I started off with two strikes against me. Water is not my element and Spanish is not my language. Luckily Maija and Fiona were kind enough to take spots nearby and offer ongoing translation. As for the water, a PFD and a drysuit were helping to tip the odds in my favor.
Standing on the side of a remote dirt road along Chilean Patagonia’s Rio la Paloma, I put a lot of trust into my compatriots. Pato, the owner and guide for Pato Kayak Expeditionces, rattled off all the things we needed to know. I pretended to understand. I got about 1/8th. Luckily, Fiona took a spot next to me and kindly assumed that I didn’t understand shit and gave me an ongoing translation. Later, Lauren, Felipe, and Maija provided answers to putting on a dry suit, PFD, swimming, etc. Manuel would translate the “altos” for me. Apparently it takes a village to float a language inept novice.
We pushed the raft over a fence, climbed down a cut bank, and launched from the grass; “Adelante” Pato ordered and we all paddled forward in unison. The raft held six: Felipe and me in the bow, Maija and Manuel behind, and Pato and another in the stern. Christian and Lauren followed up in kayaks, while Fiona got after it in the ducky (a single person, inflatable raft/kayak). The launch went smooth enough and we even merged from our tributary into Rio la Paloma without incident. We eddied out, gathered the crew and got set to navigate the four kilometers of class 3+ whitewater. We “warmed up” with a few small wave trains before entering the first, and longest, rapid. I probably should have been more nervous.
Less than a minute later I was struggling to keep my head above water, breathe, and remain calm. We had dropped into a rapid at the wrong angle and the raft went over. My feet were under the strap as I went out sideways and I tried desperately to do a sit-up, but above me the raft came toward me, Felipe and all. My feet cut free and I remembered the description of the rapids Lauren gave earlier: “it’s rapids, then it’s calm, they are short and you can eddy out at the end if you swim.” I held onto that and my paddle, but couldn’t get the raft.
Not much of my life has been spent on the water. As a youngster my family would go flat water or river canoeing–I remember swamping a canoe on the high water Upper Ammonoosuc river with my neighbor DJ; we got the canoe stuck and I don’t think my mother was too happy. I led some canoe trips on the Moose River in Northern Maine as well as spent many days learning kayaking skills on Jackson Wyoming’s Snake River Canyon. More recently I have floated/packrafted out Turbio IV in Northern Patagonia and floated flat water on Labryinth Canyon on a climbing trip. Whitewater rafting however is a thing that I haven’t done in years. So when, hanging out in the Casa Comun at NOLS Patagonia, Christian asked if I wanted to go rafting on a river the following day, there weren’t too many questions or too much hesitation.
The past several days had seen me doing some remote work, climbing a few pitches, and mostly socializing with a bunch of NOLS water people. Later in that evening, as a party was getting underway, Christian pulled me aside; “before we get too drunk, we are meeting in La Cucha at nine-thirty mañana.” My questions were answered.
The next morning, we gathered, offered the traditional handclasps and cheek kisses of Chilean greetings, then gathered drysuits, booties, and clothing. Nine of us piled into a van designed for eight and puttered off down the road toward Valle Simpson, Lago Elizalde, and Rio la Paloma. The windy, paved road soon turned to dirt but the windy didn’t turn straight. An hour later my motion sickness subsided as we suited up and awaited directions.
Feet up, feet down stream, feet down stream, back paddle with your hands, feet up, it will end, feet up, feet down stream, feet up, back paddle, hold onto your paddle, fuck, feet up. . . fuck. To my right I see Pato’s red helmet bobbing as we swims for an eddy. My mind is confused: why is he swimming? That isn’t good. Feet up, feet downstream, feet up, back paddle. From somewhere behind me I hear Lauren telling me I am on a good line. What? I desperately want out. I see her paddle past, en route to helping another struggling body. I bob with the current. My feet push me off rocks and I struggle to keep them up. Another drop, fuck. Fuck. At least it will end soon. That is what they said. I see no one else. Just water. I am under. Then I am not. Now under again. The whitewater pulls me down. This will end soon. Fuck. I hear someone say, from somewhere, “go right, stay right.” Ahead a yellow helmet and dry suit presses into a rock. I try to avoid them. I am pulled under. I am pushed up and gasp for air. I am pulled under again. Now out. Don’t gulp the water. Feet up. I think right. I want control. To my left a raft, in an eddy. People. Fuck right. I try to barrel roll onto my stomach. Swim. My arms are tired. My heart is beating. I swim. I try to ferry across. I swim harder. Harder. Harder. The paddle in my hand makes the swimming hard; fuck the paddle, I let it go. I don’t want to stop, I don’t want to loose ground. Downstream Christian’s blue boat is helping someone. I can do this myself. I swim. Now, finally, I don’t feel the current.
