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Finding Futa | Futaleafú, Chile

An interesting thing happened to me when I sat down to write this post. I froze.

At first, I just shrugged it off as writer’s block and figured I’d get some inspiration within the week. But that week passed and my fingers still hovered motionlessly above my keyboard. Then it hit me. It wasn’t that I couldn’t figure out how to tell the story, it was that I didn’t want to.

It was my story, held so gingerly in the most sacred parts of my mind, and that’s where I wanted it to stay. I suppose it’s because rafting the Futaleufú has been a dream of mine since before I was a storyteller. That dream was there in my mind when I was a boundless, unwavering little girl. It’s attached to the part of me that never says no to an adventure, the part that could care less about how my eyebrows look, the part that thinks money is only cool because it makes your piggy bank jingle. And for a moment in time, on that turquoise river, I was that little girl again. Nothing mattered except for remembering to breathe between the splashes.

I went to the Futa not for you, but for me — which is a really awkward thing to do as a blogger. For the past 3 years, I’ve gone into experiences with the mindset of a writer, of a reporter. But this trip was different, I didn’t think about the story. Not until now.

Luckily, I think it’s a pretty damn good story.

The Futaleufu is a beautiful, powerful river tangled discretely amongst the rugged mountains of Northern Chilean Patagonia. If you aren’t sold by the word Patagonia, how about 20+ miles of emerald whitewater jam-packed with some of the world's best Class IV – V rapids? It’s hard not to fall completely, head over heels in love with this river.

And I fell hard.

Our journey began in Puerto Montt, where our group of 8 (totally rad bad-ass dirtbags), rented two cars and headed south towards the the great unknown. My crew’s truck had a sweet pop-up tent on the roof, so we were snug as bugs even when torrential downpours and high-velocity winds threatened to ruin our beauty sleep.

After way too many border crossings, a nasty stomach bug, and 430 miles of bumping the same playlist, we finally arrived in Futaleufu. The town itself is a one-road charmer. Resembling any given quaint mountain town in the U.S.A., we felt right at home. With the addition of beautifully spoken español dancing through the airwaves and the tantalizing scent of freshly baked empanadas, this place was an absolute dreamland.

But, we were here for the water. With some hard bargaining, our rafting plan was thrown into action, thanks to the lovely people at Futaleufu Outdoor Center. Our kayakers were set up with boats and the rafters were introduced to our guides. We’d put in the next morning, show off our skills, and then take it from there.

Day One: Bridge to Bridge, Bridge to Macal

Carefully prying my head through the tight latex neck gasket of my dry top, my body shivered with adrenaline as I saw the river for the first time. It was exactly how I imagined it — giant, blue, and absolutely terrifying.

Known as the more mellow introductory section, the bridge to bridge stretch was our chance to get a feel for the water and work on our cohesiveness as a paddle crew. Turns out “mellow” on the Futa actually translates to big, pushy Class III-IV whitewater. Holy crap is that stuff fun, though!

The Bridge to Bridge section is chock-full of rapids, big splashes, and even bigger holes (the hole at the bottom of Mundaca will rock your world). In my opinion, it’s the perfect kind of whitewater — technical and big, but non-consequential. Ain’t nobody trying to drown!! On our first run down, I think most of us were still in awe that we were on in a river in the middle of Patagonia. The time flew by and before we knew it we were at takeout. Now that we were a smooth-oiled paddling machine, we were given the option to run Bridge to Bridge again, then continue on to the two class V rapids below.

Of course, we said, “hell ya!”.

This is the point where we got an up close and personal introduction to Ms. Futaleufu, in all her glory. Our second run through Bridge to Bridge was super smooth and we were feeling confident and strong. After arriving at the scout for our first class V, Mas O Menos, we were told about the different lines; take it easy and veer right to miss the giant hole in the middle, go left to bypass all the gnar, or charge the middle and feel the real fury of the rapid.

Center fury line it was! With stoic faces and perfectly in-sync paddle strokes, we plowed through the top entrance wave. And then we saw it — the massive hole. The muffled shouting of “high side!!” was drowned out as our bodies flung through the air and splashed into to cold abyss that I’m sure we all thought would kill us. I vividly remember mentally preparing myself to hold my breath for a very, very long time. But, I got lucky. The raft, in front of me, got recirculated in the hole and was launched in my direction just before I too was sucked into the hole. Our guide, Memo, bless his Chilean heart, pulled me and most of the others into the raft. Unfortunately, our bud Travis took a long, deep ride through the spin cycle and wasn’t collected until the bottom of the rapid. (love you, dude, thanks for not dying!)

Welp, we still had one more class V. We sucked up our pride and newfound fear and headed into the depths of Casa de Piedra (house of stone). The loud commands from Memo kept us on our toes as our raft danced its way through the monstrous whitewater. Then, all of a sudden the shouts from our guide stopped and the shouts from the other guides began, “GET DOWN!!”. You best believe we got down. Confused as to why our guide would steer us over a pour-over and why the safety kayaker was yelling at us, I turned around to find that our guide was gone. Then I saw one of his oars in the water… and then the other… and then I saw his helmeted head bobbing up and down. I raced to the back of the raft to pull him in, and once I saw his smiling face I couldn’t help but laugh. Turns out he slipped right off the back of the boat in the middle of the rapid, and we had no idea. You can bet no one let him live it down.

Day Two: Zeta and Trono Portages

This was the first day of the overnight section and also our first day of sun. Oh, hallelujah.

The morning was a beautiful meandering stretch of water. We all took our turn on the oars and I was even “allowed” to try my hand at the cat raft (the love child of a pontoon boat and Ferrari). This might be a good time to note that female boaters aren’t exactly a common or fully accepted part of the Chilean river scene. At least, not quite yet!

After a warm morning of relaxed floating and fly fishing, we pulled over for the first portage of our trip — Zeta. Portaging often means pulling the rafts out of the water and carrying them overhead to the bottom of the rapid. But, not on the Futa. On the Futa they ghost boat; sending the boat, void of people, down the rapid. It’s pretty exciting to watch!

After Zeta, we quickly approached our next Class V portage, Trono (throne room). Now, this is what Futa dreams are made of; steep gradient changes, giant holes, huge waves, death rocks, and a great big pool at the bottom to collect all your bits and pieces. When our guides told us we’d be walking around, not a single one of us argued.

The view from the trail exposed the entire rapid and allowed us the chance to witness the rage of this ginormous rapid. Our guides jumped into the kayaks, eager to show off their skills, and meticulously slammed their way through the white death rapid. Pretty freaking impressive.

We thanked them for not dying in front of us and then began the last stretch of the day. More calm water and beautiful scenery awaited us before arriving to our resting place. Oh, the resting place… more like Patagonian River God paradise. Home to our host, Fico (a Latin river legend), this property was insane. We’re talking expansive green lawn, horses, rustic cabins, handmade stone hot tub, dinner cooked over a fire pit — all nestled perfectly into the folds of the jagged mountains.

As the night went on, Fico’s neighbors slowly wandered over with hands full of food and babies in tow— probably my two favorite things in life. As the booze began to flow, we all magically became highly intellectual Spanish speakers and solidified our relationships with our newfound buddies.

These places exist to ground us, I’m sure of it.

Sitting around the fire with my new friends, each with an intricate and important story, I couldn’t help but smile as the warm embers danced around in the cool night air; connecting the earth with the twinkling stars. This is what life is about; adventure, love, and exchange. Why we must complicate that, I don’t know…

Day Three: Terminator through Bridge to Bridge

After an amazing night, we woke to the promise of more whitewater. Today we would run Terminator, the most technical Class V our paddle crew would face.

The other two gals bowed out humbly, so it was up to Memo, Matt, Travis and I to pull this off. Just as we pushed our raft from its safekeeping in the scout eddy, I heard Memo take a very deep breath… then we were off and running.

I’m not used to following commands, as I’m normally the guide, but holy toledo was I happy to have someone telling me what to do. The boulder garden that awaited us was no joke, but our raft maneuvered around each rock with the grace of a ballerina. Our guide knew every single nook and cranny like the back of his hand, all we had to do was paddle our little hearts out — and we did. Time managed to both stand still and go into hyper-speed. We became one with the ebb and flow of the giant drops and sharp maneuvers.

After our last big move, realizing we were still alive, we hooted and hollered like a bunch of hyenas. In that instant, we retracted back to our most biological selves — we were untamed animals. We hugged our guide, then each other, and paddled on downstream with grins so big our cheeks could’ve torn.

Arriving at takeout that afternoon brought a somber silence, but also a promise of return. We said “see you later” in place of “goodbye” and packed up our wet gear one last time. It felt like a sin to leave such a place, a place that most people spend their entire lives looking for.

The Futaleufu is powerful in more ways than its sinister rapids. It will change you, it will inspire you, it will ground you. It’s one of those places that reminds you of your mortality but leaves you feeling more alive than ever before. Pay her a visit and you might just fall in love.

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