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Fate of the Futaleufu
another river "damned"

from the diary of Andrée Hurley

Saturday - How to begin? I am feeling very disoriented writing on Chris's computer at this hospitaje at the base of these tall mountains. The dirt road leading here was filled with potholes; sitting in the kitchen with its carefully painted pink walls and yellow trim, my inner ear still vibrates from the bus. We eat next to the stove tucked behind the tables and chairs. I have declined the proffered delicacy of puréed cow brains, but indulge mightily in the meat pastries without problem.

I am in the town of Futaleufu, not far from the Argentinian border. My destination is Expediciones Chile , a paddling camp on the Futaleufu river, for some whitewater kayaking and a few days of paddle touring down through Lago Yelcho. Because of many layovers, it has taken me three extra days to get here, but NOTHING I have seen so far compares with this beauty. Every day I wake up and am awestruck.

Mix of old and new at a take-out on the Futaleufu River, Chile
Photo: Ed Michael, courtesy of FUTAFUND

Sunday - Chris's camp is alongside the Futaleufu; we pass through five gates to get to it, stopping to talk to people at the school house and the ranches along the way. Chris has done a magnificent job building; there is a beautiful dining hall, an outhouse made of bamboo, a large sauna containing a huge custom welded wood burning stove, and two outdoor showers, one attached to the sauna and the other nestled between large boulders on a bamboo platform.

The Futaleufu River itself has enormous volume and beauty, blue with glacial sediment, warm in it's late summer stage. It may be the best river in the world, the cathedral of rivers, according to Chris.

Chris is planning to go whitewater kayaking and asks me if I want to go, if the water looks hard to me. I think it looks flat and uncomplicated, so off we go, hiking a good distance with the boats across a golden field and then down a bit of a cliff. To my surprise the water is far `pushier' than it looked; I am content to get used to my boat while Chris, in his element, plays the waves.

The Fu slides downstream, cradled by a curve of granite. Ahead of me on the inside corner is a massive whirlpool with a killer eddy line and boils to boot. The boils surprise, rearing up in front of the boat, as if to make sure someone is paying attention. But I've just been on the easy stretch; the Terminator is downstream, and so tight and fast that Beez earlier dislocated his shoulder. No time to think in there, said Chris, only time to act.

When the going gets rough, Chris tells me to take a tight line behind him. I flip twice, the first time above a hole big enough for twenty kayaks. It takes me two tries to roll that time; I miss the first out of nervousness. Chris reprimands me for over-compensating, reminds me to wait to roll. I portage the Terminator, feeling a like Little Red Riding Hood carrying my kayak across golden fields and through wide pine forests. I make a clean roll again after catching air in the Himalayas, coming up surfing back down the wave. My elation is complete. Pato picks us up and we are off to the sauna, dinner, and a round of hearts.

Monday - After this wonderful introduction to Chile I am shocked to learn that a dam has been planned for the Fu. Without consulting any local people, a private company posted three little notices in the Santiago and Puerto Montt diarios; since no newspapers are transported or sold in the Futaleufu area, it is an absolute surprise to everyone.

Los Becinos, a community landowner's association, finds out about the dam through a Chilean visitor who had read the newspaper in the coastal town of Chaiten. The community is astounded to hear the news and discovers they have only four days to lodge a formal protest (two being weekend days). An emergency meeting has been called at the school and someone is appointed to go to Puerto Montt to lodge the protest.

People say (in jest and as an indicator of the emotion involved) that they would rather secede to Argentina than see this happen. The hat is passed and 160,000 pesos ($300) is raised to transport the representative to Puerto Montt in time.

Tuesday - The Futaleufu runs down a steep canyon (we are talking walls straight up, thousands of feet), and then off into Lago Yelcho. I cannot see the river from here, only the mountain. Time is running on already this morning, but today I will put my sea kayak on the river (somewhere towards that mountain) and paddle to Chaiten, where I am to meet the bus Friday at five which will shuttle me back to the town of Futaleufu.

Chris drives me to the put-in point at a local farm. Wool hangs drying, brown, black and white on racks of branches against a backdrop of towering peaks. We open the gate and drive across the pasture, trespassing. The dogs bark and two women, cleaning wool next to the river bank, walk across the greenery, surreal in the peaceful sunshine.

Ciao, as they say here, their cheeks to yours (I am remembering people by the feel of their cheek - - scruffy, soft, young feeling, light). It is time to paddle.

Wednesday - High noon. The river is emerald-green, moving at maybe half a knot. Granite rises straight out of the emerald water, massively, white with mottled black, pines clinging to the sides, snow at the top. Ahead, a looming hill splits the stream. Right or left? Left, sandbar on right. A glacier appears around the corner showing dark crevasses.

The sea kayak is not as maneuverable as a whitewater boat; it responds awkwardly. Drifting downstream, I see boils -- or are they upstream V's? I'm having a crisis of perception, sitting in a sea kayak and reading a river. The kayak feels cramped; maybe I can pack better tomorrow.. All sorts of little items around my legs. Do I feel a tickle on my foot? I hate that. Just imagining what might be in there...I try not to.

