Sometimes there’s more to a kayaking trip than paddling. Maybe there’s even the potential for great changes. When we headed for three days of kayaking on Patagonia’s remote Río Baker with a group of teenagers from a unique paddling club in the town of Cochrane, Chile, I thought the only changes would be those happening to the river.
The Río Baker was imminently threatened by the construction of two major hydroelectric dams. Three more dams had already been approved on the nearby Río Pascua. The young local paddlers, who called themselves Los Escualos (The River Sharks), told us they knew their river would be changed, but were surprisingly quiet on the subject.
They’d never seen a dam in their lives.
Forty-five years ago, in the United State, the outcry from a public that was just learning to love rivers stopped the construction of dams in the Grand Canyon. Today, few Chileans realize they have a natural resource comparable to the Grand Canyon.
Los Escualos could represent the first generation of Chileans to demand river conservation.
This was the idea from which the Ríos to Rivers exchange program was born: Hands-on personal experience, through the love of an outdoor sport or activity, is the most powerful way to show children the intrinsic value of wild places. In turn, these experiences help develop their passion to become effective stewards for their rivers.
When we started the first Ríos to Rivers exchange two years ago, we travelled south with eight kayakers from a high school in Colorado to take part in an exchange with the young kayakers from Chile. The group met with key figures on each side of the debate over the proposed dams; with politicians, energy experts, scientists, environmental activists, and the CEO of the dam building company. The students learned about both sides of the debate. The group then kayaked down the Río Baker from high in the Andes Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
In René Muñoz’s cabin on the shores of the Río Baker, the American students sat with their Chilean counterparts around a pinging wood stove, listening to the story of René’s life, and how it would be changed if the river were dammed.
“Since I’ve come to Patagonia, I think a lot of the numbers and the more factual side of this argument have faded away,” said Cleo Ulatowski, sipping from a gourd of maté offered by our hosts. “It’s become a lot more important what my host family says or what the Escualos say, because they’re the ones who’ll be impacted,” the student from New York added.
Four months later, limp and sweaty under the August sun, the same young kayakers leaned over the edge of the 710-foot concrete massif that is Glen Canyon Dam. They regarded the incredible contrast: on one side, the Colorado River, green, stripped of its sediment; on the other, the murky blue of Lake Powell. Dead fish and driftwood bobbed against the wall of the dam. “I am afraid to think that this could happen in Patagonia,” said Danilo Cruces, one of 10 Escualos who had traveled to the United States to experience this dam, and the incomparable canyon below.
The shadow of the dam followed us down the length of the Grand Canyon as we paddled for 12 unforgettable days. Heavily impacted, but ultimately protected as a National Park, the Grand Canyon served as both a cautionary and inspirational tale.
“But what are we supposed to do?” Sophie Kornick asked during one night’s riverside discussion. “I always feel like there’s some ‘Big Do’ that we’re supposed to do when we get home. But I don’t know what it is.”
It’s a harsh lesson: altruistic hopes tempered by the need of a “Big Do,” some sockdolager that will make an immediate, actual difference. But I realized then that big changes have to start somewhere. The only answer I had for this next generation of advocates was that they should focus on small changes: learning about a place — a river — and understanding its ecological role. The passion and education that come from experiencing the natural world help us begin the journey toward the Big Must of protection.
The currents of change form just like a river: a little trickle gains volume until it’s a raging flow that eventually ends in the ocean, an inexorable force that will always get its way.
This story has a happy ending. This year, the proposed dams on the Ríos Baker and Pascua were officially canceled by the Chilean government. This cancellation came about because of the intense pressure from the Chilean public. By the end of the campaign to stop the dams, more than 74 percent of Chileans were opposed to their construction.
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