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Monthly Archives: January 2014

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This blog brought to you by Funhog Press

It is a nine-hour bus ride from Coyhaique to the frontier town of Cochrane, and the heart of Patagonia. The first 90 minutes of that journey are on a lonely paved highway, the remaining 7 and a half hours are a rattle across washboard gravel; through forested mountains, past azure blue lakes, beneath plunging waterfalls, and along thunderous rapids. Lisa and I were the last two remaining at the bus stop, sheltering from a tenuous rain beneath a street side birch, when I heard my name. It was Claudia, our friend.
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Her energy is indefatigeable, her spirit unchecked. She was the first to share with us the traditional process of taking matte, explaining the ceremony of drink with cheer and focused clarity despite our formidable language barrier. Over the coming weeks, Claudia and Roberto Contreras’ house was our home away from home, where we would learn to expect the appearance of random friends and extended family members at the revolving front door. All entered after a quick knock to share conversation, matte, or maybe a meal.
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In the evening, we took a drive to the Escualo Kayak Center, the brain child of Roberto. Currently, an old shed houses a dozen vintage kayaks, a pile of mostly repaired paddles, and a wall of tattered sprayskirts. Out front, a small wooden dock stretches into the cerulean waters of the Cochrane River. The place is about to get a face-lift thanks to Roberto, who spearheaded an effort to gain municipal support for the new facilities. Cochrane is deserving, a cow-town with a growing tourism element that sits in a dreamland of mountains, rivers, and lakes.

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This blog brought to you by Funhog Press, with special thanks to Kokatat.

Our flight south from Puerto Varas to Balmaceda, Chile, was smooth until we descended into the lower atmosphere, and the Patagonian wind. Even after landing, the 737 jostled from side to side from powerful gusts, forcing passengers to grab the tops of seats lest they topple like toy soldiers in the aisle.

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The wind diminished significantly by the time we reached Coyhaique, a city perfectly situated at the confluence of the Simpson and Coyhaique Rivers, just east of the coastal rain belt, with mountains in all directions. Our welcome base camp was the home of our friend Josefina Ruiz, with whom we ran the Grand Canyon last summer. She was not there, but we enjoyed the company of house mate Sara and Rodrigo Poliche, who was busy editing another of his films.

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Both Josefina and Rodrigo are active with Patagonia Sin Represas, the movement to stop construction of five large dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers. A major goal of our trip to Chile was to learn more about the issue, and see the rivers and the dam sites before they are lost, if it comes to that. Upon arriving in Patagonia, a billboard prominently presented the sin represas (without dams) message, depicting the 60,000 person march in Santiago that opposed the dams.
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After getting to know the tourist / supply town of Coyhaique, it was time for more paddling, this time on the Rio Simpson. Just downhill from the city center was a bridge over a silty grey river fringed with banks of alder. It was 7 pm in mid-December. Coyhaique’s backdrop massif of fluted basalt burst out, highlighted in late afternoon sunshine.
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The Simpson tumbled over boulder bars, providing near constant action as we followed the river away from town into a long dusk. By the time we found a grassy bench on which to camp, the clouds were bruising pink as they flowed inland from the moist coastal Andes.
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Morning brought our first taste of coffee in days, a real treasure here in Chile, where finding good bean can be challenging. Rocky bluffs plunged into the river, portending more rapids than we desired in our pool toy boats. Sliding over a steep shelf, we passed a turbulent backwash and re-grouped in a safe eddy below. Cliffs appeared. Our astonishment grew as the river twisted through a scenic canyon, drips of spring water sparkling as they fell through sunshine. When the gorge opened, fields of stunning purple lupine crowded the shoreline, creating a redolence of wildflower that challenged our grip on reality.

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Too soon, a highway tunnel emerged from the mountainside ahead, signaling the finish to our descent of the unexpectedly spectacular Simpson. The third vehicle we queried with outstretched thumb made a U-turn to pick us up. The driver was happy to practice his English with us on the short drive back to Coyhaique, the confluence city.

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Our first surprise in South America did not come from the busy streets of Santiago; its tiny store-front auto parts stores, its sleeping street dogs, or its uniformed school kids laughing past. This was all typical Latin-American stuff. The last thing we thought we’d see, however, was a familiar Flagstaff face, but there she was standing in line for our next flight in Chile. Not only was our Grand Canyon Youth friend, Juliet, on our flight south, she was headed for the same town, and staying at the same hostel. We shared a cab, and later, a bottle of wine while overlooking Llanquehue Lake and the Osorno volcano.
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A couple days later, Juliet was on her way and we set off for our first adventure in the southern hemisphere. Past barking dogs and isolated homes among green pastures, we climbed a dirt road toward stunning steep green cloaked mountains.
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The forest caught me by surprise. Because the region mirrors North America’s northwest coast in many ways, I reasoned that tree species might follow suit. Rather than the conifer dominant forests of North America’s west coast, however, the trees here were mostly broad-leafed. From afar, the scene resembled that of a tropical jungle, not a temperate rainforest. The dominant tree was the coihue, one of several Nathofagus species (a type of beech) that dominate Chile’s southern forests. There was also a madrone-esque species, something else that reminded me of northern California’s chinkapin, the manio—reminiscent of California’s rare torreya—and the sought after alerce, sometimes called the Chilean redwood. We were hoping to find giant alerces here, but a ranger told us the far side of the park was where the best groves existed.
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Beyond the trail, mid and low level vegetation was as dense as I’ve seen anywhere, true machete country. Fortunately we located a trail to the small Chaica River, and rigged our pack rafts for boating mode.
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Rivers maintain a life of their own, and with our little boats we were granted access to that world. Clear spilling water, driftwood logs, drooping red flowers over the water, gravel beaches, splashy small rapids; it was all ours now. We paddled and drifted, circling to gaze back at knife-edge ridges splotched with snow, cutting incomprehensibly steep skylines above the upper valley.
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At a pre-determined take-out above a gorge, we reluctantly left the water to roll our boats and return to the world of traveling backpackers. It was time to walk, back to a rural bus stop for a return to town and soon, the next river.