Patagonia's greatest whitewater adventure
By Shaun Tolson
The Futaleufu River’s Terminador Rapid can be heard surging from a quarter of a mile away. The class 5 stretch of whitewater cascades over and around imposing granite boulders for eight-tenths of a mile, and it lives up to its name. The river which runs more than 120 miles through Chile, drops 3,000 feet from beginning to end, and through its most challenging section of rapids the Futaleufu drops 45 feet per mile --33 feet more per mile than the Colorado River when it passes through the Grand Canyon. In Patagonia, which emerged as a world-class whitewater destination a little less than three decades ago, the Futaleufu is the crown Jewel.
A group of kayakers first negotiated the Futaleufu’s rapids in 1986, and the following year a commercial rafting company from the United States attempted to duplicate the effort. Prior to that attempt, The Terminador and other rapids along the river were unnamed, but that was about to change. Outfitted with a traditional rafting boat full f gear and rafters without paddles, the American company successfully traversed a handful of class 5 rapids before reaching the stretch of whitewater that--based on the impending result-- would come to be named Terminador. The rapid offers no margin of error, and the raft, weighed down by gear and rafters who couldn’t paddle, drifted from the necessary line down the left side of the river. Instead, it was pulled down the center of the rapid, where it was trapped (and subsequently destroyed) in a large, violent hole--the section of a rapid below a submerged boulder where the resulting waterfall creates a backward--falling wave of equal strength. All of the rafters survived, but news of the event quickly circulated throughout the international rafting community and for years the Futaleufu was deemed unraftable. It wasn’t until 1991 that Eric Hertz and his company, Earth River Expeditions, decided to explore the possibilities.
Aimed with 20 years of rafting experience and aided by his own fleet of specially designed rafts and catarafts (a cross between a catamaran and a traditional whitewater raft that offers greater stability through rapids and better rescuing ability), Hertz and a small team of guides and intrepid clients spent a couple of years in the early 90’s making exploratory runs of the river. In the beginning Hertz would only allow experienced rafters with class 5 experience to join him on those early commercial explorations, although today 90% of Earth River’s clients are beginners. “Before the convincing was a lot harder,” says Robert Currie, One of Earth River’s lead guides, who explains that seasoned rafters weren’t always receptive to direction and sometimes would want to challenge a guides’ chosen line for a particular rapid. “Nowadays, we can work with guests a lot better because they want to learn.”
My fellow rafters on this Earth River trip certainly want to learn, and we listen attentively as Currie surveys the churning water from shore at the company’s first private campsite. It will be six days before we see this rapid again, but then we’ll be viewing it head-on from the inside of a raft and with three days of training under our belts. At the moment, the rapid takes on a Jekyll-an-Hyde-like persona. From solid ground, it’s easy to underestimate the Terminado, to view it with complacency. However, the rapid’s mighty sound affirms the water’s unrelenting force. “We’ll be really good and trained when we get here,” Currie says, “We’ve got to be.”
“GO HARD! GO hard!” Currie shouts from his perch at the back of our raft, though is booming voice is muffled by the roar of the rapids around us. “Give it all you’ve got!”
I dig my feet into the foot cups on the floor of the boat and lean out over the side of the raft, thrusting my paddle into the water. It’s the middle of our first day of rafting and we’ve entered the most powerful section of Mundaca, a class 5 rapid along the Futaleufu’s lower canyon. A series of white-capped swells crashes over me at the front of our boat, each one delivering a brisk shock to my senses, but I do my best to lean into the hydro-powered onslaught and paddle on.
The classification of whitewater is not an exact science and, as Currie explains, rapids can change classes with the rise and fall of the river’s water level. Never the less, as a general rule, a class 5 rapid is considered the most extreme whitewater that can be rafted commercially. In addition to being difficult, it can be treacherous. With Mundaca, there is the danger of being swept up in the current that slings everything towards a giant hole near the bottom of the rapid--a hole so large that the backward-crashing wave downriver is as high as the initial drop before it. A hole of this magnitude will flip a raft instantly. “Remember, I’m in the raft with you,” Currie told us the day before. “So if you guys are swimming, I’m swimming. And I hate to swim.”
Yesterday, Currie’s comments about taking an unexpected plunge into the Futaleufu were lighthearted: today, while attempting to tame the river’s fury, Currie bellows out commands in a serious, urgent tone. I’m all to aware of the dangers that we’ll face if we cannot overpower the current. A few seconds of aggressive paddling gets us through the perilous section, and my fellow rafters and I take a quick moment to congratulate each other on another team victory. “We have to attack,” Currie reminds us at the bottom of the rapid. “We have to be aggressive. We have to work hard today so tomorrow will feel easy.”
