Epic Rio Futaleufu
Click photo for map

(Click Photo for map.)
In good weather, this may be
your ride to the lodge.

(Photo by Konrad Pehl )

My Invented Country: A Memoir

I was very lucky.  The grey Patagonian sky began to clear soon after the other guests had left Puerto Montt airport in a van.  They would have a scenic but tiring three-hour drive to our riverside hideaway.  Harvey King, the trip leader, informed the few of us remaining that we would actually get there first.  Hearing the good news, we picked up our bags as, outside the terminal, twin propellers started turning.

Fly In & Walk Home

“Chile lies at the end of all roads,” writes Isabel Allende in her lovely memoir, My Invented Country.  “No one passes by casually, however lost he may be.”  Why were we northerners traveling to this most southerly of nations?  If you’re a whitewater enthusiast, you’ve no doubt heard the Mapuche Indian word “Futaleufu”  (pronounced fu-ta-le-FOO).  It means Big River.

Into The Andes

Click Photo

(Click photo.)
The mountains are
as rugged as the river.

The flight through the Chilean Andes reminded me of the Pacific Northwest.  The two landscapes are shaped by the same volcanic, tectonic, and oceanic forces.  When I say “through” the Andes , I mean it: for half an hour we craned our necks as rocky peaks loomed above us on either side.  Then we looked down as the plane dropped into a placid valley, and beside the sparkling Futaleufu was our destination, the lodge at Antucamay.  As we ambled up the gravel road from the airstrip, a guest named Michael remarked, “You’ve got to love a place where you fly in and walk home.”

On our only rainy day, it was good to have
a fire in the quincho's central fireplace.

Antucamay, another Mapuche word, means “God’s Creation.”  H2O Patagonia created the central “quincho” in traditional style, with a roughly circular main room built around a large fireplace.  Outside is a wooden patio with a hot tub.  A second building contains bathrooms and showers, and a third is dedicated to massages.  Closer to the water are comfortable sleeping cabins.  Even if you’re not tuckered out from a day of rafting, riding, or hiking, the sound of the river will lull you quickly to sleep.

In the Southern Hemisphere familiar things that you’ve seen all your life are turned upside-down and are suddenly new.  The sun curves differently across the sky.  The stars are shifted, and you see the Southern Cross instead of the Big Dipper.  It takes at least a day’s flying to get down here, but in that one day you’ve gone from winter to summer — and it’s time to get in the water.

Stan's raft slides around Pillow Rock
two seconds before dump-trucking. 
(Image by Josh Waterson )

Pillow Fight

It couldn’t happen in a dangerous-sounding rapid like Chaos, Puma, or Condor.  It had to happen at Pillow Rock.  This innocently named Class IV rapid was actually the most challenging of our first day.  The river flows around a huge boulder, with enough of the current pouring over it to form a “pillow” of water on top.  I shared the bow of the raft with Bob, an experienced paddler.  Our guide Stan said the goal was to slide around the pour-over, hit the hole below the rock as squarely as possible, and battle our way out.  When we hit, the raft lurched violently left and dump-trucked us right into the river.  It was a good learning experience on this training day, but it felt embarrassing to be beaten by a pillow.

The Throne had a dangerous,
narrow chute on one side.

Trying to surface, I found myself underneath a large object in the water.  I tried to get clear, but it seemed to move with me.  The large object had a life jacket strapped to it, and I was finally able to grab it and push off.  I reached the surface and began laughing.  The paddlers hurriedly climbed back into the boat.  Seated beside me in the bow, the large object explained that he was reaching down to keep me from falling out when the increasing incline toppled him out, too.  Good ol’ Bob — he was going to make a great paddling partner.  That night we laughed again at the video shot by kayak guide Josh.  Stan had remained in the raft, but the four paddlers looked like leftover food scraped hastily off of a dinner plate.

Perhaps a quick primer on the
rating of whitewater is in order:

Class I: Gently rippling water; you crack open a cold beer.
Class II: Beer occasionally sloshes out of its can.
Class III: Can is unceremoniously dropped into raft as you grab your paddle.
Class IV: Beer can flies out of raft as you hang on for dear life.
Class V: You instantly forswear alcohol with newfound religious fervor.
Class VI: Considered un-runnable; you hope there’s beer in heaven.

