Story by Todd Wells // Photos by Eric Parker and Todd Wells
The Río Pascua had chewed us up, beat us down and spat us out right where we started. On the ride back to Villa O'Higgins on the same boat we had arrived on four days prior, we were psychologically drained, physically broken down and thankful to be alive. An evening-long asado and healthy consumption of red wine escalated those emotions, and the next morning all of us felt a little lost. Fortunately the Nescafé brought us back to life, and by mid-day we had re-stocked our rations, loaded up our wet gear and started toward the next stage of the Patagonia Triple Crown: paddling the Río Bravo from source to sea.
The Bravo embodies every attribute of a quality multi-day expedition. It starts with a challenging approach, contains countless miles of world-class whitewater with spectacular scenery from start to finish, and has amazing trout fishing to boot. After our experience on the Pascua, the Bravo seemed like the perfect remedy for our dispirited team.
A couple of hours rallying along gorgeous gravel roads brought us to the southern shore of Lago Christie, where we bid farewell to our shuttle drivers and began a 13-kilometer paddle to the northeastern corner of the lake. About halfway through the crossing a heavy headwind picked up and we were caught battling white-capped waves. We reached the end of the lake feeling as exhausted as we had on the Pascua. Tino, who was one of only a handful of people who had paddled the Río Bravo from its source, now took over way-finding duties, leading the rest of the team along a cattle trail, up and over a small hill to Lago Alegre.
Lorenzo pulled out his collapsible fishing rod and on his first cast reeled in a beautiful rainbow trout. Our snack of fresh fish, cheese and crackers carried late into the afternoon, and though we contemplated calling it quits and camping there for the night, we knew that we should press on another 13 kilometers across Lago Alegre. The decision paid off with a breathtaking campsite. A huge waterfall cascaded off a cliff wall just behind us, clouds danced beyond the mountains across the lake, and condors soared overhead as we skinny-dipped in the refreshing waters. We ate more trout for dinner and stayed up late drinking pisco and sharing stories around the campfire.
The next morning we woke up to heavy winds and battled through more whitecaps for the remainder of the crossing. Tendonitis was affecting us all, and we gladly welcomed the sight of a small creek flowing out of the lake. The creek took us on a mystical tour through native Patagonian forest, and we all felt relieved to finally be flowing with gravity toward the Río Bravo and the Pacific Ocean. Before we would reach the glacial waters of the Bravo though, there was one last surprise in store.
The creek made a sharp bend and revealed the remains of a broken fence line. We hopped out of our boats and followed Tino up a narrow path to small homestead. Hindquarters of beef hung from the branches of a huge old growth tree, a horse stood idle in the field. The door of a small cabin swung open and an elderly gaucho clad in dark clothing and dog-fur chaps came out to greet us.
He introduced himself as Don Rial Heraldo and welcomed us into his home. He stoked his wood-fire stove, offered us cigarettes and served everyone mate, a traditional herbal tea consumed from a gourd and straw. Tino explained that Don Rial lives farther from civilization than any other Chilean colonial, and as we conversed with the man we learned more and more about him. It turns out that the trout we had been feasting on over the last two days were not native as we had thought; Don Rial had introduced them to Lago Alegre 25 years ago. He talked about the constant struggle to defend his 300 head of cattle from pumas, and described the three-day horseback ride to Cochrane that he makes whenever he needs to resupply his rations, sell cattle or seek medical attention. We also learned that paddlers were not Don Rial's only visitors, and that just a few days prior a Chilean television station had spent a week with him documenting his unique way of life. Two hours later we parted ways, leaving the kind old gaucho with a bar of chocolate and continuing on our own journey.
Just a few more bends in the creek and we found ourselves at the confluence of the Río Bravo. The water, coming straight from the glaciated peaks of the Southern Andes, had a thick silty appearance and was cold to the touch. The riverbed was similar to those we had seen on alpine rivers in British Columbia and Alaska, and soon the gradient picked up. The first few hours brought non-stop Class III-IV whitewater with occasional Class V mini-gorges where the river constricts between narrow shale walls. By the afternoon the skies turned as gray as the river, but occasionally the clouds would break and offer us spectacular views of huge snow-capped mountains and glacial tongues running nearly all the way to the river's edge.
We pressed on at a steady pace, and late in the day came to the first of the Bravo's four significant gorges. Taking our time to capture video footage and snap photos, we navigated our way down a handful of challenging Class V rapids. Springs trickled over the stratified canyon walls where moss and stunted trees clung to ledges and crevasses. The scene was eerie, but we were all happy to finally be running some quality whitewater. Slowly the canyon walls tapered out and before long we were floating down a flat braided riverbed.
At dusk we arrived at the intimidating entrance to the second gorge. Here the meandering river squeezed abruptly into a deep-walled, narrow abyss. We made camp just before the canyon, and watched through the night as trees on the ridgeline swayed in sporadic gales of wind.
We knew that our third and final day on the Bravo would be our longest, so we started the day early with oatmeal, dried fruit and plenty of the addictive Chilean Nescafé. Fired up for the day to come, we jumped in our kayaks and squeezed our large group of six into the Bravo's small second gorge. The canyon itself was wild and fascinating, but its duration was short and the whitewater it withheld was no more challenging than what we had paddled the day before. We were making good time and with only a short break of Class II and III whitewater, we soon arrived at the entrance to the third and most impressive gorge.
We slowly worked our way into the chasm, reading and running a succession of Class IV and V rapids. As we continued deeper into the canyon the rapids grew increasingly difficult. Now we were scouting regularly and taking our time to determine the safest and most fun lines. The six of us came from all over the world, drawn to this place by our shared love for Class V whitewater, and now that we were truly amongst it our stoke grew with every rapid. Smiles spread from ear to ear and our chilled red faces radiated with joy.
We kept moving down a long flat section of river until late in the afternoon. The skies cleared and again we were offered awe-inspiring views in every direction.
The walls of the fourth and final canyon were not as impressive as any of the first three, but the rapids within it were the most significant we had encountered since the Futaleafu weeks before. Here the Bravo carries ten times the volume of water than it does in the valley below Don Rial's farm. Over the last two days the whitewater had changed from steep, low-volume rapids requiring technical creeking-style moves, to mid-volume rapids with significant drops, large boulders and dangerous sieves. A few of the rapids put us on edge, but taking our time to analyze each maneuver, we were able to descend through the final canyon without making any portages. Again we were elated and re-energized for the long flat-water slog that would bring us to the Pacific Ocean.
Far past sundown and nearing dusk we paddled through the Bravo's mouth and into the salty maritime waters. After our letdown on the Pascua, it felt gratifying to have completed the entire Rio Bravo 50 miles from start to finish. We celebrated with cheese sandwiches and warm Escudo beers, then loaded up our trucks and hopped on the next ferry to Cochrane, gateway to our final river, the Río Baker.
-- Stay tuned for Part 4 of the Patagonia Triple Crown: Rio Baker.
-- 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.
-- Voting is now live for the 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). VOTE NOW! The voting period closes August 27 at midnight.
--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.