The Power of Rivers

A new exchange looks to shape the next generation of conservationists

By Conor Mihell

A plan is in the works to bring young American and Chilean whitewater kayakers together to celebrate Patagonia’s free-flowing rivers and to learn from the environmental legacy of development on the Colorado River. Next spring, Rios to Rivers will immerse eight American and eight Chilean teenagers in Patagonia to experience the Baker and Pascua rivers, wild waterways imperiled by the pending construction of five mega-dams.  In the summer, the same youth will reunite for a trip on the Grand Canyon.

Rios to Rivers is the brainchild of Colorado-based filmmaker Weston Boyles. He’s partnered with travel writer Susan Munroe and a team of educators, scientists, environmentalists and advisors, including noted energy expert Randy Udall. Boyles and Munroe hope the program, which recently achieved charitable 501(c)(3) status in the U.S., will build a groundswell of opposition against HidroAysen’s dam proposals. Currently, the company has permission to build the dams, however development has stalled out due to lack of transmission capacity in Chile’s rudimentary energy grid. Meanwhile, one poll suggests that 74 percent of Chileans oppose the dams.

“As they say with any of these battles, the environmentalists have to win every time, but the dam builder only has to win once,” says Boyles. “Because of the growing opposition, we feel strongly that there is hope.”

We caught up with Boyles and Munroe to discuss the Rios to Rivers project and learn why they believe the future of wild rivers rests in the hands of young kayakers.

CanoeKayak.com: Where did the idea for the Rios to Rivers exchange come from?
Weston Boyles: In 2011 I produced a film about the Los Escualos youth kayak club, which is based in the remote village of Cochrane on the Rio Baker. We screened the film at a fundraising event in Colorado last November and a donor got excited. That was the initial spark to develop an exchange.

Susan Munroe: I got on board through a series of coincidences. I was working in Chile researching and writing about the proposed dams on the Baker River. I wanted to talk to all the locals and record their opinions. Weston got in touch through mutual friends and suggested I go meet the Escualos kayakers. I spent three days kayaking with them and got really excited about the club—it’s such an incredible bunch of kids. Weston mentioned the idea of the exchange and we decided to collaborate. I thought it would be an incredible experience to give these kids.

What came first, the Escualos kayak club or the proposed HidroAysen dams?
Munroe: The kayak club came first; HidroAysen came after. But the idea of damming the Rio Baker goes back to the 1930s, about the same time the U.S. was damming the Colorado River. It’s taken since then for the technology and Chilean government policy to advance to the point where they are capable of carrying out a project of that scale in Patagonia. The HidroAysen project was proposed eight years ago; the Escualos club has been around for 13 years.

Is environmental activism a mandate of the kayak club?
Boyles: The club doesn’t want to be controversial. They’re teaching kayaking, not activism. But inevitably as a result of kayaking the kids are becoming good spokespersons and stewards for rivers. There’s a direct cause and result. The kids want to see these rivers protected. Next spring we’ll bring eight American youth [aged 14 to 18] from the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale down to Patagonia to visit the Escualos and paddle the Baker. This will fulfill the CRMS mission to get kids to foreign countries. The other half of the exchange will be a Hatch River Expeditions trip on the Grand Canyon with eight Chilean kids next August.

Munroe: We have a lot of contacts in Santiago [the Chilean capital] and the regional capital of Aysen province [Puerto Aysen]. The plan is to work with scientists, activists and educators to plan a curriculum that gives students an overview of the history of Patagonia and explores why the science of energy efficiency that makes mega-dams obsolete. So the exchange will have a scientific focus along with the actual hands-on experience of paddling on the Baker River.

Are the kids expected to be competent boaters before they start?
Boyles: Since kayaking is a key component of the program, the participants will be Class III-IV boaters.

Why is the hands-on element so critical in this age of “nature deficit disorder”?
Munroe: It’s really easy to give kids a book to teach them about how to value things, but I firmly believe that no one can fully understand the natural world until they’ve experienced it.

Boyles: There’s nothing quite like these experiences. To expose the contrasts between the wild Baker and the highly controlled Colorado is telling. On the Baker, you don’t watch the water level go up and down depending on releases and you don’t end a trip on big reservoir like Lake Mead. Having that experience is pretty powerful.

And yet the Colorado is still revered amongst whitewater paddlers. People wait decades for a permit to paddle it. Why do you think it represents an adequate example of what’s at stake on the Baker in Chile?
Boyles: I know the Grand Canyon is still a beautiful place, but there are portions of the Colorado that are destroyed. In terms of its grandeur the Baker is similar. The difference is the proposed dams would destroy the entire river. If these dams and transmission lines are built it would open this whole region to further development.

Munroe: The Baker is the most voluminous river in Chile. It’s part of their cultural patrimony, just like how the Grand Canyon is important to Americans.

So what message do you want to deliver through this exchange?
Boyles: The big goal is to go there not as gringos but to show that Chile is at a very important fork in the road. They have the opportunity for choice. There’s plenty of potential for renewable energy like wind, solar and geothermal. It’s a stretched out, narrow country and the centralized power grid [associated with large-scale hydroelectric dams] isn’t very conducive to this landscape.

Why is it so important to foster environmental awareness in youth?
Munroe: These kids are already boaters so they’re primed to absorb the information that we want to give them. They already have this intimate connection with the rivers, which is unique. Most Chilean people don’t see the river as something important because most people don’t swim. But if we take these kids who have a connection to the wild Baker River and show them Lake Mead, that will be a very powerful experience. And ultimately they’re the ones who are poised to step up in Chile’s leadership in the next 10 to 15 years.

Boyles: The Escualos are learning how special the Baker River is. Kids in Cochrane just got the Internet five or six years ago. They’re going online and looking at kayak websites and realizing they have one of the best rivers in the world. That pride is contagious.

So you expect these teenagers to share this message with the rest of the people.
Boyles: It’s a good question about how we can inspire the average person. I think these kids, just through their stories and excitement, are really good spokespersons for the cause.

What do you hope this exchange will accomplish in the longer term?
Boyles: We hope to get more kids inspired about kayaking and the outdoors. This will raise awareness about the need for the protection of rivers. Protection for the Grand Canyon didn’t come until after the dams; with the Baker and the Rio Pascua we still have a chance for full protection.

Munroe: The other goal is to create a documentary film to use as a tool to spread the word. Mostly we want this program to grow. We’re starting with a pilot, and from there we hope it’s something that stands on its own and will support multiple generations of students.

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