Story by Todd Wells // Photos by Eric Parker and Todd Wells
With the Pascua and Bravo behind us, only one leg remained in our Patagonia Triple Crown expedition. The expansive glaciers of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field were in our rear view mirror, but ahead lay the jagged peaks of its northern counterpart. It would be hard to trump the Río Pascua portage-fest and our source-to-sea expedition down the Río Bravo, but we were consumed with anticipation for one of the world's premier big-water rivers, the Río Baker.
The Río Baker comes to life at the outlet of Lago General Carrera, Chile's largest lake. From here its transparent blue waters drift at a tame pace westward through an arid mountainous landscape reminiscent of Southern Idaho and Eastern Oregon. Not far below its birthplace, at the confluence with the silty glacial-fed Río Neff, the Baker gains a thick turquoise appearance, picks up gradient and enters the first of its three significant canyons. For decades these three canyons and the whitewater they contain have attracted whitewater gurus from around the globe. But that is not all that they have attracted.
In 2006, two privately owned Chilean corporations proposed the HidroAysén mega-dam project. The companies, Endesa and Colbún, wanted to build five massive hydroelectric dams in southern Chile's Aysén Region, two on the Río Baker and three on the Río Pascua. Collectively the dams would have flooded nearly 15,000 acres of land, almost all of it in the nutrient-rich and agriculturally productive Baker valley. The reservoirs would have displaced native peoples, local communities and wildlife such as the huemul, an Andean deer that is a national symbol of Chile. Additionally, the project would have required a 1,180-mile-long transmission line to connect the dams in Patagonia to the energy-hungry cities of Northern Chile. According to the advocacy group Patagonia Sin Represas (Patagonia Without Dams) the transmission line would traverse national parks, indigenous territories and thousands of private properties. Its proposed route would run underwater, around active volcanoes and through seismically unstable areas.
Popular opinion in Chile opposes the dams, particularly in Patagonia. Protests against the project have been held across Chile and around the globe for a decade, but HidroAysén kept moving forward. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) the companies submitted in 2008 was met with more than 10,000 public comments, most challenging its rosy-eyed take. Amanda Maxwell of the Natural Resources Defense Council called it a "woefully deficient document" and pointed out "glaring gaps in information, incorrect data and inconsistent analyses." Nevertheless, bureaucrats in the Chilean capital rubber-stamped the EIA in 2011.
The future for a free-flowing Río Baker and Río Pascua seemed grim, but the people of Chile were unwilling to accept defeat. Protests continued and in May of 2012 Colbun suspended efforts to seek environmental permits for the transmission line. The tables were turning, and just two years later the Chilean Committee of Ministers, Chile's highest administrative authority, made a unanimous decision to overturn the environmental permits originally granted to HidroAysén, on the grounds that the EIA was, in fact, woefully deficient.
For now at least, the dams are on hold. The eight-year struggle to protect the Pascua and Baker rivers was not easy, nor is it clear whether those opposed to the dams have won the war or merely a battle. Still, the people of Patagonia and environmentalists around the globe celebrate the Patagonia Sin Represas movement with the slogan "Chao HidroAysén!" (Goodbye HidroAysén).
Everyone on our team has been involved in some way with the fight for free-flowing rivers in Patagonia and other parts of the world. The cause is close to our hearts because we have had the rare privilege of seeing these beautiful rivers in all their unfettered glory. In fact, drawing attention to the dam threat was one of team leader Evan Garcia's primary motivations to attempt the Patagonian Triple Crown. But now, as we drove toward our putin on the winding Pan-American highway, we were just another group of whitewater junkies looking to get our fix on the Baker's legendary big-water rapids.
We pulled off the road at a lonely bus stop marked by a wooden sign reading "Salto Neff" with a blue arrow pointing toward the river. Thick clouds of dust trailed behind each passing car and caked our unwashed faces in another layer of filth. We geared up and followed a meandering footpath to the river where the vegetation changed from scrub and sage to green trees above a mossy forest floor. One glance over the Baker was enough to take our breath away. Salto Neff, a powerful river-wide cascade, illuminated the river's perfect blue waters, and across the river, the Río Neff flowed out of tall glaciated mountains to add its milky flow to the Baker's azure waters. An eddyline churned the two contrasting currents like a spoon stirring cream into a rich cup of coffee. We had arrived at yet another magical Patagonian paradise.
