by Michael Lerner
High-profile U.S. conservationist Doug Tompkins died two weeks ago in a kayaking accident in southern Chile. He had dedicated much of his adult life to buying up land in Patagonia (2.2 million acres) not for any material gain, but to preserve it as wilderness with the hope of transferring it over to national governments if they would ensure its protection. The allure of this vast, beautiful region — so far south in Argentina and Chile that it’s known as “the end of the world” — captivated Tompkins. And yet, his tremendous legacy of preserving wilderness was irrelevant when he was pitted against the powerful and merciless forces of nature in Patagonia.
After three lengthy trips there, I know the draw of Patagonia well — the adventure and the glory, being both humbled and uplifted by such staggering natural beauty — and I also have a profound appreciation of the risks involved in venturing out. General Carrera Lake, where the kayaks of Tompkins and his companions capsized, leading to his death from hypothermia just a few hours later, is the largest in Chile, located on the remote Carretera Austral (Southern Highway). It’s also one of the most beautiful lakes in Chile that I’ve ever seen, home to the naturally-formed Capillas del Mármol (Marble Chapels), all set on turquoise water against a stunning backdrop of surrounding mountains.
When I kayaked through there on a sunny summer day in 2014 it was breathtaking, but even then some stretches had large waves. Patagonia is notorious for unpredictable shifts in weather, so it’s not hard to imagine the conditions encountered by Tompkins and his group. Chances are the line between excitement and terror was crossed quickly.
Even under seemingly-benign typical conditions, Patagonia delights in these sudden changes. On an earlier hike in the mountains outside of el Chaltén, in southern Argentine Patagonia, on short notice the wind picked up more than I ever thought was possible on such a pleasant sunny day. Glancing back to my travel companion (my brother), the wind literally blew the glasses off my face and down a steep ridge, never to be seen again. We then had to crouch, grabbing onto boulders to avoid the head-on gusts, but even that didn’t prevent the wind from pelting us with pebbles before we finally got down to safety from the lakeside ridge.
For me, that makes for a lively story. But under really foul conditions, Patagonia can become a nightmare. On January 10, 2014, I arrived in the small Chilean town of Cerro Castillo, just outside of a National Reserve of the same name. (Some have called this largely-unknown wilderness traverse “the new Torres del Paine,” after Chile’s world-famous national park located much further south.) As I inquired about renting camping gear, one of the tourism agency owners told me about a recent tragedy in the high mountain pass on the main trail. Two young Israelis hiking the traverse were caught in a storm two days earlier, and got lost. Amid brutal rain and wind, hypothermia struck both of them. The wind in this particular mountain saddle gets funneled in, the owner said, and becomes so strong that it can lift you up and throw you. This is almost certainly what happened, because one of the Israeli girls broke her leg there and could not go any further. The other had to go on, and eventually made it down, was hospitalized, and called for help. But the following day when rescuers (including the other owner of the tourism agency) made it up the mountain, the other girl was found dead.
And yet, during the following three days that I went hiking there, that tragedy seemed far removed from my actual experience. It was sunny and clear, with almost no wind whatsoever — idyllic Patagonian summer days, with magnificent scenery.
Blaming the Chilean forestry service that administers the national parks and reserves (known as CONAF, its Spanish acronym) for the tragedy, due to inadequate trail markings or information, is unfair and assumes they have some semblance of control over nature, which they most certainly do not. Likewise, categorizing the entire area as dangerous is also unwarranted. Rather, the take-home lesson must be: do not venture out in bad weather, and be prepared for anything even if the forecast looks acceptable.
However, its untamed — and thus at times dangerous — nature is the defining characteristic of Patagonia. And keeping it that way is the focus of numerous conservation campaigns. For example, in November, the Chilean town of Currarehue hosted Puescofest, a weekend kayaking and music festival aimed at raising awareness of local Patagonian rivers (sacred to the area’s indigenous Mapuche communities) threatened with dams, and the need to keep them wild.
Kayaking and rafting are the main ways in which preserving pristine rivers can generate income for the local area through ecotourism, and Patagonia has some legendary ones. The most notable is the Futaleufú, one of the world’s top whitewater rivers, which hosts the annual Futafest. The event, according to its website, “is a celebration for maintaining free-flowing healthy rivers, world class international sport and sustainable tourism in the Futaleufu River Valley and surrounding province. More than 15 countries participate in three days of exciting river sports combining local culture, regional cuisine and all the adventure Futaleufu has to offer.”
