Chris Baer: Rio Baker, Chile

Chris Baer
Rio Baker, WOW!

So let’s start this story from the beginning. I was asked by Marcus if I wanted to go to the Rio Baker, the only real information I knew about the Baker was that it was HUGE, so my obvious reaction was, “YES!” For a week I trained on the Futaleufu, trying to get mentally prepared for some of the biggest white water in the Southern Hemisphere. The morning we were to leave I find out that Marcus, our trip leader, isn’t going to go. I became immediately apprehensive. The success of our adventure seemed very vulnerable. Marcus was the only one in the group that had been to the Baker before; this mission was getting harder and more entertaining by the moment.

The Spider Van
Anyone who knows the old CRC (Colorado Rivers and Creeks) book knows that any of the write-ups with spiders printed on the page are special. Some of those write-ups have almost unattainable put ins, some have ill placed wood, some have scary rapids, and some have horrible hike outs, but any time you see a spider you know it is going to be a true adventure. The van that we were about to climb into to go on an 8-day, 1,400 kilometer drive on Chile’s international highway (which is nothing but dirt, a lane and a half wide) had a spider sticker, smack dab in the middle of the hood, I should have known better.

Beware of spiders

The group slowly convened and we piled more and more equipment in, and on, the Spider Van. In total we had five kayakers, one girlfriend, and a driver. The first day of driving was constantly interrupted by unexpected stops: a flat tire, extra fuel, boats falling off . . . We got our selves off to a slow and very entertaining start.

There was some pretty amazing scenery at some of those unexpected stops.

That first night we camped at a beautiful lake.

Back in the van, back on the road, we headed south for half a day and stopped in Coihaiqlue to stock up on food, beer, and a new used tire.
Then we found out that the night before there was an earthquake 8.8 on the Richter scale; the second biggest earth quake ever recorded, and in perspective not very far away. Everyone in the group dispersed to get on the internet and tell family and friends that they were ok, and to check on our friends that were closer to the epicenter.
If that wasn’t enough entertainment the transmission started sounding really bad; it was definitely necessary to fix the problem but it was getting late, so we spent the night.
The next morning we were off to the mechanics for a little fabrication and welding. The Spider Van got repaired again, and we were finally moving south again.

The view just outside of Tranquilo looking across Logo Carrera

The next stop was Tranquilo for food and an amazing view across Lake Carrera. We jumped back in the van only to realize yet another tire was losing air rapidly. We slapped on the spare (that was also low on air), drove across the street to air up the tire and the police rolled up right behind us. It took a while to get the full story, but one month earlier our driver was pulled over by the police and given a stern warning for driving without the proper vehicle paper work (at this point in the trip, it made total sense that the van was not properly licensed.) Those same police were now right behind us and eyeing us hard. We waited and waited, the police took off and this was our chance to hightail it out of the little town.

We got a couple hundred yards out of town and the Spider Van lost brake pressure. I looked under the vehicle and saw brake fluid running out of the brake caliper. Here we go again. We pulled the tire off and I realized that the brake pad on the inside of the caliper, had fallen off and the brake pad on the outside was paper thin.

Back into town to find a mechanic and we found a great one. The mechanic actually retrofitted an existing pad to fit on the Spider Van. This repair cost us another night, and we didn’t get going again until the next midday, and actually made some good distance. Our next stop was in Bertrand for the last minute supplies. Bertrand is the city at the top of the Baker where the water drains from the lake and heads into the canyon. We drove along the twisting flat water of the canyon for a while, then we were there. 700 plus kilometers, four days, countless unexpected stops, and we were finally at the first rapid.

El Rio Baker
The water is a beautiful green-blue, with tons of sediment from the glaciers that feed it. The first rapid is awe inspiring. The preferred line is down the left hand side, and then you can choose a small slide, or a stout 10 foot boof. What you don’t want is the middle of this rapid, the middle contains a 20 plus foot tall wave-hole that drops directly into a 30 foot pour-over. We hiked back up to the Spider Van and continued the scouting.

