And so it is that we board the bus in Cochrane in the pouring rain and begin the trip north to Coyhaique. The bus roars out of town and we lurch and bump along the road above the Baker River. I wipe the fog off my window and watch as the site where we put in our rafts rolls by below. It is hard to believe that less than a month ago we were floating through the universe of that great river. As the bus moves onward, I marvel at the road and our accomplishment – the hills and bumps look every bit as difficult from the bus window, and I can hardly believe we made it so far. I think back to almost a year ago when I arrived in Coyhaique to teach English and made my first excursions out of town on the Carretera. It seemed like such a big, unfamiliar, and daunting wilderness back then. Now I recognize every bend in the road. The rivers and mountains hold familiarity, memories, and feeling. I know many of the owners of the campos we pass – what animals they own, what boots they wear, and how they prepare their maté. I realize that now, when I speak of the future of this region and its impending development, I speak of a place that has become a home.
Into the Wild
I’d now like to backtrack a bit and relate the final segment of our journey. After the amazing trek to Ventisquero Steffins, Rob and I leave Caleta Tortel and head into the great unknown. The Carretera from Tortel to Villa O’Higgins is the only part of the journey that neither of us has previously seen in another form of transport. For the first time, we have no idea what lies ahead. Down to two people and facing the longest stint without food sources, we have to carry much more weight. I additionally face the new challenge of pulling a trailer. We head off nonetheless, and begin the first steep climb which rewards us with spectacular views of the Baker from high above. We camp halfway up the climb with two French cyclists, Lucas and Pierre, who are down to 1,000 pesos (about $2), little food, and nowhere to get cash for over 100k. Their friendly playfulness is disarming, and we share our lentils while they offer us tea before parting ways.
We continue on and arrive in Puerto Yungay, a desolate port where the wind howls ferociously. Here we must board a ferry to cross Fiordo Mitchell before continuing south. As we await the next boat, we are invited for coffee and shelter from the wind in the army barracks, which houses the only human activity in the entire port. As we stuff ourselves with Nescafe, bread, and salsa, we discover that the two men living there fly helicopters for a sub-contractor of ENDESA. They tell us that they fly daily to the Pascua River, but don’t reveal any more details. We learn that in addition to ENDESA’s activities, the Chilean army is in the process of constructing the continuation of the Carretera Austral along the river. It is hoped that the road will someday reach Punta Arenas, but they are advancing slowly at about 5km per year. The men are friendly but politely refuse to give interviews, and the entire time we sit at the table a young soldier watches us from the corner. When we thank them and head on our way, the shorter of the two men (with a big smile and wrinkles around his eyes) follows us outside to snap a picture of our bikes and ridiculous cargo.
Onward to the Pascua!
The roads diverge on the other side of Fiordo Mitchell and we take the one less traveled. We hope it will lead us to the famously inaccessible Pascua River. My bike chain begins to fall off due to badly bent cogs, so we must frequently stop and bend it into place with a wrench. I wonder if I will end up pushing my bike to O’Higgins. We also realize that in our efforts to pack light we did not bring enough calories, and hunger becomes a real preoccupation.
We are just arriving to the end of the road where the water empties from Lago Quetru and the only possible crossing is by a military-operated raft, when we hear a voice call out to us. Hernán is extracting Cypress logs from the woods along the road and wants to know where we are headed. And so we find the only campesino that lives along the Pascua River in this sector. Soon we are loading our bikes into his handmade wooden boat and motoring off towards the great river.
The deep brown water of Lago Quetru meets with the glacial blue of the Pascua and the contrast is stunning. The current of the Pascua is the fastest I’ve ever seen, and the great sparking mass of water zooms by like a mirage on the horizon. I feel a lump in my stomach at the sight of this incredible river, so isolated and far away. Rob and I are drop-jawed and fixated, while Hernán watches on, amused by our fascination with his home.
Later than night we slather incredibly thick slabs of butter on bread at Hernán’s house to quell our hunger. For a small price Hernán will take us upriver to visit the site where ENDESA is conducting studies. It is agreed upon, and in the morning we set off in the little boat to motor against the powerful current. At times it appears the boat is barely creeping forward and it takes ages to pull past a bush or log sticking out in the water. I wonder if we’ll ever make it, but Hernán remains calm and with his hand on the accelerator, he slowly advances us upstream. As we near the site, activity is all around us. With ENDESA’s helicopters circling overhead, the military presence on the banks, and the dense brush hanging over the water, I can’t help but feel I’ve entered a scene from “Apocalypse Now.” The Pascua, that famously pristine and virgin river, looks like a war zone.
The boat strains harder and harder against the raging water as we near the great “throat” of the river, where the water empties from a narrow canyon into the wider section that continues out to sea. Here we tie the boat off and begin a wet and slippery ascent through thick and prickly brush, passing the camera up as we climb. We reach a lookout point where tubes and various building materials are strewn about. The helicopter circles overhead, making several drops of materials on the other side of the river. I stand in my soggy sneakers and look down at the millions of gallons of water rushing through the canyon, and I try to imagine a concrete wall stopping it in its tracks. I imagine the dense brush on the canyon walls gone and replaced by a water line. I imagine this river with its fearsome power measured, regulated, packaged, and sent north to fuel the machinery of “progress.” I imagine Patagonia without tremendous and frightening places like this river, and I wonder if my grandchildren will have the luck to find such places that truly humble them. When we have enough power to fuel televisions that suck the life from every household in the world, where will we turn? What power do we need that does not already exist in ourselves and in the last great wild corners of the earth?
We interview Hernán back at his campo, and he reveals that he has received very little explanation neither in support nor against the project. He also admits that he has no idea how a hydroelectric dam works or what it would look like. When asked about the possible use of his land, his eyes flash and he defiantly affirms that nobody can use his land without first asking his permission. Yet when we find a glossy calendar put out by HidroAysen, ENDESA’s public relations company in the region, we see that it prominently features a stunning photo of Hernán’s front yard.
And Everything After
I would be lying to say that the rest of our journey is downhill. We face the three most daunting passes of the route to arrive in O’Higgins, but the pain is alleviated by the presence of condors soaring overhead. We spend our last night on the road under the stars and below a glacier, the wind blowing through the night and the sunrise illuminating spectacular clouds. We find O’Higgins to be quiet and its people reluctant to talk, but we manage to film a few interviews, sell our trailers, and score a free ride north to Cochrane.
In Cochrane, Don Cecilio, an 89-year-old surviving pioneer of the Baker valley, looks me square in the eye and declares lucidly and passionately that he will fight until the very end against the damming of his beloved Baker. His words, his eyes, and his courage stay with me as we head north on the bus, further away from the heart of our journey but deeper into our commitment to the project.
Here in Coyhaique, I sit in my kitchen drinking mate, resting my sore knees, and sorting memory, image, and feeling into something that begins to make sense. Patagonia – its land and its people – has left a mark.
An End Note
Although we have finished our bicycle journey, the Tracking Patagonia project has just begun. We will continue to update our blog with stories, information, photos, and media as progress unfolds. Thanks for your continued support!