By Mariann Sæther
Most whitewater kayakers who want to go to southern Chile generally have their set eyes, for good reasons, on the Rio Baker. Big, powerful, and surprisingly forgiving, the Baker is a modern-day classic in the age of kayak jet-setting. If you turn around at the Baker to drive back north, however, you’ll have missed out on some serious fun because south of the Baker is more pure Patagonian gold.
THE REAL SOUTH
The infamous Carretera Austral is a grueling gravel road leading south from the booming city of Puerto Montt. In fact, it is the main road through the region called Patagonia, and though not entirely land-supported, it reaches about 770 miles (1240 km) to the town of Villa O´Higgins. Passing famous Patagonian rivers such as the Rio Puelo in the north, Futaleufú in the middle, Baker in the south, and the Bravo in the deep south, the road is the gateway to some of the most epic whitewater in the world. But it also is a challenging way of traveling, as the road is for many parts poorly maintained, and has a reputation of stranding travelers for days while waiting for help to show up.
Maybe it is not so strange then that most kayaking groups only make it to the Baker. Only a handful choose to continue to the spectacular Rio Bravo, situated two-hundred kilometers south of the Baker, and even fewer reaches the vicinity of the Rio Pascua. In addition, only a fraction of these groups will stop to run the rivers in between the big classics, let alone go exploring for new runs in the region. I hope that by spreading the tales and the wonders of the other rivers rather than the classics, more kayakers will come to enjoy the diverse whitewater of the region at the southern end of the Carretera Austral.
A common warm-up stop for the Baker's big volume canyons is the Futaleufú. To drive from there to the Baker will take a day if everything goes well along the highway. After the token few runs down Todo Baker (all canyons in one run), one ought to keep driving south. Upon hitting the sleepy town of Cochrane, don’t miss the Rio Cochrane - a drop-pool gem with pristine water and a hectic canyon to cap off the run.
Continuing south, towering mountains litter the landscape across the border-area between Chile and Argentina. If you're looking for a sight-seeing excursion, this could very well be the perfect second stop on a tour of the Deep South. The highest mountain in the area, Monte San Lorenzo, is more than 10,000 feet (3000 m) tall and is situated in an epic range of granite towers, walls, glaciers and remote wilderness. Obviously, there are also multiple river drainages and, conveniently enough, the Rio Tranquillo is one of them.
Easily accessible via a fairly good dirt road, the Rio Tranquilo captures the essence of Patagonia's beauty. When we decided to do a first descent this river in 2015, we had very little knowledge of waiting for us. As we drove closer and to put-in, silence fell over the group as the awe-inspiring view of the mountains came into focus. This view was only to be outdone by the sight of the river from the put-in, which I believe is one of the most beautiful views in the world.
With our spirits high, we dropped into the small river bed. The run quickly proved to be a bit messy with countless sharp rocks and unstable canyon walls lining the river, but the Class III-IV whitewater was fun nonetheless. We arrived at take-out with not much of a shuttle plan, but luckily hitchhiking in Patagonia is not very difficult. We easily managed to hitch a ride with a sheep-wool truck that took us back to civilization. Once we got to our vehicle, it was unclear who was the most amused by this hitching - the driver or us.
THE RAVINE RIVER
Another 25 miles (40 km) south on the Carretera lies one of the nicest multiday-trips in all of Chile. (And to my knowledge only one group has run it since our first descent in 2011!) The Barrancoso River hits the Carreterra Austral with full force, then banks southwest and runs along the highway for some crazy stretches of exploding whitewater. The section along the road could possibly be runnable at certain flows, but never appeared so when I have been there. However, as one stands by the road looking up the drainage, there are promising glimpses of whitewater and tight canyons.
Seven years ago, Ron Fischer, Severin Haeberling and myself were able to get our hands on some horses and hike upstream to a suitable put-in. The hike was gentle, taking us through a majestic native forest and landing by the flat, meandering river. The color of water promised that giant glaciers lay just upstream, but as the river seemed flat for a long way above us, we decided to put in right here, just above the first canyon. I still remember lying on my pad at night, listening to the river and feeling the anticipation build for this river that I have driven by quite a few times but never taken the time to explore. The name of the river itself suggests water flowing through cataracts flanked by ravines, and we were all wondering how this adventure would turn out. That is the nature of first descents.
Amazingly enough we spent the next day picking our lines down a beautiful canyon full of Class III-V whitewater, with no portages! All of us kept waiting for that one rapid that would spoil the trip, but to our amazement it never came. Some technical lines in stacked combos kept us busy, pushier lines in a couple of sliding drops provided some nervousness, and pure fun Class III rapids through granite canyons kept us entertained all the way to take-out. Upon crawling out of the river just before the road-side cataracts started, our faces were covered in the biggest smiles ever. What a beauty! The Barrancoso is by all means a must-do on the way to the Bravo, and an incredibly rewarding way to break up the drive through the Deep South.
Continuing south on the Carretera, there are other rivers to check out, such as the Nadis and the Jaramillo. The latter might well be worth a paddle, but we opted to skip it upon hiking up the valley. After a while you will have to catch a ferry across the Mitchell Fjord at Puerto Yungay - and upon reaching to the other side you will find yourself driving alongside the Rio Bravo.
