liveonearth (liveonearth) wrote,

River Tales: It looked about the size of the Ocoee

In 1992 I traveled to Chile for the winter, to explore the kayaking down there. The others in my group were guides too. We drove to Miami and flew on Ladeco airline to Santiago, then took a bus to a campground up on the Maipo River. We camped there for a week, then bussed back down into Santiago to rent a vehicle. After we had our truck, we started paddling. The image above is the Rio Maipo at a normal/reasonable water level. It had probably eight times that flow when we were there. The bridges were in danger of getting torn down.

The truck we rented was an Isuzu Chevy four door pickup with huge roll bars. We liked the roll bars because we could tie our kayaks on them and keep the bed of the truck for equipment and hitchhikers. The very first run we did was a big education for us. It is called the Rio Volcan, and is up high in the Andes, where there are no trees.

We had been in Chile for something like 10 days, after having carted our kayaks all the way from North Carolina. We were determined to use them. The Maipo was very high, and quite intimidating, so we went upstream looking for smaller tributaries that we might be able to run. The Volcan, a tributary of the Maipo, was our test run.

Perhaps we are lucky that we got our asses kicked on the very first run we did. Perhaps that is why the rest of the trip went so well. But at the time it seemed horrible.

We scouted the Volcan from the road as we were driving upstream along it. We decided to run just one short section, a single rapid that looked manageable. We had walked on the banks and peered at the rapid from above and below. It looked to be about 1,200 CFS, perhaps about the same push as the familiar Ocoee River in Tennessee. The gradient looked about like the Ocoee too, maybe 45 feet per mile, or so. It's a pretty high gradient by the standards of most river runners, but we were pros and willing to take a fairly large bite.

We launched in the calm water 1/8 mile or so above the rapid. We played around in the flatwater, warming up. When we were ready to try the rapid, we headed downstream in a string. I was first, Joy second, Andrew third and Monk brought up the rear, as he was the strongest boater. The river went around a bend above the rapid, and I was paddling downstream around it when I heard an alarming sound. The roar of the rapid was too low. The slap of the waves was too high. I knew as soon as I heard the sound of that rapid that we had miscalculated.

I changed my plan. I charged toward an eddy on the left side of the river, the side where the road was. It was a class IV eddy, boiling and guarded by a tall eddy fence. We were paddling class IV whitewater, and the very first move was going to be class IV. But not everyone in the group was ready for the change of plan. In my mind I saw all four of us nailing that eddy, and sitting in there deciding further if we wanted to run this rapid or climb up the bank to the truck. But not all of us had the same picture in our heads.

I had not considered that Joy would not be able to catch the eddy. It was within her abilities, but required her to be on the ball too soon. She understand why I was charging for the eddy, and didn't think she could catch it. She made her choice and headed into the frothing maelstrom in the lead. Andrew and Monk followed her, and I peeled out again immediately behind them.

I do not remember anything more than total chaos during the minute or so that we were in the rapid. It was class IV big water, chaotic with holes hidden behind waves and nowhere to stop. It was a lot bigger than we had expected, more like a big water class IV than a medium water class III. It is only later that we pieced together what happened while we were battling the whitewater. Joy had managed to get to shore on the right side of the river, and had latched onto a rock and kicked her boat off her legs into the river. Andrew had dislocated his shoulder and managed to stop, also on the right side. Monk had chased Joy's boat and almost gotten it to shore on the left, but then he had been pinned on a log and the boat had gotten away. I was able to paddle down to where Monk was and help get him free of the log.

The rapid, which had looked like a strong class III at 1,200 CFS to us, had turned out to be class IV-V with 12,000 CFS in it. While in the rapid we could hear/feel boulders rolling along the river bottom. The gradient may well have been more than 45 feet/mile, or right at it, we weren't so far off on that estimation. But we had mis-guessed the size of the river by a factor of 10. We blamed it later on the size of the Andes, and the lack of any trees or buildings for scale. We were in the tundra in a massive mountain range that dwarfed anything in our usual frame of reference. And we had been badly fooled.

The result of our miscalculation was that one person had dislocated his shoulder, another had lost her boat, and the two of them were on the wrong side of the river with no way to get back across. Monk and I climbed our boats out of the alluvial gorge, and walked to get the truck, while the other two climbed out of the gorge on their side of the river, carrying the one boat that they had.

I'm not really clear on how we did it, I think maybe Monk drove up and down the river to assess how they could get back across the river. There was a dam not too far downstream, and they walked to it, carrying the boat. The man on the dam was friendly, and allowed them to walk across it and rejoin us. We spent the next two days searching for the lost boat, but it was not to be found.

I was in trouble for a long time for eddying out. I was following my instinct for river running, but I had forgotten in that moment that not everyone in the group had the same skills and instincts as me. My choice to catch that eddy precipitated the debacle, though anything could have happened even if I had not caught the eddy. The group was angry at me, but knew that we had all made the choice to get in boats and go down there, so they could not lay the entire blame at my feet.

It took us a week to get up the guts to try another river run.

As usual, this image found on the web shows the river we ran, but at much lower water than the day that we were there. You can see the small ribbon of water in a wide alluvial channel; when we were there, the channel was so full that the sides of the gorge were eroding away with the flow.

There are lots more nice images of the region at this site.
Tags: blame, chile, decisions, flow, kayak, mountains, risk, river, south america, travel, whitewater

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