Tomorrow we’ll tackle a stretch of the river that includes a handful of class 5 rapids, the most significant of which is Infierno, a class 5 passage that has our trip’s trio of safety cataraft operators giddy with excitement. “I’m always stoked for a rafting day, but I can’t conceal my excitement for Infierno Canyon.” says To McDonnell, a California native who, among his Patagonia comrades, is affectionately known as Chico Max. “What makes Infierno so exciting?” I ask him. “That’s for you to discover!”
Regardless of the rapids faced, what everyone discovers after a full day of rafting is the river’s uniqueness. The river is fed by the melting glaciers in the Andes Mountains some 8,000 feet above sea level, but because those glacial waters filter through a series of high elevation lakes, they’re about 25 degrees warmer when they reach the canyon where the rapids begin to form. Those high elevation lakes also allow the glacial silt to separate from the water, which makes the Futaleufu clearer then most glacier-fed rivers. and gives it a Caribbean-like turquoise hue. According to Hertz, even the canyon’s geology contributes to a unique rafting experience. “When you go down most rivers, they often look similar. But every bend you go around on the Futaleufu looks different.” he says, “It has technical rapids, big tumbling rapids, wave trains and rapids that careen off walls in steep canyons. Most rivers don’t have that variety.”
THE FUTALEUFU MAY be unique, but like most high-volume rivers, it’s in danger of losing its identity. From the beginning of Earth River’s involvement in Patagonia, rumors circulated about damming the Futaleufu for hydro-electric power, which is why Hertz bought land at strategic points along the river.
This allowed him to build distinct campsites, each with its own ambience, and it allowed him to hopefully block the damming of the river at those specific areas. Hertz was careful to take a minimalist approach-- he cut down as few trees as possible and he made sure every river bank structure and dwelling was concealed from view along the water. “You can kill a river in a lot of ways. One way is with a thousand knife wounds.” he says, explaining that over developing the river’s shore line would be almost as damage as damming it.
The threat of a Futaleufu dam still lingers. Hertz admits that the river is probably an ideal place for hydro-electricity, but he also acknowledges that Chile is blessed with even more abundant, long-term sources of natural energy, specifically solar, wind and geothermal. The Natural Resources Defense Council concurs, stating that “all of these alternative solutions are more sustainable, less destructive and more stable than large hydro-electric and coal power sources that currently dominate Chile’s energy industry.”
Hertz has fought against a possible Futaleufu dam for two decades and only recently has he been aided in his efforts. A newly formed Chilean non-profit foundation, the Futaleufu River Keeper, aims to protect the river and its community from pollution, destructive development and activities that would harm human health or the river environment. Hertz hopes that the organization will help to educate more of Chile and the rest of the world on the value of the river and the consequences that would result if it were dammed.
Earth River’s group of guides and safety cataraft operators naturally are in agreement on river politics. On the second-t-last night of our trip, Jon Van Dyke, a 25 year old guide from the San Francisco Bay area, breaks out his guitar and plays a variety of tunes, from a rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Wish you Were Here” to bluegrass melodies and original compositions. During one interlude, Chico Max-- who previously relegated himself to background vocals-- takes a moment to freestyle about the river. “We must protect it and not neglect it.” he sings “because they might dam it, and it would never be the same.”
All four of Earth River are different-- they range from a sprawling property with a communal area recessed into a cave, lost beaches and natural springs to a tree house community where guests can drift off to sleep to a cacophony of frogs croaking in the nearby lake. Wooden and stone hot tubs are mainstays at every camp as are flush toilets and hot showers but guest expecting luxury accommodations with white-linen service will be disappointed. The luxury of an Earth River Futaleufu trip is that novice paddlers can find piece of mind knowing that their guides can lead them down a river famous for its world class whitewater. As Jamie Mendez, one of the guides on the trip explains, its more than just making it down a rapid. “It would take 15 or 20 seconds for a boat of experienced rafters to make it through Infierno Rapid,” he says, “and it would take 15 or 20 seconds for a boat full of novice rafters.” “So what’s the difference?” I ask. “The novices would be in the water”
Being in the river is exactly what my fellow rafters and I want to avoid as we stare down the beginning stretch of the Terminador Rapid on our final day of the trip-- one that many experienced rafters believe is the most active day of whitewater anywhere on the planet. The water level is lower than normal, which makes Terminador slower to run, but far more technical (and no less dangerous). As our guide, Currie, explains it’s all about positioning the boat properly to drift down into the right places on the river. “It surgical” he tells our group during the morning orientation.
Currie takes us up to a perch overlooking the rapid and maps out the route that we must take. We then watch as Chico Mac and the other safety cataraft operators maneuver down the rapid on the same line and position themselves for a potential rescue mission, should any of us end getting jostled out of the boats.
