“Plunge boldly into the thick of life, and seize it where you will, it is always interesting.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This story is dedicated to the memory of John Foss, who was a great friend and an incredible force in the kayaking world for many years.
I met John in Flagstaff, Arizona, in the late 1970s, when he lived in a slum dwelling on south Fountaine Street with a group of firefighters & climbers. The floor was constructed of two-by-fours, and it bounced like a trampoline during the many reggae parties that John and his friends had hosted.
John had started paddling in Arizona with my friend Little Buddy (One of the AZ Banditos who climbed numerous illegal spires in the desert.) but he soon became bored with the lack of whitewater in that desert state and wandered first north, to Colorado, Alaska, and Idaho, then south, to Chile and Peru, in his constant pursuit of adventure. He used my house in Boulder as a parking lot on numerous occasions, and I once gave him a ride to DIA with seven kayaks, all filled to the brim with Skil saws, camp stoves, and other miscellaneous items that he had planned to use for his new life in South America.
John had an exuberance that few people shared, and I clearly remember his smiling face, which would materialize whenever the adrenaline was sufficient or the party atmosphere reached a certain critical mass. If the atmosphere wasn’t up to his standards, he would quickly find a way to raise the excitement level, so traveling with him was a guaranteed adventure.
I spent nearly two months traveling with John, Kurt Casey, Dave Black, and a beautiful Chilean woman named Eva Luna in the Chilean summer of 1994. The trip was filled with epics, and the title of this story became our motto.
My last conversation with John was about kayaking in Asia. He wanted to do a long Class V river that had never been run and was inquiring about logistics and costs. He died a few weeks later — on a first descent of the Río Huallabamba in northern Peru — and many women were left crying. He is deeply missed by his many friends, but his spirit will always be with us.
The Legend of the Naked Devil
John had a very strong love of nature, and he enjoyed running around in his natural attire whenever the climate allowed. He was a big man with very muscular arms and his skin was a bit red from the equatorial sun. His hairline was also receding, and that may have helped with the confusion. John was wearing nothing but a camera on one of his many first descents in the Peruvian jungle, when he encountered a local native woman. She stared at him for a brief moment and then screamed hysterically, as she ran away. The group stopped at a village a few days later, and the word had spread rapidly downstream. Everyone wanted to know if they had seen the naked devil.
“I’m OK. Go get my boat!” yelled John Foss, as he clung to a small rock island about 20 feet upstream from a 15-foot waterfall on the Fuy River in Southern Chile.
Gian Marco Vellutino was a 17 year old Peruvian guide, who had become Foss’s apprentice and seemed willing to risk his life to protect his master. He quickly launched his boat over the falls and instantly started to recirculate in the large hydraulic feature, but luckily he was close to shore, and managed to rescue his own boat.
I had made a few similar mistakes chasing boats in my youth, and decided to wait at least a few moments before launching down an unscouted river.
John and Kurt Casey and a few other loco gringos had found a great play hole about 25 feet away from the brink of a 15-foot waterfall. They were getting some great rides, but the hole was quite large and the risk level looked extremely high, so I decided to watch patiently from a safe spot. A huge tail-stand left John upside-down on a very strong eddy-line and he missed a roll. There was really only time for one attempt, but John had covered his ass and grabbed a small rock island next to the brink of the falls. The island made a great haven of safety, but the float-bag-less boat filled with water very quickly and bounced over the falls as it headed rapidly downstream.
I followed a reasonably clean line over the falls and joined Kurt who was closing in on the boat. He was about to grab it, when we noticed another ten foot falls that we were about to run blind, so we paddled as hard as we could and barely escaped the recirculating hole. The heavy boat plunged over the falls and lodged itself on a rock downstream. We managed to get it to shore but soon noticed that the bow had been severely damaged.
“Oh well. I didn’t really like that boat very much anyway,” remarked John.
A little bit of duct tape patched the boat enough to finish the run, and we drove rapidly to find one of John’s many friends who had a boat for sale. John had a raft that he wanted to sell, and after a few minutes of friendly bartering and the exchange of many pesos we sped away to Pucón with a new kayak.
The last time that I had been there was 1985, and there had been a huge change. The rafting and adventure industries had become established very rapidly, and I almost felt like I was in West Virginia. In 85 we had been the only boaters in town for two weeks, and now the main drag was lined with rafting companies and many gringo kayakers roamed the streets.
“I did a great little creek here last year and would love to do it again,” remarked John, as we partied on Main Street with a jubilant group of boaters. “It’s really steep, but it’s short and it’s not that hard, just a bunch of short waterfalls. It’s called the Palguin. Let’s do it tomorrow.”
Four of us agreed, and we partied on into the night and then camped at a friend of John’s named Klaus.
Klaus was a German adventurer who had started a climbing shop in Pucon in the late 80’s. He was a friendly host, but he had too many chickens and the roosters started crowing way before dawn.
