Kayaking, Canoeing & Rafting

Kayaking in Patagonia | Running the Rapids of the Rio Baker

"There are features that would tear the head right off of a kayaker"

Travelling over 2,000 km from Santiago to the incredible whitewater of the Rio Baker, a legendary river near the Chilean town of Cochrane, sounds like a daunting mission. Especially considering it involves taking three ferries and driving almost entirely on unpaved roads.

But the beauty and wonder make the long journey into the heart of Patagonia well worth the travel time and distance.

Our picture begins to come into focus before embarking on the longest of three ferries from the waterside village of Hornopiren.

“The long journey into the heart of Patagonia is well worth the travel time.”

From the ferry port, the view of the mountain-lined fjord presents a small taste of the beauty Chilean Patagonia has to offer. As the ship departs the terminal and takes you deeper and deeper into the untouched wild, the nearly nine-hours of ferries seem to fly by.

You become entranced by the sudden appearance of care-free dolphins and gigantic waterfalls pouring off the sides of lush, green mountains in this amazing place. All the while it becomes hard to comprehend that this is only the beginning of the journey.

Driving into Lago Las Torres, a national nature reserve of southern Chile’s Aysén del General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo Region. Photo: Mike Dawson.

Upon reaching the end of the ferry trip in Caleta Gonzalo, a steep earthen road surrounded by dense jungle and sheer drop-offs gives you the impression that you’ve truly entered the frontier.

Besides the occasional glimpse of a car, cyclist or group of hitchhikers, the first true signs of civilisation come when you reach the paved roads leading through the port town of Chaiten.

The stunning greens of Chilean Patagonia. Photo: Mike Dawson

What lies ahead once you depart is some of the most amazing scenery this road has to offer. As the road begins to climb, views of the glaciers and the snow-capped Andes begin to emerge. With each twist and turn the valley opens up to expose natural wonders of Parque Nacional Corcovado, Reserva Nacional Lago Rosselot, and Parque Nacional Queulat which line the road.

A stunning view of the ice caps which rise out out of the river. Photo: Todd Wells

After reaching Puyuhuapi, the road hugs a narrow path between the towering mountains and a pristine fjord. Time seems to stand still as you make a long climb with countless switchbacks, only to be greeted by the most spectacular panoramic view imaginable of the landscape ahead.

On and on the road goes, through valley after valley of small farms and untouched land. Each mountain that passes has different characteristics, as if each was plucked from a different mountain range around the world.

At times the scenery gives you the feeling that you could be in the Rocky Mountains, until you come into the next valley that feels more like the Alps. The amorphous nature of these mountains leaves a lasting impression – and a sense of how time and Patagonia’s ancient glaciers have created such a diverse collection of formations.

Photo: Mike Dawson
Photo: Mike Dawson
Photo: Todd Wells

While the skyline is a sight to behold, the lakes along the way give another whole dimension to the experience. The vast, deep blue waters of Lago Gral Carrera are littered with countless flourishing green islands that take your breath away.

“There are features that would tear the head right off of a kayaker who dares get off line.”

Camping one night on the lakeside provided an opportunity for us to admire the tranquillity of this massive lake illuminated by the stars.

At first light the birds and fly fishers descend upon its waters to take from its plentiful bounty of fish.

Photo: Mike Dawson

A few more kilometers down the road, Lago Bertrand, one of the sources of the Rio Baker and the goal of our expedition into this remote wonderland, come into sight. Backed by glaciers, the waters of this lake take on the bright blue colour of the melt which feeds it. As the lake disappears behind the hillside, our anticipation builds – soon we’ll get our first sight of the Rio Baker – one of the world’s best kayaking destinations.

At first glimpse, the beautiful smooth blue water looks calm and inviting. But first looks tend to be deceiving.

Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the Rio Baker is flowing, and flowing fast, down towards the massive gorges below. 

You don’t have to be a a <href=”” target=”_blank”>kayaking expert to know that this flow of thousands of tonnes of water, coupled with the steep gradient downstream, will translate into gargantuan whitewater. The tranquil waters of the upper reaches of the Baker soon transform into violent torrents, gigantic rapids that send a shudder of fear through the bones of even the most accomplished paddlers.

Photo: Todd Wells
Photo: Todd Wells
Photo: Todd Wells

At the confluence of the Rio Baker and Rio Nef is Nef Falls. It’s here the river shows its true colour – and the reason for its reputation as one of the most intense class five sections on the planet. The water changes from a beautiful welcoming blue to an evil milky brown to add to the mystery.

We meet an imposing two-step drop with the power and features that would tear the head right off of a kayaker who dares get off line. Safe to say it gets our hearts pumping as we drop into the gorge. Further downstream countless rapids await anyone courageous enough to attempt to run them. Boils surge into jagged canyon walls, threatening to throw you offline and into deadly river features without notice.

Photo: Todd Wells

The power and fury of this river is intense, and it doesn’t go unnoticed as we travel further into the gorge. Waves tower above us, throttling our tiny plastic boats and throwing us everywhere, but it is only an appetizer for what lays below.

Vertical walls box the river in, meaning any attempt to navigate the main rapids of the Rio Baker is combined with the commitment of being completely unable to escape. There are no second chances here.

Kilometres later the gorge walls begin to subside, and the road returns to the river bank. We’re granted a welcome relief from the ferocious whitewater. Only then can the intensity of the moment be transformed into adrenaline from having run this beautiful beast of a river, and only then could we truly take in the surrounding tranquillity of the humbling space.

The vast emptiness that started the journey. Photo: Mike Dawson

To read the rest of our March ‘Space’ issue, click here

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