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Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”    —Albert Einstein

When I left for the Futaleufu, I thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime sort of trip.  Now, fully in thrall of the most enchanting landscape and culture I’ve ever visited, I ache to return.  I want to run the bigger water I haven’t made it to yet.  I want to learn some more Spanish and feel less like an alien.  I want to bring my family.

If my only barriers were time and money, I’d feel pretty confident that the chance will come around again, that my trip-of-a-lifetime could evolve into a repeat pilgrimage.  Sadly, however, time may be running out for the Futaleufu Valley as the government of Chile edges toward a course of massive multi-river hydropower development that would profoundly alter all of Patagonia.  The Futaleufu itself has two proposed dam sites that would not only submerge the river’s whitewater but also destroy the local economic base of ranching and tourism.

It’s a depressingly familiar story—the local people stand to lose their lands, their livelihoods, their way of life, and their connection to their heritage, all in the name of economic development for people living elsewhere.  The whole HidroAysen project would both drown the major rivers draining Patagonian Chile and create in the world’s largest clearcut in the form of a 1200 mile long high-voltage transmission corridor.  The audacity of such a scheme in a region as remote and beautiful and culturally unique as Patagonia is nothing short of breathtaking.  I’d compare it to the kind of thinking in this country that led to proposals for dams and reservoirs in the Grand Canyon only forty years ago, culminating in an environmental battle that seems patently preposterous today.  Chileans, I am told, love Patagonia with the same sort of national pride that we have for our own signature National Parks; will the HidroAysen proposal be the undoing of unspoiled Patagonia or a catalyst for its sustainable future?

Even as opposition grows throughout the region, however, the latest headlines detail new proposals by the Chilean government to throw around enough money to try to hush the locals.  “Here, tell us what you think of this idea—we’ll take away your honest livelihood, destroy your way of life, and rape the landscape you call home, but you get to live on energy-project-supported welfare from this day forward.”

Now, I understand Chile has its own energy crisis to deal with and is in desperate need for solutions.  And I appreciate that hydropower is a renewable and “clean” energy source.  But before you try to sell me on the need for and the righteousness of damming the Futaleufu, can we try some simple alternatives?  Madam President Bachelet, for the cost of one dam, how many inefficient light bulbs in Santiago could be replaced with CFL or LED technology?  How many roofs could be fitted with solar panels?  How many homes could be insulated?  What about large-scale solar-thermal generation in the Atacama Desert or geothermal development anywhere in your narrow country (which sits smack-dab on top of the infamous Ring of Fire)?

Forty years from now, I think future generations of Chileans will look back and find it preposterous that we could even contemplate damming the Futaleufu.  I just hope they don’t look back in sorrow for our lack of vision.  That said, I’ve got one or two quick emails to send.

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quick hits from the return journey

Well, I’ve been home now for a couple of days, trying to work through the backlog of action items already piled up on my desk from the first week of school.  Not so fun.  At home, I’ve been called into action as the LegoMaster, helping put together the kits my boys got for Christmas.  Lots of fun.  Even so, I’ve left a good part of my heart below the Tropic of Capricorn, and I’m hoping my “trip of a lifetime” does not turn out to be so singular.

A couple of brief observations from the trip back:

  • Inter-city bus service in Argentina is far more comfortable than first-class air travel, with seats like lounge chairs, complete with footrests.  Trying to read or use the bathroom on twisty mountain roads is a bit more challenging, though.
  • Compared to Futaleufu’s frontier tranquility, Bariloche, Argentina (where I spent one night on my return journey) was like Manhattan.  In Futaleufu, you have almost as much chance of being run over by a gaucho on horseback as you do an automobile, while traffic in Bariloche is brisk and most definitely does not yield to pedestrians.
  • The Argentine tourist gateway to Patagonia, Bariloche’s architecture is a curious blend of Switzerland, Wyoming, and South America.  I arrived at the height of a summer arts festival, as did seemingly every twenty-something in the rest of Argentina (all carrying overstuffed backpacks and filling the numerous youth hostels to capacity).  The setting is spectacular—clear blue lake, lots of mountains—but like tourist towns everywhere, the main attraction seems to be shopping.
  • Bariloche would appear to have a higher population of St. Bernards (complete with whiskey barrels) than Futaleufu does people.  I repeatedly declined to have my picture made with one.
  • Early in my stay in Futaleufu, I learned that Chilean beef is notoriously tough.  Flavorful, but tough.  The terrain being so rugged, Chilean cows are evidently way too muscled to be tender.  Argentinean cows, I was informed, have it easy, living on the flat plains of the Pampas, and consequently make for tender beef.  I tested the theory in Bariloche and had perhaps the best steak of my life for about $10 U.S.
  • An observation from the plane as I flew into Buenos Aires: this is a city of swimming pools.  I first noticed entire neighborhoods (even seemingly modest ones) where every single house had an artificial blue lagoon out back, and then I was struck by the number of large public pools I saw, seemingly every couple of blocks or so, each one overflowing with swimmers. (I forget where I read it, but I heartily agree with the sentiment that to fly anywhere without spending much of the time looking out the window is to effectively waste a lot of money.)
  • An observation from the cab as I passed from one Buenos Aires airport to another: anyone not at a pool on this particular Sunday afternoon was out having a picnic.  In every bit of greenspace around town, people had pulled their cars off the road, parked in a patch of shade, and set to serious tailgating.  And I mean every bit of greenspace—if a busy highway interchange delineated a little patch of land with a nice copse of trees, someone had chosen that as a nice spot to hang out for the afternoon.