In 2006, we first descended the Bravo with the help of a float plane that took us high up into the Andes and safely dropping us off at Lago Alegre. From there we paddled into the Bravo, and three days later we reached the fjord. It was by far one of the most successful first descents I have ever taken part in, mainly because we quickly realized that the Bravo would become a Patagonia classic.
The two first days on the river are filled with scenic Class II-III whitewater, providing great sights and fishing. It is not until the last day, when the river meets the road, where the action truly picks up. Most groups these days choose to run this roadside section, which is comprised of three canyons. The first two can be very sporty with a lot of water, but the third canyon, which we named "Surprise Canyon," can take a lot more. The rapids are fun and technical with a river-running character, and there is a pushy section in the middle of the run which has to be negotiated carefully. This section of rapids cannot be easily portaged or scouted, but there are definitely options on how to negotiate it. In addition to the pure whitewater, the surroundings are incredible. We spotted multiple condors on our last run some years back, and the Patagonia bush stands thick and unforgiving along the canyon walls of the river. If you are up for the adventure, the Bravo sure is a great one!
THE NEGLECTED MAIER
After the Bravo, your next big river adventure ought to be the Rio Maier. For some unknown reason, groups finding their way to this area simply choose not to run it. Perhaps it is the look of the brown water flowing under the bridge at take-out or because of the deceivingly looking flat water canyon just upstream. I am not sure why my efforts to send people there recent years have proved fruitless, but the Maier might be the most neglected river in terms of kayaking in all of the Deep South. It basically loops around a mountain that sits behind the town of Villa O´Higgins, Sierra de Sangra, and its flow comes from the ice and snow, making the river's waters run brown all year as it makes its way to Lago O´Higgins.
Driving from Rio Bravo you will pass over the Maier well before hitting Villa O´Higgins. And, amazingly enough, the Maier also is road accessible. Back in 2011, this run seemed like a non-brainer for our crew back with its big volume, many kilometers of canyons, and a road running all the way up to put-in. What better than this?
The team spirit was high, even if we were pretty sure we were in for a simple Class II-III float. In hindsight, it is hilarious that we thought of this run as an exploratory day off. How wrong we were... Two days later we finally stood at take-out by the road bridge - tired, but amazed. There is a decent amount of flat water in there, but eventually one paddles into a beautiful Class III swirly gorge. A bit further downstream a massive river-wide hole will catch your attention - run it out to the right or opt for the easy portage on the same side of the river. We had two swims in here, so be on your game. Eventually you will encounter a steep, gnarly and committing canyon with a lot of complex whitewater.
After a half day of scouting, we decided to leave our boats, hike out and call it a day. Upon returning the next day nobody was convinced about the first must-make eddy just above a portage, so we ended up walking the canyon entirely on river right. It was not very hard, and it took us max an hour to do so - before we enjoyed the rest of the rapids all the way to the take-out. Another whitewater classic was born - now more people need to run it!
In 2011, I spent 4 weeks in this sleepy pioneer-town at the end of the Carretera Austral. Most inhabitants are heavily government subsidized, just to make sure it stays inhabited which says everything you need to know about the remoteness of the place. The town rests on the shore of Lago O´Higgins, which drains the southern Patagonia Ice Cap and is the second largest contiguous extrapolar icefield in the world. It is also a great base for a week or two of amazing kayaking, as long as the rivers are not flowing too high.
The Bravo and the Maier are both reached from this town, and another favorite is the drop-pool river called Rio Perez. Mainly Class IV, the biggest drop on the run has been run successfully and unsuccessfully a couple of times since our first descent in 2011. The river flows from the beautiful Lago Christie, which also is the starting point for the hike into the upper sections of the Rio Bravo. Both the color of the lake and the river is unreal, but I would think twice before trying to paddle across it as the wind is normally extremely strong and gusty.
Another little river adventure close by is the local Rio Mosco, sitting right behind the town itself. We got horses to go up the river but did not make it too far and had to paddle out again on Class III water. For a second attempt I recommend carrying your own boat up on river right and try to make it up to the glacier. Some steep action should be found up there.
Villa O´Higgins is also where logistics happen if you want to paddle the infamous Rio Pascua - a flowing giant which carries a lot of the melt water from the southern ice-cap to the sea. Again, I was lucky back in 2005 as we had a float plane for access - otherwise you either have to pay a lot of money for a boat ride or endure a grueling paddle across the huge lake to reach the river. Either way, the Pascua is an outstanding adventure in itself, even if the whitewater does not seem completely worth the effort. Either way, I do recommend it though if you are up for hard portages, scary blind corners in the river, and mostly cold and wet conditions. If nothing else, standing at take-out will leave an incredible feeling of accomplishment.
The Deep South, stretching 155 miles (250 km) from Rio Baker to Villa O´Higgins, provides multiple established whitewater adventures. And for those that want to explore, this same area provides ample opportunities for first descents - that is if you manage to get yourself passed the Rio Baker. But why would you stop there?
MORE ON CHILE
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- The Patagonia Triple Crown
- Photo Gallery: Patagonia’s Glacial Lakes by Sea Kayak
- Rio Baker Runs Free: Chile’s five-dam HidroAysén hydroelectric project rejected; Patagonian rivers saved