Futaleufu Rafting Trip: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
Early on last summer, I experienced a very difficult time in my life, after I suffered a serious road biking accident. I was first hospitalized, underwent surgery, then was out of all action, recovering for six months with strong pain from four badly broken ribs and a punctured, then collapsed lung. However, I was grateful that my injuries were not permanent, many others are not so lucky. With this in mind, I was determined to experience that missed summer in a special and powerful way at the next available opportunity. I thought why not head down to South America for an epic adventure, the best they can offer?
It all started when I heard about (or rather saw the pictures of) the azure blue white water of the Rio Futaleufu in Chile. Futalaefu means ‘Big River’ in the native people’s dialect, and I can attest to it’s accuracy. However, a more accurate meaning would have been ‘Big Awesomely Beautifully Blue, Pristine and Freezing Cold plus having Gnarly Rapids River’. Turns out, a Tahoe-based adventure company called Bio Bio expeditions have been commercially rafting the ‘Fu’ for 13 or so years now. Also turns out, they have set up one of the most unique ‘glam camps’ on the planet right by the side of ‘The Fu’, as attested to by the likes of National Geographic and Outside Magazine.
But the real allure, is that over the years, they have perfected a week long experience, setting up an infallible week of the perfect combination of adventure activities, social fun, and relaxation time, all set in the idealistic natural environment. By permanently tenting us in the camp for the week, and basing the activities around returning to camp each day, they have been able to set up a camp that dreams are made of. It was the Swiss Family Robinson on steroids. Or maybe Daniel Boon. Set in the most picturesque setting nestled on the Futaleufu River valley floor, underneath the majestic towering peaks known as ‘The Three Nuns’. The camp consisted of permanent large tents set on the river (ie if you are a sleep walker, then I’d implore you to zip up the tent so you didn’t go walking in the middle of the night and end up falling 20 feet below into the icy river). Surrounding the tents, are constructed locally sourced wooden buildings comprising of bar, wood fired stone hot tub, massage rooms and sauna (yes, a real wood sauna), drying room, wine tasting room, yoga platform overlooking river (with yoga classes conducted at the respectably holiday hour of 8:15 every morning), kitchen, bathrooms and showers with flush toilets, plus dining area. Like I said, glam camping.
It helps if you are an Alpha/ ADD type of person to go on this trip, because the formal itinerary for the week is jam packed (even for my liking). Starting from 8:15 in the morning with wake up yoga stretching (useful for those newly forming paddling muscles), there is a full week of activities comprised of white water rafting, kayaking, fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking, duckying, horse riding, drinking (did I mention the open bar yet?), hot tubbing, massaging, wine tasting, socializing, eating (every 4 hours or so), talent show performing, and travelling to and from the camp. It’s an epic week, and you WILL be tired after it for several days. I was and I have really high energy. Then again, I am Australian, and well, we are known for our staying power at the bar, so much so, that Sarah and I were placed in the tent closest to the bar, in anticipation of our Aussie reputation for partying up a storm. We had to comply ;-). Actually, we were saying we just had to see the Southern Cross. It didn’t rise in that part of the world until at least 1am!
Adding to the setting, and the activities were the Bio Bio team. You can always tell a great Heliski operation by the retention rate of the guides and lodging staff. Well, Bio Bio has a long standing payroll of some of the most experienced international rafting guides on the planet, who are still young and fun enough to party it up. They employ both international and South American guides (often those who are professionally sponsored at the top of their paddling game), plus Alex, the videographer who gets a special mention. Alex, a Devon export, was the European ex freestyle kayaking champion, and it shows. If you ever see one of these guys, what you’ll see is how he seems to effortlessly dance I’d say, not ‘on’, but rather ‘with’ the water. Tiny little strokes, yet such amazing control he can hold surfing his kayak in and through those grade 4 and 5 rapids, when we are hard pressed to paddle the hefty raft through them without flipping. He possesses more than a healthy dose of pomp, but I forgive him when I see those moves on the water, not to mention those on the dance floor of the bar at two in the morning each night. The lodging staff were equally impressive, Cookie (the Dutch, Chilean chef from Tahoe deserves also a special mention, as he was the party animal extraordinaire, and STILL managed to get up and have the team deliver exceptional home cooked meals every day.
One of the thrills of my week was spending some time getting to know the guides. Like heli skiing guides, these people have made a real choice in their vocation, are top of their game, and they are purests in their sport. Early on, I formed a bond with Elena, a young, attractive rooky guide from Oregon who was really sweet helping me deal with the water up the nose issue during the kayaking clinic. She lent me her personal nose guard, and gave me the confidence by always being by my side when I felt nervous in the kayak.
In our conversations both on the water and in the hot tub and bar, we discussed the similarities and differences between paddlers, and skiers, she also being a keen telemark skier. We discovered together, that there’s one key difference between paddlers and skiers. Elena described how willing paddlers are to help each other and be there on the water. But that paddlers don’t have to worry about their line being messed up. You all know the saying ‘There are no friends on powder days’, well, actually in paddling, there are always friends, because every day is like a powder day. The wonderful thing about white water paddling is that the quality of the water is pretty consistent (unless there’s a drought) and so, paddlers needn’t get upset with another ‘stealing their line’. Like kite boarding to surfing in fact also. Now that’s food for thought.
There are just two more things, I should mention about the week. Firstly, the food- How Cookie’s small team were able to pump out haute cuisine, restaurant quality food from a small, camp kitchen for 30+ people 4 x a day is beyond me. The ingredients were so healthy, fresh (they have their own vegetable garden on site) and tasty that I felt no need to take my customary multi vitamins that I take on most holidays. They even commissioned their own beer brewing expert this season to be in residence developing 'Fu Brew' on location. All in all this was a summer equivalent of the best boutique heli skiing I’d ever done.
But the story can’t go unfinished, until I discuss the participants. We may have been lucky with our group, but we had a number of eclectic people on our tour, and like heli skiing, I guess these out there experiences attract all sorts of people from all walks of life (within the realm of those who can afford it). From Shelley, the world renowned American fisheries statistician expert who runs her global business from Shizuoka Japan where she’s lived the past 13 years or so, and speaks the language fluently. To Ingrid and Jeremiah, the cute, honeymoon couple who live in San Diego, but both come from Midwestern and Southern roots who are both addicted to running (I mean who does that on their honeymoon?) but equally I can say, could party as hard as the Aussies at the bar. And special mention should go to the Greenspan family – Papa Saul and Irene and the 3 grown up kids. They were like the perfect Canadian family. There to celebrate the 30th anniversary together of their marriage and family forming. To think they rafted, partied, and yoga’d together. I can’t honestly see my mother hitting a raft on the Fu, anytime soon. Way to go family Greenspan.
And so, I feel really grateful to have had such an epic week of summer, as described above. When I was heading through the penultimate Grade 5 rapid known as ‘The Terminator’, at the tipping point (literally), ribs and lung now finally intact and functioning smoothly again, the words of a german philosopher came to my mind ‘What doesn’t kill you, can only make you stronger. Who agrees?