Kayaks Across The Andes

Story and Photos by Michael Powers
first appeared in Kayak Touring 07



For many years, the renowned Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan searched in vain for a protected northerly water route across South America. Finally in 1520, he risked his entire fleet of Spanish ships to sail on a perilous journey around the tempestuous southern tip of the still unexplored continent. The rest of the story is history, how these first Europeans went on to explore and colonize the vast western sea that Balboa had first named Mar Pacifico.


So when news got around that Chris Spelius had paddled sea kayaks all the way across Chilean Patagonia, my adventure junkie friends and I in far away California were intrigued.


Literally and figuratively, 6-foot-4 Spelius had loomed larger than life in the kayak world for decades. It began when he started winning national kayaking championships and later paddled for the U.S. canoe and kayak team in the 1984 Olympics.


Soon after that came a fateful journey
to southern Chile, where Spelius fell in love
with the skinny nation’s awesome whitewater. He remained as one of the few guides capable of shepherding other paddlers down its fearsome Class IV and V rivers. He banded with other river-runners from around the world to try to prevent the mighty Rio Bi-Bi from
being dammed, but it proved to be a long
and ultimately futile battle.



“Futaleufu means ‘big river’ in Mapuche,” explained Spelius. “Imagine when it rises to 80 or 100 grand, like it did during big spring floods a couple of years ago.”


Afterward, Chris retreated into Patagonia and continued to guide others down another favorite Chilean river, the still wild Futaleufu. Born high in the Argentinean Andes, the Fu thunders with fire-hose intensity through a succession of
narrow gorges and canyons, creating monster Class V rapids such as Terminator, Throne Room, and Zeta, which have made the Fu an ultimate destination for river-runners.


To reach the Futaleufu where it spills out of the mountains into a wide green valley, our little band
of expedicinistas rendezvoused
in the Chilean capital of Santiago. Then we journeyed another 650 miles farther south to Puerto Montt, the southern terminus of the Pan American Highway. The next day we crammed ourselves and our paddle gear into two tiny bush planes that took us to the frontier town of Chaiten, nestled between the green coastal mountains and the sea. A four-wheel-drive bus was waiting for us at the airstrip, and we spent the next several hours winding up a dirt road into the Andes to reach the remote mountain village of Futaleufu.



IF YOU GO:Unless you plan to paddle a folding or inflatable boat, the logistics of transporting your own sea kaya to Northern Patagonia are formidable. Using local outfitters with their own boats and equipment, as well as local knowledge of the remote wilderness, avoids these logistical hassles. Chris Spelius can be reached at www.exchile.com. Two other Chilean outfitters offer the same trip. Visit their sites at www.seakayakchile.com and www.yakexpediciones.el.



The next day we gathered on the green banks of the Fu south of town and began to pack our camping gear and provisions into four double and two single sea kayaks. In contrast to the raging whitewater just upstream, here the Fu had mellowed considerably, but it was still a fast-flowing 18,000-cfs river, enormously powerful in comparison to those we had paddled in California. “Futaleufu means ‘big river’ in Mapuche,” explained Spelius. “Imagine when it rises to 80 or 100 grand, like it did during big spring floods a couple of years ago.”


My longtime paddling compaero Bob Stender and I laughed nervously. We remembered the time when we had attempted to negotiate a little 800-cfs Class II whitewater river in the California Sierra with heavily loaded sea kayaks like these. We’d managed, but we recalled vividly the struggle to maneuver those long, straight-keeled craft through rock gardens and around hairpin turns, circumstances for which they were never intended. We asked Spelius if there was any whitewater ahead. “Oh, there are some long wave trains of Class I rapids, big and powerful, but with plenty of room to maneuver,” he assured us. “There’s one Class II-plus, Tres Piedras, that you can portage if you want to. The real grinch here is the wind if it catches you crossing Lago Yelcho.”


We gathered around when Spelius spread his well-worn map of our route on the beach. Long and convoluted Lago Yelcho waited just a few miles downriver, then wound on for more than 30 kilometers through the glacier-capped mountains. Brian, a fresh-faced 20-year-old river guide, told us about a ferry boat caught in a sudden storm on Lago Yelcho some years ago. Heavily loaded with huasos (Patagonian cowboys) and their horses, the boat capsized, and even though the accident occurred close to shore, not a man or beast survived. We were beginning to understand why here in southern Chile, the wind is known as la escoba de Dios, God’s broom.

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