Saving Futaleufú

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Editors Note: The following is the cover story from Issue 4
The big river under threat: A global treasure in Chilean Patagonia faces an uncertain future.
By Jimmy Langman and Nancy Moore
Photos by Sebastian Alvarez
The summer February sun was shining on the crowd of international rafting and kayak enthusiasts in the Chilean Patagonia town of Futaleufú . They have come together for Futa Fest, and the event’s director, Mitch Sasser, gets their attention by talking through a bullhorn. In between explaining the day’s agenda, he makes clear the overriding purpose of the weekend festivities – protect the river. “Let the river flow!” he declares in Spanish.  These words are received with great enthusiasm from this audience, with someone yelling back “Patagonia without dams!” 
Coming from France, Brazil, the United States and diverse other countries, they are here for a weekend whitewater competition but are well aware that the powerful and magnetic turquoise blue Futaleufú  River – called by many the world’s best river for kayaking and rafting - has joined the ranks of the threatened. 
Outside this town of 2,400-persons there is a welcome sign that boasts the message: “A landscape painted by God.” For sure, the mountain scenery is idyllic here with lush green forests, Andean condors soaring from towering cliffs above the mighty river, and an authentic Patagonian huaso culture prevalent throughout. But the quickening pace of change that has come with the arrival of modern technology, better roads, and increased tourism over the past two decades, and most important, the prospect that energy companies are now pursuing large-scale dams on the river, has led Futaleufú to a crossroads.  
Tourism arrives
Located in Chile’s Lakes Region, Futaleufú is just 10 km (6 miles) from the border with Argentina and 153 km (95 miles) from Chaitén, the nearest port.  The town has rich ties to agriculture and cattle ranching, though its history is relatively recent.  The Futaleufú valley was not officially declared part of Chile until 1881 after much dispute with the Argentine government.  In 1912, the first settlers arrived via Argentina.  The area’s colonos, or colonizers, relied on trade with Argentina for goods, though that reliance lessened in 1955 when Futaleufú built an airstrip and the Chilean government started to ship products to the town by plane.  It wasn’t until 1982 and the arrival of Chile’s Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway, that Futaleufú’s connection to other parts of Chile began to really improve.  
In the mid-1980’s, a few kayakers caught wind of the spectacular roiling waters of the Futaleufú  River and made the sojourn south. One of the earliest paddling pioneers was Chris Spelius. A former kayaker for the U.S. Olympic team in 1984, Spelius, like many of the elite paddlers at the time, was first drawn to Chile by the Bio Bio River, then considered the best whitewater river in South America before a series of dams were later built. It was not long after that he heard about the Futa, which his American friends Phil DeRiemer and Lars Holbek, who had made a first kayak descent on the river, told him was “in another league.”
Spelius, a tall man with a chiseled face that looks like someone who would be more comfortable in a wrestling ring than sitting snugly in a sleek kayak, had been coming to Chile since 1980. Still, his first journey to the Futaleufú  in 1985 was a life changing experience. At the time, he says, Futa had no electricity, no phones, and with no bridges was virtually accessible only by ferry. For Spelius, it was the holy grail of rivers, and its distance from the clutches of modern society made it even more awesome. Eventually, he bought land and built a home there, married a Chilean woman, and began to introduce the “big river” -- the meaning of Futaleufú  in the indigenous Mapuche language -- to a steady stream of rafting and kayak enthusiasts from around the world. 
Spelius was at the forefront of the burgeoning tourism industry in the far flung Futaleufú.  The modest residenciales in town began to buzz with dusty-haired backpackers on shoestring budgets while fly fishing lodges outside town cropped up to cater to the tastes of wealthy anglers.  Companies like Bio Bio Expeditions and Earth River Expeditions joined Spelius and his Expediciones Chile early on, offering multi-day rafting trips and ushering in the river’s rise to prominence among the international whitewater community.  The crowning moment arrived in 2000 when Futaleufú  hosted the biannual World Rafting Championship. 
Tourists also soon began to realize that Futaleufú has more adventure to offer than just a river.  The stunning landscape is perfect for multi-day backpacking trips, horse packing trips, canyoneering, and much more.  Nowadays, people are beginning to embrace Futa’s other assets. There is the nearby National Futaleufú  Reserve, a protected area with dozens of miles of hiking trails. Mountain biking is gaining popularity and the Futaleufú Municipality hosts a mountain bike race called the “Route of the Valleys,” a 31 km (19 mile) ride that attracted 74 competitors from 5 countries this year.  
Still, twenty-eight years later, Spelius seems almost remorseful as he considers Futaleufú . He has misgivings. When asked about whether the river’s present popularity might actually contribute to doing some good like keeping the Futaleufú  River flowing free of dams over the long-run, he nods in agreement with a hesitant, “Yes…”  He says that he also understands why the locals are happy with all the new comforts of daily living such as cell phone service, Internet connection and more. He admits it seems like things are getting better when you look at it from such a glass-half-full perspective, but with a long pause he ultimately declares: “I don’t think things are better, and I think I am right about that.” He adds with a knowing look, “I think we were all better off when nobody knew about this place.” 
Cultural conservation
People who’ve spent time in Futaleufú agree that its beauty lies not just in the magnificent landscape, but also the richness of a culture steeped in camaraderie and hardship.  Sharing a mate, roasting a lamb Patagonian-style, traveling about on horseback -- these are just a few of the many colorful and ingrained traditions of the region.  But many people are concerned that just as the river is in danger of being exploited, the unique character of Futaleufú could be lost. 


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