“Oh shit! My head hurts, but I can’t sleep with this ******** noise. Let’s make some coffee,” remarked Kurt, so we fired up the camp stove and started to make plans for the day.
“I should have eaten that rooster for Christmas!” exclaimed Klaus, as he woke up to join us. “What are you crazy gringos doing today?”
“The Palguín,” remarked Foss with a chuckle, as Klaus shook his head.
“I thought that was just a bunch of waterfalls.”
“It is, but they are quite easy and it’s really fun. Wanna join us?”
“No way! but good luck and come by for a beer afterwards if you survive.”
“This is the put-in,” yelled John, as he screeched to a halt on the narrow dirt road.
“Where’s the river?” I inquired, as we stared at the lush hillside.
“It’s just a short bushwhack over there,” he replied, as we unloaded the boats and donned our gear. We could hear the sound of rushing water, but the dense vegetation kept the river from our sight.
“Don’t forget to rub the Buddha!” yelled Kurt as he picked up his boat.
One of John’s many girlfriends had given him a small Buddha statue for good luck. The statue was perched reverently on the dash of the pickup, and we had adapted a ritual of rubbing the Buddha’s belly before we embarked on a dangerous run. No one had died yet, and we didn’t want to break the spell.
The bushwhack wasn’t too bad, and soon we arrived at the banks of a crystal, clear creek that was rapidly descending through the lush green vegetation of the Lake District. The first rapid cured our hangovers, and we quickly dropped down a couple of very steep class IV drops and caught a small eddy above a large horizon line. A quick scout revealed a 17-foot drop with a river wide hole at it’s base.
“It’s fairly casual, but that hole might stop you, so paddle hard,” remarked John. “Are you OK?” he inquired, when he noticed the blood dripping from my face.
“Yes, I think it’s only a harmless flesh wound,” I replied, as I prepared to run the next drop.
I had been forced to roll in the last rapid, and a minor impact with a large rock had managed to inflict a small fracture on my forehead.
Just downstream was another eddy and a waterfall that was bigger than anything that I had ever run. It looked like about 25 feet, but the entrance and landing were perfect and the portage looked very difficult, so we lined up and took our turns. Running the falls proved to be as easy as it had looked, but it provided an intense adrenaline buzz and the energized group paddled onward to the next horizon line.
This fifteen-foot drop consisted of three very narrow chutes and was difficult to scout, so Dave climbed to a small island in the middle of the rapid to get a better view. On his way back he slipped and disappeared from view as he fell into one of the steep channels. We rushed to grab our throw-ropes, but he surfaced in the large eddy and swam quickly to shore.
“That ones clean!” he exclaimed with a big smile, and we followed his line with our kayaks.
There was a 50-foot falls a little farther downstream, so we decided to abandon the river and bushwhacked back to the road where our friends were anxiously waiting. We had been very close to a road the whole time, but the very dense canopy had created an illusion of a remote Shangri-La, on one of the best little creeks that we had ever done.
My friend, Dr. Bruno had stopped in Pucón for the weekend and was happy to patch my wound, and we headed back to the streets of Pucón for another fiesta. The combination of adrenaline and vino tinto made for a very happy group and the white water tales of terror flowed as freely as the wine.
Dave and John had been living this lifestyle for more than two months and Kurt and I had just recently joined them. John was working on a Masters degree in Life Science and had received a grant from the University of Idaho to work on an environmental impact statement for the Bio Bio River, which was threatened by a huge dam. He had also organized two commercial raft trips on the same river to help pay for his adventure habits. The pair had negotiated a long-term rental rate on a four door Chevy pickup, and had started their mission to run every river that crossed their path. They were both very good paddlers with huge gonads and had many stories to tell by the time we met up with them in December.
John was suffering from a badly bruised rib that had been injured when he swam under a large boulder on the Duqueco River. The two loco gringos were eddy scouting a solid class V rapid when they both got stuck in a huge hydraulic. Dave had nearly drowned but the hole finally flushed him out and he had managed to grab a rock near the shore. He searched fr antically for his friend who was unconscious and pinned under a large boulder, but the River Gods were passionate, and John’s unconscious body floated into an eddy where he could be rescued.
His rib had been healing for two weeks and he was just starting to get back in form. They had set up a base camp at Salto de Laja, (near the takeout for the Bio Bio) and we helped them prepare the gear for a ten day Bio Bio trip. It had been nine years since I had paddled this magnificent river and it was a pure joy to be doing it again with my good friends.
The small commercial trip consisted mostly of John’s friends, and we paddled casually and enjoyed many hikes including a two-day trip to the summit of Volcán Callaqui.
Somebody managed to flip a raft in Lava South, but no one was injured and the happy campers relaxed in the hot spring at Jose’s Pasture.
The pristine Valley of One Hundred Waterfalls (Cien Saltos) was as spectacular as it had been in 85, but the serenity was shattered by a sudden explosion which was followed by an aftermath of falling rocks. The One Eyed Jack rapid was being destroyed by dynamite and a large drag-line as Endesa began the construction that would choke the great river. We finished the run in a saddened mood, and drove back to base camp where a second group was anxiously waiting for another raft trip and John rushed away to take care of the logistics.