Kayaking guest Dick surfs a huge
standing wave at Terminator.
(Image by Josh Waterson )
Click below for wine varietals.

Of course, we weren’t drinking during the day.  This river is challenging enough already.  By the way, if you ever run a rapid with a name like “Care Bears,” take it seriously.

The setting sun glinted off my glass of fruity Chilean Carmenere as we lounged on the patio.  Inside, chef Rocio and her crew were preparing a delicious meal featuring organic produce from the garden and seafood from the nearby Pacific.  H2O offers special rafting trips for women and families, as well as custom multi-sport trips.  This expedition, “Adventures in Wine", featured tastings conducted by Alex, a highly trained sommelier from Santiago.  It seems some of the best Chilean wines are not exported, and many contained some delightful surprises.  Alex poured us a sauvignon blanc with the spice of a Gewürztraminer, and a Gewürztraminer with the crisp freshness of sauvignon blanc.  Did I mention things can seem turned upside-down here?

Guest Bob contemplates the
famous Terminator rapid.

Last Resort

The Mapuche were feisty natives who survived repeated attempts at subjugation by Spaniards and Incas.  We too were thinking of survival as we put our rafts in the water half a mile above Inferno Canyon.  A thin but ominous overcast dimmed the sky.  We would run an easier rapid en-route as a warm-up: “Class IV for breakfast,” Harvey chirped.  Pillow Rock had been Class IV, and it had eaten us for breakfast.

We stood on a rocky shelf just inside the Gates of Inferno, scouting the huge Class V+ “Entrada” rapid.  Squeezed into a narrow channel, the current rages past a dangerous pour-over near the right bank and bounces off a wall on the left.  Harvey reviewed the commands he might have to use, including “high side left” and “high side right,” in case we got turned sideways and needed to shift our weight up-current to reduce the risk of capsizing.  There was also the last-ditch command, “get down,” but stopping paddling to hang on is an absolute last resort.  Someone asked if he expected even to call any “high sides” in this rapid.  Harvey squinted downstream and said, “I hope not.”

Guide Harvey retrieves his raft
after a "ghost boat" portage. 
(Image by Josh Waterson )

Mitch went first on the pontoon “rescue raft.”  Staying slightly left of center to avoid the pour-over, he got caught in a lateral current, and despite a heroic effort on his part, the Irresistible Force took him straight into the Immovable Object.  Josh’s video close-up later showed Mitch pinned between the raft and the wall, struggling to get back on the boat before the current could flip it.  I’m glad I didn’t see those details until after I had run the Canyon myself.

Adrenaline Is Your Friend

Harvey ’s group was next.  We stayed in the mainstream until we were almost beside the pour-over to our right, and then our guide pointed us toward the vortex below it and shouted, “All forward!”  A few quick strokes across the current would take us just below the hole and away from the dreaded wall.

Adrenalin, usually your friend, can be too much of a good thing.  We paddled harder than our guide expected, and by the time he could yell “Stop!” it was too late.  No amount of back-paddling could save us.

“GET DOWN!!!”  Harvey screamed above the water’s roar.  As I crouched and grabbed the tight nylon line at the gunwale, the bow plunged into the churning hole.  Our raft was a toy boat trapped under a giant bathtub faucet at full blast.  The torrent flooded the raft and made it spin slowly.  “High side right!” our guide thundered, and I dove behind Bob, grabbing the line on his side before we went under the faucet.  “High side left!”  We all dove left as the raft continued its awful convulsions.  Harvey was completely underwater much of the time.  After several repetitions of the cycle, he croaked out another command to dive right, obviously losing his voice.  This time I didn’t reach the rope before the deluge hit, and suddenly the world disappeared.  I hoped there was Carmenere in heaven.

