The Sound and the Fury

  • Shaun Tolson

The Futaleufú River’s Terminador rapid can be heard surging from a quarter of a mile away. The Class V stretch of white water cascades over and around imposing granite boulders for eight-tenths of a mile, and it lives up to its name. The river, which runs more than 120 miles through Chile, drops 3,000 feet from beginning to end, and through its most challenging section of rapids the Futaleufú drops 45 feet per mile—33 feet more per mile than the Colorado River when it passes through the Grand Canyon. In Patagonia, which emerged as a world-class white-water destination a little less than three decades ago, the Futaleufú is the crown jewel.

A group of kayakers first negotiated the Futaleufú’s rapids in 1986, and the following year a commercial rafting company from the United States attempted to duplicate the effort. Prior to that attempt, the Terminador and other rapids along the river were unnamed, but that was about to change. Outfitted with a traditional rafting boat full of gear and rafters without paddles, the American company successfully traversed a handful of Class V rapids before reaching the stretch of white water that—based on the impending result—would come to be named Terminador. The rapid offers no margin for error, and the raft, weighed down by rafters who couldn’t paddle, drifted from the necessary line down the left side of the river. Instead, it was pulled down the center of the rapid, where it was trapped (and subsequently destroyed) in a large, violent hole—the section of a rapid below a submerged boulder where the resulting waterfall creates a backward-falling wave of equal strength. All of the rafters survived, but news of the event quickly circulated throughout the international rafting community, and for years the Futaleufú was deemed unraftable. It wasn’t until 1991 that Eric Hertz and his company, Earth River Expeditions (www.earthriver.com), decided to explore the possibilities.

Armed with 20 years of rafting experience and aided by his own fleet of specially designed rafts and catarafts (a cross between a catamaran and a traditional white-water raft that offers greater stability through rapids and better rescuing ability), Hertz and a small team of guides spent a couple of years in the early ’90s making exploratory runs of the river. In the beginning, Hertz would allow only accomplished rafters with Class V experience to join him on those explorations, although today, 90 percent of Earth River’s clients are beginners. “Before, the convincing was a lot harder,” says Robert Currie, one of Earth River’s lead guides, who explains that seasoned rafters weren’t always as receptive to direction and sometimes would want to challenge a guide’s chosen line for a particular rapid. “Nowadays, we can work with guests a lot better because they want to learn.”

My fellow rafters on this Earth River trip certainly want to learn, and we listen attentively as Currie surveys the churning water from the shore at the company’s first campsite. It will be six days before we see this rapid again, but then we’ll be viewing it head-on from inside a raft and with three full days of training under our belts. At the moment, the rapid takes on a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like persona. From solid ground, it’s easy to underestimate the Terminador, to view it with complacency. However, the rapid’s mighty sound affirms the water’s unrelenting force. “We’ll be really good when we get here,” Currie says. “We’ve got to be.”

“Go hard! go hard!” Currie shouts from his perch at the back of our raft, though his booming voice is muffled by the roar of the rapids all around us. “Give it all you’ve got!”

I dig my feet into the foot cups on the floor of the boat and lean out over the side of the raft, thrusting my oar into the water. It’s the middle of our first day of rafting and we’ve entered the most powerful section of Mundaca, a Class V rapid along the Futaleufú’s lower canyon. A series of white-capped swells crashes over me at the front of our boat, each one delivering a brisk shock to my senses, but I do my best to lean into the hydro-powered onslaught and paddle on.

The classification of white water is not an exact science and, as Currie explains, rapids can change classes with the rise and fall of a river’s water level. Nevertheless, as a general rule, a Class V rapid is considered the most extreme white water that can be rafted commercially. In addition to being difficult, it can be treacherous. With Mundaca, there is the danger of being swept up in the current that slings everything toward a giant hole near the bottom of the rapid—a hole so large that the backward-crashing wave downriver is as high as the initial drop before it. A hole of this magnitude will flip a raft instantly. “Remember, I’m in the raft with you,” Currie told us the day before. “So if you guys are swimming, I’m swimming. And I hate to swim.”

Yesterday, Currie’s comments about taking an unexpected plunge into the Futaleufú were lighthearted; today, while attempting to tame the river’s fury, Currie bellows out commands in a serious and urgent tone. I’m all too aware of the dangers that we’ll face if we cannot overpower the current. A few seconds of aggressive paddling gets us through the perilous section, and my fellow rafters and I take a quick moment to congratulate each other on another team victory. “We have to attack,” Currie reminds us at the bottom of the rapid. “We have to be aggressive. We have to work hard today so tomorrow will feel easy.”

Tomorrow, we’ll tackle a stretch of the river that includes a handful of Class V rapids, the most significant of which is Infierno, a Class V+ passage that has our trip’s trio of safety cataraft operators giddy with excitement. “I’m always stoked for a rafting day, but I can’t conceal my excitement for Infierno canyon,” says Tom McDonnell, a California native who, among his Patagonian comrades, is affectionately known as Chico Max.

“What makes Infierno so exciting?” I ask him.

“That’s for you to discover!”

