More than 1,000 kilometers west of Buenos Aires, the Patagonian Andes give birth to the river Puelo in southern Argentina near the town of Bolsón. From there, the Puelo snakes westward through box canyons, alpine lakes, and old growth forests. One-hundred kilometers later the river dumps into the Pacific Ocean on the Chilean coastline.
This river’s fate is currently in doubt as the Chilean government and the private energy sector place their hydroelectric blueprints over the Patagonia, damning the region’s fastest flowing rivers.
Indeed a multinational electric company hopes to place at least five hydroelectric dams in the Chilean Patagonia. At the top of the list is the river Pascua. While Chileans are divided on the issue, local, legendary river runner Josh Lowery sees these rivers as a way of life. The river Pascua for example has seen less than one hundred people on its waters and Lowry is one of the few who has braved the unknown, a modern explorer with a hankering for real adrenaline.
“The Pascua is first on the list because nobody has heard of it, nobody has seen it, nobody knows it there and it’s the most beautiful place around, but since nobody knows it’s there, nobody will object… When I ran the Pascua, we had to portage one-hundred foot waterfalls three times and then another day-and-half portage around a gnarly part of the canyon. We had to this with our kayaks on our shoulders because there are no oxcarts there,” Lowry explains.
Fifty-five year old Lowry has been paddling rivers around the world for over twenty-five years and is often considered the best source for paddling information in Chile. He eventually settled down in the town of Futaleufú, tucked away in a canyon in the Northern part of the Patagonia. Today his company Feutaleufu Explore takes hundreds of daredevils every year down Chile’s gnarliest river, the Futa, i.e the Futaleufu River, famous for its consecutive class IV and V rapids such as Mondaca, Casa de Piedra and Más o Menos.
“He’s famous because he’s worked these rivers over 20 years now, he got here in 1986 and has run over 100 rivers in Chile. He’s gone where few have gone before,” Chester tells me while he simmers garlic over the campfire.
LOWRY AND ME
Day two of the Puelo River odyssey meant packing up the two rafts as well as Josh Lowry’s kayak and portaging everything over a 7 kilometer stretch of trail that climbs high above the river. Camping near the village of Segundo Corral, Lowry and I set off to find the oxen and cart that was going to take our gear.
The patagonian village has had its share of visitors especially during the fiesta del pueblo, every February–at the height of summer–when area villagers, tourists and beer vendors squeeze into the canyon for three days of revelry. Josh and I were met with Christian, the son of Swiss immigrants, who still spoke the tongue twisting Swiss version of the German language. CHristian was preparing a field for seed, whipping an ox plow around right angles and performing well orchestrated U-turns. Despite remembering Lowry, his animals were working, and he didn’t have time to carry our boats down the trail.
Chester the Cervezero: “My role is to cook & tell jokes… plus I brought the beer.”
We visited another family closer to the center of town. They invited us inside for tea and bread. I took care of negotiations while Lowry twiddled with leather implements hanging on the cabin’s wall. The teenage son was excited to run his oxen down the trail and help the gringos, but it was already dark and the wagon would have to wait until the morning.
THE RIVER’S LANGUAGE
Hi-side, strainers, crabbing the oar, shooting the tongue, falling out of the dumptruck, bury the deadman, and last chance eddy are all examples of paddling jargon spoken by Lowry and his kind. When our raft of three unexperienced paddlers finally came face to face with the Portón, best of what the River Puelo had to offer, we got a vocabulary lesson in real time. Falling out of the dumptruck is a nice way to say: Kit, the oarsman, hit the wave wrong and the raft was lifted as if in slow motion thus spilling the lifejacketed humans into the turquoise waters. Much like a dumptruck pours its contents into the earth.
River Captain: “We want to protect this amazing river. Enery crisis? I’ve been livin’ off the grid for the past year livin’ the dream man.”
It’s here at the Portón rapids where the electric power generating dam would be placed. The cement wall would reach a height of more than 100 meters and the resulting reservoir would cover some sixty square kilometers.
The Porton is located in the heart of the Puelo valley where the glacial waters of the Ventisquero meet the Puelo River. Hundreds of people living in the valley would have to give up their homes and move somewhere else, probably downstream towards more urban areas, such as the city of Chaiten.
For the most part, the people living along the Puelo are disconnected from the rest of the world. Few can actually get a cell phone signal and even fewer have an internet connection. Recently the government invested millions of dollars to connect the country’s main highway with the valley, via a dirt road.
While many Chileans are just finding out about plans to flood the Patagonia, rafting and kayaking legend Josh Lowry refuses to give up the fight. With a wink and his signature laugh, Lowry continues to paddle upstream.
“I tried to tell you guys, all the other guides, they don’t follow Josh!” he laughs, in that famous Josh Lowry chuckle.
Postscript: The much beloved Josh Lowry passed away in 2014, while scoping rapids in Oregon. See this tribute here.
Postscript II: Plans to dam the Puelo were eventually scrapped.