Maija and Felipe hold on to and sit beside the upside down raft. I drag myself onto a rock next to them. “You ok?” they ask. “Yeah. . .” I respond without conviction. My heart is pounding and breath is gone. “I think we lost the beer” Felipe says, referencing the six pack that had been in the raft, unsecured. “Well fuck, I sure need one after THAT. . .” I slump onto the rock exhausted. Only four more rapids to go.
The yard sale is cleaned up. We gather up at the raft. All are present and accounted for, all but one paddle and one throw bag; we even got the beer back. The wind is out of my sails. I don’t want back in that boat. People ask if I am ok. Physically yes. Emotionally, though, I need a moment. I sit quietly and stare. It is the first time Pato has flipped in that rapid. “Does anyone not want to get back in?” Pato asks through Maija’s translation. I steel myself. I am not going to bail. Maija says she is going to walk; that is all I need. “Estoy irando caminar también” I say quietly as I stand up and gain my balance. We pick our way through water, rocks, and brush in what was for me a welcome relief (and familiar terrain.) Decompress. Time. Process.
We watch the raft enter more rapids; they come out upright. I feel no shame. I feel no FOMO. “Back with my two feet on the ground, where I belong” Maija says as we climb over a small hill. I am a professional walker. This is easy. We walk two rapids.
Terrain forces us back into the boat we we run another. This time it ends in a six meter wide canyon with tall, steep walls of dark gray stone. Above, the sky is obscured by over story; dense trees intertwine from either side of the canyon. I imagine the slot when it is flush with spring run off; I shudder. The deep blue water is glassy and smooth and we float. Scary, wonderful, enchanting, supportive, challenging, frightful. So many things. We eddy out. People cliff jump. Talk of the Mini Champion Killer rapid filters through my translating filter. I pick up that we can probably walk it. The weight on my shoulders is less. I think I already know that I am about to walk again.
Below the rapid the more experienced boaters gather up the people and pieces of another swim. We gather on river right, Maija and I arriving via foot over lichen covered rocks, through giant nalca plants, and piles of driftwood. Break time. An impromptu but not unexpected adaptive debrief occurs between a few. We share our experiences and emotions, laughing at the way we implement new knowledge from a recent NOLS seminar. Lauren holds the space; my gratitude runs deep. I begin to coalesce my story, I begin to navigate my thoughts and feelings; my gratitude runs deep. We crack beers and toast. We stand wet, in the narrow canyon, getting a chill from the breeze. Fiona takes pictures and some people talk strategy. I will need to paddle this one. The walking has allowed for space and that has allowed me to again feel control. None-the-less it is still with trepidation that I get back into the raft when the time comes. Walking, I won’t swim; paddling I MIGHT swim.
We navigate the drops effectively enough and again find ourselves on azure waters in a deep, narrow canyon. Rio la Paloma does not disappoint. A few more wave trains and forward paddles have us sliding up onto a rocky beach at the take out.
Patagonia never fails to humble me, whether a short hike that turns long, an easy day taking a turn, or a river that forces me to reexamine my tenacity and let go of my ego, I always underestimate the place and what it will provide. I didn’t set out to learn a new skill. I mostly wanted to experience Patagonia and “splash and giggle” in a new place. But Patagonia never stops teaching. One of the most humbling things however, is engaging in the pursuit of new activities with NOLS instructors and new people.
The more I live, the more I am humbled and inspired by the people that surround me. Even off the job, these are supportive, kind people who care and through their way of being routinely pushed me to be a better human being: kinder, more compassionate, more open. I have so much appreciation and kindness. I only hope that I can repay in kind some day and pay it forward with those in my life.
Featured Image: The blue waters of Rio la Paloma. Photo: Fiona McLeod