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* Published by the Ruidoso News Friday, February 16, 2007

Green water foamed and crashed against wet boulders ten feet above the river. Two women perched on those boulders, gripped each other’s hands tightly and tried not to look down. “Ready?” one asked. The other nodded.

Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they leaped together into the raging river.

* * * * *

Ask any whitewater rafter to willingly jump into a cold, fast-moving river and you’ll get a resounding “No way.”

But what if you had no choice.


Morning rain pelts the canvas dining tent as seven rafters clutch bowls of hot oatmeal with chilled hands as they listen to the day’s briefing.

“It’s been raining like this for three days,” advises Matt, the head river guide. “The river is higher than usual. We may have to hike some portions. Let’s be river-ready in about 30 minutes, OK?”

You scurry back to your tent, slither into neoprene wetsuit, splash jacket, PFD (personal flotation device), river boots, gloves and helmet. Leaving camera behind, you join the group at river’s edge and clamber into one of four catarafts.

The cataraft, a double-tubed inflatable raft, rides confidently over the first few rapids of the Río Figueroa, nicknamed “The Fig,” in Chile’s Patagonia region.

 River Rafting c. Lanelli 2006

Paddlers work as a team, stroking in unison as Matt, the oarsman, orders “Forward,” “Back paddle” or “Stop.” Small waves, eddies, low ledges, and rocks no bigger than a truck tire provide thrills without danger.

The rain eases. Calm water at last. Setting down your paddle, you admire South America’s February summer scenery—deciduous and conifer trees, fuchsia shrubs, umbrella plants and occasional little waterfalls. “That waterfall was only a trickle last week,” comments Matt as the boat passes a noisy cataract tumbling down forested canyon walls.


When the rafts beach, everyone scrambles out, stretching cramped muscles. Guides clamber up the side of the canyon to scout the next rapid. It’s The Gorge, the most difficult rapid on the river.

A quarter-mile long, The Gorge consists of two sections of whitewater that swirl around and over granite boulders ranging in size from motorcycle to mini-car. When water, thousands of gallons per minute, slams against those boulders, it creates waves and whirlpools that suck rafts, spinning them out of control and flipping them into glacial melt-water.

No one wants to flip and swim those rapids.

Matt returns, solemn-faced. “The river’s too high for paddlers. The guides will take the rafts. Everyone else hikes.”

"Hike” is a misnomer. You clamber over wet, mossy, slippery granite boulders the size of Volkswagens, holding onto woody branches for support. Below, the Fig roars ceaselessly.

Matt assigns paddlers who will not be running the river to rescue positions along the riverbank. He hands throw bags—a bag with yards of line attached—to four of them and positions them at intervals above the rapids. If a raft flips, they will fling a bag to the swimmer.

One paddler, Dale, is the official photographer. He waits far below everyone, his camera sheltered in a dry bag.

One by one, four rafts descend the first section of The Gorge. One oarsman, George, catches his raft on a boulder. Watchers hold a collective breath. When he slithers off safely, everyone breathes again.

When all the rafts are down, Matt delivers more bad news.

“We scouted the second section. It’s even worse than this one. The guides will take the boats again, but it’s too steep to hike. You’ll have to swim from here.”

You look at each other, the river and gulp. Jump into cold water flowing 1,000 cubic feet per second? We’ll drown or crack our skulls.

Matt answers everyone’s unspoken questions.

“Jump from here.” He indicates a boulder ten feet above the river. “Float into the current to the left of the rapid. You can’t see it, but there’s calm water right below you. Your PFDs and wetsuits will keep you afloat. Guides with throw bags will pull you in. Just remember to float feet first in case you hit anything. It won’t take long. Who’s first?”

Steve, an experienced rafter and guide from Utah, volunteers.

“Watch what I do,” he says confidently. He gauges the distance he must leap. Without a backward glance, he jumps in, feet first. Immediately he pops to the surface and, as Matt predicted, slides easily over the two-foot high rocks on the left side of the river and out of sight.

The group waits three minutes for the unseen Steve to get to the shore before the next rafter jumps. It’s Adam, a rafter from California. He stands on the rock and yells, “I’m going for style points!” and somersaults!

The group cheers, tension broken. Steve’s wife Nicki, a slim blond, holds out her hand. “Let’s go together,” she offers with a smile.

Looking into her calm eyes, the same green color as the river, you grasp her hand and smile back. “OK.”

Don’t think about it, you tell yourself. It’ll all be over in less than a minute. “I won’t let go,” promises Nicki, then counts to three.

You jump together into the raging green foam.

You hit the water and pop up immediately, surprised it’s not as cold as you feared. Still holding hands as if Super Glued™, you and Nicki immediately swing your feet ahead as the river hurtles you toward downriver rocks.

Just before the first wave engulfs you, you take a deep breath and hold your nose with your free hand. That wave crashes over you, then another and another. You clutch Nicki’s hand. Will the waves ever stop?

Suddenly it’s over. You’ve reached calm water, but you’re still moving fast downstream. You see one throw bag, but you’re going too fast to catch it.

“Swim!” someone yells, and still holding hands, you and Nicki stroke with your free hands. “I’ve got it!” she gasps, holding the second throw bag in her free hand. You reach up and grab it. Only then do you let go, and George hauls the pair of you in like gaffed fish.

No time to stand around. Another swimmer needs the throw bag. You clamber out of the way and look for Nicki. She’s behind you, grinning.

“High five!” she says gleefully and raises her hand.

You survived Chile’s whitewater!

c. The Ruidoso News Friday, March 2, 2007

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