“See you in 12 days and we’ll head south,” he remarked, as he rushed off to greet his new clients.
Variety is the spice of life, and I had decided to take a break from the river and explore some of the other adventures that South America had to offer, so I took a bus to Santiago and met another Dave who had come down to climb Aconcagua. Together we caught a bus to Mendoza Argentina, and after a day of permits and logistics we started on the highest trek in the world. The weather was perfect and the mules carried most of our gear, so we walked happily with light packs and thoroughly enjoyed the desert scenery.
The planned journey would take us from 8,000 feet to almost 23,000 and altitude sickness was the biggest risk, so we camped at 11,000 and spent a beautiful day hiking to the base of the gigantic South Face. It looked every bit as challenging as we had heard, and we were quite happy that we had chosen the trail for our route. The base of the South Face was the same altitude as the base camp and the extra night at 11,000 feet would theoretically help our bodies adapt to the higher altitude of the summit.
We arrived at the 14,000 foot base camp the next day and found a transient village that resembled the old gold camps in Alaska. The many local vendors had built a tent city that sold beer and food, and anything else that the throng of climbers might need. The Argentines had built a luxury hotel near the camp and very few people were willing to spend more than $100 for a night of altitude sickness, so the hotel welcomed the many climbers and sold showers and cups of tea. The warm lobby was a great place to spend our rest days.
My previous experience in Peru had taught me about the difficulties of sleeping at high altitude, so we decided to set our high camp at the “Nest of the Condors” which is about 18,000 feet. The climb to the summit from this point would be a long day, but I felt that the benefits of sleeping at the lower altitude would offset the added effort. After a relaxed day in the hotel lobby, we started early and carried a stash of gear and food to the high camp. This left us quite exhausted, but the climb exposed us to the high altitude and the trail back to base camp was all downhill and very easy. “Climb high and sleep low,” is the classic rule of high altitude mountaineering, and two more nights at 14,000 feet and another relaxed day in the hotel lobby rejuvenated our weary bodies. A threatening cloud had been hanging on the big mountain, but the weather was starting to improve as we headed upward on our summit quest. Two days of easy climbing brought us back up to our high camp, where we enjoyed some great views and took another rest day. This high camp was a bit chilly and sitting in the tent became quite boring, so we took a casual hike up to one of the higher camps.
This casual hike to about 19,000 feet allowed our bodies to adapt to a little higher altitude, and I slept like a baby at 18,000.
We awoke early to a clear and breezy day and prepared to walk to the summit. The thin air felt good, and we set a brisk pace as we wandered ever upward.
“I’m not feeling very good, and I can’t keep this pace!” exclaimed Dave, as he suddenly stopped to take a break.
He had a mild headache and the short break did not reenergize him. His symptoms did not seem to be dangerous and the high camp was still in sight, so he decided to go back to the tent by himself. He wished me good luck as I wandered upward alone on the seemingly endless trail that brought me ever closer to the heavens. The air was thin and crisp, but the trail made walking easy and I enjoyed some great views of the surrounding mountains that seemed to be shrinking as I climbed above them. The hard breathing and large volume of blood being pumped through my brain created an almost hypnotic mood that was very euphoric. The air became cooler and the breeze increased as each step brought me closer to the summit which was now in sight.
The spell was suddenly broken by the sight of a frozen body laying next to the trail. He looked like he had just laid down to take a short rest, but his life was over and had left a strong reminder of how dangerous the big mountains can really be.
Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the western hemisphere and is an easy climb if the weather is good, but the combination of high altitude and an easy route lures many novice climbers. A sudden change in weather or a miscalculation in ones ability to deal with the altitude can be tragic and have made it the deadliest mountain in the Andes.
I tried to forget about the death, but it continued to haunt me as I wan dered upward to the Canaleta, which is the crux of this route. This steep slope of broken rocks at 22,000 feet is not technically difficult, but it requires huge amounts of energy at a point when most climbers have very little left. Climbing two steps and sliding back one is very frustrating and my patience was running thin, so I sprinted up to the top and collapsed in a state of sheer exhaustion. My lungs were sore and I had a bit of a cough, but the summit was near and the rest of the trail was easy. The clear weather was holding it’s pattern, and I enjoyed a brief lunch and a great view before heading back down the trail. I was very tired and hoped to spend the night at the high camp, but Dave was in a bad mood and very eager to descend so I succumbed to his wishes.
I wandered back to base-camp exhausted, but the beer flowed freely and we met some very friendly Chileans. Dave made friends with another group that was ready to try the summit, and his second attempt was successful.
Bruno Betanzo was a young doctor who was very active in the climbing community and had just guided a group of young climbers up the big mountain. He lived in Conceptión, where the Bio Bio meets the ocean, and he offered me a ride to Salto del Laja. His little truck was packed to the gills, but most of the passengers disembarked in Santiago where we had a grand Chilean asado (barbecue) to celebrate our success.
