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Rescuing a Whitewater River... Chilean Style
American superpaddler Chris Spelius spearheads the fight to save Chile's Futaleufu River from a massive hydro electric project.
by Howard Davidson

Standing 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.

It 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.

Suddenly, all hell breaks loose.

The 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 quarter mile.

It 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.

This 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.

But 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.

Several 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).

Thanks 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.

And 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 sky.

No 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.

Though 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).

For 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 the struggle.

Still, 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.

For 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.

On 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.

Such 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."

In 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.

Spelius 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."

Still, 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.

But it is a sword that must be wielded, Spelius and the other Americans believe, because without it the river will almost certainly be lost.

To 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.

Opposing 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 north.

Indeed, 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.

When 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.

"It 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.

This was a David versus Goliath struggle from the outset.

But the gringo boaters are a wildcard. With their experience from anti-dam struggles elsewhere, they hope to balance the odds.

It's 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.

Looking 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.

First, 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.

As 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.

For 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 and trees.

About 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 the chart."

The 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 drowning.

And, of course, the most technically difficult drop comes first.

Known 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.

Luckily, 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.

That 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 the river.

The 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.

Then 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.

One 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."

Other 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 says.

But 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."

More 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.

Faced 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 numbers.

They think they just might have found it.

A 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.

The 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.

Torres, 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 to promote.

In 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.

For 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."

A 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.

But 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 like Trevelin."

That 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.

"We 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."

Already 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.

Spelius 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.

"But they won't take (the money)," the kayaker confidently predicts, "these people are proud."

If 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.

The 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.

Another 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.

In 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."

Editor's Note: Class V kayaker Howard Davidson gave up professional journalism to attend medical school at the Universiy of Pittsburgh.

American Whitewater , Nov/Dec 1995


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