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When Hurricane Norbert doused the Phoenix area with up to five inches of rain, I was somewhat disappointed with myself that I didn’t throw my new Fluid kayak in the truck and drive two hours to chase the water. But 6,000 cfs of street runoff in the nation’s fifth largest city didn’t seem like a whitewater paradise. When my own neighborhood flash floods, I honor the obligation and ride the wave, but this time, I decided to leave the ghetto boating to the locals.
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Lucky for me, a shot at redemption was at hand. A second pulse of Norbert moisture hit southwestern Utah, sending the Virgin River to flood stage just as my friend Bill Barron pedaled his way toward Zion on his bike campaign for U.S. Congress. Bill’s platform supports a tax on carbon at its source, thus forcing industry to invest in renewables, and maybe slow the acceleration of climate change. We stopped and saw Bill at a Zion campaign event. And we rode the fruits of a wild climate.
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For good paddling, the Virgin was way too high and silty and full of floating logs, but North Creek looked just about right. Fed by a famous canyon known as The Subway, North Creek tumbles toward the Virgin through a quaint desert valley lined by colorful bluffs and deep green cottonwoods. This was the section we hoped to paddle, before the water was gone. In true Southwest fashion, the 1,000 cfs we spotted on our first pass dropped to 200 cfs by the time we returned an hour later.
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Once on the water, Josh and I were pleasantly surprised by the flow. It was higher than it looked, almost perfect for a first descent. Was it a first? Probably not, but until one of you southern Utah paddlers tells me otherwise, we’re claiming it! In any case, it was new to us, a new and unexpected drop lurking around every corner.

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The groomed elk path vanished, and we found ourselves in the deep woods, linking passages in old growth forest—wading through huckleberry bushes, sliding down gullies, stepping over and into rotten mossy logs. By moving slowly and carefully, we could make steady progress without undue risk. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the luxury of slow caution. Darkness crept up from the depths, and the thought of bushwhacking by headlamp into the Queets River gorge nagged at me with every new horizon of trees unfolding ahead. At least the river chimed encouragement from below, far below.
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Rivers of the Olympic Peninsula offer opportunity to float through one of the world’s great forest reserves. When comparing forests of big trees, the Olympic rainforest is unequaled. Nowhere else do so many trees of large diameter—5 to 15 feet—and soaring height—200 to 300 feet—exist in a single unmolested unit. Walking through these forests gets one up close and personal with the giants. Floating here offers longer views to the multi-storied canopy. Our pack raft trip down the Queets River promised a little of both.
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Climbing above the North Fork of the Quinalt on day one was a humid, even muggy affair, appropriate conditions for the beefy hemlocks and massive cedars that loomed over our trail. The balmy feel abated by morning, when fog formed before our eyes as the transpiring forest released its moisture with the rising sun.
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Up we marched, out of the cloud and into the changing forest of the mid-elevations. The cedars changed from red to yellow, the hemlocks from western to mountain, and the firs from Douglas to silver. The record Alaska, or yellow, cedar, gave us reason to pause for a photo and due reverence, a wonderful gnarly old tree. When we spotted another huge Callitropsis nootkatensis an hour down the trail, we felt compelled to measure it and compare numbers. By my rough measurements, the old champion retains the title, but the two trees are close enough in size to warrant a return with tape and laser to record exact dimensions. A new champion could be on deck!
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Emerging from the forest into sunny subalpine parks of distinct Olympic lime-green, we shed our packs for a quick swim in a shallow cool pond. Onward, upward, downward, the “traverse” trail seemed to constantly climb or descend.
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We pushed on toward an airy ridge where Mt. Olympus and its trademark glaciers burst into view. The Queets was visible below, glistening like a silver ribbon on the dark woods. A snowfield rested nearby, assuring our water supply. This was camp.
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Another long day of up and down hiking along the Skyline Route led to Lake Beauty, and the first other backpackers we’d seen.
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Soon we were hustling into the gorge in a race against darkness. With twenty minutes of light remaining, the opaque color of the upper Queets peeked out beneath cedar boughs. At water’s edge, we found ourselves in a gorge of smooth grey walls. Luckily, a mossy camp presented itself, sitting beside a cold spring-fed creek feeding the river.
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I hadn’t planned on much whitewater during this almost-source-to-sea mission, but our route into the canyon deposited us farther upstream than anticipated. Although we were below the unrunnable Service Falls gorge, several rapids remained before our deliverance into the valley. Bret had never paddled a pack raft before. His game face was on.
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Following a full scale portage (boats deflated in packs) around class V Kilkelly Rapids, we re-launched in late afternoon sunlight and pitched camp amid the wild Upper Queets Valley. Surrounded by old-growth forest in a rarely traveled river corridor, this was the place, the moment I’d been seeking since scanning the map from my living room floor years earlier.
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Day five was about making miles. Low water crept us along and logjams forced several short portages. A herd of elk, the first we’d seen despite plentiful sign, crossed the river above camp just as dusk turned to dark. Another small herd crossed the shallow river while we ate lunch two days farther downstream.
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It was not elk but fish that the natives were after near the river mouth. From the highway 101 bridge we could see numerous skiffs plying the water between their nets of coho salmon. The river debauched into the Pacific as a narrow stream carving through a fog-shrouded coastline. The humble opening gave few clues to the wild splendor that exists upstream, on the wild Queets.