He needed to work the next day, and I was late for paddling, so we drove onward into the late night, and arrived at Salto after midnight. By this time we had become good friends, and he wished me luck as he drove away.
“Good morning Gringo!” greeted John Foss with a big smile the next day. “How was the climb?”
“It was really cool, and the summit was awesome. It’s just a trail, but it’s a really long trail and it was really windy up there. I’m kind of burned out and I picked up a cough, but this low altitude should get me back in shape soon.”
“You need some whitewater, and you’re just in time to do the Laja. Let’s go get some breakfast and pack the gear.”
John looked very happy to be finished with his guiding. His rib was healed and he was ready for action. Within hours, we were driving up another dusty road with a truck filled with boats and paddlers.
“This is a great run!” exclaimed John, as we approached the river. “We’ve done it about 30 times this summer. It’s only 45 minutes from base camp and it is a thrill a minute.”
The pristine aerated water of the Upper Laja erupted out of a volcanic dam and cascaded down a lush green stream bed.
“It’s only class IV, but it’s really continuous,” warned Dave, as we prepared to launch.
The current was even faster than it looked, and within moments I was upside-down and bouncing over the shallow rocks, but my roll worked and I quickly recovered. The run was definitely a thrill a minute and the adrenaline-stoked group soon paddled into the small eddy that marked the end.
“Wasn’t that great? Let’s go do it again!” exclaimed John, as he dragged his boat up to the road.
One lap was enough for me, so I started to set up camp while John, Kurt, Eva, and Dave went for another round. The exuberant group returned shortly and we enjoyed a few beers while we watched the alpenglow explode on the snow-fields of the nearby Volcán Antuco. The sky was clear and a few million stars appeared suddenly out of the darkened skies, as we partied around a warm fire and discussed our future plans. We were the only humans in a very large valley and the mood was incredible.
“Let’s do one or two more runs on this in the morning and then head south,” remarked Dave. “If we hurry, we can get a run on the Fuy.”
“Sounds like a plan. Isn’t life great?” replied John, as we partied on into the night.
“I’ve scoped out another run that sounds really good. It has been done before, and I heard that it was great, but that’s all I know about it,” remarked John as we drank our morning coffee. “This map isn’t very good, but it looks like about a hundred feet per mile gradient and a small stream, so it could be a classic. I’ve never been in that valley, but it looks like there is a road that parallels the river and it’s close so I think we should try it.
The river was called the Maichín, and we headed out of Pucón and up the valley where it flowed. The road followed a gentle meandering stream for a few miles and then climbed very steeply, as the river entered a box canyon.
“That might be a good takeout!” exclaimed John, as we drove up a steep road that left the canyon and started to climb a steep hill.
After a few miles of climbing, the road returned to the river and we tried to scout the box canyon, but the walls were steep and the vegetation was very lush so a thorough scout would have been extremely difficult. Half an hour of bushwhacking resulted in a view of one rapid.
“That drop looks cool. I think we should just do it!” exclaimed Kurt. “We could waste the whole day scouting and still miss some crucial rapids.”
The road crossed the river about a mile upstream from where we had tried to scout, so we quickly unloaded our gear and prepared to launch.
“Don’t forget to rub the Buddha! This might be hard,” exclaimed John, as we prepared to launch.
The first rapid was a fairly steep class IV, but there was a big eddy at the bottom so we headed quickly down stream. Soon we entered a majestic box canyon with sheer, lush walls that would make egress from the river impossible.
“Looks like we’re committed now!” exclaimed John with a big smile. “Isn’t this awesome?”
The class IV rapids continued along with the fabulous scenery until the river suddenly gained significant gradient. The forbidding canyon walls continued, but a long ledge on river left made a scout possible. The rapid looked runable, but it was a solid class V with a nasty undercut wall at the bottom, so we carried our boats as far as we could and then seal launched off of a ten foot cliff. In spite of this precaution, our friend Danny from Argentina was pushed into the undercut by the strong current, but he managed to claw himself out of the dangerous underwater cave. The gradient eased a bit, and we continued down another mile or two of stellar class IV with fabulous scenery until the canyon opened. Our friends were waiting patiently in the open meadow and we headed back to Pucón for another afternoon of partying.
Pucón has often been described as the black hole of Chile, because it is a hard place to leave. The majestic Volcán Villarica towers above the pristine lake, and the surrounding forests, streams, and numerous hot springs provide a Shangri-La for adventure travelers. It would have been very easy to spend the whole summer in this idyllic village, but we were on a mission to run new rivers so we loaded up the truck and headed south towards the Futaleufú.
“We gotta get new visas before we head down there, or we’re gonna be screwed.” exclaimed Dave, as we drove past the city of Osorno.
“Don’t worry. We’ll just drive over to Argentina and get a new one when we come back,” replied John.