Back in the boat, we push off from the bank and are quickly put to the test. However just as Currie predicted, we’ve become a efficient team of paddlers. We react quickly and with conviction to each of Currie’s commands, and before long we’re paddling past the safety catarafts. The run is smooth and clean and leaves us all feeling temporarily invincible. “There’s a method to the madness,” Hertz says. “We like our clients to feel as though they have accomplished something when they finish a trip.”
Based on Currie’s reaction to our Terminador descent, it’s clear we have. “I love it when a team comes together,” he says. “ That was textbook, it was perfect.”
For more information on the Futaleufu Riverkeeper click here.
No self-respecting whitewater aficionado would contest that the Futaleufú is among the greatest stretches of whitewater on the planet. For about 50 miles, this shifting thread of turquoise winds through an impossibly grand theater of scenery. Rafters take in skyscraping peaks, sheer granite cliffs, and thickets of hardwood forest as they tumble down 36 Class IV and V rapids. Despite its brawn, however, the river is gravely endangered.
A Spanish power company, Endesa, has the rights to build three dams that would destroy long-standing shepherd communities and wipe out whitewater recreation forever. Earth River Expeditions, the whitewater-rafting company that pioneered the first raft descent of the river in 1991, has and continues to put up a massive fight. They bought a large amount of land that Endesa would have to purchase in order to build the dams and fought the construction of unsustainable development. In 2012, with the profits from their raft trips, they also founded a conservation organization, the Futaleufú Riverkeeper, to work on litigation, community outreach, and other conservation efforts full time.
The first thing travelers can do to support river conservation is experience the Fu. After cruising the river each day, rafters retire to camps etched into cliffs and perched in trees. Extracurricular activities include hot-tubbing in natural springs, rock climbing, rappelling, mountain biking, and, naturally, blissing out on a private beach. All profits from the trip go toward protecting the river. Want to do more? Donate directly to the Futaleufú Riverkeeper.
By David Rakoff
GLEN CLOSE AND I ARE HEAD OVER HEELS. Ass over teakettle we tumble from our raft into the spin cycle of the Rio Futaleufu. It is the perfect day; the sun is shining and the river is beautiful - a shimmering, effervescent foam that glits like a shower of sapphires as it closes over my head. suddenly I'm hit with a preconscious instinct, my own reverse Elephant Man moment. I am not a man, I am an animal: Follow the bubbles to the surface!
The froth is disorienting, churning in every direction, with no clear way up. But flotation being what it is, the combination of our life jackets and the powerful arms of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Bobby for short; president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council) does the trick. Glenn and I are hoisted, dripping, back into the boat, our ordeal all of five seconds from the start to finish.
By Paul GoldsmithAmerican Airlines Magazine
Time may be running out for adventurers who want to tackle Chile's Futaleufu River - A 100-mile cerulean stripe that roars out of the Andes across the top of Patagonia to the Pacific. The Caribbean blue water, lush old-growth forests, Andean glaciers, and breathtaking mountain vistas belie the world's premier white water. Here's what it's like to fight the Fu.
A giant gray-green wave bears down on the boat, The bow of our 18-foot canary yellow inflatable raft dips as the wave crashes over us, and I feel the icy water run down my arms and chest inside my waterproof jacket. (I forgot to close the neck again - damn!) The water roars like a thousand TVs with the cable out. I shiver and shake my head to clear my eyes. Next to me Roger, is doing the same. Behind me in the boat I can hear John shouting encouragement to the other five people in the boat, but another wave is staring down at us. The bow dips in its now familiar pattern, and I'm already ducking my head. For seconds, I see only white froth before the boat explodes out over the wave, and then all I can see is sunlight.
Fed by lakes high in the Andes of Argentina, the Rio Futaleufú crosses the Andes—and into Patagonia, Chile—before it finally empties into Yelcho Lake. Along its journey, it creates some of the most breathtaking scenery and whitewater experience to be found in the world. Unfortunately at the same time it is a potential resource for hydroelectric power that governments and power companies find completely irresistible.
For the moment—and hopefully well into the future—the river is being preserved through the efforts of whitewater experts Eric Hertz and Robert Currie, who have created a Land Trust and have facilitated the private purchases of key properties along the river that provide solid political resistance to its damming and any other adverse development. Through their company Earth River Expeditions, some of these purchases have also allowed Hertz and Currie to create a totally unique experience for visitors from all over the world.
By Rob Mcfarland
White water ride to ChileStarting in Argentina, winding through the Andes to Chile, join Rob McFarland on the Futaleufu River for a dream rafting trip.
