— The following originally appeared in the March 2014 of Canoe & Kayak.
THE CASE FOR … Conservation's Next Generation
By Susan Munroe
Sometimes there's more to a kayaking trip than paddling.
Maybe there's even the potential for huge changes.
When we headed for three days of kayaking on Patagonia's remote Río Baker with a group of teenagers from a unique paddling club in the town of Cochrane, Chile, I thought the only changes would be those happening to the river. The Baker is threatened by two major hydroelectric dams. Three more have been approved on the nearby Río Pascua. The young local paddlers, who call themselves Los Escualos (The River Sharks), told us they knew their river would be changed, but were surprisingly quiet on the subject.
They'd never seen a dam.
Forty-five years ago, the outcry from a public that was just learning to love rivers stopped the construction of additional dams in the Grand Canyon.
Few Chileans realize they even have a natural resource comparable to the Grand. Los Escualos could be the first generation of Chileans to demand river conservation. At least that was the idea the Ríos to Rivers exchange program was born from: That personal experience is the most powerful way to show people the value of wild places. You have to go to know.
We started the exchange last spring traveling south with eight kayakers from a boarding high school in Colorado, leading them first through meetings with politicians and energy experts, then down the Baker itself. In René Muñoz's cabin on the shores of the Río Baker, the American students sat with their Chilean counterparts around a pinging wood stove, listening to the story of René's life, and how it would be changed if the river were dammed. "Since I've come to Patagonia, I think a lot of the numbers and the more factual side of this argument have faded away," said Cleo Ulatowski, sipping from a gourd of mate offered by our hosts. "It's become a lot more important what my host family says or what the Escualos say, because they're the ones who'll be impacted," the student from New York added.
Four months later, limp and sweaty under the August sun, the same young kayakers leaned over the edge of the 710-foot concrete massif that is Glen Canyon Dam, regarding the incredible contrast: on one side, the Colorado River, green, stripped of its sediment; on the other, the murky blue of Lake Powell. Dead fish and driftwood bobbed against the wall of the dam. "I am afraid to think that this could happen in Patagonia," said Danilo Cruces, one of 10 Escualos who had traveled here to experience this dam, and the incomparable canyon below. The shadow of the dam followed us down the length of the canyon as we paddled for 12 unforgettable days. Heavily impacted, but ultimately protected as a National Park, the Grand served as both a cautionary and inspirational tale.
"But what are we supposed to do?" Sophie Kornick asked during one night's riverside discussion. "I always feel like there's some 'Big Do' that we're supposed to do when we get home. But I don't know what it is."
It's a harsh lesson: altruistic hopes tempered by the need of a "Big Do," some sockdolager that will make an immediate, actual difference. But I realized then that big changes have to start somewhere. The only answer I had for this next generation of advocates was that they should focus on small changes: learning about a place—a river—and understanding its ecological role. That passion, education and experience is a start toward the Big Must of protection. The currents of change form just like a river: a little trickle that gains volume until it's a raging flow that eventually ends in the ocean, an inexorable force that will always get its way.