By Jens Benöhr and Tobias Hellwig
Photos by Tobias Hellwig

Chile is a land of rivers. Snowfall in the Andes Mountains melts and flows through thousands of creeks, which join into rivers, lakes, lagoons and wetlands before feeding into the Pacific along Chile’s 3,000 miles of coastline. In the middle of this long country, the Biobío River drains Chile's second largest watershed. Butaleubu, as the Biobío was named by the native Pehuenche people, means 'big river.’

The Biobío traces a 240-mile path from its origins in the Andes to its mouth near the city of Concepción, where I have lived since I was young. Long ago, I started wondering about the origin of the river that flows silently past my window. That curiosity sparked my interest in paddling the length of the river to study its anthropology and human ecology.

A couple of years ago I began kayaking and the dream came closer to being realized. I learned to surf waves and read lines along the upper part of the river, known as the Alto Biobío. If I’d attempted the trip a few decades earlier, I would have faced a more difficult task. Until recently, the Biobío was known worldwide for its challenging whitewater, but most of the biggest rapids disappeared in the late 1990s after the construction of two huge dams, despite the protests of indigenous leaders, Chilean environmentalists, and international activists.

Three years had passed since I started paddling the Biobío’s waters. I knew I had to follow its whole length from source to sea, to feel the weight of its geography over my body. I mentioned my dream to a childhood friend, Tobias Hellwig, who had dreamt of the same idea. With a common goal, and after months of planning the expedition, we traveled to the river’s headwaters in November of 2015.

The Headwaters

The Biobio River is born in two small Andean lakes: Galletué and Icalma. We decided to start our journey some miles farther up the watershed, on a little creek that flows into the Icalma Lake. It was the right decision. Paddling on still water among prehistoric-looking araucaria trees was an excellent way to begin the expedition.

Lake Icalma, which means ‘water mirror’ in the native Mapuche language, is aptly named. It reflected the mountains and sky around us with uncanny clarity as we crossed the lake, a light breeze on our backs. When we reached the river that drains into the Biobío, we started our descent with shouts of joy and were on our way downhill. We crossed the pampa, vast grassy plains, impressed by the contrast between arid soils and the fast changing biodiversity of the still-small river. We could already see the first impacts on the river ecosystem; an invasive algae called Didymo covered the river bottom, changing the fragile biological balance. We camped for a few nights below imposing araucarias on the riverbank, falling asleep to the soft noise of the water flowing by.

After three days of gentle navigation, I experienced a harrowing evening on the river. While trying to take a picture of a gorgeous rock wall on the side of the valley, which looked like it was burning under the last light of the sun, I got caught up in the willow branches on the shore, capsized, and swam. Everything inside the open kayak was drenched, including the camera. I was able to swim to the shore after some difficult moments, dragging the kayak and gear behind me. All my packed clothes were wet. I had used plastic supermarket bags, which did not keep the water out. Once on shore Tobias showed up and we took stock of the situation. The photo equipment was ruined.

That same night, while drying clothes on a campfire, we met Mirella and Guillermo, a couple of arrieros or mule-drivers from the Rahue Valley. Mirella passed by our camp on horseback and invited us to her home to drink some mate, a traditional herbal drink enjoyed throughout Patagonia. We talked for hours about the harsh and sad life in the mountains. But they also told us about the joy that the earth and the animals offer, and the peace and slowness of life at those heights. We were invited to shear some sheep next morning, an activity that was done with incredible skill, yet the two of them talked casually through the process.

False Promises of the Ralco Dam

After an affectionate goodbye, we continued on our journey. As we moved along, the river acquired more power and size; suddenly we were in the middle of the mountains, navigating a stretch hidden to all but the most intrepid shepherds and explorers. Here the Biobío is guarded by ancient trees including cypress, coigües, hualles and ñirres, and beautiful birds like the cormorant and kingfisher, silent wardens of the river's secrets. Upstream from civilization the whitewater flows with force, a section safe from the typical progress that has killed other portions of the river. Long stretches full of technical whitewater required a marked focus and precaution, particularly for Tobias, who paddled a sea kayak not designed for running rapids.