Late afternoon and I'm at the lake. Fish jumping like crazy. (No fishing pole!) Beautiful marsh, tall reeds both sides. The water is glassy, dark before a rounded mountain, its chute curling down to the water's edge and reflecting back.

Another tiny beach covered with white sand and bleached driftwood. Lots of dead wood everywhere, a sign of old forests, few people.

The deeper I go into Lago Yelcho, the more miniscule I become. The mountains, waterfalls, trees all loom. Those steep granite sides, steep mountains rising and rising. Touching the the sand for the first time, it is rich granite sand, each particle it's own firm entity.

Thursday - Wake with a sense of mission yet not wanting to rush. Make a good cup of coffee and eat imported granola, think of packing for the second day. Kayak much more neatly packed today, maybe a bit heavy towards the stern.

It's a big crossing I am deciding on. Going by my aeronautical chart, the east side of the lake is shortest. The crossing is very exposed, and no beaches in sight. Slight breeze on my back. I look for whitewater against the cliffs on the other side but see nothing to indicate more wind. There may be takeouts to the south, but steep. Nowhere else to go but forward and I do see signs of beaches on the map far ahead if this breeze becomes dangerous.

This area is taking on a dreamlike quality in beauty. Every rock and tree is poised and proud. As I round a point a waterfall appears, seemingly cascading for a mile. It is still a twenty minute paddle away and I can only but paddle towards it. I have to take some pictures beginning early to show how large it really is. The water sparkles in front of it for fifty yards, as the sun is behind it to the north east. As I come closer I see there really is no dry landing spot, just beautiful yellow rounded rocks lying a few inches under the surface in front of a mound of boulder ten to twenty feet in diameter. I paddle to the source and am gently pushed away by moving water. To my right is a spot to exit the kayak, and I have to tie it to a rock so it won't drift away. Walking across the small rocks I finally realize I need to do some major wading and just go for it up to my waist -- the run off is much colder than the lake.

Climbing and slipping I get closer to the falls, the mist pounding on my body. Set up the tripod for a few pictures (it is very dark and I set the camera to one second) and make a quick exit -- I am freezing all of a sudden. My glasses are fogged and the freezing frames are cold on my face.

I'm suddenly worried about slipping on this moss and being disabled and getting hypothermia just from windchill. So I sit on those round golden boulders on a watery shoal with my feet being lapped by warm lake water. A little triangular green bug lands on me; the comraderie is overwhelming.

Afternoon. I feel like I have a long way to go and need to just DO it. My feeling is to get away from this isolated spot, as there is no place to stop. I'm here on the water with just the fish. The map shows a bridge over the river that drains Lago Yelcho into the Pacific.

4:40 pm. Eureka, I see the bridge. Just its little points, like tee-pees. Whitecaps out there. Bummer. Now the sound of waves echoes off the cliffs and surround me. The waves are bigger, rolling. No wind here, yet. Get an occasional crest. Finally the wind hits. Hat brim low, body low, paddle evenly against the wind. Set small goals; that boulder, this stump. The bridge is getting closer, dwarfed by that huge glacier from above.

Heading under bridge; couple of campaneros go over on horses and ignore me. A contrast between old and new.

5:20 Moving water ahead...! and another corner with a drop... get out, change into warm clothes. Very cold, now, with wind chill... First time on moving water like this (faster than before) in a sea kayak and have some fear about maneuverability and loss of stuff. Funny lining up in a sea kayak for a V, using the same strategies... Going for the inside corners, without actually getting caught by the eddy. The boat is hard to turn, especially in this wind.

Evening. Wind is dying, camp set, who knows where I am, really. The map is so off. No people anywhere. The river is curving around this glacier to the west. Water is running off the glacier in rivulets everywhere. Huge rivulets. You know, maybe that last big noise was the glacier, they do make noises, don't they?

Friday - Early. Up and at 'em. Guide mode. Get packed first. Make the bow heavy to keep it downstream, or am I being dyslexic again? Looks misty out there. Birds are starting to call, faint light. Put on clothes in prep for mosquito war. My favorite thing, to pace and eat warm granola. Yesterday it tasted good, today it's all I can do to force it down. Very foggy. Radiation fog? A bird is having conniptions in a hidden location. I want to get back to catch the bus so I won't have to stay overnight.

Underway again. This place is so amazing; fog clears; peaks showing above. Far above. Beautiful wide gorge with mountains thousands of feet high, tree covered, lush with granite showing in patches. So busy looking barely missed a log right in front. The protrusion was facing upstream.

Finally the river merges with the ocean. It is cloudy, warm and shallow until I find the eddy line. Then it is cold, blue.