Evan Garcia, Tino Specht and Eric Parker had each paddled the Baker in years past, but for the rest of our seven-man team, the river was new and unknown. Evan, who retains a photographic memory of every river he paddles, told us that there was a huge hole in the first rapid, and that the second required a narrow left-to-right line. He added that with the high flows we were experiencing, the first and second rapids would be close enough together that we shouldn't bother eddying out in between.
We all shared a high level of trust in Evan, and without a second thought followed him into the maw. Amid the constricted canyon, it felt as though the Baker's strength had multiplied tenfold. The first rapid presented a precarious line just beside a monster hole. We all came through unscathed, checked on one another in the short section of slower current, then charged into the second rapid. Waves and holes seemed to move across the river as though we were amongst a violent coastal swell, and just when we thought we were through the rapid a run-out of a dozen 8-foot waves appeared out of nowhere. For this hardened crew of big-water junkies, the surprise was a pleasant one. We regrouped in the eddy below the rapids, our screams of joy echoing off the canyon walls and disappearing into the roar of the river. We were finally paddling the Río Baker!
Similar scenes followed us down the rest of the river. Canyon walls in the distance crept closer and closer, we would wait for beta or perhaps hop out for a scout, then muster all of our strength and conviction before plunging into the next rapid. We adapted to the Baker's big water feel and started to get into a groove. It took a while to become comfortable, but with every rapid we paddled and with every day we spent on the Baker, we felt more and more at home. After three fulfilling days, we had all fallen in love with the river. That evening, instead of camping out near the ferry that transports vehicles, farm supplies and families from one side of the river to the other, we ventured into Cochrane, a nearby town and the collective meeting place for the people of Southern Patagonia.
We were keen for one last bender, a way to commemorate the Patagonia Triple Crown and remember our experiences throughout Southern Chile. It just so happened that Cochrane had its own reason to celebrate that evening. It was the town's 60th birthday, and villagers from every direction had descended from the mountains to gather for the weekend's activities. We couldn't help but think how many people, like the old gaucho Don Rial who hosted us on the Río Baker, would have ridden for days to make it to the party. Rodeo events were in full swing, with locals and visitors alike participating in the activities. Vendors sold empanadas and sopapillas, old friends drank beer and played cards, and the music played late into the evening. The quaint gathering escalated into an acrobatic swing dance. It wasn't until sunrise that we pulled our sleeping bags out of the trucks and laid down to sleep in the dirt. The Patagonia Triple Crown had come to an end.
Driving north from Patagonia gave us time to reflect on the experiences behind us. We felt fortunate to experience the Pascua, Bravo and Baker rivers in their free-flowing and wild state, grateful for our experiences with Don Rial and the other gauchos who gave us a glimpse into Patagonia's historic way of life, and inspired by the local guiding outfits, hotels, restaurants, and communities that were prospering from the growth of tourism in the region. The Patagonia Triple Crown was a trip of a lifetime and we all look forward to visiting Southern Patagonia again soon.
If you would like to get involved in protecting Patagonia's wilderness and preserving the people of Southern Chile's way of life, you can:
Learn about or donate to Tompkins Conservation and the Conservation Land Trust, whose shared mission is to protect and progress Patagonia through Park Creation, Restoration, Ecological Agriculture and Activism.
Experience Patagonia yourself and support the local people, communities and businesses along the way!
-- Read Part 1, where the 2016 Dream Adventure Contest winners assemble to paddle Chile’s three most infamous rivers from source to sea; Part 2 follows the team through high water and painful portages on the Río Pascua; while Part 3 explores the mysterious characters and committing gorges of the Rio Bravo.
-- Voting has concluded 2017 Dream Adventure Contest presented by NRS with 107 teams competing to win $5000 toward the paddling trip of a lifetime (plus a full NRS expedition paddling kit). The 2017 winner will be announced soon!
--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.