Chilean kayaker kids take notes on Western dams to save their hometown river


Cochrane, Chile, has never been an international hotbed for kayakers. A road first reached the remote Patagonian community 20 years ago, and Internet arrived in the last five. The town, with about 2,000 residents, is surrounded by wide-open ranchland and wilderness, and is a 10-hour, bumpy dirt-road drive from the nearest city. So when local teacher Roberto Haro Contreras first glimpsed a man in a tiny plastic boat hurtling through the whitewater of the Rio Baker near his home in Cochrane, he was intrigued.

“When we started, we just wanted to learn something new,” Contreras said through a translator during a recent visit to Paonia, Colo. “We never envisioned anything else.”

Contreras never saw the lone kayaker again. But he managed to get hold of a whitewater boat, and what began as a fun experiment has become much more. Over the last 14 years, Contreras not only taught himself to kayak, he’s also passed the skill on to some 800 local kids ages 4 to 18 who have participated in his free kayaking program on the Rio Baker. Thanks to grants and secondhand gear left by gringos, Contreras’ ragtag group, Los Escualos (the River Sharks), has become one of the only clubs of its kind in South America. It’s instilled rural ranching kids with the passion and confidence that can stem from outdoor recreation, and through partnership with an educational group called Rios to Rivers, it's inadvertently helped them become some of their country’s most unexpected (and endearing) voices for conservation. Though Contreras' original motivation was to teach kids to kayak, conservation has since become a secondary mission of the River Sharks.

The Rio Baker. Credit Flickr user Louis Vest.

The Rio Baker winds through one of the world’s greatest wildernesses and is among Patagonia’s last free-flowing rivers. If you Google photos of the river, you may soon find yourself searching for plane tickets to Santiago. The Baker is gorgeous. “It’s many, many colors,” said 20-year-old Chilean kayaker Pilar Andrea Uribe Leighton. “It changes. Where it comes out of the lake it’s a brilliant turquoise. Where it’s fed by glaciers it’s milky and cloudy. Parts of it are green.”

Along with the nearby Rio Pascua, the Rio Baker is threatened by five hydroelectric dams. The dams themselves have already been approved by the Chilean government, but the transmission lines and roads have not. Americans like HCN writer Craig Childs have joined with Chilean activists to try to spark a global movement to save the Baker, but development plans continue to march forward, in part because the region affected by the dams is home to just 100,000 people spread over an area the size of Colorado, and most are humble ranchers without the power to halt development.

Escualo Ivan Zanzana in Paonia.

So two years ago, when Coloradan Weston Boyles was kayaking in Chile and stumbled upon an entire group of local kayakers planning to tackle a 180-kilometer stretch of the Rio Baker, he was (to put it in kayaking terms) stoked. Many of the students from Cochrane are Class V paddlers, and know the river more intimately than the Chilean politicians or American activists fighting for it. They’ll also lose the most if it’s dammed. The clear-flowing rapids where the students took their first shaky paddle strokes will become a stagnant reservoir, and some of their families will lose their homes and ranches. Boyles saw in them potential allies against the government’s damming efforts. He joined Los Escualos on their trip, and soon a river-running educational non-profit called Rios to Rivers was born.

“This is not just about these kids and their kayaks,” said Utah resident and Rios to Rivers co-founder Susan Munroe. “They’re representatives of their culture and their community."

Which is how Roberto Haro Contreras, Pilar Uribe and the rest of Los Escualos wound up in HCN’s hometown earlier this month. As part of its mission to provide cultural exchange and foster river advocacy, last year Rios to Rivers brought high schoolers from the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale to Chile to paddle the Rio Baker alongside the Chilean students and visit the proposed dam sites. This summer, the group raised $65,000 to bring Los Escualos to the U.S. to kayak the Grand Canyon and witness the effects dams have had on the Colorado River.

Rios to Rivers co-founder Weston Boyles films students learning about solar ovens in Paonia as part of an upcoming documentary.

On their way to the Big Ditch, the group stopped by Paonia to visit the solar training facility Solar Energy International, where they learned how solar power could be implemented in Chile’s Atacama Desert as an alternative to hydropower. Then they headed across the American desert to the Glen Canyon Dam. For the Chileans, it would be their first glimpse of the massive scale of infrastructure that could flood their homeland. The experience was intended to sear in the students’ minds the image of the dam as motivation to work toward river conservation. Pilar Uribe wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I’ve never been in favor of (the dams),” she said through a translator. “It would be destructive; it won’t benefit the community or the country as a whole. It would bring in people and traffic and construction, and take away what I value: safety and tranquility and integrity of the land.”

“To me the dams seemed like a good idea,” said Colorado Rocky Mountain School junior Kimbrell Larouche, 16, who went on the trip to Patagonia. “But that was before we’d gone kayaking.”

Rios to Rivers in Chile. Photo courtesy Katie Hyman.

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News.

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