Guest post by Bryant Irawan
Over the course of human history, we have explored nearly every corner of the globe. But despite globalization and advancements in science, there is one last frontier that remains – and it’s closer than you think. Sometimes we live only a few miles away from one and sometimes it courses through our very cities. I am, of course, talking about rivers.
Rivers are naturally difficult places to access. They often create gorges and canyons that make hiking into it impossible. For example, the bottom of the Grand Canyon is accessible only by rafting or kayaking except for at one location (Phantom Ranch). Even the South Fork of the American River, which is the most commercially popular river in America, has days where only a handful of people are on it, even though it’s only half an hour away from Sacramento. Sure, nearly every river has been photographed via satellite, but only recently have humans descended these rivers on some sort of craft. In the US, whitewater kayaking became mainstream in the 80s, but today, there are still plenty of first descents available.
It’s not just the vastness of river systems that make rivers an elusive last frontier. Several attempts have been made to descend the famous Inga rapids on the Congo River-the largest volume river in the planet. Every previous group has died, but finally an expedition led by Steve Fischer as recently as 2011 completed its first descent. The evolution of kayaks and canoes have progressed rapidly, but lethal rapids have remained the same. Even what appears to be the calmest river may have undercuts or sieves that can trap you underwater in knee-high water. Historically, humans have been able to conquer vast amounts of land, but when it comes to rivers, there is only survival.
To successfully complete a first descent, you need to be quite skilled. There are still easy stretches of rivers that have not been run, but for the most part, there is usually quite a scary reason why a certain section of a river has been avoided. I’m not there yet – nor will I ever want to be. But I was quite excited when I got the opportunity to complete a fourth descent on the Nuble River in Chile.
It was a Class IV section, which means that the rapids are very challenging, but you don’t need to be a professional to run this section. The biggest reason why this section has seldom been run is that it is hard to access – it requires three automobile river crossings as well as extreme off-roading skills. Farmers who live in the area usually use horses to commute back and forth from the village.
For the most part, I thought the river was very fun, complete with large boulders and lots of rocks to play with. Nestled in a picturesque mountain valley, it was quite scenic as well. With four groups successfully completing descents, the upper-upper section of the Nuble is confirmed to be a great run especially for intermediate kayakers, but unfortunately, my group’s fourth descent will also probably be the last.
Near the end, I was admiring the imposing granite walls of the gorge, but my views became replaced with a massive concrete wall and loud cranes and trucks. The road to access this section of the Nuble River is notoriously rugged, but at the start, it was very smooth – so smooth that I initially thought we were on the wrong road. I did not think of it much during the drive, but it’s clear now that the road was only maintained up to the point of the dam construction site.
I got to learn more about the dam and how it would change the river when I got back to my campsite. My host, Pablo, was one of the founders of Nuble Fest, an annual gathering of kayakers and rafters to run the commercial section, and owner of a raft company that operates on the Nuble. Pablo eagerly showed us videos of past Nuble Fests and told old river stories over a lamb asada. After seeing how much Pablo loved this river, not even the delicious food could get the sick taste out of my mouth.
The dam is set to be completed before the next commercial season starts in October 2017. And since I ran the Nuble in late December (near the end of the season), the water was already starting to be too low. My group will probably be the last group to descend the majestic Nuble.
Chile is keen on developing hydropower to meet their energy needs with low-carbon resources. But dams have many negative environmental consequences. Habitats get flooded. Trees that served as carbon sinks die (one of the hidden sources of carbon output from dams). One dam even destroyed a whole town after it failed.
A less obvious impact is the increase in poverty and crime. Kayakers and rafters stimulate the local economy next to rivers, so this loss of tourism revenue hurts small communities. Villages that once thrived from running commercial operations on the river have their economies crushed. Chile’s dam projects are usually funded by foreign corporations from Europe and the benefits are only felt in Santiago. Even if locals are hired for the construction, dams are surprisingly quick to be built. The Nuble dam I kayaked through did not span across the river at all but it will in only several months.
I have no idea what Pablo will do. His rafting business will be gone. He has a large and beautiful campsite, but without kayakers and rafters, nobody will visit the quiet town of San Fabian. But what I do know is that kayakers and rafters are passionate people. We won’t go down without a fight.