The Baker River cuts a turquoise ribbon through the southern beech forests of Chilean Patagonia and flows past jagged peaks before dumping its silty waters in the Pacific. The river marks the western border of the future Patagonia National Park, and flanks the road to Cochrane, the nearest town. Its shadow looms large over the region, both as a geographic marker and a contested political symbol.
All of us working for Conservacion Patagonica have spent hours analyzing and defending this river, but it’s a different story entirely to put oneself at its mercy and paddle its spectacular length. In mid-February, the piece finally coalesced for such a trip: a three day, 180km journey from just below the Baker–Chacabuco confluence to Caleta Tortel, in the fjords of the Pacific.
Roberto Haro, founder and lead instructor of the Cochrane kayaking club, has volunteered himself as the guide of our crew, five strong. With various groups of talented young boaters from the region, he’s made myriad descents of the river.
Our craft? Two whitewater boats and three sea kayaks, the latter being a more suitable vessel for a river with few rapids and plentiful flat water. On the morning of our departure, we drive to the put-in and prepare for our journey downstream. Roberto can’t help but to chuckle as he watches the gringos shove obnoxious quantities of food and gear into their boats. Hopefully we will still float. Sure enough, we do and by 11am we push off into the swift current.
As you drive beside it down the Carretera Austral, the Baker appears tranquil, almost sluggish. But make no mistake: the Baker is a big volume river, and down at kayak level the swollen waters take a new form. Whirlpools, boils, eddy lines…call them what you will, but it only takes a brief lapse in concentration to find yourself upside down in the frigid torrent. Little boats lend a different perspective on the power potential of the Baker.
Thirsty? Instead of reaching for water bottles, we simply dip our hands into the river and drink freely from the Baker. Convenient, delicious, and a healthy reminder of how fortunate we are to be in a place that remains relatively unspoiled.
Glaciers hang precariously on the peaks bordering the banks. Mountains loom on the horizon. More waterfalls, always waterfalls. The Baker feels remote, but we paddle around many a bend to see small cabins on the banks and to encounter cows and horses staring in disbelief at the alien kayakers. During the mid 20th century, the Chilean government ran a settlement program in hopes of protecting this region against Argentine encroachment. Hillsides of burned trees are the remnants of a policy of granting land titles to settlers who demonstrated an “improvement” on their land.
Near the end of day one, the river squeezes into a narrow, rocky canyon: El Salton, the river’s only major rapid. And in our case, a mandatory portage. Big water Class V isn’t exactly ideal for novice paddlers in unwieldy sea kayaks. And so the plan is to camp here tonight and make the portage in the morning. Up the bank, over many a burned tree, through a ditch – Roberto leads us to our campsite. Dragging our overloaded kayaks we trudge through the field, slipping on abundant cow pies. We momentarily reconsider the overwhelming quantity of food that was earlier crammed into our boats, and then think of the dinner to come.
Day two dawns cool and crisp, and the portage around El Salton resumes soon after breakfast. Well prepared from the previous evening’s haul, two trips on the muddy trail go quickly and without incident. We pause to stare in awe at some serious Class V whitewater – runnable, I think so…but much better suited for professionals than our hodgepodge gang. Back in the river, we paddle quickly through some lingering whirlpools, then settle in for another day on the Baker. By this time, we’ve long lost track of the numerous waterfalls, and it’s almost easy to become numb to our surroundings…yet each bend in the river presents a new panorama and takes the breath away. It is a wilderness not quite tangible, impossible to put into words.
By evening, we creep back toward civilization – a few small houses pop up, and the road to Tortel appears on river left. Where the Rio Vargas enters the Baker, Roberto pulls to shore at a small farm and proclaims it our campsite. Tonight we will sleep here, accompanied by almost every imaginable domestic animal. Chickens, horses, ducks, dogs, cats, you name it. We chat with the Sandoval family, who spends their summer months here, and enjoy a quick swim, some fishing, and the obligatory campfire before retiring to our sleeping bags.
Day three. The first rooster crows at 4am, far too close to the tent and long before any rational creature should be stirring. But the obnoxious fowl cares not, and continues the ruckus until his friends join in. Light drizzle patters on the tents, but eventually we rouse ourselves to make breakfast and take to the river one last time.
Another waterfall, another glacier, another unclimbed peak looms on the horizon. With each passing tributary, the Baker gradually picks up silt, making the change from emerald green on day one to silty grey by the time we approach Tortel. At this point, the massive Baker is now a braided network of channels requiring a bit of diligence to navigate. Route finding becomes a strategic method of following the main current (not always obvious) and using as little energy as possible. Five or six hours later, and we are clearly reaching the end of our journey – some cows cross the river in front of us, and gauchos gaze lazily from the banks.
Aside from a rampant upriver wind, the weather holds and we soon find ourselves in Caleta Tortel, final destination. Here we take the token end-of-trip photo, devour a few empanadas, pop a victory cerveza, and it’s back to the future park in good company. Baker? Check. It’s worth working for.