The scouts were difficult, we hiked thru thick brush and down steep embankments. With all of this hiking, our best vantage was still a few hundred feet above the water level. We looked at the second rapid, it was half a mile long, but had simple directions. (Right of that 30 foot deep hole, back to the left of that 100 foot wide lateral, then back to the middle thru that stuff that looks like the ocean in a hurricane.) All I could think was those waves are going to be a lot bigger wh en I am sitting in the middle of them. As we hiked in to scout the third big rapid, I noticed the group was really sprawling out, some people weren’t even scouting, my trust in the group was dwindling fast.

We got back in the van and discussed what we had seen. There was some talk of putting on that night, it was 5:30 pm and there was lots of light left, but I had no faith that if something went wrong that it could be cleaned up before night fall. I was quickly out voted… Zach agreed with my logic and was also very skeptical of the groups ability of good judgment. The two of us decided it would be a safer option to stay off the water. We watched the other three paddlers bomb off the first drop, the Baker quickly showed it’s power; all three of the paddlers had wildly different lines, the water was pushy. As they came down thru the other two big rapids, there tiny kayaks finally put the true size of the Baker in perspective. We cruised back to camp and had a good dinner, Zach and I were happy with our decision on not paddling, but very excited for the next day.

I awoke calm and well rested, no scary big water dreams, thank god. It didn’t take long for Zach and I to get fired up. We quickly ate a little food, downed some water and jumped back in the Spider Van to go back up to the put in. I got to the edge of the water spotted my “land (water) marks”, got in my boat and had a wonderful line on the first rapid. The rest of the boys slowly came down, with a myriad of lines. Zach ended up getting pushed way too far towards the middle and tucked under what might be the nastiest hole I have ever seen, Jacob did almost the same thing. I think the friendliness of the hole inspired Aniol to try the right line. Aniol slipped thru the upper waves and then got violently surfed in the giant hole at the bottom, a quick beating, a little down time, and he flushed.

Jacob a bit too far right

Fun Tickets
Think carnival amusement ride coupons, a metaphor I use when running and or messing up big rapids. You earn fun tickets all the time, you can borrow them, lend them, and steel them, but all big rapids take at least a couple. I spent 4 or 5 running the first rapid clean, the rest of the boys were burning thru fun tickets at an alarming rate.

The group was definitely split on how to run the rapids; the group that ran it the night before wanted to scout again. Zach and I on the other hand were confident in our lines, and believed the best way to run these huge rapids was tight and fast. I looked at Zach smiled and paddled right into the second rapid. It was huge, I got to the right side of the river and looked for my first key feature the 50 foot wide 30 foot deep hole that took up the entire left side of the river. I flew down the tongue and past by the huge hole, I knew it was just getting started. The boily mess after the hole lasted 300 yards, and was full on. There were random rogue waves and the boils off the walls were super pushy. I fought hard to get back to the left and avoid the 100 foot wide lateral that was coming off the right wall, as soon as I cleared the lateral it was back to the middle to start the brawl.

Aniol catching air off the corner of the huge lateral

There were huge laterals and rogue waves everywhere. I got picked up on a random wave and thrown to the left. I cranked out a few more strokes, and was hit by another random wave-hole, I was rolled, and rolled back up. I did a quick look around and got rolled again. This time I snapped up super quick, looked over my shoulder and saw a huge hole. Wham bam swirl, swirl, roll up, clear the eyes and straight into another hole, and this one was violent. The water grabbed at my paddle it felt like it was going to get torn from my finger tips, and this is when I heard thunder. Ca-boom! it was loud underwater, the noise came from my right hand and I felt the paddle give way. Shit.