“The rental car agreement says that we cannot leave Chile with this truck,” replied Dave, whose credit card had been used for security on the vehicle. The rough roads combined with heavy loads and fast driving were beginning to take its toll on the truck, and Dave was getting nervous.
“You worry too much man. You’re gonna get a heart attack. Just relax and let me deal with it. There is a great hot spring a couple of miles from here, and it should be a good place to camp.”
Termas de Puyehue was awesome, and we discussed our logistics while we soaked in the thermal water.
“I’ve got a great plan!” exclaimed John. “Dave, Eva, and I will go over to Argentina to get some new visas, and Kurt and Mattson can try a first descent on the Gol Gol. Part of it has been pad dled by a friend of mine and he said it was great.”
They dropped us off at what John thought would be a good put-in spot, and we quickly unloaded our gear.
“Don’t forget to rub the Buddha!” yelled John with a big smile, as he headed east.
The thought of three gringos trying to sneak into Argentina with a rental car made me a bit nervous, so I placed my passport, wallet, and everything else important into my dry-bag and stuffed it in front of the footrest of my kayak.
We watched them disappear and then started to drag our boats into a steep Basalt gorge. This type of rock is very prominent in the volcanic region of the Lake District, and the canyons that it forms tend to be very spectacular. When it is carved by the rivers, it becomes very smooth and has an almost gemstone like texture. These canyons were formed by molten lava and usually have a pool drop character with many waterfalls, so we continued carefully. Luckily, this portion of the river was in a National Park and a reasonably good trail followed part of it.
The first gorge was a beautiful sheer-walled canyon with fast water and a few class IV drops, but we could hear a loud roar downstream and a sharp horizon line warned of a big drop ahead.
The trail made scouting easy, and we looked in awe at a massive waterfall that was filling the black canyon with mist.
“Wow! That looks like about 50 feet! I’m sure glad that there is a portage route,” I exclaimed, as we started to head back up stream.
About 200 feet above the falls was another ledge falls, but it was only about 12 feet and seemed quite insignificant compared to the larger drop. There was a good eddy just below it, so we picked a line and climbed back into our boats.
Kurt vanished quickly over the edge, and I felt my adrenaline level surge as I paddled alone toward the brink of the falls. Within seconds I was paddling over the edge, but it suddenly seemed bigger than it had from the shore and a shallow rock slowed my hull speed, so that I did not clear the hydraulic. My boat went straight down into the hole, and I tipped over in a sticky little ledge drop. After a couple of futile rolling attempts, the fear of the big falls overtook my concentration and I swam as hard as I could for the right bank. It was an easy swim, but my boat, paddle, and passport headed quickly over the big falls.
Kurt was rapidly chasing my boat downstream and I rushed to follow him. The scenic trail had a viewpoint, and I could see my kayak recirculating in a large hydraulic below the big waterfall. Kurt had seen it too, and he had quickly seal launched from the steep bank and was crossing the river and heading upstream. The current was quite strong, but I managed to find a spot with a narrow channel that looked somewhat reasonable. The bank was about ten feet high and I thought that a long belly flop and a couple of hard strokes would get me across, so I
jumped as far as I could and the plan worked. I ran upstream to help Kurt, but he had already retrieved my boat and was dragging it to shore. My Rainbow Wave paddle was gone, but my boat had found a clean line without me and my spare paddle was still intact.
“Hola Gringos!” exclaimed John, as he paddled toward us. “They wouldn’t even let us leave Chile, so we have to go to the courthouse in Osorno and pay a fine, and we can’t drive through Argentina. Dave is mad at me, because I made him a criminal. They took the truck to a potential take out, but I didn’t want to miss a run so I paddled fast. Did you run that falls?”
“My boat did,” I replied.
“Way to go! It must be clean,” exclaimed John, with a strong laugh.
We paddled together to the next horizon line which was about a fifteen-foot drop with a really bad hole and a very strong current pushing into a wall on the right.
“It looks like a clean boof on the left,” remarked John, as he ran quickly back to his boat. He nailed the boof, but he made it look a little too easy. Kurt missed his line by inches and the penalty was a nasty hole ride. After a few seconds, that must have seemed like hours, he ejected and dove for the bottom current. There was a huge eddy below the hole where we rescued everything except one of his sandals and decided to take a lunch break.
The eddy had a small sandy beach with fabulous views of an ancient forest and complete serenity. The gentle roar of the small waterfall provided a natural harmony, as we recuperated in another paradise. Just downstream was another basalt gorge, but the gradient eased and we passed quickly through a brilliantly polished canyon of lava chutes that had been sculpted by the volcano and the river. The temperate rainforest provided a lush tapestry for the black rocks, and the pristine river carried us between the steep banks.
“Wow! Look! There’s a bridge. That must be the main road that goes through the park!” exclaimed Kurt.
“We could take out here and hitchhike to find Dave, but I think we are almost there, and it’s probably easy the rest of the way,” replied John.
