It’s no surprise that Chile has been a world-class whitewater destination for well over a decade. Tectonic plates collide to create the longest chain of mountains on the planet, and the world’s largest non-polar ice fields empty into the complex fjords before heading into the Pacific. Chile’s dynamic, ever-changing landscape is characterized by some of the planet’s most powerful natural disasters. Volcanoes erupt spectacularly, mudslides roll through valleys like freight trains demolishing roads and villages, and the force of earthquakes level cities. The rapidly developing country is rarely, if ever, spared by nature’s wrath, but the people continue to thrive amongst the adversity and destruction with never less than a smile, laughter, and Yerba Matte.
Water has been an increasingly controversial topic for quite some time, not just in Chile but around the world. Massive dams are being erected in China while the White Nile will shortly be flooded by a hydroelectric plant, and it seems that we continue to ignore our past. Chile has not been spared, and in 2003 the Spanish company Hydro Aysen proposed that three massive dams be constructed on the three rivers (Pascua, Baker, and Bravo Rivers) emptying the northern ice field.
Prompted by the potential for profit in the developing mining industry of the north, Aysen planned to destroy communities, livelihoods, and free-flowing rivers with the dams. Another side effect of the project would be the construction of massive electrical towers in the Patagonian Andes, from the southern-most reaches of South America to the mines in the far north of Chile. By all appearances, Chile was doomed to become another dammed nation, where the beautiful natural landscape was twisted into submission by human engineering. Fortunately, after much opposition from locals and the powerful #sinrepresas movement, a law was passed forbidding the construction of the dams and saving the Rios Baker, Pascua, and Bravo.
My journey in South America began in early November of 2017 when I arrived with my paddling gear and dreams of the whitewater oasis where others had traveled before me. I knew of the bill that protected the mighty rivers of Patagonia but was naive and unaware that the “dam battle” was far from over. In awe of the region’s natural beauty, the welcoming demeanor of the Chileans and the cascading whitewater to be found, Chile quickly become dear to my heart and I began to learn about other rivers such as the Puelo whose futures remain decidedly uncertain.
In the face of such large-scale projects, the easiest response is to turn a blind eye and think you can’t make a difference. I’m hopeful that a small depiction of my time, travels, and experiences in Chile will serve as a tribute to the dammed and will inspire others to protect water as a wild, natural, and free-flowing resource. This story, Finding Flow, is where water has led my journey.