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Josh probing

On Friday, August 2nd, we lost Josh Lowry, a kayaking legend. I make that claim because writing about notable whitewater personalities is my job, and Josh’s story produced perhaps the best profile I’ve ever written. But my professional opinion doesn’t meaningfully identify Josh as a legend, his life’s actions took care of that.

This past winter, I spent a week with Josh at his rafting company in Futaleufu, Chile. His staff of guides, all three of them, had found their way to Josh and his world of idealistic simplicity through various means, but looking back, it was a whitewater pilgrimage for them all. Working for Josh wasn’t a job as much as an apprenticeship in the art of river gypsy, under the master. These young boatmen had no delusions of squirreling away money through guiding. They were there to paddle, to integrate into the relaxed pace of rural Chile, practice their Spanish, sleep in the backyard and eat raspberries off the bush for breakfast—to be Lowry-ites. On days off, they’d go kayaking with their esteemed boss, still one of the guys (but also THE guy) at 61-years young. Their loyalty towards Josh spoke volumes.

When a young traveler stopped by the office wanting a raft trip but having no money to pay for one, Josh took him down his beloved Futaleufu anyway. He simply asked for some help around the property, and called it a trade. He showed the young man how to dig an efficient irrigation trench for a new garden plot. Later, we all transported posts to Josh’s undeveloped riverside property. We placed those posts in a barn that Josh had built with beams acquired in another trade, for his retired ambulance shuttle rig. He’d procured the ambulance, somehow, from a band of true Patagonian gypsies.

This was the flow of Josh Lowry’s life, always seeking a symbiotic solution through his ascetic existence, in harmony with the seasons, in tune with the river. “I am a minimalist, both in life and paddling,” he once told me. With that, I couldn’t help chuckling at the recollection of our West Clear Creek trip, and Josh’s ancient Noah Jeti kayak with stripped seat bolts, his thread-bare wetsuit, his leaky paddling jacket. My wife, Lisa, and I wore drysuits, and even we were cold. Not surprisingly, Josh was always the first to get the fire going at camp. That trip was so epic, hard, and beautiful, so perfect, that I’ll never go back. Yet it was just one small adventure in Josh Lowry’s ledger of “trips of a lifetime.”
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He was the first to run Mexico’s classic Agua Azul and Chile’s renowned Baker. His Chilean road trips of 1994 (with John Foss and Clay Wright) and 1995 (with Arnd Schaeftlein, Bernd Sommer, Manu Arnu, Olli Grau, and Dave Kashinski) included many other exploratories in lands that were unknown to the whitewater world, the stuff of dreams. There were also countless trips down Grand Canyon, many summers on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and adventurous jungle romps in southern Mexico. His whitewater Opus was the Rio Pascua. The river has only attracted a couple expeditions since Lowry’s 1999 descent because it is logistically difficult, full of terrifying rapids and grueling portages, and located in remotest Patagonia—Lowry country.

One might think that a nomad like Josh would lack in personal contact, but his voice, his laugh, his looks—his presence—was not easily forgotten. In the little town of Futaleufu, he was an institution. Show up and ask anybody in town, pantomime if you didn’t know Spanish, and you would find Josh before long.
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When Josh fell off a 50-foot cliff to the rocky bed of the Deschutes River, I can only suppose he was scouting the line through Benham Falls below, transfixed by the intricacy and randomness of tumbling water. That made sense to Josh.