We paddled through an old forest that had probably been flooded by a change in the stream bed, and within a few minutes we could hear the reason. Another volcanic dam had created a waterfall and we tried to scout the rapid, but the national park trail had ended and the vegetation was extremely intense. Quila and Colihue are two varieties of Chilean bamboo that infest many of the rivers in the Lake District. They are the most impenetrable species of plant that I have ever encountered, and we had found one of the biggest patches in Chile. Half an hour of exhausting bushwhacking accomplished nothing and the daylight was dwindling, so we decided to hike to the road. The thicket was nearly impossible to penetrate, so we pushed our kayaks ahead of us and walked on top of them. We would occasionally fall through, and sink up to our necks. Kurt had lost one of his sandals and the sharp bamboo was brutal. Life was looking pretty grim, but the end of the thicket was in sight so we trudged onwards and reached an open forest at dusk. The group decided to spend the rest of the short daylight preparing for a bivouac, so we started to gather wood and build a fire. The wood was dry, and within minutes we were lying by a warm fire and sharing the remains of our lunch. Sleep came fast and Kurt and I were sleeping soundly, when we were suddenly awakened by a loud rustling noise that sounded like a bear or a moose, but we both knew that they didn’t live in Chile. Something was crashing around in the trees and making an incredible ruckus.
“What in the heck is that?” exclaimed Kurt, as we both awakened and tried to imagine what was happening. We both burst into a sudden laughter when we determined the cause. The cold air had awakened John and he was on a quest to re-build the fire. He soon returned with a huge armload of wood and within a few moments it was raging again.
The hungry, tired, and sore group awoke early and soon found a trail to the road, where we met our friends who had been quite concerned about our safety. Another stop at the hot spring cured our ailments, and we headed onward to Osorno to solve the visa problems.
“Señor! You have violated the conditions of your visa. This is a big problem.”
“I’m sorry,” replied John with a big smile. “I was having too much fun in your country, and I forgot.”
“OK! but you must pay two thousand pesos (about four dollars) and you can stay for 90 more days.”
“I love this country,” remarked John, as we headed south to Puerto Montt. “It’s hard to get on the ferry this time of year and it’s also quite expensive,” he added, as we headed into Puerto Montt. “The only alternative is a four-hundred mile dirt road that follows the coast. It’s called the Camino Austral and I think we should try it. We might bag a first descent or two on the way, and it will definitely be an adventure.”
The adventurous group agreed, so we bought a large supply of food from the local market and headed south on the Al Can highway of South America.
Patagonia is famous for bad weather and it managed to live up to its reputation. The road was rough, but the scenery was awesome and we camped in some incredible paradises.
“Wow! Look at that!” e xclaimed John as he slammed on the brakes. We had just crossed a small creek and he stopped to investigate. “It looks like about 500 CFS, and it could be a classic. Let’s go check it out!” he exclaimed, as we prepared to walk up stream.
The first half-mile looked good, but a rainstorm was threatening so we ran back to the truck for shelter. There was a small village next to the river and we found a cozy cabin to rent for the night. The group awoke early to a very dismal day with very cold temperatures and pouring rain. We could see the creek through a window, and the volume appeared to have doubled during the night. The small cabin had a wood stove and most of us had curled up with our books and decided to take a rest.
“What is this? Library day!” exclaimed John, as he paced the small cabin. “Come on you wimps! That creek has probably never been run and I would like to check it out.”
Dave and Eva and I looked out the window at the freezing rain and curled even deeper into our chairs.
“I’ll go,” replied Kurt, and the duo started to drag their boats up the raging river.
“Don’t forget to rub the Buddha. That creek is raging!” I exclaimed, as I added a log to the fire.
We were all enjoying a casual siesta, when Kurt came running through the door a few hours later. “The run was great, but I just got stuffed under a log and lost my paddle. I managed to roll up without it and made it to shore, but I can’t find it. Could you help me look for it?” Kurt grabbed a breakdown paddle and jumped back into the river.
We had been breaking and losing gear on a fairly regular basis and our supply of paddles was dwindling, so we rushed quickly downstream to help.
Kurt managed to find the paddle and rushed back to the cabin to celebrate.
“I got my vitamin A today. Did you get yours?” exclaimed John Foss with a big smile. “That creek was awesome, and I’m pretty sure it was a first descent.”
“The trail was quite good and a nice farm family was living by the put-in. They sure were surprised to see us,” added Kurt.
It was early afternoon, so we decided to pack up and head for Hualaihué Estero, which was the departure point for the next ferry. The rain kicked in again and became a torrential downpour as we arrived in the small village.
“Hey! There’s a restaurant!” exclaimed Dave, as we wandered aimlessly through the small village.
They were about ready to close, but they welcomed the soggy gringos, and we were soon enjoying an incredible fiesta next to a warm fire. After a jolly dinner and numerous bottles of wine, we started to think about where we would spend the night. The thought of setting up a camp in the pouring rain was not very inviting, so we decided to ask our friendly hosts.
