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100 Miles, 7 Days, and 11 Teenagers: My Patagonia River Expedition

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100 Miles, 7 Days, and 11 Teenagers: My Patagonia River Expedition

Hannah Masling

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As part of my semester school experience in the spring of 2018, we spent 17 days kayaking and backpacking in Patagonia, Chile, and three weeks living in small towns in northern Chile. Below is a day by day telling of the first part of the expedition, kayaking down the Río Baker, based off of my daily journal entries from the trip.

 

Day 1: “Did my first poop in the woods since a while.”

 

After an eight-hour bus ride on narrow, gravel roads, we pull into the campsite. The Río Baker is a vast, light blue, opaque mystery. My kayaking experience until now has been limited to a few mellow hours on a lake, and the roaring water in front of me makes me wonder: am I ready to paddle 100 miles in seven days?

It’s late in the afternoon, and there’s much to do in preparation for hitting the water tomorrow. Elsa, Abbie, and I sort out 15 piles—11 for us students and four for teachers—of snacks: Golazos, Super Ochos, Doblons (all Chilean candy), and Chewy bars. The cooler fills with eggs, bread, peppers, avocados, cheese, and granola, and while slicing a package open, my English teacher Reed cuts his thumb wide open.

Jorgie, my chemistry teacher, gathers us all for a lesson on river features. We learn about the upward current of an eddy, holes and boils that will swallow our kayaks whole and leave us trapped upside down, and rapid swimmer position.

Dinner is rice, lentils, and vegetables, and we all eat perched on an abandoned wooden structure. We go around answering the first of many nightly questions: what’s your favorite dessert? When it’s Jayla’s turn, she cooley answers, “BWN.” Everyone else looks around at one another, confused, until Jayla finally follows with, “Brownie with nuts… y’all haven’t heard of that?” The first inside joke of the expedition has been made.

 

Day 2: “Our campsite had tall grass and a few sheep carcasses.”

 

I get in my Duckie, an inflatable kayak, and try and take in every bit of water and sky, as the expedition is already flying by. After a few hours of paddling down the gushing river, we take out on a small island for lunch. We retrieve “the kitchen” — composed of a cooler, foldable table, and utensil pouch — from the gear raft, and cook crew dices up cheese, lettuce, tomato, salami, and bread. After eating, I realize I have to poop. Afraid to wander into the depths of this island alone, I bring Abbie and Elsa with me. We walk a few hundred feet away from the group and dig a six-inch hole behind a rock. Elsa goes first. We contemplate digging another hole, because something seems wrong about pooping on top of someone else’s poop, but we’re lazy and do it anyways: Elsa, me, then Abbie. I met these girls just three weeks ago, but we just had an experience we’d never think of having with our home friends that we’ve known for years.

After a few more hours of paddling, we pull into our first real camp. There’s a medium-sized patch of tall white grass with forest on either side of it. I set up my Mid, a floorless tent, and though I want to fall asleep, Olivia, my Spanish teacher, tells us that it’s time for our daily hour of study hall. Elsa and I decide to tackle our math assignment: using trigonometry to determine the width of the river. We lay a 70-foot throw rope parallel to the water and take out our iPads for an angle-measuring app. The app doesn’t work, so we use our best judgement to determine the angle from the end of the rope to a spot where a pack of horses are standing on the other side of the river. We do the trigonometry and get a small and inaccurate number for the width. Oh well.

I wake up in the middle of the night in immense pain. I’ve been paddling wrong and using my arms instead of my core, and they’re on fire. I squeeze my shoulders, trying desperately to soothe the pain, but the burning in my muscles only grows. Tears are streaming down my face. I look to Keating, with whom I’m sharing a Mid, sleeping peacefully, and wonder if I should wake her up. I even think about waking up Olivia, who’s not only my Spanish teacher but my designated mentor, but wind up falling back to sleep. In the morning, my pain is gone, and I tell myself that I will never paddle from my upper arms again.

 

Day 3: “The only scary thing is that it was hard to breathe.”

 

Today is the day with the two biggest rapids of the trip. The first one is like a chute. There’s two rock formations on either side of a 15-foot wide path of current. We get out of our kayaks before the rapid to scout it and discuss strategy. I feel like I’m going to throw up. We go one by one, and finally it’s my turn. I get the “O.K.” signal and somehow my boat starts moving toward the rapid. In less than a few seconds, I slam against the waves and come through the other side. I grin wildly and join those who’ve already gone in a little lagoon. As our teachers tell us about the next and final rapid of the day, Gonzales, we realize that the previous one was just a warm up. Up ahead, I see the 80-foot stretch of wave trains, holes, and swirling water. I clutch my paddle and make it over the first two waves, each at least five feet tall. When the third comes around, my boat has drifted sideways, and I fall out. I hear Keating laughing above me in her boat, and I join her in a happy panic. I keep one arm on my boat as I float down through the rest of the rapid. I’m not breathing when I should be, at the trough of each wave, and I’m gasping for air. I swallow water and cough it back out, desperate for a breath. Finally the hectic water settles, and I look to see six friends fallen out of their boats too, and teachers paddling against the current to rescue them, boats, and paddles.