In response to questions I posed for his profile (Kayak Session #35), Josh offered his philosophy on paddling technique. On the surface it was an appraisal of paddling style, but Josh was well aware that his answers ran deeper than that. His approach to paddling mimicked his approach to life, and it was an honorable course worth emulating. “I just place my paddle vertically in the river to feel the water, and hold it there without paddling, with short bursts of pushing or pulling to control angle. I feel that going slower than the current gives me a feeling of timelessness, a chance to look around, scouting, on the run.”

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A somber grey overcast draped an uneasy quiet over the Canyon, accentuating our insignificance beneath limestone walls that seemed to press in from two thousand feet above. The rumble of Upset Rapid grew louder as we rounded the corner. Among the kayakers, a collective anxiousness was palpable, because leader Mary DeRiemer had laid the ground rules clearly: If you want to run Lava, you have to run left at Upset. This was the test.
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From Andrew’s brave charge in the front to Wayne’s Blackadar-esque rolling frenzy to Rick’s unique big water line through the heart of the lateral, everyone succeeded in their own way. At the bottom, howls of relief echoed between the canyon walls. Adrenaline, focus, determination, and finally the joy and camaraderie that comes at the end of that one little victory, within an awe-inspiring place. This is whitewater kayaking.
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Of course our fourteen day trip with DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking and Tour West wasn’t all high drama. Most days were the same old wonderful routine of life on the river: Wake to daylight and birdsong, go boating, stop for a hike, crack a cold one, eat, sleep, and repeat—the good life. My highlight was a hike to the 50-Mile Diving Board, due to be featured in the new edition of Grand Canyon River Hikes.
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But I get to lofty heights in beautiful places often. This is my life. What inspired me most on this trip in particular was seeing a crowd of 50, 60, and 70-somethings who were kayaking and having fun with it. Septuagenarian Tom Cowden was the senior paddler of the trip. He was on his 23rd, and maybe last voyage through the Canyon. His presence offered me something to shoot for, three decades down the road. It was an enlightening juxtaposition from my recent visit with Rush Sturges, Ben Marr, and posse—the elite kayakers of today—around whom I felt more than a little over the hill. Kayaking clearly has many faces, from pushing the limits of class V, to challenging one’s self on class III, to simply following the flow and watching the cliffs slip past.

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Half-awake, I gazed at passing countryside reminiscent of Washington’s Skagit Valley. After a few hours on the paved and empty highway—the best kind—Samuelo, an Escualo, turned onto a narrow dirt road. A shortcut? No, just another leg of the still-developing Carretera Austral, Chile’s national southern highway. Patagonia was giving me civilization cravings.
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Arriving at the Futaleufu was a strange, ethereal experience. Having referenced and written about this place for so long, I had created a vision of the river and the surroundings in my head. Now that I was actually there, those ideas were shattered. I was presented with a reality that was quite different; beautiful, but different. It felt as if I were playing an unnatural role in my own dream.
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Paddling big fun challenging whitewater like the Futaleufu gets a hold on people. Lives revolve around this place, the paddling, and the river. Josh Lowry is the embodiment of this, and his small dedicated crew are disciples. Twenty-eight-year-old kayak junkie Joey Simmons is keenly aware of his  position in Lowry’s wake. “I’m here for the Josh Lowry experience,” he says with hardly a trace of sarcasm. Of course he’s here for the paddling first, but his Lowry association is cherished.
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Presently, Josh’s team is fired up on business strategies for their living-legend boss, whom I wrote about in issue #36 of Kayak Session. A switch in company name could be on the horizon, from the current “Futaleufu Explore” to “Futaleufu Experience.” The guides seized on the marketing possibilities immediately, scanning the Internet for Hendrix-esque company T-shirts. A new advertising tag-line was obvious: “Are you experienced?”
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I joined the boys for some experiences on the powerful Futaleufu, but my attention could not be strayed from a craggy spire above town. I had yet to reach the high country of the Andes during my visit to Chile, and the spire, called “La Teta,” beckoned. After following a caballero’s horse trail out of the valley, I camped on a flat of compacted volcanic ash, left overs from the Chaiten eruption that made international news several years ago.
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On the summit of La Teta the following morning, I watched clouds waft through an array of snowy Andean Peaks. As I left the summit, a whistling sound drew my attention to a condor hovering fifty feet overhead.
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Farther down, a hawk buzzed me three times as I emerged from the forest onto an open ridge. I thought it quaint at first, but then it nearly knocked me over with a high speed fly-by, and swooped once more when I wasn’t even looking. After that, I got my camera case ready to swing and knock it the hell out of the sky if it came in again.
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I spent a week in Futa before continuing north by bus to Chaiten, and then air to Puerto Varas, and the lovely Margouya 2 Hostel. One last paddle on Llanquehue Lake treated me to a rainbow over the water, luring me back to beautiful Chile before I’d even left.