That’s it for now: I’ve got another post in the works about Futaleufu and the future of Patagonia—but I’m afraid it won’t be so lighthearted.

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So this afternoon I’m trying to figure out how I can stay a little longer without losing my job and my marriage.  It has taken two weeks of two-steps-back-three-steps-forward, but after a terrific afternoon on the Futa, I can finally feel a nice surge in my paddling ability.  Thank goodness I didn’t plan a one-week trip, as I’d have gone home pretty disappointed as far as kayaking is concerned at that point.  This evening, on the other hand, I feel like I could eat nails.

Now, if I had another three or four or seven days I think I could graduate to the big leagues.

And then there’s this Andes to the Ocean sea-kayaking trip that a number of my fellow travelers down here are making—it seems a pity to come all this way and not do that, too.  Add another five days.  And I’ve missed out on the overnight hike to stay at the remote campesino homestead of a guy named Benedicto that everyone can’t stop talking about.  Add two more days.  And . . . and . . . well, you get the picture.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very ready to see Belinda and the boys.  So I guess I really need to start plotting a return with them somehow.  There’s enough to do around here for all of us, and the setup is ideal—after breakfast, the ExChile guides and guests head in all directions for all manners of fun, and by mid-afternoon everyone is back to rest up a bit before dinner.  They would love it here.  My compliments to Chris Spelius for running such a first-class operation.

new-year-dinner

Dinner back at the Hosteria—Chilean wine and locally-grown food on the table, mountains in all directions outside, people from all over the world to share stories with.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take a lot of pictures—if I had it to do over again, I’d have bought one of the new waterproof digital point-and-shoots for use on the river.  The best I could do was send my DSLR along with the shuttle vehicle to get an occasional shot at a put-in or a take-out.  So I offer these last two from today before heading off to Happy Hour.

final-moments

At the take-out for the last run of the trip—just below the aptly-named rapid “Wenumapu” (the native Mapuche word for “the meeting of heaven and earth”)

tristan

Tristan, my guide for the past two weeks, smiling because I didn’t perish under his tutelage.

Belinda, Will, and Andrew . . . Daddy’s coming home!

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too tired to type

Well, I’ve been exceptionally lazy about taking pictures and putting up blog posts over the past week.  Once I discovered that my cell phone works perfectly from down here, it became too easy to lay on my bed in the afternoon and touch base with home that way.  And once I lay down in the afternoons, I’m not inclined to get up again until Happy Hour.  I don’t think I’ve paddled two days in a row since the summer Andrew was born (four and a half years ago), and I’m going on a week and a half straight right now.  I’m exhausted.

The frustrating thing about the last week has been the way my roll went from bomber to speculative to—almost as if someone flipped a switch—nonexistant.  Evidently, I’ve gotten away with bad technique for years, using too much arm strength and thinking about the hip snap as something I do with my right knee instead of with my entire torso.  ExChile’s owner, Chris Spelius, tells me my case is far from unique, that getting by with a makeshift roll is like walking on thin ice—while it holds, it holds, and when it goes, you fall in all the way.  After only a couple of days in Chile, my arms and shoulders were too sore for my old roll to work well, and my body kept compensating in exactly the wrong way.  Chris also says it’s almost easier to teach a beginner how to roll than it is to break an experienced boater’s bad habits, and I’m inclined to agree.

The upshot is that I haven’t been able to paddle the big stuff down here as I had hoped, but I should come home with a better foundation for my next ten years of paddling.  Even if I’m not screaming down Infierno Canyon after two weeks in Chile, I’m still coming home with thirteen days on the water, more than three times as many paddling days as I got in all of 2008.  And Patagonia has been flat-out awesome—what a magical place.

rio-azul

The Rio Azul, one of my favorite runs down here.  In boating terms it’s like a more technical (and much colder) version of the Middle Tellico.

I’ve done more than just kayak; on my “rest days” I’ve been able to raft some of the Futa’s bigger water, and I also spent a glorious afternoon “canyoning,” descending a crystalline mountain stream through a narrow granite slot, rappelling seven waterfalls and jumping off/sliding down a number of smaller cascades on the way.  And then, as if I’m not beat up enough, last night I joined in a pick-up soccer game with some of the ExChile guides, local staff, and guests.

I’ve got lots more to say about the local culture and my ExChile experience, but tomorrow it’s back to the Macal section of the Futa, and I desperately need some rest.  I am too tired to type any more.

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getting to Futaleufu

Greetings from Patagonia!  I haven’t posted yet mostly because I’ve been too damn tired to move.  No pictures yet, so I’ll just say briefly that this is easily the most beautiful place I’ve ever been (empty praise, I know, but I don’t have the energy for poetry at the moment).

