Chile’s Rio Futaleufú: Saving an Endangered River

Fed by lakes high in the Andes of Argentina, the Rio Futaleufú crosses the Andes—and into Patagonia, Chile—before it finally empties into Yelcho Lake. Along its journey, it creates some of the most breathtaking scenery and whitewater experience to be found in the world, and at the same time it is a potential resource for hydroelectric power that governments and power companies find completely irresistible.

For the moment—and hopefully well into the future—the river is being preserved through the efforts of whitewater experts Eric Hertz and Robert Currie, who have facilitated the private purchases of key properties along the river that provide solid political resistance to its damming. Through their company Earth River Expeditions, these purchases have also allowed Hertz and Currie to create a totally unique experience for visitors from all over the world.

In an effort to promote the river and its experience, Hertz recently hired veteran nature photographer Carr Clifton to spend two months along the river in order to photograph it. The results, like the river itself, are spectacular.

The Futaleufú

“There’s just something about this river,” Eric Hertz tells Calmful Living. “It’s very intimate and very dramatic in the same view. You become mesmerized by things like the moss on the rock and the amazingly smooth-carved boulders that the river has made around a particular rapid. And of course the water goes anywhere from turquoise to teal, depending upon the depth, the cloud cover, the sun, and the amount of white in the rapids that mixes in with it; the water is a mesmerizing color and very clear, very deep. It’s a big river, like the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, but it’s crystal clear and a beautiful color.”

“The color of the water is phenomenal,” agrees Carr Clifton. “If that river were muddy water you’d be scared to death of it—it would look so mean. But it’s so beautiful with its glacial turquoise waters that it catches you off guard. Your guard isn’t as high as it would be if it were muddy like Grand Canyon flood-type water. This river just looks so gorgeous that it disarms you.”

But it wasn’t only the color of the water that attracted Hertz: the whitewater challenge of the place is quite significant. “I was on a road trip in Patagonia in 1990 and we drove along the bottom part of this river,” Hertz recounts. “I said to my partner, ‘This thing is raftable; people could go down it. It would be an amazing river.’ The next year we planned to come back and we did. It had been attempted in 1986 but they had problems halfway down in a rapid called Terminador. They flipped the boat, lost it, and they abandoned the trip, which is how it got the name Terminador—it means ‘Terminator.’ Then we came back and used lighter boats. On the original trip they pretty much had full baggage boats with people holding on, so their boats were fairly unwieldy. We came back with two oar-paddle combination boats with very little gear, so they were extremely light and agile and we were able to do it.”

For someone like Hertz, who has been a river guide since his teenage years, navigating this river has a particular appeal. “It’s very different from other rivers because every time you turn a bend it looks like you’re on a different river,” Hertz says. “It changes a lot that way, and I’m not used to seeing that. You’re floating down and you go around a bend and there’s a rapid and it doesn’t look like the rapid before. The rapids have quite distinct characteristics, and there are different kinds: there are technical rapids* and there are bigger water rapids with waves, and then there are rapids that involve walls, and some are technical with giant boulders. The scenery changes dramatically as you go downriver.”

Photographing the River

For Carr Clifton, who was charged with capturing the river in pictures, the stress was a bit different than it might have been for a passenger or even a guide—although Clifton was no stranger to running rivers. “I was apprehensive,” he recalls. “You’ve got $20,000 worth of camera gear in a Pelican waterproof box, and you’ve tested it to be waterproof, but there’s always that chance it could leak. I also worried about having to swim any of those rapids—you really don’t want to do that if you can help it. But by the second trip I was a lot calmer. I knew how safe the guides were and I knew their capabilities to row these rapids, so I was far less apprehensive. No one swam. In two trips nobody went in the river—nothing. Totally smooth ride.”

Yet there were still tense moments. “Every day was just a rush going down the river,” Clifton says. “We’d go ahead of the group to photograph the whitewater action. Simply holding a $10,000 camera above the water or climbing on boulders holding the cameras was quite nerve-racking for me.”

Clifton found the beauty of the place well worth the anxiety. “It’s got to be one of the more beautiful rivers in the world,” he continues. “Especially if you’re considering whitewater rivers, it’s probably the most beautiful whitewater river in the world to raft down. The color of the water and the boulders—it’s all unbelievable. There is also incredible forest, with huge trees two to three feet in diameter—kind of a cross between a jungle and a big deciduous forest.”

