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The Patagonia Triple Crown

Preview: The 2016 Dream Adventure Contest winners assemble to paddle Chile's three most infamous rivers from source to sea

Story by Todd Wells // Photos by Eric Parker and Todd Wells


Evan Garcia has been exploring Chilean whitewater for more than a decade, and as he returned each year to deepen and renew his connection to the rivers of the Southern Andes, he began to dream of descending Patagonia's three biggest and most endangered river systems — the Pascua, Bravo, and Baker — in a single season. The idea was to run each river from its source to the sea, paddling some of the hemisphere's most challenging rapids and documenting the complex ecosystems, native communities and pristine wildernesses they support. In homage to an earlier generation's explorations in Alaska and British Columbia, he began to think of it as the Southern Hemisphere’s version of the North American Triple Crown.

For over five years the dream of the Patagonia Triple Crown was little more than campfire chat among good friends, an idea that seemed distant, nebulous, perhaps out of reach. Just getting to the three rivers would be a massive logistical undertaking, and the task would require a crew of world-class boaters with the determination and toughness to descend through several hundred miles of Class V wilderness on a compressed schedule. And of course it would take money.

That last piece fell into place after Evan entered the Triple Crown in C&K‘s 2016 Dream Adventure Contest, an expedition-grant cash prize sponsored by Nexen Tire. The rules were simple: Share your dream with C&K readers, and the expedition plan that receives the most votes gets the prize. (The entry period for the 2017 contest just opened.)

On the road.

The dream that Evan previously had shared with a handful of friends soon captured the imagination of the wider boating community. It had big whitewater, big names and perhaps most importantly, a big purpose.

The Pascua, Bravo and Baker include the most sought-after hydroelectric sites in Chile. The team's primary goal was to paddle these three rivers, but we also set out to document the wild landscapes that each river represents. We hope that through sharing our stories and images we can show that Patagonia's ecosystems are worth preserving for future generations.

Parker, left, and Garcia winning the Dream Adventure Contest cash prize at the 2016 C&K Awards. (The entry window is open now through August 9 for the 2017 Dream Adventure Contest presented by NRS.) Photo by Mike Misselwitz

The message seemed to resonate throughout the paddling community, and the Triple Crown pulled the votes to win the Dream Adventure Contest. Evan and co-conspirator Eric Parker accepted the giant cardboard check at the Canoe & Kayak Awards in August 2016.  That left the team just over six months to plan a massive expedition timed to a narrow flow window during the southern hemisphere’s late summer months.

Our first challenge was getting eight kayaks and all of our gear to Chile, and when the boats and paddles finally arrived we encountered a new series of problems relating to an unreliable truck and a sleazy rental car agency. A few precious days later, with two Mitsubishi L200 pickups loaded to capacity we were finally ready to embark on the 2,500-kilometer run from Santiago to Southern Chile.

The team, assembled.

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As nearly all Chilean paddling trip begins, the crew gathered in Pucon, one of the country's premiere whitewater destinations. Our team, composed of Evan, Eric, Todd Wells, Tino Specht, Lorenzo Andrade, Jared Seiler, and Kyle Hull, arrived in Pucon during a massive summer rainstorm. We cheered our good fortune and set about taking advantage of the high water. Under a blanket of drizzling overcast skies we enjoyed a couple laps down the Río Nevado at good flows, then as water levels dropped we migrated back to the ever-providing Río Trancura.

Jared Seiler sliding through the low-volume warm-up runs near Pucon.

Once the sun re-emerged over Pucon we started our drive south with a quick stop at the Río Fuy. The Fuy's glacial and spring-fed waters run late into the summer months and descend through a picturesque basalt canyon. Thick jungle foliage hangs over crystal clear rapids and surrounds the infamous Medio Fuy, a perfect 50-foot waterfall. Our time on the Fuy not only allowed our team to further strengthen our teamwork and communication on the river, but also provided us with an opportunity to form a method to document the adventure to come. Here we developed a "leap-frog" style strategy, where half the team would be filming, photographing and setting safety while the other half was on the water paddling.

Waterfall and low volume action.

Getting acquainted with a new team is always an important part of preparing for expedition kayaking, and after our time on the Río Nevado, Trancura and Fuy we were starting to feel strong. Still, these first few runs were all on low-volume creeks and rivers, and before taking on the Patagonia Triple Crown we needed to get the feel for Chile's high-volume water. So we headed south to Chile's most popular big water destination, the Futaleufu.

Late summer rains came early to Patagonia this year, and every creek and river we passed as we made the day long drive from the Fuy to the Futa was full of water. We kept our composure and remained positive, but the flooded rivers had each of us pondering what big-water demons we might encounter as we continued south.

High flows on the Futa.

Levels on the Futa were unseasonably high, and we felt incredibly lucky to catch such spring-like flows on this timeless big-water classic. Inferno Canyon, Throne Room, Terminator, Mas-o-Menos, and Casa de Piedra were just a few of the enormous rapids that gave us a taste for the big pushy whitewater we would face further south.

High water would become a hallmark of the Triple Crown.

Our arrival to the Rio Futaleufu was conveniently timed with the Futaleufu XL, a continuation of the FutaFest, a nearly decade-long tradition of local communities and foreign visitors joining together to celebrate the power and beauty of the Futa. From the races, to the riverside gatherings, to the award ceremony finale in the town of Futaleufu, we enjoyed every moment of the event, and from it realized the strength of Patagonia's river communities. We all agreed that we could spend a lifetime on the Futa, but our goals with the Patagonia Triple Crown lay to the south. Once again we packed up our gear and hit the road.

Heading south…

From Futaleufu south, we followed South America's (and perhaps the world's) most scenic highway, the Carretera Austral. Effects of the recent heavy rains were in evidence, as the already wide rivers we passed were swollen with silty brown water. The farther south we drove the bigger these rivers grew and the more flooded they appeared.

One of the logistical challenges that had worried us from the start was crossing the massive Lago O'Higgins to access the Río Pascua, which flows out of the lake. We knew we would need a clear whether window for the 78-mile motorboat crossing, and with a forecast of fine weather—rare in this part of the world—we made the decision to drive past the Rio Baker and Bravo and instead go directly to the most demanding river of the expedition. After two full days of driving bumpy gravel roads, peering up at spectacular hanging glaciers, and watching trailer wheels fly into the bushes, we slogged into the sleepy town of Villa O'Higgins. We had reached the end of the road.

Welcome to Patagonia.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of Patagonia Triple Crown: Rio Pascua.

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.

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.