Deep Thoughts

Ever wonder how your favorite pair of jeans feels when you throw it in the washing machine?  Now I know.  My first thought was of disappointment at having abandoned my imperiled raftmates, so intense had our struggle been.  My second thought was that I had more immediate things to worry about.  Completely immersed, I noticed how light the water felt.  It was full of air bubbles.  Hopefully that meant I wasn’t down too deep.  Righting myself, I stuck up a hand through the water-with-air-in-it and was relieved to feel air-with-water-in-it.  Struggling to the surface and taking in a big breath of mostly-air, I prepared to run the remainder of my first Class V rapid without benefit of a boat.  Extending my feet in front of me, as we had been trained to do in case of rocks, I faced the wall and began sculling backward to let the Irresistible Force take me farther away from the Immovable Object.  Soon a voice to my right shouted, “Swim to me!”  I think I covered the 25 feet to Phil’s kayak in just three strokes.  Adrenalin was promptly forgiven.

Kayak guide Mike floats on the
frothy water below Zeda.

Phil towed me into an eddy below the rapid.  Soon Harvey and company arrived, whooping and laughing maniacally.  Bob had gone overboard with me but kept a hand on the gunwale line; his body had served as a sea anchor, stabilizing the raft long enough for the guide to get it out of the vortex.  As the sea anchor and I climbed back aboard, Harvey fitted a spare solid-ash oar into one oarlock.  Soon thereafter, kayak guide Mike found part of the original oar a mile downstream.

It wasn’t over, either.  The next Class V, Purgatory, had an enormous plunge that launched me right past Bob’s head.  Wedged firmly in the vinyl foot cups on the raft’s floor, my feet refused to detach from my legs, and I boomeranged back into my seat.  After two more Class V’s, we were out of the Canyon.

This is why the rafts are
ghost-boated through Zeda. 
(Image by Josh Waterson )

Better Part of Valor

H2O Patagonia’s guides are audacious but not reckless.  (Click here to read their amazing bios.)  The next two rapids were too hazardous for guests of our limited experience.  Zeda, named in Spanish for the last letter of the alphabet, bends the entire river through a Z-shaped chute only 25 feet wide.  We watched from a vibrating rock ledge as the guides “ghost-boated” the empty rafts through the tumult and retrieved them downstream.  The Throne was a huge rock that forced the rafts through a narrow plunge on one side, and a few of our kayak guides took a wild ride down the safer side of the rock.

Riders get an excellent view of
Tres Monjas, the "three nuns" peak. 
Image by Josh Waterson )

Even at La Cascada we slept
on comfy mattresses in the tents.

In the afternoon we traded paddles for reins and rode up the Rio Azul Valley to La Cascada.  A night at this lodge is another custom feature available on some of H2O’s trips.  Named for a pretty waterfall in the woods behind it, La Cascada is a smaller version of Antucamay, with a lovely view of the Rio Azul from its wooden deck.  We had a fabulous outdoor dinner with some fantastic reserve Carmeneres, and afterward we celebrated Stan’s birthday with cake.  We were still jabbering excitedly about the unpredictable Inferno Canyon , and no amount of fatigue could have shut us up.  Stan, who like Mitch had steered his raft to the left to avoid the pour-over, said he had never hit that wall so hard and joked that he still had moss on his arm.  Harvey said he had never gotten into the pour-over hole before: “You can run that rapid a dozen times and not get your hair wet.”  It had been a memorable day for everyone.

Surface With A Smile

Sommelier Alex & wife Paula at Rio Azul.

The Rio Azul is a great
technical challenge for kayaks. 
(Image by Josh Waterson.)

While the Futaleufu is a sparkling blue-green color, the smaller Rio Azul is a striking milky blue.  Its Class II and III rapids are perfect for inflatable kayaks.  This was the only rainy day of the trip, but we were having too much fun to care.  The one-person boats are highly maneuverable: secured into the craft with elastic knee straps, you try to power through each rapid without getting turned sideways and flipping.  I made it to the very last one, a Class III with a small pour-over (my arch-enemy), and suddenly I found myself hanging upside-down in my boat with water running up my nose.  Annoyed at my wipeout, I briefly considered trying to roll back up while still in the boat — that way it wouldn’t count, right? — but inflatables aren’t made to do that.  I wriggled out of the straps and once again surfaced with an embarrassed smile.  I have never had so much fun being annoyed.

Back at Antucamay the weather cleared enough for rainbows at sunset, and we took our glasses of organic cabernet-rosé out on the patio while our crepe d’orange desserts were being prepared.  It felt like heaven.  And there was wine here.