For Everyone

Since Hertz and his partner have figured out how to make it safely down the Futaleufú, it has become a prime whitewater destination. But due to the unique nature of the surrounding valley, it has also become a destination for just about anyone else as well.

“There are certain people who want to run very hard rapids, but that is quite a limited number,” Hertz says. “There are a tremendous number of people who want to go hiking and trekking and don’t want to be running rapids. This place lends itself to that. For most river destinations like the Rogue River, the Grand Canyon or Middle Fork of the Salmon River, they’re mainly raft trips.

“This particular river has a beautiful trail that follows it, and that opens it up to a whole host of activities, including any level of river rafting, from beginner to expert. We’ve taken people from 6 years old right up to 86 years old down the river—there are really no limits. And the canyoning, horseback riding, inflatable kayaking, rock climbing, repelling, fly fishing, mountain biking, and trekking are all first-rate. I don’t know of a location anywhere in the world that comes close to rivaling the Futaleufú for its quality and abundance of multi-activities, and in our case these activities are actually in our private camps as you’re going down the river.”

This series of camps means that the craft used to navigate the river do not have to be loaded up with supplies, and visitors don’t need to return to the same location every night. “Normally with multi-sport locations, you come back to the same place every night after traveling by vehicle every day,” Hertz explains. “Once you put in at the top of this river with us and come down, you don’t see roads and vehicles the entire time. You just go from camp to camp.”

Like the river itself, the camps that Hertz has installed are quite varied. “The camps are so diverse and unique that you will think you’re on a different river at every camp,” he says. “If you look at Carr’s pictures, you’ll see that the Terminador Camp looks nothing like the Mapu Leufu Camp; and that looks nothing like the Cave Camp, which is all white granite, or the Tree House Camp.”

The camps also have numerous amenities, including handmade hot tubs, wood stoves where meals are cooked by staff, and even flush toilets and hot showers.

Saving the River

Providing a world-class tourist destination was but part of what prompted Hertz and Currie to purchase the land. “Earth River Expeditions is not a nonprofit,” Hertz points out. “We have volunteered our time and resources over the years by donating a percentage of our profits and, when necessary, even running commercial trips to subsidize our conservation work.”

The Chilean government, along with a Spanish power company called Endesa, has been eyeing the Futaleufú as a source of hydroelectric power for a number of years. Another river—the Biobío, further north—was dammed up for this purpose before Hertz and his team could stop them. He wasn’t going to let that happen again. “We originally purchased a bunch of properties along the Futaleufú to stop the dam,” Hertz says. “We bought them in different areas of the river where the dams were planned. We wanted to make sure they couldn’t destroy this river like they did the Biobío, one of the great rivers of the world. The only way you can do that is by owning the land.

“We’re not out of danger; they could still try and do it, but they’re going to meet some stiff resistance. They now know this river is gaining a pretty big reputation around the world. It keeps making these lists, such as the most beautiful whitewater river; I’ve never seen a list of top whitewater rivers that this river was not included on. We’re now using those lists against constructing the dam; we’re building our case, if and when it comes to that.”

“Basically there are other rivers down there, and Chile is going full steam ahead to dam everything,” says Clifton. “With companies from other countries, including Spain, there are interests coming in from everywhere. They want to string huge power lines to, I believe, some of the mining industry there. So it’s really crazy. They dammed the Biobío without any idea of what they had, and so Eric just keeps fighting to try to make sure everybody knows what kind of a resource they have.

“If those guys weren’t down there, nobody would know about this river,” Clifton concludes. “It would probably be dammed already. The crazy part is there are other places like that right now that are disappearing, and nobody knows about them. So you’ve got to find those jewels and you have to bring people down there and show them what there is to lose; otherwise these places are going to be lost, and nobody will know what they were.”

For further information about the Futaleufú experience, visit Eric Hertz’s Earth River Expeditions website at www.earthriver.com.

To view more of Carr Clifton’s amazing photographs of the river, visit www.carrcliftonstock.com/index/gallery/Futuleufu.

*technical rapids: The International Scale of River Difficulty classifies whitewater rapids into six categories, from class I to class VI, reflecting both the technical difficulty and the danger associated with a rapid. Technical rapids, typically graded class IV–VI, require higher navigational skill, as they force the paddler to read the water and often move back and forth across the rapid.