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There was hardly a wisp of wind as we stroked through a small glassy swell. The channel, that huge intimidating monster, was now a pretty stretch of open water beneath sun dappled mountains. In two hours, we were on the far side enjoying a bag of highly-anticipated cookies that had been carefully held under Diana’s ration key for days. Once the cookies were gone, we turned over rocks looking for worms that Roberto could use as bait.
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Granite cliffs held powerful waterfalls crashing directly into the sea. An old wooden rowboat appeared on shore. We shouted as we passed, but raised nobody. Around the next point, the mystery was solved with a small wood-shake hut at the back of a small bay. Mate’ rounds circulated as a woman with chiseled features and striking black hair slowly spoke, her toothy smile lighting up at our curious comments. She knew the beach where we’d been stranded. She was once there for seven days, she said, waiting on the wind.
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After getting a radio message out, which slowly spread uncertain news of our well-being to the world, we took turns warming ourselves by the corner stove.  The hut walls were papered with dog food bags, tacked up to shield Patagonian winds that would otherwise whistle through the cracks. Sunlight pierced through tiny windows of plastic and glass. The nearest town, Tortel, required a seven-hour rowboat ride for the woman and her husband. Still, they offered us hot plates of fish and rice. We gratefully gobbled down our first full-size meal in days, and hit the water recharged for the end of our journey.
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A police boat motored up the channel. One or two days earlier, I would have welcomed the sight, but now we were so close to finishing I wanted to complete the journey under my own power. But that option had passed. The rescue effort was launched sooner, but the seas and skies were too much for them just as they were for us. We motored into Tortel while chatting with our rescue commitee, imbued with a new appreciation for Patagonian weather, and satellite phones.

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Clouds began to stack up, hastening departure from our post-adrenaline lunch break. We rounded a point at the end of San Francisco Island and once again, it was game-on. I stayed close to shore where rebound waves, called “clapotis” in sea kayak terms, sometimes surged me forward. Little crenulations in the coastline provided modest shelter from the torrent. Small headlands brought mini-hurricanes.
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At a major point, we gathered for a 50-yard sprint against the tempest. I estimated the wind blowing a steady 40 miles-per-hour, with gusts to 60. A desperate two-minute battle delivered us to the bay, where the wind tapered to a breeze. Darkness was not far off. A beach on the far side of the bay was our goal. Roberto thought a rancho might exist here. If so, we might get a message out on their radio. Diana could get word out to change her flight, or at least call off the impending search for us. We had hoped to be back in Tortel on Tuesday. It was now Wednesday, and we were still at least a day out. And the schedule wasn’t up to us. This wind was making the call now.
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We reached the beach at dusk. I was working on a fire when Roberto reported that this was in fact the campo, but it was long abandoned. There would be no radio tonight. Lisa got the tent pitched in a strengthening drizzle. We feasted on pasta and quickly retired to our tents. The staccato tap of rain on nylon droned all night. At dawn it still poured, and the channel looked huge. By 11 am, the deluge tapered. We emerged from our shelters to look out at a channel that remained raucous. The 8-mile crossing that awaited at the end of the island was obviously a no-go, but we had to keep moving. Our food supply was dwindling.
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A short paddle down the wind-battered coast brought us to the tip of the island where we camped on a sheltered narrow beach, our tents stacked side by side beside the campfire. I crawled and hacked across a headland to hang Roberto’s yellow Escualos flag from an overhanging coihue tree, so that any passing boats would see it, and hopefully us. When I returned, Roberto had caught three fish. This was a great relief to our building hunger. Again, it rained hard all night.
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By morning, the ground beneath our sleeping area was oozing with water. The earth was saturated, and springs were forming right under us. Lisa put on her drysuit and stepped into the steady shower. She returned moments later to report that the channel winds were down. The team began to break camp, but it’s not an easy process amidst Patagonian storm. By the time we were nearly ready, the winds sparked up again.
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We remained in paddling clothes just in case the wind died, but we also prepared for another night on the island. All five of us struggled, and finally succeeded, to get a fire going in the soggy conditions. I built a gravel platform to elevate our bed above the water in the tent. Lisa gathered driftwood from a beach across the cove. As Roberto fished stoically in the continuing rain, we gringos sang songs around the fire, exhausting the Simon and Garfunkel songbook before turning our attentions to Roberto’s catch, and another dinner of whole fish soup.
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The rain stopped by dawn, and I crept out to see the calmest sea in days. “Hey you guys, I think we should bust a move,” I crowed anxiously. We paddled onto a gentle swell beyond the point as a loud hum approached from the far side of the island. The plane banked toward shore, passing directly over us at 200 feet, and continued flying south. It was obviously a search plane. Clearly, it hadn’t seen us.

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The Jorge’ Montt Glacier is an extension of the Southern Patagonian Icefield, and like many glaciers on the planet, this one is in recession. We paddled deep into a curved bay littered with sculpted floating ice, encouraged onward by the promise of sighting the icefield. It finally revealed itself—nearly ten kilometers farther up the bay than my 1997 map indicated.
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A cold breeze coming off the ice chilled us, and a squall was approaching. Lisa and Roberto got a fire going while Weston and I erected the mega-mid, and Diana collected wood. After fifteen minutes of struggle, we had a meager shelter and a growing fire. It was another hour before everyone was warm.
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Light winds allowed us to reach a perfect gravel beach that was sheltered from the Northwesterlies. This was Isla Clara, indicated on our map by name, but not shown as a land mass. By dark, everyone was rested and ready for an early start in the morning. Diana had a flight leaving in three days. We needed to reach Tortel in two. If the weather cooperated, this would be no problem.
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I awoke to wind flapping the tent at 2 am. Rain followed, and when I crept out at daybreak I found the tide lapping at rocks twenty feet higher than the previous evening. Roberto was stoking a fire. He had awakened to one of the kayaks scraping on the rocks, floating. Neither of us had to say anything to acknowledge the gravity of this close call. Seas peeled by the outside of the island, like a river rolling past with whitecaps from shore to shore. I went back to bed.
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By late morning the storm had passed but the wind continued out in the channel. Weston and I went for a scout, bushwhacking over moss ledges and wading through ferns to reach an overlook. The shoreline of Isla Carla appeared navigable, but after that things got spicy. A point formed an obvious eddyline, beyond which a channel roared with big waves. If we could make it across that quarter-mile crossing, safe harbor could be found in the lee of the next island. We returned to camp to deliver the encouraging news: We had one big ferry ahead of us, but another sheltered beach was within reach.
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We gathered at the point and went over the plan. Lisa would lead. I would sweep. We had to reach the lowest beach on the far side. If anyone missed that landing, they’d be off down the channel. Lisa peeled out and immediately started losing ground. Wave-spray whipped past and she disappeared behind the swells. When I could see her at wave crests, it was obvious that she was paddling hard, a pace she couldn’t sustain for long. I peeled out paddling with as much pace as I could bargain, occasionally pausing to brace when the biggest rollers came past.
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After several minutes, the wind began to slacken. We were starting to reach the shelter of the next island. Although we all made the crossing with room to spare, the ferocity of the wind and the size of the waves only re-invigorated our respect for the conditions. Exposing ourselves to open water in this wind was pure lunacy.