12:50 There is Chaiten! So foggy, hope it doen't get covered up, hope the wind doesn't get worse. Keep finding myself in sandy shallows, lots of logs out here too in the ocean. Water isn't salty yet and it's still warm, muddy, cross eddy line and now cold, salty, clear.

At the beach -- drag boat up on slippery rocks, run up the stairs thinking I must be a sight, all wet, deranged, messy hair. Where is that bus station? It's only 1:15. Should be able to get it.

Saturday - I have made it back from my trip in time for the meeting. From Chris's camp next to the river I walk to the schoolhouse. Inside a classroom four men make up a panel behind the schoolteacher's desk. They discuss la repressa, or dam, that has been proposed. The group is silent, polite. Everyone is worried. In front of a government lawyer sits a cassette, a reminder that big brother is listening, harkening back, for me, to the dictatorial regime of Pinochet.

The mayor is here...the head of a group of neighbors, the schoolteacher... they each take turns making speeches. The mayor probably is feeling trapped between the government and the people. In the door is one of the handsome campañ eros in a shawl and pants made of raw wool, still fluffy. Is his farm threatened? What is his life and where will he go? Does he have a good piece of property now he can't replace, a subsistence lifestyle? You can see some people are poor and want the work the dam would bring.

Chris, definitely the tallest and blondest in the room, mentions in his broken Spanish that work would only last so long. This is one of the most beautiful places on the globe he says, and it should be preserved for the future. He is suggesting that the group needs a name and a mission statement, that the name is important for los diarios and for the future.

Outside I meet a man who was in charge of building the road into this area. He and his wife have traveled from Santiago for this meeting and fill me in on the indigenous huemul deer, which is a national emblem. A law passed two years ago protecting the huemul might be of benefit in saving the Fu, he says.

Sunday - Beez and Shane and Chris are still sleeping while I head to the beach with my coffee, diary, and mattress in this early morning light. The Thermarest insulates me from the round wet stones, dark and solid, which sit behind a heavy water-soaked log serving as a retaining wall for the Fu, keeping it on track and away from this rare white sand beach. The Fu laps over periodically, valiant, defiant. Thousands of cubic-feet-per-second rush by at a steep gradient. How long can the log do it's duty against the powerful blue stream in front of me?

Poplars mark a ranch on the other side, against a forest of trees, and a split rail fence decorates the rounded pasture lands. When the sun was beating down on the black stones last week, the women from the ranch laid out their laundry to dry over there, adding spontaneous color to the landscape. Who wants this magic and peace to be inundated by machines, by men and their wish to build, harness and change the face of nature? Why can't we live in symbiosis, live more simply, take advantage of the gentler ways of creating the power we need?

I think of the deranged river beds in North America -- so lonely and barren upstream, the water dispersed to golf courses in deserts. I think of the Paquarre River in Costa Rica; where, as we floated through a narrow rock canyon we heard noises above and looked to see men drilling. We were told the Paquarre dam had been stopped, but do they try to fool us? Throw us off the track while they set things in place for the coup de gras?

My time here in Chile is close to an end. Chris and I take our kayaks down to the free-flowing blue river, let it carry us on its strong back, feel its white unharnessed energy once more.

Monday - While in Puerto Ramirez we find that the plane into Futaleufu has been cancelled, and start back up the road towards camp. The bumps seem to have grown and we travel them slowly. To break up the ride, Chris stops to stretch on the bridge over the Fu, where the river races along in the night with the stars to compliment it. I spend as much time as I can muster, awake by the river that night, finally going to bed at 2 a.m. What did it matter, not sleeping, when I was only going to be traveling the next day.

Tuesday - Waiting for the bus at the schoolhouse, leaving now for Chaiten to catch the plane. I have a vision of the old granddad, all tough but wrinkled with luminous twinkling, standing against the wall.

On the bus, leaving. We pass a row of wood shacks once-hidden by the hospitaje which treated me to the great pastries, and -- I can't believe the hospitaje has burned to the ground! Only ashes remain. Somehow this event makes me think of the changes that the damming of the Fu will cause to this river, this land and these people; like an ending. I think again of the old grandad, against the wall. He had said, after hearing about my trip, "So, you are not afraid of dying?" ......

Andree Hurley has travelled and paddled widely. She is actively involved in the Washington Water Trails Association and has developed a World- Wide-Web site on the Internet featuring kayaking (and other paddlesports) and environmental issues. Point your WWW browser to: http://www.halcyon.com/ah.


Adventure Travel in Patagonia Chile with Expediciones Chile. Chile rafting vacations. Patagonia trekking in Torres del Paine, Cerro Fitz Roy and Los Glaciares National Parks. Chile horseback riding vacations and expeditions. Chile kayaking on the Futaleufu River. Patagonia sea kayaking expeditions. Summer skiing in Chile trips. Whitewater kayak school located in the Futaleufu valley. Annual swiftwater rescue training. Customized eco tours and yoga travel retreats. Patagonia maps, Patagonia weather and Patagonia travel information.

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