I’m elated that camp is right in front of us. Once we get everything out of the rafts and set up, I change into dry clothes. We’re in the middle of tall forest, and quickly decide to make the most of it. About seven of us pretend that the forest floor is lava, and we can only survive by hopping around from fallen tree to fallen tree. We make our way far from camp, and my heart races from pure happiness. I’ve never felt so young. We weave along logs and branches, jumping from high to low and low to high, and laugh when someone falls and has to go to the back of the line. We hear a distant call that dinner is ready, and run back to the group.

 

Day 4: “Abbie and I did it all together: the cooler, the tandem duckie, and then our personal gear.”

 

After an hour of paddling, we reach an expanse of rocks and grass and hop out of our boats. The waterfall seems so close, but with every step it appears further away. We race up about a half a mile of rocks and boulders until we reach the top. The massive waterfall pours down the side of the mountain, and Jack pulls out his camera to take pictures. Now that we’re so close to the waterfall, the ground is thick with mud. Clinging onto shrubbery, we make our way to right beneath the fall. Water soaks our bodies and we’re screaming to be heard over the gushing water.

After another hour of paddling, we reach the portage, the section of river we’ll hike around instead of paddling down since it’s class V+ and extremely dangerous. All of our gear—15 kayaks, two rafts, 15 drybags, “the kitchen,” paddles, etc.—has to be carried three-fourths of a mile through the woods to the campsite. For my first round, I carry the cooler with Jorgie and Abbie. We use rope and paddles to create an easier carrying mechanism, but it fails after a few dozen feet. Next, we try and put it on our shoulders, but that fails too. We try strapping it to our backs like a backpack, but the narrowness of the path doesn’t allow it. After a quarter-mile of a mile, Jorgie gives up and carries it in his arms the rest of the way. Abbie and I turn back to double carry the tandem Duckie. With her in the front and I in the back, we set a steady pace with breaks every 75 feet or so. The path doesn’t seem to end, but we eventually reach our shady and secluded home for the night. We turn back through the woods, encouraging friends along the way, grab our personal drybags, and make the same trek once again.

During study hall, Emory and I experiment with hand sanitizer, flame, and oxygen for chemistry class.

 

Day 5: “Reed is dancing like a lunatic.”

 

Today is the longest paddle, 27 miles, but it flies by. The whole crew sings throughout the paddle to pass the time. “Build Me Up Buttercup” by The Foundations has become our expedition anthem, and every hour or two we scream it to for the river to hear. River, my classmate, not the body of water, has his own song on his mind. He sings “Aaron Burr, Sir,” but just one verse, over and over and over again. For 27 miles.

While the cook crew makes spaghetti and vegetables, Reed is off in the corner dancing to “Bulletproof” by La Roux. He eagerly scrolls through Emory’s music library on her iPad and pounds his fists in the air and sways his head.

Day 6: “While we were studying, a Chilean family just wandered out of the woods and through our camp. Didn’t say a word. Super odd.”

 

Everywhere I look there’s a cascading waterfall. To the left, there’s two skinny ones. Around the corner, there’s a short one. On the right, behind a cluster of trees, one hides, but I can hear it. Mckenzie and I are in a tandem, so it’s a balancing act of paddling to get the boat to move straight. We try and sing “American Pie” from start to finish, but get lost somewhere around the sixth minute of the song.

We get to camp before lunch, and have the rest of the afternoon to finish our assignments, mess around, and prepare for the last leg of the paddle. As I’m reading, I feel stares directed my way. I turn around and see a Chilean family of four strolling silently. We are in the middle of a river, in the middle of some mountains, in the middle of the woods. The entire situation is baffling.

 

Day 7: “I miss this already.”

 

I wake up at 3:00 a.m. to a wet material smothering my face. Utterly confused, I peel it off, and instead of seeing the gray top of my Mid, I see the night sky. Slowly making sense of my surroundings, I realize that it’s pouring rain and the Mid has fallen down. The wet tarp covers me and Keating like a blanket. I wake her up and we fix the pole back so it holds up the Mid.

About half an hour later, the Mid collapses again, and we’re left in the freezing rain. My laziness and lack of desire to fix the pole up again clouds the cold, and soon enough I’m asleep.

The eerie tune of “Hallelujah” creeps over me. Am I dreaming? I tilt my head to make out Reed’s dark shadow belting out the song and pulling kids out of their Mids. I look at my watch and see that it’s 5:45 a.m. I was supposed to be up and making breakfast for everyone 15 minutes ago, but my watch alarm didn’t go off.

The transition from the Mids to the water is slow. Everyone’s stuff is soaked, and gray clouds loom overhead. But by the time we’re in our kayaks, the sun is out. We miss the shortcut that we were supposed to take, and eventually make out a village in the distance. As we paddle into the harbor, we become as small as ants among fishing boats. We take out at the base of a huge set of wooden steps, and just like in the portage make multiple trips to bring all the gear up. We sit under a gazebo at the edge of the town and scarf down any remaining bread and cheese. The bus pulls in, and I turn to take in the Rio Baker for the last time. The bus rumbles out, and we make the similar bumpy drive as the one that dropped us off at the put in of the Rio Baker. Off we go to backpack for seven days…

PHOTOS BY OLIVIA KEENE

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