“Terminator is one of the most famous rapids in the world,” said Josh.  Even so, the highly technical Class V whitewater failed to terminate us, and Son of Terminator (Class IV) wasn’t such a bad kid.  We had gained a lot of confidence.  Mitch was guiding my group today so Harvey could take the pontoon boat and rest his ragged voice.  We had a blast going over the huge hump of Khyber Pass (IV) and the mountainous “wave train” of Himalaya (IV).  After lunch we repeated our training-day runs, only taking a more aggressive line.  Pillow tried to throw us, but we hung on.  After Inferno, today’s wall at Tiburón (IV) didn’t seem so threatening, and we raced right by.  At Mundaca (IV), Stan’s crew chose a daring line and narrowly avoided dump-trucking.  More whooping was heard.  The sun had returned, and we headed for the lodge completely spent and smiling, ready for our massages.

Guest Bill rappels under a waterfall
with Stan and Phil on rope belay.

Water Supply

Outdoor guides tend to have multiple interests and tons of energy, so they acquire a broad range of skills.  On our “rest day” Bill, Robyn, and I chose to do some canyoneering with Stan and Phil.  Someone asked kayak guide Aren how the fishing was; he replied, “Epic.”

The canyoneers hiked up nearby Helves Canyon, whose creek supplies pristine drinking water to Antucamay.  We then rappelled through several scenic waterfalls.  The guides spoke of economic pressures beginning to affect this isolated area: “The Fu is in danger of being dammed like the Bio-Bio, which was another gem of a river." Was.  The issue reportedly isn’t electricity or flood control so much as water storage.  Patagonia, they told us, is to fresh water what Arabia is to oil.  Some things are worth more when we can hoard them.

Masseuse and yoga instructor
Adriana pours Anna some Chardonnay.

Late that afternoon several of us strolled about the park-like central square in the town of Futaleufu , the warm sun still two hours from setting.  People passed on foot and on bicycles, and a rooster crowed in the distance.  Two blocks away, Mitch’s wife ran the nicest restaurant in town, but my dinner tonight would be served back at the Antucamay, and it would be — well, epic.

Beside the river is a grassy meadow.  While lamb roasted in the barbecue pit, log tables were set in a semicircle under a grove of trees.  Frisbees were thrown, dry Carmenere-Cab Franc was sipped, stories were shared, and evening fell.  I’ve eaten in some very fancy restaurants, but no amount of money could buy this ambience.

Carnage Is King

Except for the distance, travel to Chile is pretty easy.  It requires no special vaccinations, and no visa is needed for U.S. and European citizens.  There is a $100 “reciprocity fee” that must be paid upon arrival.  It might as well be called a “revenge fee” because the U.S. does it to Chilean visitors for some reason.

Harvey guides his crew through
the rocks at La Casa de Piedra. 
(Image by Josh Waterson )

The river had one last chance at revenge.  Our final Class V was La Casa de Piedra, named “the house of stone” for the enormous boulders that must be steered around.  While Terminator required three or four moves, Casa required no fewer than seven.  The rapid culminates in a huge standing wave with a yawning hole, called “The Crusher,” behind it.  Avoid it and you’re safe — but we didn’t come here to be safe.  Not for nothing is Harvey called “The Carnage King.”  After steering us perfectly through the rapid, he had enough confidence in us to take a chance on the hole.  I was on the left in the bow, and when we plummeted and bounced, my feet held in the cups but my head and shoulders went under the water — on the right side.  I bounced back up to find that only Harvey and I remained in the boat.  Had the river decided to go easy on me at the very end?  I squinted back at The Crusher and thought, I hope not.

The whole gang stops for a breather
after running Inferno Canyon.

Kayaks are loaded for
a day on the Futaleufu.

(Image by Konrad Pehl )

After our final dinner at God’s Creation, a group from town performed a traditional Cueca courtship dance for us, with some audience participation.  More laughing was heard.  Tomorrow we would fly home to jobs, family, and winter.  Before turning in, I stood on the patio and took a last look at the Southern Cross in the summer sky.  It may have been my imagination, but I could swear the river sounded calmer.

— Feature by Robert LaGrone, Las Vegas Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent.