“In wilderness, I sense the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia.”
Charles A. Lindbergh, in LIFE Magazine, Dec. 22, 1967
“What in the heck are you gringos doing on top of my bus?” the bus driver asked suspiciously in Spanish.
“No comprende, no problema” (We don’t understand, but it’s not a problem), Kevin replied, as he boldly climbed onto the roof of the bus with his ropes. Paul climbed inside the bus to secure them, and I pushed the three kayaks up to Kevin, while the driver watched in bewilderment.
Our friends had offered us the use of three old kayaks. But first we had to find them and figure out how to transport them for very little money and with even less fluency in Spanish. The boats had been left in a garage somewhere in a small village near the Bío-Bío River about a year ago. He gave us the address and a note for the owner of the house and wished us luck.
After a day of wandering the streets of Santiago, we boarded an old train at dusk and headed south through the wine region and into the Lake District. Trains are my favorite form of travel, and this one was a classic. It had an elegant dining car and a great little tavern. Beer was only ten cents, so I bought a few rounds for the house and tried to practice Spanish with the friendly locals. The evening passed quickly, and at two in the morning, we all staggered back to our seats.
The train arrived in Temuco as dawn broke, and we wandered off in search of the bus station inquiring “¿Donde esta el bus?” in our broken Spanish.
This is what our phrase book told us to say, and while the people we asked seemed to understand us, we couldn’t understand what they said back. But pointing is a wonderful way to communicate, and we eventually found the station. Chile has one of the best bus systems in the world, and we easily found a bus that was leaving an hour later and headed right where we wanted to go.
After we arrived in Lonquimay, it took us about an hour to find the garage. The boats were still there, though covered with about an inch of dust, but they seemed to be in good shape, and no critters were using them as a home. The bus back to Temuco was early, and the driver was very friendly, but the bus did not have a rack.
“I thought all these buses had racks! What are we gonna do now?” Kevin asked, scratching his head.
“I’m sure glad that we brought some rope. We’ll figure something out,” Paul replied.
The luggage racks inside the bus were very sturdy, so we devised a plan to tie two ropes over the top of the bus and fasten them to the racks. The ropes were placed about fourteen feet apart, and the kayaks were attached to these ropes. Once we mastered the system, it was easy to repeat, and we used it on four different occasions. Our record was about five minutes, which the bus driver spent giving us nervous looks and pointing to his watch. None of the boats fell off, and we arrived promptly at all our destinations.
Pucón is a small resort town on the shores of the pristine Lago Villarrica in the Lake District of southern Chile. A large volcano towers above the lake, and a beautiful river flows into it. Our friend had told us that it would be a good place to hang out and practice for the Bío-Bío, so we rented a cheap room on the lake and found a taxi driver to do our shuttles.
The Río Trancura is a classic run, with many Class III and IV rapids and one long Class V. We scouted a few portions from the road, and it looked like fun, so we found a put-in and unloaded our gear. Our taxi driver looked very skeptical as we said goodbye, but he wished us luck and agreed to meet us in town again the next morning. The river was crystal clear and meandered its way through the lava beds of the ever-present Volcán Villarrica. This huge volcano towered above the river, puffing smoke or spewing lava, depending on its daily mood. The banks of the river were filled with dense vegetation, and many colorful birds swam and played in the sparkling water. The sun was bright and warm, and we quickly forgot the short midwinter days we’d left behind in Colorado.
“Wow! This is so awesome, I feel like I’m dreaming!” I said, struggling to absorb the great beauty and warmth.
The river was exciting and fun, and we found some great waves to surf and hone our skills. We stopped for lunch at the confluence of the Trancura and the Liucura and were entertained by some small duck-like creatures, which we nicknamed the whitewater birds. They had discovered the thrill of swimming whitewater and liked to launch themselves into rapids that were a hundred times their size. After a good trashing, they swam to a rock, shook themselves off, and then flew upstream for another lap. The pristine waters of the Liucura originated in a deep cave just a few miles upstream, and the icy cold water was even more majestic than that of the Trancura. There was one challenging rapid at the confluence, but the gradient soon eased, and we paddled through a labyrinth of small channels that meandered through a lush delta at the top of the lake. After a brisk paddle across the lake, we practiced a few rolls in the warm water and spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach.
It was midsummer, and the beach was filled with young Chileans who had come to swim and party. We were the only gringos in town, and the friendly locals were very receptive. After a hard afternoon of partying, we relaxed at the hotel and made plans to do it again the next day. It was going to be a tough two weeks, but somebody had to do it.
The next morning, our cab driver showed up on time and seemed somewhat surprised to see us alive and uninjured. He was even more surprised when we told him that we wanted to go back and do it again.
Paul was shooting a documentary film about the trip, and our Chilean friends were very eager to help, so we decided to shoot a scene on the beach. Kevin paddled to shore, and a throng of beautiful women greeted him and led him to a pristine beach, where they fed him wine and grapes. The vignette, which we entitled “Kevin’s Dream,” was very entertaining for everyone involved. We became very good friends with the Chileans, but they could never understand why we went to bed at midnight. Their parties lasted all night, and they would just be waking up when we returned from our various morning adventures.
After two weeks of this rigorous schedule, we felt ready for the Bío-Bío. So we said farewell to our friends and headed off in the local bus. The route to the river followed a very scenic road that wound its way up into an ancient araucaria forest on the flanks of Lonquimay, a snow-capped volcano. The Araucarias are believed to be one of the oldest species of plant in the world and have survived since the time of the dinosaurs. This forest was truly magical and was home to a wide variety of birds, including a very large species of woodpecker. The meandering road dropped into a lush valley, with many small farms and a few villages, and our excitement grew as we approached the great river.
“There it is! That’s the put-in!” one of the rafters said excitedly.
The bus came to a screeching halt, and we rushed out to stretch our legs — and unload all of our gear. A rich German filmmaker had met Kevin in the Grand Canyon and wanted to film him on this famous river, so he hired Sobek International to take care of the logistics and raft support. The rafts were very handy for carrying all of our supplies, and Paul and I enjoyed the privilege of tagging along. Paul was also making a movie, and the raft support was very handy. Our apprehension and excitement continued to grow as we readied our boats for a ten-day trip down a steep and remote river that we had never seen. After a brief safety meeting, we launched the boats and headed downstream. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and it felt great to be alive and floating on this wild river. The day was waning, so we paddled a few miles of easy whitewater and found a pleasant camp on a grassy meadow. We spent the evening around a warm fire with a delicious dinner and some cold beer and became acquainted with the rest of the Sobek clients.
We were part of a large and very diverse group, but we shared a love of nature and adventure, and we knew we would be a family for the next ten days. The pace was casual, so we had plenty of time to surf glassy waves and hike in the nearby wilderness. One of the highlights of the trip was a two-day, 8,000-vertical-foot climb to the summit of Callaqui, another grand, snow-capped volcano. We camped in the araucarias and ascended a spectacular, forested ridge in the early dawn. There was a small glacier near the top, and the route was somewhat challenging, but we had a hardy group, and everyone reached the summit. It was cold and windy on top, so we rushed back down to the warm canyon and began our preparation for the serious whitewater waiting for us downstream. The river was visible from the slopes of Callaqui, and the rapids had looked white and frothy even from 8,000 feet away.
The Nireco Gorge is the classic canyon of the Bío-Bío and one of the most incredible canyons in the world. The rapids are big and long, and a huge waterfall plunges into the gorge in the middle of the first drop. The sheer basalt cliffs are adorned with lush vegetation, and the falling water fills the top of the canyon with a fine mist. Our camp had a great view of Callaqui, and the first rays of the morning sun shimmered on the blowing snow and smoke rising from the summit we’d just climbed. The intensity of the atmosphere in camp that morning was obvious.
“I really wish that this next ten miles didn’t exist,” one of the guides said warily. He was stuck with the task of rowing a large, non-self-bailing raft full of clients down some very serious whitewater, and he was showing a few signs of stress. In fact, all of the guides looked nervous as they securely strapped the gear to the four rafts. The first big rapid was just downstream and had already been thoroughly scouted, but we did it one more time just for luck.
We had had safety meetings every day, but it was obvious that this one was for real.The group leader anxiously summoned us to the middle of the camp and began his speech. “If a raft flips, try to relax and evaluate your choices. If you are close to the shore, go for it. If you’re not, try to stay with the raft. If you are under the raft, get out, but try to get a deep breath before you leave. There is usually a good pocket of fresh air up near the floor, but if you stay there you will probably hit a rock. Anybody who wants to walk has the option. “The kayakers will go first and set up safety. We’ve already had the throw-bag drills, but just remember to look for a bag if you go for a swim. Do not wrap the rope around your neck! Hang on to it carefully, and let the thrower slide you into shore. “OK! Is everybody ready?”
“Si, Si,” the energetic group replied, and the kayakers prepared to launch. The apprehension intensified as Paul and Werner headed downstream with their cameras.
“I’m gonna go for a big ride in that first hole, so give me a few minutes,” Kevin said with a smile, just before he slid leisurely into the water. “Have a good run, but watch out for that hole in the middle! It’s probably worse than it looks.”
I watched him disappear over the first drop and sat anxiously in my boat, silently reviewing the line in my mind. “OK, just left of that big rock, and then work right around the huge hole in the middle. Stay close to the hole, then paddle hard left, go just left of the large pointed rock, and try to catch the eddy.” Apprehension is often the most difficult part of an adrenaline-based sport, and this experience was no exception. I felt like I had been waiting for at least five minutes, so I checked my watch. “Wow! Only three. Time can sure travel slowly sometimes,” I thought to myself. “Better give him a couple more. I don’t want to ruin the film.” I tried to relax and did a few more stretches. “OK, that’s it, I’m going.” I carefully eased my boat into the current and felt the power of the river pushing me downstream.
Kevin was right again: The rapids are always bigger and harder than they look from the shore. I missed the first move and fell sideways into the same hole where Kevin had been playing. I could imagine him laughing from shore as I struggled to stay upright in the large hydraulic, but the hole was quite friendly, and after a short side-surf, I slid out without rolling and missed the huge hole. As I paddled into the eddy, I was starting to feel in tune with this river. From here, it was an easy ferry to shore, where I joined my friends and helped set up safety for the rafts. The strong current pushed the first raft into the same hole that had grabbed me. It broke through without flipping, but was instantly filled to the brim with water, and it was not a self-bailer. A raft full of water is very hard to maneuver, and as the passengers bailed frantically, the oarsman struggled to miss the big hole. They missed it by inches and somehow managed to get close enough to shore to catch a throw rope.
“Wow! That current is really pushy. We almost flipped! Good job, crew.” The other rafts had similar lines, but they all made it to the eddy, and the adrenaline-stoked group prepared for some more action.
“One down, and two to go,” our fearless leader encouraged us. “The next two drops are really close together, so we need to plan to run them at the same time. We’ll try to catch an eddy in the middle, but somebody will probably miss it, so we need to scout both the drops. The kayaks will go first again. You guys can set up safety at the eddy, but you will need to be ready to head downstream if somebody misses it.”
“Ah! There is another good play hole,” Kevin said, pointing to a large hydraulic in the middle of the rapid.
“I’m gonna try to skip that one,” I replied. “I see a clean line on the right, and a very big eddy.” The rafts had gotten a good scare in the last rapid, known as Milky Way, and decided to sneak through the rocks on the right. Kevin got a great hole ride, and all the rafts caught the eddy, so we rallied for the last big drop. There was a clean line down the middle, but it threaded its way between two huge holes. The rafts were planning to sneak along the right side, but Kevin convinced me into going for the center.
“It’s big, but I think you’ll like it,” he said. “Let’s go look at it from the other side. I think we can get a much better view from over there.” The holes looked even bigger from the other side, but there was a very clean line and a friendly eddy to start the journey. “Just peel out and catch a good ferry angle, and you can drift through without even getting wet. If you miss the line, you’ll get trashed, because that hole is about as nasty as they get. I am not planning to play in this one.” He wished me luck and headed off toward a smooth tongue.
I stared anxiously at his line and tried to stay calm. “OK, I’m going.” I took half a dozen deep breaths and eased out of the eddy. The strong current pushed me toward the huge hole, but I managed to hold the ferry angle and paddled fiercely to the right. Suddenly, the huge hole was behind me, but I had paddled a little too hard, and my bow caught the edge of the second hole. A quick backstroke saved the day, but the strong eddy current spun my boat around, and I finished the rapid going backwards. It wasn’t very pretty, but the mission was accomplished, and it was a great feeling to sit in a safe eddy at the bottom of these huge rapids. The rafts managed to sneak through the rocky right channel, and the tired group camped and celebrated just downstream. We all shared a great sense of accomplishment and relief, and the wine flowed freely.
The next morning, we stopped at an excellent hot spring and continued through a lush gorge called the Valley of One Hundred Waterfalls (Cien Saltos in Spanish). The clear, sparkling water tumbled down from the slopes of Callaqui and fed the exotic vegetation that grew on the steep banks. The rapids had eased, but there were dozens of great surfing waves, and the day was sunny and warm.
Our anxiety disappeared, and the pure joy of water and sun and fresh air pushed my mind to euphoria. “I feeeeel good! I knew that I would…. I feeeel nice…. Like sugar and spice. So good, so nice, I got you….” As I paddled onward, James Brown’s anthem to euphoria filled my brain. I could see by their smiles that Kevin and Paul were enjoying the same high as we surfed our way through this incredible valley.
The newer, shorter kayaks are better for most of the modern tricks, but they don’t endo like a thirteen-foot boat. If you bury the bow of a Hollowform in a big hole, you are guaranteed some big air, and there were many big holes on the Bío-Bío. I watched Kevin very carefully, and my confidence grew as I launched my boat into bigger and bigger holes. My hole-riding skills were fairly basic, but I discovered one technique that worked and decided to stick with it. I would ride the hole until I tipped over, then reach for the bottom with my paddle, and wait for the current to flush me out. It wasn’t the best style, but it seemed to work. At the bottom of this incredible valley was another solid set of rapids that had been named the Royal Flush. It consisted of five big drops in a row, but the lines were clean, and we found some of the best endo holes that we had ever seen. One of the guides finally managed to flip a raft, but it was an easy rescue, and no one was injured. Our exuberant group camped for the last time on another grassy bench, where we enjoyed a stunning panoramic view of both the canyon that we had left behind and the desert that we were about to enter.
In 1998, I reluctantly returned with another group of friends. The spectacular Valley of One Hundred Waterfalls had been replaced by a large lagoon full of noisy jet skis, and a battalion of large trucks filled the valley with dust as they prepared to build a pipeline to divert the water around the Nireco Gorge. It was enough to make an old man cry.