Regardless of the rapids faced, what everyone discovers after a full day of rafting the Futaleufú is the river’s uniqueness. The river is fed by the melting glaciers in the Andes Mountains some 8,000 feet above sea level, but because those glacial waters filter through a series of high-elevation lakes, they’re about 20 degrees warmer when they reach the canyon where the river’s rapids begin to form. Those high-elevation lakes also allow the silt to separate from the water, which makes the Futaleufú clearer than most glacier-fed rivers and gives it a Caribbean-like turquoise hue. According to Hertz, even the canyon’s geology contributes to a unique rafting experience. “When you go down most rivers, they look similar. But this river, every time you go around a bend, it looks different,” he says. “It has technical rapids, big tumbling rapids, wave trains, and rapids that run through steep canyons. Most rivers don’t have that.”

The futaleufú may be unique, but like most high-volume rivers, it’s in danger of losing its identity.  From the beginning of Earth River’s involvement in Patagonia, rumors circulated about damming the Futaleufú for hydroelectric power, which is why Hertz bought land at strategic points along the river. This allowed him to build distinct campsites, each with its own ambience, and it allowed him to block the damming of the river at those specific areas. Hertz was careful to take a minimalist approach—he cut down as few trees as possible and he made sure every riverbank dwelling was concealed from view along the water. “You can kill a river a lot of ways, and one is with 1,000 knife wounds” he says, explaining that overdeveloping the land around the Futaleufú would be almost as damaging as damming it.

The threat of a Futaleufú dam still lingers, however—the sound of construction crews carving out a road leading to the proposed dam site can be heard on the third rafting day of our trip. The sound feels out of place in this pristine area of the world and it casts a solemn air over the group. Hertz admits that the river is an ideal spot for hydroelectric power, but he also acknowledges that Chile is blessed with even more abundant, long-term sources of natural energy, specifically solar, wind, and geothermal. The Natural Resources Defense Council concurs, stating that “All of these alternative solutions are more sustainable, less destructive, and more stable than the large hydro-electric and coal power sources that currently dominate Chile’s energy industry.”

Hertz has fought against a possible Futaleufú dam for two decades and only recently has he been aided in his efforts. A newly formed Chilean nonprofit foundation, the Futaleufú Riverkeeper (www.futaleufuriverkeeper.org), aims to protect the river and its communities from pollution, destructive development, and activities that will harm human health or the environment. Hertz hopes that the organization will help to educate more of Chile and the rest of the world on the value of the river and the consequences that would result if it were dammed.

Earth River’s group of young guides and safety cataraft operators naturally are in agreement on river politics. On the second-to-last night of our trip, Jon Van Dyck, a 25-year-old guide from the San Francisco area, breaks out his guitar and plays a variety of tunes, from a rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” to bluegrass melodies and original compositions. During one interlude, Chico Max—who previously relegated himself to background vocals—takes a moment to freestyle about the river. “We must protect it and not neglect it,” he sings, “because they might dam it, and it would never be the same.”

All four of Earth River’s campsites are different—they range from a sprawling property with communal areas recessed into caves, lost beaches, and natural springs to a treehouse community where guests can drift off to sleep while listening to a cacophony of frogs croaking in the nearby lake. Wooden and stone hot tubs are mainstays at every campsite, as are flush toilets and hot showers, but guests expecting luxurious accommodations with white-linen service will be disappointed. The luxury of an Earth River trip is that novice paddlers can find peace of mind knowing that their guides can lead them down a river famous for its world-class white water. As Jaime Mendez, the other lead guide on this trip, explains, it’s more than just making it down a rapid. “It would take 15 to 20 seconds for a boat of experienced rafters to make it through Infierno,” he says, “and it would take 15 to 20 seconds for a boat of novice rafters.”

“So what’s the difference?” I ask.

“The beginners would be in the river.”

Being in the river is exactly what my fellow rafters and I want to avoid as we stare down the beginning stretch of the Terminador on our final day of the trip—one that many experienced rafters believe is the most active day of white water found anywhere on the planet. The water level is lower than normal, which makes Terminador slower to run, but far more technical (and no less dangerous). As Currie explains, it’s all about positioning the boat properly to drift down into the right places on the river. “It’s surgical,” he tells our group during the morning orientation.

Currie takes us up to a perch overlooking the rapid and maps out the route that we must take. We then watch as Chico Max and the other safety cataraft operators maneuver down the rapid on that same line and position themselves for a potential rescue mission, should any of us end up jostled out of the raft.

Back in the boat, we push off from the bank and are quickly put to the test. However, just as Currie predicted, we’ve become an efficient team of paddlers. We react quickly and with conviction to each of Currie’s commands, and before long we’re paddling past the safety rafts. The run is smooth and clean and leaves us all feeling temporarily invincible. “There’s a method to the madness,” Hertz says. “We like to have our clients feel like they’ve accomplished something when they finish a trip.”

Based on Currie’s reaction to our Terminador descent, it’s clear that we have. “I love it when a team comes together,” he says. “That was like a schoolbook; it was perfect.”

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