Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Futa & South America

This past winter, my girlfriend Melissa and I travelled in South America for seven weeks. One of the highlights of the trip was the Rio Futaleufu. The Futa has attained legendary status in the international paddling community for its breathtaking scenery and spectacular whitewater. We spent a week there with Expediciones Chile, owned by American kayak pioneer Chris Spelius. Melissa got to raft, hike, and mountain bike in the valley, while I kayaked. Our accomodations, food, shuttles, guides - everything was excellent, professional, and well worth it.The Futa is located in northern patagonia Chile, near the Argentinan border, as shown on the map above. Much of the river runs through a deep gorge, lined with granite cliffs, lush green slopes, and waterfalls. The area is surrounded by mountains and forests. Below is a picture of Tres Monjas, one of the peaks above the Futaleufu valley.

Amongst kayakers, the Futa is well known for it's volume and power. Normal flows on the Futa compare to peak flow on the Upper Cariboo or Upper Quesnel (about 450 cms). During high flows the Futa can exceed 2,000 cms. During my first couple days there the river was low, but three days of rain brought it up to seasonal levels.

For the unintiated, playboats are not recommended on the Fu because of the sheer volume of the rapids, as well as the speed and continuity of the water. I paddled a Wavesport Diesel 75 all week and compared to my playboat, appreciated the additional boat volume. Pushy! I had brought all my other paddling gear.
The Futa can be divided up into 3 sections: the Upper with Infierno Canyon, Zeta, Throne Room, and The Wild Mile; the Middle or Terminator Section; Lower or Bridge to Bridge; and the El Macal Section.

The first day there, we paddled the El Macal section of the Futa, class II-III. Having not been on a river in a few months it was a great warm-up for what was to come. During 6 days of kayaking, I was able to run --- or look at --- every section of the river.

Upper Section
Below is one of the biggest rapids in Upper Section in Infierno Canyon, Dynamite, class V. This was taken from about 150 meters above the river. The entry v-wave here is the size of a bus. Infierno Canyon has more difficult rapids than any other section of the Futa. Because it is in a vertically walled canyon, scouting is difficult and portaging impossible. For experts only...

The above picture is my guide Caden just below Infierno, in Las Escalas Valley. This is where we put-in to run parts of Upper Section. From here it was a scenic float with a couple of small rapids and cool caves to paddle through before arriving at Zeta.

Above is Caden standing beside Zeta (class V+), the hardest single rapid on the entire river. What makes this rapid so hazardous is all of the undercut walls. Needless to say I walked this one. Below is a picture of Chris Spelius running Zeta from back in the day.

Shortly after Zeta is the Thrown Room (class V), a very impressive and large rapid where the river drops over 20 m within 200 m. After portaging, it wasn't until I was at river level looking back up that I really got an appreciation for how big this rapid is . Truly massive. Here's some borrowed footage of professional kayaker Marianne Saether with a good line at Throne Room: good line. Here's an Exchile guide with a not so good line: bad line.

Following the Throne, the Wild Mile Section of the Upper begins, class III-IV. The photo below is the scout for Chaos and Confusion... named after the feeling of threading between the holes into the white frothy bits below.
Still in the Wild Mile above, busting through The Thing: a random stopper-pile that can swallow you whole if you have bad timing. From here, the river mellows for a while....

... Until the confluence with the Rio Azul. Melissa and I spent two nights camped above, just below the confluence. Here we had the honour of being taken care of by Chris's mother-inlaw, Abuela. Apart from being a great cook, she was one of the most genuine and funny people we met during our travels --- and she didn't speak a word of english. The banter between her and Julion, one of the guides, provided great evening entertainment.

Middle Section
The Middle Section of the Futa starts right at the confluence beside camp. There are a number of rapids before reaching Terminator, a long and difficult stretch of whitewater. Apparently there are over sixty holes here at normal flows. The rapid can be run a few different ways, depending on the level. During our run, there was a pin hazard on the "easiest" creek line (class IV). Excluding the middle line (grade V), the other option didn't look much better to me as it fed into a series of holes at the bottom, which then goes right into Lower Terminator. I took the well worn portage trail. Here's an old video of Corran Addison on the Centre Line at Terminator.

Shortly after Terminator are two super fun rapids: Kyber Pass and the Himalayas. For our run, one of our crew didn't make the "traverse" on Kyber Pass and ended up getting worked in China Hole. Luckily she hung in there and flushed out in her boat.

Lower Section
The most popular section of the Futa is the bridge to bridge run in the lower section, considered to be the heart of the river. This section is considered to be one of the classic big volume runs in the world, with 17 named rapids in 8 miles, ranging from class III-IV+.
Above: descending some massive wave somewhere on the Bridge to Bridge. During my stay I did this run several times, and every run was different just because the push and turbulence of the water made it impossible to stay on the exact same line. The photo below is me dropping into the seam on Pillow Rapid.

Above eddying out below Mundaca. Some highlights while paddling the Lower Section include a solid hole-beating on lower Entrada, and getting "Mas" on Mas o Menos. I also came very close to swimming on Casa de Piedra, the most difficult rapid in Bridge to Bridge. Seven roll attempts before getting up --- intense!

Rio Azul and Rio Espolon
The Futaleufu Valley also has easy access to other rivers including the playful Rio Espolon (grade II) pictured above, and Rio Azul (III) shown below.

The Azul was a fun run and change of pace from the intensity of the Futa, and we often paddled it at the end of the day to unwind.

The Volcano
Last spring, a volcano in the nearby town of Chaiten erupted, causing a national emergency and the evacuation of both Chaiten and Futaleufu. When we arrived by ferry in Chaiten 8 months later, there still wasn't much left of the town. Mudslides and ash had pretty much destroyed it.

One of the days at camp, we all headed up the Azul valley shown above --- me to paddle and Melissa to mountain bike. It was forecast to be a nice sunny day, but we noticed some very unusually dark clouds approaching. We also heard what we thought was thunder...

So Caden and I are paddling through the rapids, and it starts to snow, or wait --- it's volcanic ash! Turns out, the volcano in nearby Chaiten had erupted again and was spewing ash into the Futaleufu Valley. Craziness! We paddled back to camp to find everyone okay. Abuela had briefly thought the end of the earth was at hand - hilarious! Things quickly returned to normal, although it was a little dusty in the town of Futaleufu. Below is a picture of mel covered in ash.

For the remainder of our travels, whenever we were in an area with a rafting company, I would find hook ups to run a local river. Although the rivers did not compare to the Futa, it was still great to paddle a new river and meet other boaters. The first river in Argentina was near Bariloche, the Rio Manso (class III) pictured below. Thanks to the kind folks at Extremo Sur for a great couple days! Especially for the kick-ass barbeque.
Shortly after we went to San Rafael, where Bob Daffe's friend Silvio Gallo lent me his playboat and took us to the Rio Atuel. Silvio's plan was to surf the Forbidden Wave --- a big, bouncy wave right below the dam, beside the police office --- totally illegal to paddle. Being a lawyer, Silvio managed to convince me that as long as were sneaky, we'd be fine. Good rides and a great time! Nice beer banter after too. Following San Rafael, we went to the beautiful city of Mendoza, where I spent a day paddling the muddy Rio Mendoza pictured below, with Argentina Rafting Co.

While in Salta a couple weeks later, I got out with Grillo and Salta Rafting to paddle the Rio Juramento. Pretty low and mellow, but a beautiful river teaming with wildlife. It felt like I was in a National Geographic show (pictures below, and thanks again Grillo!!):

That wraps up the paddling part of my South America trip. If only the snow could melt here! Till then, cheers.