Story by Todd Wells // Photos by Eric Parker and Todd Wells
Waking up beside a wood fire stove in a small Patagon Cabana, frost on the ground just outside, there was a feeling of adventure in the cold crisp air. We had chartered a 12-person glacier-viewing boat to take us 75 miles across Lago O'Higgins to the headwaters of the Río Pascua.
The Pascua is Chile's most intimidating multi-day river trip. Over the course of 40 miles the Pascua drains the waters of Lago O'Higgins, Chile's second largest lake, through a mountainous landscape into a deep Pacific fjord. Prior to our expedition only four teams had attempted a descent, and their reports were vague and contradictory. One group reported a mellow trip with moderate rapids, while another group endured horrific swims and resorted to tying their paddles to their hands to avoid losing them in the massive whitewater. We were a bit on edge, but we had faith in ourselves and in one another.
After loading our kayaks with food, tarps, safety equipment, and gear for five days, we drove to the port where we would meet our charter and begin crossing the lake. When we reached Lago O'Higgins, the water was splashing up into the bushes and trees. We asked our captain, Marco, about the water level and he calmly reported that the lake was "maximo"—the highest it had been in the last five years. This raised some concern, because more water in the lake meant higher flows on the river, but thanks to our ego-fueled overconfidence and lack of knowing any better, we continued blithely on with our plan to run the Pascua.
We set off on the bumpy boat ride, and soon the feeling of being very small visitors in a very large and wild landscape swept over all of us. As we motored toward the birthplace of the Pascua, the mountains crept higher into the skyline and the glaciers crowded in around us. When we arrived at the headwaters, Marco told us that he could feel the river current pulling the big motorboat hundreds of meters farther into the lake than usual. The deckhand tied up to the top of a submerged tree along shore, and one-by-one we snapped our sprayskirts to our kayaks and launched off the boat into the Río Pascua. When our last teammate slipped into the water, the tour-boat motored away. We committed ourselves to the mystery below.
We knew ahead of time that we would have to portage three large cataracts at the beginning of the Pascua. Other than that, we had no idea what to expect. A few minutes after leaving the boat we arrived at a daunting horizon line, and began portaging our heavily laden kayaks around the first impassable section. From a perch high above, we peered down at the swollen river. The turquoise waters boiled and churned, bouncing off canyon walls, exploding into the air, and falling over a half-dozen significant waterfalls. Now the sense of scale truly set in. We were nothing but tiny little creatures in the middle of nowhere, facing a very angry and flooded river.
We finished the portage and spent our first evening on the Pascua camped just downstream of the first cataract. Huge Andean condors soared overhead as we cooked dinner over a small fire. The next morning we woke up and paddled across Lago Chico, a small lake separating the first and second cataracts. By mid-day we had portaged around the second and third cataracts. The tedious but relatively safe routine of paddling across lakes and portaging un-runnable rapids was over. Now the river's current was driving us downstream into the unknown.
In the afternoon of Day Two we scouted what looked, from above, to be a relaxed Class III-IV constriction in the river. When we paddled through it though, overpowering boils thrust us from one side of the river to the other, and unpredictable whirlpools sucked our kayaks beneath the surface. Just downstream the river made a sharp bend, revealing a box canyon with committing vertical walls. The gradient picked up and from river level all we could see was a series of exploding features disappearing around the corner. We hiked up to gain a better perspective, and what we saw below sent a sobering chill shooting up our spines. The canyon beneath us was full of wild fast-moving current, and at its exit lay a river-wide hole backed up by a wall on the right and a powerful whirlpool on the left. Again we would have to portage.
We hauled our kayaks up through the undergrowth. It was a long, grueling process that taxed our strength and exhausted our souls. Eventually we gained a mossy ridge and continued on toward the next vantage point.
About an hour later we arrived at an outlook where we could again peer downstream. The day was growing late and a cool breeze swept over the ridge. Beside us a condor feather sticking out of a bed of moss fluttered in the wind. Everyone was silent. We needed no words.
A few long moments later we gathered our composure and discussed the situation at hand. The view from the overlook was unequivocal: At this extreme water level there was no way through the rapids, and no way around them. It was time to get ourselves out of there. We looked over maps, analyzed satellite imagery, and began communicating with our emergency contacts. Over dinner and after hours of debate, we decided that instead of continuing downstream we would portage and paddle our way back to Lago O'Higgins and hopefully arrange a boat ride back to civilization.
Our evacuation from the Río Pascua led us through unforgiving Patagonian forest, over wet mossy tundra, and across mystical alpine lagunas. Two full days later, we had retraced our tracks and arrived back to the same shoreline on Lago O'Higgins where we had been dropped off four days before. Physically and mentally it was one of the hardest tasks any of us had endured, but after it was said and done we agreed that our return to the headwaters of the river was the best decision we could have made.
Our experience on the Pascua was not at all what we had expected, but in the end it was exactly what we had come there for. We did not complete the river from source-to-sea, nor did we run much of its whitewater, but we experienced the most powerful river any of us had ever seen. We learned more about Patagonia and more about ourselves than we had bargained for. We were beat-down, humbled and ready for redemption. It was time for the Río Bravo.
— Stay tuned for Part 3 of Patagonia Triple Crown: Rio Bravo.
— Read Part 1: The 2016 Dream Adventure Contest winners assemble to paddle Chile’s three most infamous rivers from source to sea.
— Enter the 2017 Dream Adventure Contest presented by NRS for a chance to win $5000 toward the paddling trip of a lifetime (plus a full NRS expedition paddling kit). ENTER NOW! Entry submission closes August 9 at midnight.
—Want more Patagonia kayaking? Check out Taut Trautman’s photo essay ‘The Gypsy Wagon’s Wild Ride’ or this source-to-sea expedition tale on Chile’s second-longest river, the Biobio.