Small Miracles: Descending the Rio Baker in Patagonia
by Craig Childs
This is how we reach the interior of Patagonia: spider-webbed windshield and a blown-out side-view mirror on a Mitsubishi 4×4 van carrying a crest of kayaks. A long and dusty road wanders beneath enormous summits. We come around the corner to find our raft listing badly, a wheel missing from the trailer, axle bent. How many times have you been in this position: foreign country, sitting on the side of a road, things gone awry? It’s how it works. You can only bring so much schedule and expectation into a wild place. Uncapping a bottle of pisco, we each take a shot. It is what must be done.
A flatbed the size of a yacht grinds up the road and Timmy O’neill flags it down. Our entire assemblage soon gets hoisted atop it, tied down, and we are gone again. Small miracles are everywhere. The kindness and openness out here saves us at every turn. I cannot help but think of that same kindness buried under earthquake rubble, families out here who have lost people they love. The memory and dread follows us as word comes of aftershocks and body counts. Lives are so fragile we can do nothing from here but pray.
Still driving that night, we watch the full moon rise through the Andes. The river sings in the river below. Meanwhile, this continent grinds against its neighboring plate. Everything is in motion.
Dawn. I walk through the town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo to where the river meets a broad, blue-eyed lake. The arc of the sky tilts, moon sets into peaks and glaciers. The sun cracks through a high ridge. I think, these simple faces of morning would be the same if dams were here, if this pristine valley were choked with buildings and smoke, but our lives would be changed. Only one god would remain, the small gods of these round, glistening stones, and the loud mumble of the Rio Tranquilo gone.
By sunset, we reach our put-in. The Rio Baker begins.
Osprey Note: Osprey Athlete Timmy O’Neill is in Patagonia, Chile this month with James Q. Martin and company for a descent of the Rio Baker in order to capture the epic beauty and adventure of this ancient Aysen waterway. They are documenting the trip to aid local NGOs in their efforts to prevent the river from being dammed.