“Is it OK if we spend the night here?” inquired Eva, as we finished the main course.
The Chilean hospitality is incredible (especially in the remote regions) and our hosts invited us to camp in the corner of the restaurant. The jubilant group ordered more wine, and when the party was finally over we pushed the tables into the corner and rolled out our sleeping bags. Our friendly hosts cooked a great breakfast for us in the morning and wished us luck as we headed onto the ferry.
A scenic three-hour ride took us across a large bay, where we saw a few dolphins and many birds. The seas were a bit rough and the ferry was small, but the sights along the way and the people on the ferry contributed to a very enjoyable morning. The small ports at the end of each ferry contained a distinctive culture that was living off of the land and the ocean in this very unique paradise.
A few more hours of winding road and another ferry brought us to a pleasant camp on the famous Futaleufú River which was our next destination.
“Lars recommends warming up on the lower sections before heading into the upper gorge,” remarked Dave, as he read the description in the guidebook.
“That’s not how you run a river! I want to start at the top and run the whole thing,” replied John as he drove to the upper put-in. The Futa was flowing at a high summer level and the sight of the turbulent, turquoise waters sent shivers up my spine.
“Wow! That is by far the biggest water that I have ever seen!” I exclaimed, and Kurt and Dave agreed.
When rivers flow at very high levels, the molecules of the water become compressed by the increased pressure and send torrents of surging froth in every direction. The currents were constantly changing, and the extremely turbulent eddy-lines could surge into an actual wall of water that was virtually impossible to penetrate. It is very challenging to stay upright in this kind of water and rolling back up can be very difficult.
We nervously donned our gear and prepared to launch into the unknown gorge. John was eager to paddle and was the first to rub the Buddha and then slide into the raging river.
I felt as if I had jumped on the back of a running zebra, as the strong current grabbed my boat and pushed it quickly downstream. Within a mile we reached a large eddy on river left, where we stopped to scout and let our heart rate drop back to a normal level. The rapid was very difficult to scout at this level, so we scrambled to the top of a large boulder and looked in awe at a seemingly endless train of huge breaking waves heading into a blind corner.
“This is were that commercial group swam!” exclaimed Eva.
We had just heard the news of two very recent fatalities. A commercial rafting company from California had run two rafts along with two safety kayaks down this canyon a week before, and two of the clients had drowned when the rafts flipped. Both of the safety kayakers had also swum and could bare ly save themselves.
“I heard that there is a really bad hole on the left, so just paddle as hard as you can and head right,” exclaimed John with a big smile, as he eagerly rushed back to his boat.
I watched him disappear into the froth and tried to calm my nerves, as I headed downstream into the maelstrom. The huge waves were like a giant roller coaster with exploding crests that could suddenly launch a kayak off of its course. Each crest would reveal a small valley below it, and some of the valleys were filled with holes. My heart beat ever faster, as my boat climbed to the top of yet another huge wave and I shook my head to clear the water from my eyes as I searched downstream for a clean line. The next valley was fairly mellow, and I paddled hard toward the summit of the next wave which exploded around me and nearly back-endoed my boat as it surfed me rapidly to the left. Somehow I managed to stay upright and shook the water out of my eyes, but the view was somewhat shocking.
“That must be the hole that John warned us about,” flashed suddenly through my brain, as I dropped into a seemingly bottomless abyss. My boat was suddenly cart wheeling in a huge hole that seemed impossible to escape and my air capacity was about exhausted, so I dove for the bottom and felt a very strong current push me rapidly downstream. The rapid had finally ended and a long gentle pool allowed me to swim to the shore, where I crawled to the beach and struggled to catch my breath. I had managed to hang onto my paddle, but my boat had vanished down the river along with my friends.
After a quick rest I wandered downstream, but the bank became a sheer cliff and the only course was an intense bushwhack over a 300-foot hill. It was a clear day in Patagonia and the intense sun was shining brightly through the gaping hole in the ozone. My sunglasses were safely stowed in the front of my boat, and the bright sun forced me to close my eyes as I bushwhacked upward. When I finally reached the summit, I was rewarded by a great view of the huge eddy below me and the sight of my three friends and four boats waiting patiently. I scrambled as fast as I could down the steep vegetated bank and soon reached my friends.
“What happened?” inquired John.
“I got trashed. That is by far the wildest rapid that I have ever done. I almost made it, but I got pushed too far left. Thanks for catching my boat,” I replied.
“I rolled three times, but I made it! exclaimed Eva. “That was crazy, but it was fun. Are you OK? Let’s go!”
Another half mile of fast, flat water led us into a smaller canyon with huge surging eddies and another big drop, but we all survived and paddled downstream to one of the nastiest rapids that I had ever seen.
The one-hundred and fifty foot wide river suddenly takes a right turn and narrows down to about 20 feet and creates a nozzle called Zeta. There is a line in the middle of the rapid, but it is carefully guarded by two horrible eddies and the riverbed is under cut and filled with potholes.
