Text and photos by Susan Munroe
A rainbow of kayaks arced across the milky turquoise water of Chile's Río Baker. The young kayakers clung to each other’s boats, waving their paddles and cheering. It was a vibrant image: paddlers from Chile and the United States, linked through their shared experience on Chile's most voluminous river, celebrating their arrival at Caleta Tortel, where the undeveloped Río Baker flows into the Pacific Ocean.
Colorado-based nonprofit Ríos to Rivers uses kayaking and exchange to educate young boaters about the impact of dams on rivers and build a cross-cultural dialogue about the value of free-flowing rivers and the need to balance development with conservation [Click HERE to read more about the foundation’s background]. The Río Baker, home to the Chilean Club Naútico Escualo, is threatened by the construction of two mega-dams. This first trip brought eight Colorado students to Patagonia to learn about Chile's hydroelectric debate and meet the Escualos (“river sharks”), who will travel to the Grand Canyon in August 2013 to learn about the history and impact of dams on the Colorado River.
Ríos to Rivers is creating a documentary film that will emphasize the value of cultural exchange and the importance of experiencing an issue first-hand in order to understand it. "You learn more from a five-day trip than you could learn from reading 1,000 books," said Patricio Salinas, an Escualos parent who also hosted two Colorado students in his home.
The group camped each night with families whose land the dams would flood. Brian Reid, a limnologist studying the Baker's sediments, rowed a support raft and shared a scientific view of the proposed dams. Antonio Horvath, senator for the region, joined the expedition for a day and explained the struggle to protect Patagonia's rivers in the face of Chile's growing energy demand.
"This was more than a kayaking trip," said Nicole Lipe, a junior at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. "We learned how the sport can be used to make a statement about something that is important to you."