"PAY attention," shouts Pedro from the back of the raft. Six panting heads snap around in unison. We've failed to make it to the exit on the left side of the rapid so after some furious back-paddling we're now in an eddy on the more dangerous right side. It's time for Plan B. In front of us the river roars between two hulking granite boulders and there's just enough space for our raft.
"Ready?" asks Pedro. We nod. Forward paddle. We launch back into the main flow and are catapulted towards the right boulder. Commands come in quick succession: Left back ... right back ... all forward and we dig our paddles into the bracing, teal-coloured water. The boulders whiz by in a blur of grey and we're spat out into the calmer waters below. Exhausted, I turn around to see Pedro grinning. "Good job," he says, his deep, infectious laugh echoing off the sheer rock walls.
by Eric Hertz
Late one April after the rafting season, I was at Cave Camp building a trail around Laguito Azul to Lost Beach with the caretaker of the camp, Checho Berrera. The camp got its name from the massive rock shelter on the property. At one time the Puehenche Indians lived in this natural stone house which had a natural fireplace and was large enough to ride a horse inside.
My company, Earth River Expeditions, had been using the Camp for three seasons and yet the top of a 300 foot granite monolith that rose straight out of Laguito Azul and could be seen from everywhere in the camp remained a mystery.
By Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
For the .pdf article with pictures click here
Last spring my wife, Mary, our nine-year-old daughter, Kyra, and I assembled with thirty-three friends who had arrived at Chile’s Santiago Airport following overnight flights from various places. Our group included tennis star John McEnroe and his wife, rock singer Patty Smyth; comedian-writer Dan Aykroyd and his wife, actress Donna Dixon; and Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her husband, Saturday Night Live comic; Brad Hall, all with children in tow. All together, there were sixteen kids and twenty adults determined to tackle the Futaleufu – one of the world’s finest and yet least known white-water rivers- with American outfitter Earth River Expeditions. But our ten-day trip involved more then just adventure. Earlier in the year, Chile’s largest hydropower company, Endesa, had announced its intent to dam the Fu in 2013. Part of our groups mission was to bring the publics attention to this wilderness gem so that the Chilean people would be less inclined to tolerate its destruction.
By David Noland(book chapter)
One day in 1989, as Eric Hertz's rented Toyota van bucked along a dirt road through the remote mountains of southern Chile, he looked down from a bridge and was what appeared to be a narrow tongue of the Caribbean Sea, a ribbon on bright aquamarine blue foaming with whitecaps.
Hertz, the owner of a small whitewater rafting company called Earth River Expeditions, had paddled down wild and scenic rivers all over the world, but he'd never seen anything like this. He stopped the van, walked over to the railing, and stared down at the rushing water. “I knew in an instant that this was the most beautiful river I'd ever seen.” Hertz recalls. “No other river has ever affected me like that. Not the Colorado, not even the Bio Bio. It was like God had designed the perfect whitewater river and laid it at my feet.”
By Peter May
FUTALEUFU, Chile—So, my neighbor said, you really should come along. It's summer down there in February and this river is supposed to be beautiful.Chile? Yeah, right. That'll happen. Rafting? On a real river whose name I can't pronounce which has sharp rocks and big rapids? I don't think so. But, of course, it did happen. I'm here to report that I survived my first white-water rafting adventure—thanks to my swimming ability. I'm also here to report that if I can do it, just about anyone else can, and that I'd do it again. My neighbor had predicted this reaction. You'll come back a convert, he assured me. You'll be looking for the next big river now that you're a Class 5 guy.
The white-water outfitter Eric Hertz spent a lifetime searching for the perfect river. In 1990, he finally found it, in Patagonia. Intrepid kayakers who had ventured into southern Chile the previous year said that the Futaleufú River could not be rafted. But Hertz and his partner, the Chilean white-water expert Roberto Currie, made an expeditionary first descent in 1991 and figured out how to safely navigate what today is one of the most intensive stretches of commercially rafted white-water rapids in the world. They began buying the shoreline, including the river's most desirable campsites and hiking spots, and have turned the Fu into an outstanding adventure destination for rafters and kayakers.
By Barclay Satterfield
We all put a drop of water on the back of our necks, for luck. Beth, one of the river guides, shouted “Remen a delante!” (Spanish for “paddle forward”), and we launched our raft into the rapids of the wild and phosphorescent green waters of Chile's Futaleufu (also called the Fu).
I had traveled from Smyrna, Delaware, last spring to spend seven days with five classmates hiking, rock climbing, riding horses, and, of course, white-water rafting, all before the spectacular backdrop of the Andean rainforest. Accompanying us once we arrived were Suj ey and Katia, two girls from the nearby town of Futaleufu, Chile. It was one of the most incredible trips of my life. And certainly the most disturbing.
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