“Adventure” would be an understatement. The massive waves of the turquoise Futaleufú (originating from glaciers in the surrounding mountains) make it a non-stop thrill ride. In the international scale of rating rapids, level 5 is the hardest that is still passable. The full-day section that I rafted down in January 2014 included five class 3 rapids, seven class 4 rapids, and five class 5 rapids (with names like Terminator and Himalayas). Many of the harder rapids are maze-like, with numerous possible routes between boulders and through towering waves. For these the guides try plotting a course, and hope to get across. But rivers aren’t “designed” for anything, let alone human safety, and part of the appeal of big water is the chance of falling out. When that finally happened to me, soon after the start of a class 5 monster named Mas o Menos (More or Less) the unbelievably powerful swirling chaos that ensued was like nothing else. Wherever the river wanted to take me, I was going — I had zero influence over my course as I surged by, and thank goodness for the safety kayakers that rescued me some time later. The Futaleufú does not disappoint.
But one doesn’t need to be a water-sports fan to appreciate the value of wild rivers, as a majority of Chileans showed by their support for the Patagonia Sin Represas (Patagonia Without Dams) campaign. It formed in 2007 in opposition to the HidroAysén proposal of Endesa (Chile’s largest electric utility company; privatized in 1989), which would have built three dams on the Pascua River and two on the Baker River in the Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia. According to internationalrivers.org:
The dams would have flooded nearly 15,000 acres of globally rare forest ecosystems and some of the most productive agricultural land in the area. HidroAysén also would have required a 1,912-km-long transmission line traversing pristine forests and a seismically active region to transfer the electricity from the dams thousands of kilometers north to serve Chile’s biggest cities and its mammoth copper industry, without benefit to the unknown number of people who would have been adversely affected by HidroAysén and its transmission line.
But the massive public outcry against the dams was ultimately successful. In June 2014, Chile’s highest administrative authority, the Committee of Ministers, cancelled the environmental permits for the dams. (Tompkins was a fierce opponent of HidroAysén and supported Patagonia Sin Represas with $8 million; his foundations played key scientific and public-mobilization roles in delaying and stopping it).
But although the public’s consciousness has been raised, threats to Patagonian rivers are by no means over. As of July, Endesa was planning 23 new energy projects in Chile with a total capacity of up to 3GW. New hydropower plants would account for 64% of that, with the rest from natural-gas fired plants. More concretely, a total of 2.2GW will be developed in the next 5 years. But besides economic viability and passing environmental impact evaluations, the company has stated that the projects will be only carried out if they receive community approval. So other anti-dam movements can succeed. In the face of enduring popular opposition, the company will look for alternatives.
Meanwhile, in Argentine Patagonia, one of the legacies of recently-departed former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner may be the construction of two controversial dams totaling 1.7GW in capacity. Kirchner claimed the massive structures, which span almost two miles at their widest point, will bring in jobs, money, and development to her home province of Santa Cruz. But they raise troubling questions about environmental impacts and the influence of China (which is financing and building them, and will operate them for 20 years before transferring control to the provincial government). Although Santa Cruz recently gave a 1-year approval for the environmental impact study of the $5.7 billion scheme, Argentina’s national parks administration (APN) was never consulted — even though the dams will affect Los Glaciares National Park upstream.
However, last Wednesday new APN vice president Emiliano Ezcurra said the organization will soon have a formal position against the dams project, and will seek to halt it via the courts. And although preparatory work is already well under way, actual construction is no longer a sure thing, particularly as new president Mauricio Macri has promised a review and the possibility of a veto.
So Tompkins’ fight to conserve wilderness is not over. If anything, he and his wife Kris set the bar very high with their very tangible accomplishments. Their campaigns (funded by Tompkins’ entire $500 million fortune) were high-profile, although as foreigners their actions were often unjustly viewed with suspicion. At the time of Tompkins’ death, the couple had already converted 480,000 acres of their holdings into five national parks in Chile and Argentina, and the rest of their land (with high-quality infrastructure already paid for) was in varying stages of becoming seven additional national parks. That work will continue. In fact, following his death, the Chilean government announced that Tompkins’ privately-owned Pumalín Park will become a contiguous national park in March 2017 — something the conservationist had been working towards for twenty years.
For the most part, Doug Tompkins’ work has been portrayed as controversial yet positive in the Chilean and Argentine press following his death. But his legacy is twofold, and will only come into full swing years from now — when Patagonia has more officially protected areas than ever and (as he predicted) more locals and government officials embrace conservation.
And travelers like me will be forever grateful to him.