Next we arrived at the Ralco Dam, where the wild river vanished abruptly. Ralco is a big and lonely reservoir. Its owner, Endesa (now Enel Generación Chile) promised the dam would bring tourism to the area, but it’s yet to arrive. The banks along the reservoirs's shores are badly eroded from the constant changes in water level, which can vary as much as 125 feet throughout the year.

Ever since the 1990s, the waters of the Biobío have been used intensively for generating power. The big Ralco and Pangue hydroelectric projects, as well as the recently finished Angostura Dam, have flooded large areas of native forest and sacred lands of the Pehuenche people. The construction of these dams in the Alto Biobío faced strong opposition from the local communities and Chilean citizens. After we had navigated a furious and untamable river through the mountains, we found ourselves paddling through these enormous reservoirs. We needed to load our kayaks in vehicles to pass around the big concrete walls that impeded our journey to the sea.

What flows to the sea

After crossing the last dam, Angostura, we camped on the shores of the river. At nightfall, while we were cooking, the river started to rise very quickly. In less than an hour we had to drag our camp to higher land, leaving only a fire that resisted until its crackling end. In two hours, the river rose by about six feet. The swell was caused by the Pangue Dam, which produces energy based on demand and often releases more water in the afternoon; the fluctuations without a doubt alter the fluvial ecosystem.

After leaving the Andes behind, we entered the flat lands of the Chilean central valley, where we found numerous industries pouring their industrial waste into the river, contaminating the water supplies of many towns and cities. The river banks looked deserted. The only inhabitants were large pine and eucalyptus forestry plantations, which are planted in clearcuts and have caused enormous amounts of erosion. The rain constantly drags the soil to the river, leaving an infertile ground that is only used to grow more and more pines. Between the towns of Negrete and Laja we were surprised by several boats navigating the river to cross or fish. After that, we entered into the coastal mountain range, where the river is truly abandoned to fend for itself, completely hidden between never-ending pine tree plantations. The wild scenery we saw upstream was gone.

As we paddled its final section, the slow flow of the Biobío gave us a lot of time to think about how our comfortable lifestyles have generated such big impacts. I include myself and Tobias in this critique, though it's admittedly easy for us to forget our role, we paddled along in our little plastic boats, wearing specialized synthetic clothing.

When you're kayaking, time flows to a different rhythm, lethargic and contemplative. This contrasts with the accelerated rhythm of the city of Concepción, which welcomed us with displays of rubbish dumped on the banks and the constant sound of traffic. The sounds troubled our ears, now used to the soft murmur of the water. The portion of the Biobío River that flows through the city still spoke, but we could no longer hear it.

After 10 days of intense kayaking, we finally arrived to the Pacific Ocean and felt our kayaks rocked by the waves. In that final instant we felt the life and sadness of the river–its desolation. But we also finally understood and felt our responsibility as people living in this watershed to start making a change in the relation we as society have with our rivers. As kayakers, we believe it's possible to gain a better understanding of social struggles related to environmental issues by getting outdoors. We also believe we must take a role in addressing this problem.

Protecting rivers by serving as ambassadors of their problems could be a start. In the case of the Biobío River descent, it was never important for us to descend the entire river. Nor were we interested in knowing if we were the first to achieve this. Navigating the great Biobío from source to sea was for us a small but valuable testimony, a way to show respect for its presence and value in our lives.

Jens Benöhr is a member of the Futaleufu Riverkeeper‘s National River Alliance

Author’s note: We would like to thank our families and friends, for making this happen. Especially Victor Salazar for helping with the shuttle, and Shahid Wahab and Patrick Lynch for their corrections for the English version of this text.