“I’m going for it!” yelled Kurt, as he headed quickly upstream.
The rest of the group watched in awe as he entered the nozzle and disappeared in a large hole. When his boat reappeared, it was upside down in one of the horrible eddies and being pushed into the undercut wall. He managed to roll in the horrendous current, but the only way out was to try to drive his boat back into the large hole in the main stream. The first attempt tipped his boat and sent it quickly back to the eddy, where he struggled to roll next to the undercut wall. It was very difficult to stay upright in the surging eddy, but he rallied his strength and tried again. The next try yielded the same results, but this time he was pushed further into the undercut wall and barely rolled.
“This sucks!” he yelled from the eddy, but the walls were sheer and nothing could be done to help him. His energy was fading, but he tried one more attempt. The results were once again the same, but this time he was pushed further into the wall and disappeared into the undercut.
“Holy Shit!” exclaimed John, as we watched in horror.
The seconds seemed like hours, as we searched the frothing water.
“He’s alive!” exclaimed Dave, as Kurt suddenly bobbed up in a downstream eddy.
The tiny eddy was surging like the rest of the river, but he managed to grab a log and climb out.
The tiny eddy was surging like the rest of the river, but he managed to grab a log and climb out. We watch him crawl up to a safe spot, but the banks were vertical and he was forced to climb a 5.7 jamb crack bare footed with a throw rope and no harness to regain the shore.
“That really sucked! I thought I was dead for a minute there, but the River Gods decided to let me go,” he exclaimed as we belayed him up to the bank.
The rest of the group decided to portage and we headed on downstream to the Throne Room. The famous rapid was raging and it is difficult to find words to describe the maelstrom. The steep rocky drop was filled to the brim with frothing whitewater and I could see at least three terminal holes that looked difficult to miss. The turbulent water that was bouncing off a big rock in the middle called The Toaster was surging as much as 15 feet, and the eddy lines looked h orrendous.
“Wow! That looks really nasty! I don’t think I can hold my breath that long,” remarked John as he shouldered his boat.
Dave hadn’t been trashed for a while and was thinking about giving it a go, but we reminded him about the lateness in the day and managed to talk him out of it. The gradient eased after Throne Room and we paddled through a unique slot canyon with a bridge and a Chevy pickup.
Dave had met a beautiful Argentine traveler named Cristina in Puerto Montt, and she had decided to travel with us and was very happy to drive the shuttles.
Our exhausted group camped next to the river and told intense tales of terror, as we watched the magnificent starlight in the dark Patagonia skies.
The next day brought more sunshine and plenty of whitewater. Three large granite towers came into view, as we paddled downstream through the Himalayas and another large rapid called the Terminator. The waves in the Himalayas were huge and the Terminator had an enormous hole in the middle, but it was easy to miss, and we paddled down to a beautiful camp at the Cara del Indio (Face of the Indian).
A very friendly and enterprising farm family had decided to accommodate the kayakers and had built a beautiful campground on their land by the famous river. They provided hot showers that were heated by a wood stove and a dry shelter for cooking. There was also a wood-fired hot tub with a view of the river, but it needed a little more engineering. The farmer’s wife provided us with fresh bread in the morning, and the local chickens provided a constant supply of fresh eggs that were still warm. Both the farmer and his wife had spent their whole life in this remote valley and had established a good livelihood in the pristine paradise.
The whole family came out to the river to bid us farewell and wish us luck as we headed downstream through the very turbulent Casa de Piedra (House of Rock)
The water was big and the holes were huge, but our introductory day had made everything else seem insignificant and we drifted down to the yellow house that marked our takeout.
John wanted to do it again, but the majority ruled and we headed south toward the Baker. On the way we stopped at a very pleasant village called Puyuhuapi with a fabulous view and an excellent hot spring.
“This is just what I’ve been looking for and my adrenaline gland is fried, so I’ll see you folks in Santiago,” I remarked, as I relaxed in the hot water. We bid each other farewell, as they headed south for more adventures.
Team “Gato Negro” returned in 98 with Paul Z, Randy Kennedy, and the Vellutino brothers. The water level was a lot friendlier, and we decided to try the Thrown Room. As we carefully scouted the rapid, Paul picked two eddies that he hoped to catch, and Randy and I agreed with his logic. The force of the river was much stronger than we had imagined, and I instantly resorted to plan B when I reached the main current. This involved going with the flow and trying to remain upright. It was one of the wildest rides of my life, but I made it to the bottom with one of the best adrenaline highs that I had ever experienced. Paul managed to catch both of the eddies, but the huge eddy lines gave him a few chances to practice his roll.
Randy found a huge hole in Casa de Piedra, and he managed to work his way out without swimming, but the hole had ripped the Velcro visor off of his helmet and given him a huge dose of vitamin A. His normally gregarious personality rose to a record high, and he entertained us immensely with his Georgia accent.
A guide to the rivers of Chile: