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Unnamed lake at head of Inexplorado Valley.

Map of 1972 shows a glacier here.

和ichael Brown

Day 16 found us floating altogether, three kayaks in the flotilla, down smooth but swift-moving water. All of our gear was in the boats, so we would no longer have to retrace our steps. We were on a river between two glacial lakes of similar elevation, with very few drops or rapids. Just cruising at nature's speed, slackjawed at the landscape around us. It was glorious. For the first time in the whole trip, I was reminded of why I became a river guide in the first place, why I bailed on an internship in Washington, D.C. during college, and headed west to learn a craft no one in my family, and none of my friends, had ever considered. The infinite and inexplicable freedom of moving down river on a raft, where your immediate space is relevant only to the immediate moment. I was grinning to Argentina. As Kenneth Grahame writes in The Wind and the Willows, "Believe me, my young friend there is nothing- absolutely nothing- half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats."

We did not have too long to mess around in the boats. Pablo whistled us over to shore, in front of a small grove of stout trees that were backlit by the sun. Pablo is an efficient speaker. He rarely speaks, but when he does, listening to him is like eating cookie dough without milk. Each word is dense and heavy, and he gives you enough time to get comfortable with the first few words before he throws anymore your way. He has a respect for English that most of us who have grown up speaking it do not, and right now he was respectfully explaining to us the significance of the tree in front of us. We were listening.

We had stumbled across an Alerce tree. Alerces are among the oldest living trees on Earth, some of them spanning four thousand years of life on the planet. Technically a Cyprus, the trees often reach twelve feet in diameter and will stop you cold if you see one. They look like they have been around for a few millennia. The strength and durability of the tree is legendary, and they do not grow anywhere else in the world, making them extremely valuable. Many of the old hotels and shops in the port towns are built from Alerce, a practice that would get you put in jail today. The tree is now protected, but only after a large portion of the groves were cut. In the past few decades, entire swaths on the coast were clear-cut by logging companies and sent on freighters to Japan.

The Alerce tree represents the classic clash in "sustainable development" in Chile today. Since it is illegal to cut down an Alerce tree, no logging company can rightfully come in and clear them out. But if you own land in Chile, you only own the land, not what is under it, and a company with a mining claim can cross your turf anytime. While they are building roads to access the minerals, they might just take a few Alerce out in the process. On a smaller scale, locals in the villages on the coast will hike inland for four days to find Alerce, often dragging pieces of the tree out by horse or mule if possible. With just one Alerce, a fisherman can double his yearly salary.

Ironically, the great environmental victories in the US over the past twenty years might actually encourage the removal of Alerce and other hardwoods in Southern Chile. Every time lawsuits ban logging outfits from a protected forest or the habitat of the spotted owl in the United States, those companies have to look elsewhere for profits, and often they look to some of our more vulnerable neighbors to the South. Alerces are so valuable that logging companies will purchase mining rights to an area, just to build roads for the purpose of clearing Alerce. With our intricate web of governmental and non-profit natural resource managers, we in the United States have established visionary and trailblazing environmental litigation in this country. As a result, we have scored many a "green" victory, and have successfully driven out some reckless corporations. But where do they go? To other countries that have similar, if not more extensive resources, and almost no laws or institutions to protect or manage them. A pile of freshly -cut wood chips, larger than Madison Square Garden, is packed onto a freighter in Puerto Montt every day.

The Ayacara Foundation tackles this issue head on. Pablo has acquired the mining rights for some of the land we had just covered. To secure a mining right, you have to survey the area and place official Global Positioning System (GPS) markers physically on the land. Farther South of here, Pablo once crawled for three days to place a marker, only to watch his fellow surveyor drop the handheld GPS in the river. "Looks like we'll be coming back," was no doubt his understated reply. As for the locals in area villages, Pablo in emphatic, "You cannot tell them to not cut down trees if you do not give them any other options. People need to make a living." The Ayacara Foundation has built a small hotel and is starting a sea kayaking operation, with locals as guides, to encourage tourism. The Foundation has also established an education center in Ayacara, to make people aware of the unique, intrinsic value of the forests behind their homes. People aren't lining up like Disneyland at the center, but that is not the point. Not yet, anyway. The point is that someone has actually taking the time and effort to promote conservation education in Southern Chile.

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Inside an Alerce forest below Inexplorado.

和ichael Brown

You can learn a lot from a tree. All of these thoughts swam around in my head as Mark and I paddled our two-man inflatable "Duckie" across Lago Inexplorado. The heavy rain and mist created a continuum of water that only changed slightly in texture when you took your hand out of the lake and placed it above your head. I was wearing two layers of long underwear and a rubber sealed dry-top and dry-pants, and the wind laughed at it all.

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Unnamed Lake below Lago Inexplorado.

和ichael Brown

Mark had a gritty look on his face which I had yet to come across in the two weeks I had spent in ridiculously close proximity to him. I am 5'8", 150 pounds, and I was hungry. Mark's system requires considerable more energy to keep it operational, and most of that energy must come in the form of sugar. That is how the guy works. How a six-foot tall guy became US Mountain Biking Champion on a diet of everything parents tell their kids not to eat is beyond me. We were out of sugar, and Mark has heaving our boat across Inexploradro dreaming of Snickers and Ho-ho's and Cupcakes and Cadbury's chocolate, and anything else a 7-11 delivery man could offer him. My paddle strokes were like flapping buoys on the side of a speeding motorboat. Irrelevant. Mark was in the zone.

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Camp on the shore of Lago Inexplorado

和ichael Brown

If we could have paddled straight to the ocean then we could have made it in a day. As we reached the corner of Lago Inexplorado, we saw its effluent river tumbling towards earth in a series of waterfalls that were 2,000 feet tall in total, and almost blanketed entirely by the jungle. They would have been breathtaking beautiful had we not planned on using that waterfall to get home. We knew there were some steep falls, for sure, but we also thought such powerful water would carve a useable path out on its side. Not so. "Then jungle wins again", as I would say to myself often. Unload the boats, deflate them, and pack a bag with essentials for the night. We would down climb the vertical jungle, camp on the river bank that night, then climb back up and get the boats in the morning. It was not the two day itinerary any of us were looking for at that point.

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Dave says, "We'll portage this one."

和ichael Brown

 

 

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