I felt around and figured out which of the pieces of my paddle was longer, let go of the smaller end, swapped the blade to my stronger hand, re-indexed what was left of the paddle, and rolled up. There is no way I am going to be able to get anywhere with half a paddle, and the river was not thru with me yet. Again and again the waves crushed me, I rolled two more time and the O2 sensor in my head was sending the I need air NOW alarm. At this point the river does what it does best, humbles. I got tossed into another nasty hole and that was that, time for air. I stood up in my boat, rotated around, and instantly grabbed the stern grab handle, and breathed in the much needed oxygen I was looking for.

I was now swimming in the biggest rapid of my life, easily one of the top 10 worst places to swim ever; flush drowning seemed very real. I held on tight to the stern of my boat, and kicked my feet ferociously, trying to keep my head near the surface of the river. The water was too strong. I was getting tossed around, and all I could really do was time breaths as not to breath in water. Then the river sucked me down, deep down in an eddy line, and all I could think was, at least this means I am close to an eddy. Resurfacing I cleared my eyes and saw the group moving towards me. They were a hundred yards away or more and I was feeling really tired already. I finally grabbed the stern of another paddlers boat, and ditched my boat, I knew it wasn’t over yet. Another half mile of nasty eddy lines, a small class 4 rapid, and we were finally close to shore. I ditched the stern of the boat that was trying to pull me in, and swam the last 50 feet to shore. My throat burned my whole body was acidic. I spent a whole roll of fun tickets, but I was alive.

I had been brought to the right side of the river, the side away from the road. My boat, camera and the small part of my paddle that had been rescued up stream of me had all been taken to the river’s left side, the side of the river next to the road. The group was pretty unorganized people, didn’t know where the others were. I spotted Zach upstream and immediately gave him the pat on the head letting him know that I was ok. It took a while but the guys were able to ferry my boat and a break down paddle over to me. I hopped back in my boat took a couple strokes, cleared my head, smiled at Zach, and headed straight into the third rapid. Every one has their own way of dealing with stress, mine is a calm breath and straight back in to the fire.

The third rapid is no slouch. The river makes a hard left hand turn and there is a eddy on the right that looks just shy of impossible to paddle out of, to top it off there is a huge wave-hole at the top. The right hand side of the wave-hole is a wave and the left is a nasty hole. I was right on the tail of Zach and I saw him drop down the tongue. Then I was down in the trench and he was 30 feet above me cresting the gigantic wave. The swim obviously hadn’t scared me too much, as I aimed for the absolute tallest part of the wave. The wave surged while I was on it and as I reached the top I was tossed end over end right off the peak.

Aniol trying to take the corner of a huge feature

Aniol looking small in one of the pressure waves

I snapped a roll, braced against the next giant pressure hole and then slipped thru the exit slot on the left into the calm water. All of the paddlers regrouped and we paddled down thru the huge whirlpools and crazy eddy lines. There was one more good sized rapid before our camp-take out. The communication was spectacularly bad for this rapid and Zach ended up having an unnecessarily entertaining line. We paddled through another mile of whirlpools and got to camp.

The groups original plan was to continue down stream through the third gorge. Zach confronted me and said that he was rather disappointed in the teams ability to do anything safely and I couldn’t agree more. Zach and I got out right then and there and called the Baker done. We had traveled 700 kilometers in a broken down dusty van and paddled four rapids, we were already out of fun tickets.

The other part of the group ate food and put back on; we met up with them down stream, and heard stories that confirmed our lack of trust. Back in the Spider Van for the long, dusty, bumpy ride back to Futaleufu.

Lessons learned or at least reaffirmed,
1 Watch out for spiders, BE AFRAID!
2 Bring an extra roll of fun tickets.
3 Don’t put on too late.
4 Make sure your team is competent.

A huge shout out to Zachariah Campbell, he is a great paddling and traveling partner.

Four months of traveling in South America has been amazing, and exhausting. I am looking forward to a little down time as I travel back to the states.

Chris Baer
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