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We drifted through the burned barren landscape of the lower Pascua in an unrelenting heavy mist. Roberto knew of a military camp nearby that was headquarters for the Carretera Austral’s continuing construction into the frontier. We walked to the lonely encampment and found a plain-clothed sergeant. Soon, we were sitting in the empty mess hall eating spaghetti with hot dogs, contentedly sipping Nescafe out of the rain. Staring at maps on the wall, nobody could decipher the route Chile had planned for its national southern highway. Pinched between the southern Patagonia Icefield and the Pacific, real estate was running out. The officer assured us that the next point of land was their goal. Further orders were a matter for the future.
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Back into the soaking mist, we floated in search of camp. Instead, a homestead appeared on river right. A man strolled across his yard under an umbrella. Minutes later, five wet paddlers surrounded the wood stove of Rafael and family. After setting up our tents in the yard, we settled in for an evening of Chilean TV (via satellite), mesmerized by the raunchy humor of an improv show beamed across the wilderness from a city two thousand miles away.
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The rain stopped by morning. We floated the final few miles of the Rio Pascua, skirting breakers where the current met the sea.
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A crippling headwind funneled up the fjord. The shoreline crept past at less than one-mile-per-hour. We pulled into a cliff-bound cove where we could rest without being pushed backward, and where our voices could be heard over the whistling wind. Following a quick discussion, we probed around a bluff hoping for salvation, and found it. Weston gave a cheer, and we followed him in to a sheltered beach.
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I don’t know if the wind diminished or we just got sick of waiting, but we set off again in late afternoon. Our goal was to clear Glacier Point, where the wind would no longer be funneling straight against us. Fighting the oncoming waves, we got strung out. Each of us was engaged in our own epic battle to make headway against the rolling sea. Sighting the other boats was difficult as they bobbed in the swell, and turning to look for them was precarious, distracting me from the relentless waves.
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Glacier Point crept past, and for the first time in hours I could stop paddling. Rays of sunlight beamed through cloud cover in the west. Floating objects in the distance glowed with an unnatural blue, luminesced from within. My mind worked through the possibilities for several seconds before it came to me—Icebergs! To my relief, the rest of the team cleared the point safely, and we pulled into camp beside a bobbing berg at twilight. If the winds cooperated, we would seek the source of the floating ice chunks in the morning.
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Today, the Carreterra Austral—Chile’s southern highway—ends at the Pascua River, a mile past the home of Hernan Guelet and family. Physically, the road continues on the other side of the river, but with no ferry service travelers are at the end of the line when they reach the mighty Pascua. We stopped here, too, for a look around at the proposed Pascua dam site, and share thoughts about what lies upstream.
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Draining the huge inland waterway of Lake O’Higgins, the Pascua plunges into the Andes over Niagra-esque waterfalls before snaking into a deep hidden gorge. In the history of whitewater paddling, only three parties have probed into the Pascua canyons. The first descent, in 1999, was led by paddling icon Josh Lowry. Lisa and I ran Arizona’s West Clear Creek with Josh the season prior to his landmark exploration. During that trip, he talked about the mission daily, smitten with the adventure. His excitement was justified. Following a turbulent flight over the canyon to scout, they hired a several-hour boat transport out of Villa O’Higgins, to the end of the lake. From here, it was three days of heinous portaging and hairball paddling before Josh’s team emerged in the Quetru Valley. They planned to paddle and portage their way north across lakes and swamps to the new road along the Rio Bravo, but they ran into Hernan Guelet instead. In his skiff, Hernan motored them for 40 miles to Tortel, where they faced another skiff ride of twenty-plus miles up the Baker River to a jeep trail, which led a couple miles to a road. The Pascua is remote whitewater. The late Russell Kelley and Damon Miller took on the Pascua next. Unable to afford the expensive boat ride across Lake O’Higgins to the river’s start, they hired a horse packer to drop them on a tributary that would lead them close to the Pascua put-in. It was a dry year, however, and the tributary was too low to float. They dragged their way downstream anyway, made it to the lake, and finished the Pascua’s second descent. Noted paddlers Tyler Curtis, Matt Gontram, and Mariann Saether used a floatplane to reach the river, and all went well until Mariann swam and lost her boat in one of the final rapids. In the section of river we looked down upon, where the Pascua bursts from a narrow canyon onto a wide floodplain, Mariann stayed with the swirling cold river rather than hiking along shore. The hiking is that bad.
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Three expeditions, three epics, this is a river of monumental proportions. To imagine that untamed place subdued with three dams struck me as more tragic than damming the much-publicized Baker. Like the American West’s Glen Canyon of the 1950s, nobody knows this place, and that does not bode well for its preservation. Right now, the proposed Pascua dam site is littered with drill holes, an unnatural road cut, and a dynamite shed bored into the cliff that is labeled defiantly with graffitti, “Patagonia Sin Represas.”

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