Getting here went smoothly enough, none of my nightmares realized about losing luggage or missing connections or being held up by banditos.  It just took a long, long time—ten hours to Buenos Aires, 45 minutes by cab to the local airport, another two hours in the air to Bariloche, then six hours by car to the Futaleufu border station.

A couple of quick observations about my dash across Argentina:

First, I read a travel account recently that claimed all drivers in Buenos Aires are frustrated Formula One racers, and I’d agree with the assessment except that “frustrated” implies ill tempers.  No matter how fast everyone drives or how closely they follow or how abrubtly they change lanes (when anyone pays any attention to lanes), no one gets angry or honks the horn or flashes their lights or engages in retaliatory tailgating (which no one down here would find intimidating anyway).  At home, driving like this would lead to open road rage warfare.

Then, when I arrived at the Aeroparque, B.A.’s  “local” airport, I was pleasantly surprised that I had my choice of five open Aerolineas counters to choose from for check-in.  After standing in line for an hour the night before in Atlanta just to check my bags, this was a nice change.  I picked someone who looked like she might know a little English and hoped for the best.  A few keyboard taps later, she says “I think I can get you on an earlier flight,” and she’s so pleased with herself that I agree, even though this likely means I’ll wait an extra two hours for my ride in Bariloche.  A few more keyboard taps and she hands me a boarding pass, tells me which gate to find, and says “It leaves in ten minutes.”  To say the least, I’m a little alarmed, but she says “Oh, sure” that I can get there on time, and off I go at a run (rather conspicuously as the only person running in the Aeroparque).  I fly through airport security (no line, no shoe removal, no placing of the laptop in a separate bin) and arrive at the gate to find no plane.  A sullen troop of American tourists all carrying fly-rod tubes tell me “We’ll probably all be on the flight you were originally scheduled for.”  But no, at precisely the time indicated on the ticket, the whole crowd is ushered down some stairs and loaded into a line of waiting busses and driven out to the plane on the tarmac.  Two hours and some change later, we touch down in Bariloche, again at precisely the time indicated on the ticket.

I was the last of three Norteamericanos to arrive, and after just enough time for quick introductions, our Spanish-only driver arrived in a pint-sized Chevy, crammed all of our bags into every available space and then some (my paddle bag stretched from the deck behind the back seats to the top of the dashboard), and rattled us away southward.  Every mile of scenery was spectacular, but try as I might, I couldn’t stay awake for the whole ride.  Even our driver’s disregard for double-yellow dividing lines in the center of the road became routine after a while, and I dozed.

leaving-argentina

At the Argentina/Chile border

But after 24 hours of constant motion, I did indeed reach the town of Futaleufu, which is charming beyond measure, and I’ve paddled three different spectacular rivers in the past three days.  I’ll try to get a post up about the paddling after dinner tonight, but I’ll just say for now that I’m humbled and frustrated—my introduction to big water can be quickly summed up: whirlpool 1, Clark 0.  Most alarmingly, the same southern-hemisphere Coriolis effect that makes bathtubs drain in the opposite direction from home has seemingly affected my roll (or at least that’s my excuse), which has gone from bombproof to speculative with stunning rapidity.  On my first day on the water, I took my first swim in three years.  Evidently, I enjoyed it so much that I’ve taken two more, eventually ending up in the whirlpool, which was not enjoyable in the least.

Well, that’s all for this afternoon—it’s Happy Hour time back at the Hosteria, and I’m pretty ready for a Pisco Sour.  Cheers to everyone back home!

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preparing for personal renewal

Adding to all the usual madness of getting ready for the holidays, I’m also trying to prepare, both mentally and physically, to journey south on December 26th, my ultimate destination being El Rio Futaleufu in Chilean Patagonia. I put the wheels in motion for this trip last year by applying for a “Type I: Personal Renewal/Enrichment” sabbatical—or, as I like to think of it, the “incredible life-changing trip you’d otherwise never be able to afford because you chose to become a teacher” sabbatical. Can I just say how much I love where I teach?

This is a trip that perhaps made more sense last year when I proposed it, as 2007 was a very good kayaking year for me. 2008, not so much. After coming back from our trip this summer, I’ve only been on the water a couple of times, largely because there hasn’t been much running in this season of exceptional drought but also because my usual paddling partner seems to have gone into witness protection or something and I just got lazy about going (sometimes home can be too comfortable). Oh well, I’ve got two weeks in Chile, and there’s a lot of water to run down there, from easy to scary. Hopefully I’ll be able to knock off the rust flakes in short order and avoid getting into too much trouble.

For a little eye candy, here’s a short video about the Fu and its immediate neighborhood put together by Expediciones Chile, the kayaking school I’ll be paddling with:

Anyway, after a full year of thinking about this trip, it’s a strange feeling to suddenly have less than two weeks until departure. This will be a radical expansion of my horizons, both in terms of geography and whitewater, and I’m looking forward to getting a good push out of my comfort zone.

I’ll be carrying my laptop and camera and plan to blog the trip, so stay tuned! Now, back to my Pimsleur Spanish disks—No entiendo nada.

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