chile. Whitewater rafting outdoor guide school. Fly fishing in Patagonia Chile and Argentina. Learn to roll a kayak at the Expediciones Chile kayak school. Eco tours and yoga vacations. Information on the climate of Patagonia, traveling in Patagonia and regional maps.

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