This pristine, turquoise-blue river has a drainage basin that covers almost 27 000 square kilometres of Patagonia. The river itself sources out of Bertrand Lake and flows for 170 km along the east side of the Northern Patagonian ice field until it empties at 31 000 cfs (cubic feet/second) into the Baker Channel and the Pacific Ocean. This behemoth of a river and its all its beauty has been at the top of my list for almost 6 years now. This is my dream come true!
“When the majority of your life has been dedicated to travel, you have to learn how to adapt to your surroundings, its just hard when it feels like you are on the moon.” - Travis Rice, Art of Flight.
The section of the Rio Baker we traveled to lies just to the North of a small town called Cochrane. To put it in perspective of how far south we were, Cochrane lies 2700 km south of Santiago, the capital. The starting point for our trip was a little closer, only 740 km away in the small, well known town of Futaleufu. From here, Marcos Gallegos, Gerd Serrasoles, Aleix Salvat, Marcal de la Fuente and myself set off for this legendary river. It took 3 days, including a first descent mission, sleeping on the floor of Marcos's father's restaurant and hours upon hours of gravel roads. The journey down to the Baker is one of the most scenic I have ever experienced, and I am sure it is one of the most breathtaking drives on the planet. If you ever get the chance to adventure down to the Baker or anywhere in Patagonia, I recommend that you drive during daylight hours and try not to blink. The road to the Baker took us over snowy mountains, past glaciers, around lakes and even through a tunnel. My camera was out taking videos or snapping pics the whole time. Patagonia is a rather photogenic place for all levels of aspiring photographers.
One of the great things about the Rio Baker is the ability to scout the majority of the rapids from the road on your way to the put-in form Cochrane. We spent our first morning examining and scouting the first gorge. I don't think any of us had been near or even seen a river this big before. Despite it looking large starting right down a couple hundred feet from the road, none of us realized just how big it was until we dropped in later that day. I know I was immediately humbled when I was looking straight into a 25' tall monster of a wave. Sure, it had looked large from the road, but this, this was a whole different meaning of big, powerful whitewater!
Double Drop, the very first rapid on the Baker lies just above the 1st gorge at the confluence of the Neff and Baker Rivers. This rapid has an absolutely mammoth sized right line that to my knowledge has only been run twice, and a more manageable left. The left line allows you to get a feel for the Baker whitewater and provides a solid warm for the gorge just below.
The section of the river we were kayaking consists of 3 gorges, more commonly broken up into 2 sections: the first and second gorges create the top section with a third one just below. The 1st & 2nd gorges have huge rapids with minimal flat water and offer an excellent freestyle wave just after the Hanging Bridge. Some days this is where we called our takeout and headed back to the top with a quick shuttle for some more laps. Other days we continued downstream, dropping into the 3rd gorge. This one has plenty of big quality whitewater to offer, as well as the only mandatory portage on the river. It however does carry the weight of a nice 8 km (5 mile) flat water paddle downstream to the take out.
The 1st gorge has 4 substantial rapids and a few smaller ones. With waves rising, breaking, forming and crashing at over 2 stories high in all rapids, the Baker gave me an immediate feel that I was too small to be in such a place. The gargantuan whitewater surrounded by the towering cliffs and mountains in the distance all factored in on this effect. While half the challenge for me was tucking under and powering over these massive waves, the other half was in navigating the large whirlpools and boils that formed by the great volume of water being confined in such a narrow place. These whirlpools always seemed to form in the most convenient places taking you off line and showing the true power of the river. A small bay separates the 1st & 2nd gorges, this is where I loosened the grip on my paddle a little bit and really allowed myself to take in the scenery of this remote and beautiful place. Mountain goats climbing ridges high above and indigenous birds and condors swooping and soaring overhead. The wildlife, the snow caped peaks, the valleys, and the Rio Baker; all these things combined to make, for me a perfect moment. The first time I paddled out of the 1st gorge, it felt like time went into slow motion to emphasize my perfect moment and allow me to fully appreciate where I was. The 2nd gorge provides more breathtaking scenery and some enjoyable whirlpools to play around in, but no major rapids lie within this section of cliff. It empties out into a nice calm section that separate the top gorges from the 3rd gorge below.
The 3rd gorge again offers some of the largest, quality whitewater on the planet, with more huge waves, holes, diagonals and whirlpools waiting to test you. However, due to the combination of the only mandatory portage on the Baker, a lengthy 8 km paddle out and a long shuttle, it seems to be a less run and less talked about section. I suggest if you ever make your way to the Rio Baker drop into this 3rd gorge - it is well worth it. The big, cruisy rapids again combine with the surrounding cliffs and wildlife to show off this magical place. Everyday we ran it, I just thought of the paddle out as section that the Baker made just so you could enjoy the views, its way of saying take a minute, look around and enjoy!
Like I said earlier, the Rio Baker has been on the top of my list for several years now. I have felt a need to paddle its pristine waters since seeing my first pictures and videos when I was 13 years old. I don't even know if it was the prestige of the river, the acclaimed size or the remoteness and adventure involved. I just know one of my great dreams of my young life has been fulfilled, and it has left me feeling truly happy. People are already asking me what it was like and we just got back! Trying to explain, I am finding myself lost for words and don't really know how to put the experience into words. I think the only way to understand the beauty and size of the Baker is to take the trip down with the boys and drop into the 3 gorges of the Rio Baker. I do know one thing: as we drove away from the banks of the Rio Baker, back towards Futaleufu, I had a smile on my face and knew that a piece of my heart will forever lie within the canyon walls and pristine, turquoise waters of the Rio Baker. - Kalob Grady, Kokatat Regional Paddler
PS: I wish the Baker could flow freely forever, unfortunately that is not the case. The plans for a 7 billion dollar hydro project have already been approved for the area. The projected plans include 2 hydro dams being built on the Rio Baker and 3 on the nearby Rio Pascua. The largest hydro project in Chilean history is being headed by the Chilean/Spanish owned company, Endessa. If completed, the project will provide 2400mW of power that will help offset the energy demand that is currently growing at 6% a year in Chile. The dams will also flood nearly 15 000 acres of prime agricultural land and displace families in the area.
The project name, “HidroAysen” is currently roadblocked on the proposed 1912 km of transmission lines needed to transport the energy to Chile's thriving north and its gigantic copper industry. The power lines are planned to traverse through seismically active and volcanic areas, even a 160 km section under the ocean. Locals say that dams are the beginning of the end for Patagonia and will continue bringing development and destruction to the wild land, untamed forests and breathtaking mountains. World wide protests have played a huge part in delaying the construction of these dams. Join the fight to protect the wild south of Patagonia. Log onto www.internationalrivers.org to learn more. PATAGONIA SIN REPRESAS!