We had been driving for a while when we left the main road behind. From the fairly flat landscape our eyes had become accustomed, we found ourselves slowly going down a twisted dirt road – high walls on each side, perhaps 50 meters high. The road was cutting its way through red rock. The sun lighting up the mineral, the walls seemed to be alive. Thousands of shadow spots changing shape as we progressed down. It almost felt like we were in a kaleidoscope. Suddenly, the light disappeared. A long tunnel, a gateway to another place. There were no more walls, only a dim light spot ahead of us. The light at the end of the tunnel – sign of a new world awaiting.
As our eyes adjusted to the brightness, we found ourselves at the top of a dam. To our right, a large reservoir. The red mountains trapped between the blue sky and the blue water. To our left, a river and trees. Their green in total contrast with the surrounding. Down there, passed the buildings from the electrical company, was our departing point. For the next 3 days, we were to kayak the waters of Rio Chubut, a river famous for its fly fishing, that starts in Carreras in the Andes and ends 800km further down in Rawson. Its name is derived from the Tehuelche word “chupat”, meaning “transparent”.
As we unloaded the kayaks and prepared our gear, memories of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It flowed back in my mind. I remembered the scene where the old man, tying up a knot on his line to attach a fly, reflects on his life, narrating the important lessons the River had given him.
“When I am alone in the half light of the canyon, all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul and my memories, and the sounds of the big Blackfoot River, and the four count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
I remembered the importance of the River in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”. Its significance in the story, symbolizing the key to Freedom. There is no better imagery to epitomize our life journey, than the River. It starts from a point, and ends at another. No matter how wild the river is, no matter how unruly it wants to be, it still has a direction, a purpose, to reach the ocean. It flows blindingly to a place where it will cease to exist. It will merge with something bigger, it will become one with the others.
Young rivers are straight – giving more importance in the destination rather than the journey, often missing much of the world they flow in. Their banks offering no protection, the water rushes down, in a hurry. Old rivers meander, understanding that the journey is more important. They turn right and left, sometimes go back up, they explore and wander. There curves offer refuge to others and soon their banks and waters find themselves bursting with life.
Our first day was marked by massive walls, the River flowing at their feet, unimpressed, simply moving along. Flocks of Black-neck and Coscoroba Swans painfully flying away every time they see us. Graceful in the air and on the water, swans need a lot of energy to lift themselves off to fly. Their webbed feet pushing and keeping their heavy body above the water as their wings flap against the wind. Red-gartered Coot quickly darting in all directions. Awful flyers, Nature gave them large feet that they use to run on the surface, and they do so with great speed and loud noise – rapid sequences of Flap, flop, flap, flop. On the river banks, horses, sheep, and cattle. If you are lucky and have good eyes, you might spot a hare, his ears up listening to any danger coming his way. In the air, Turkey Vultures scanning the vast land for any careless creatures.
Doing photography on a river is quite different than on the ocean. Everything passes by fairly quickly. Animals leave a soon they see you. The ones who don’t, hide themselves, and if you do find them, it is already too late, the current is taking you away. On the ocean, you usually only need one lens, a long one. No need to change since your main objective is to capture animals. On a river, you constantly keep switching between a short and long lens, wanting to capture both the landscape and the animals. If you don’t make the right decision at the right time, it is too late.
Around mid day, we stop for a break and decide to go fishing. Rio Chubut is home for Brown and Rainbow trouts, and if you have the right gear, the right spot, the right technique, and the right spirit, you might find yourself with a nice big fish fighting you. I tie a silver spoon with a green stripe and cast my line close to a rock big enough that it creates a nice backwash, a perfect spot. Nothing. But something tells me that there is a big one there, so I keep casting in the same spot. My senses acute, I stare at the water, at the rock, precisely right next to it, where I know one must be. My spoon hits the water right pass the spot and I start to reel. The sun flickers on the spoon and in an instant, a big Brown trout goes for it. I dig my heels in the ground and steady myself. She goes upstream, her powerful body pulling my line with it like a fly on its back. We fight for a while until I sense it is safe enough to bring her to shore. But this is where the trout masters in strategy. She faints her defeat and while I joyfully bring her back, she gathers her strength and prepare herself for the big finally. With no net, I can’t simply whisk her off the water, I have to hold my rode in one hand, give enough line so that the trout does not get out of the water, and reach with the other hand to grab her. Simpler said than done. I finally see my opponent – oh my! That is a big fish! I go to grab her and she darts up out of the water, twist, and as she touches back the surface, she uses the current and goes down stream. With no resistance, her power is doubled. She jumps again, twist again, and again and again. For a moment, I am afraid I will loose her. Her ferociousness is working. I am getting nervous, and careless. But I got her well hooked. I get my senses back and steady myself again. The fight goes on for a while. I finally manage to grab her. With a solid grip, I walk to the safety of the shore, sit down, and look at my catch. I tell her that I am honored by the fight she gave me. I get up, look at the river and bow. I thank her for her gift. That night, in addition to our dinner of Argentinean beef, we cooked my trout much like how our ancestors, and their ancestors did it – over fire.
Our second day camp is nestled amongst red rock hills. As we pull our kayaks to higher ground, a white horse is standing not far, looking at us. He stands tall and looks magical. Lifting his nose in the air, he turns his head sideways and walks away. Before dinner, we hike to the top of the highest hill and wonder at the sight. The river flows through a landscape of green trees and red hills. The water reflects the sky and look like a long curvy endless mirror. There is no cloud and the blue sky completes this highly contrasted scenery.
On our third day, we come to a small damn. The bad news is that we have to portage our kayaks. The good news is that right after the small fall are little rapids, perfect for a little play time. While the others try their luck fishing one last time, I paddle my kayak to the bubbly waters. The rapids are not big, but it still offers me a moment of fun and excitement. Shortly before our final destination, we come to a big rock, perfect for a swim. After tightening the kayaks together, we climb up on a small edge. Pablo is the first one to brave the frigid cold water. After filming the others jumping, it is time for me to go. I hold my waterproof Olympus in front of me, wanting to have footage of the actual splash and leap in the air. My body enters the water and goes in shock. The water is so cold. Unconsciously I cling my fingers, pressing the stop button on the camera. The lanyard slips away from my hand and the camera goes free. My brain is fighting what to panic about – the cold or the fact that I just lost my camera. My hands frantically wave everywhere. Last I heard, camera sinks and current takes things away. I have perhaps 5 seconds before I loose any hope of catching it. My fingers feel the hard case, but I fail to grab it. I feel the seconds passing by. I feel my chances disappearing. By now, the camera is somewhere around my waist line, sinking rapidly. The current is making things worst. With one last attempt, I go for it. I feel the lanyard between two of my fingers. I squeeze them and pray it will be enough. I bring my hand to my chest and grab the camera for dear life. With the camera secure, I reach for the surface. I swim to the rock, my body still in shock. The look on my face must say a lot, cause everyone is looking at me with fear – What happened?
After warming up, we get back in our kayaks and glide the last hour. At our picking rendez-vous, Sofia has a nice surprise for us, a cooler with some nice cold beers. I take mine and walk one last time to the river. I sit on my kayak, take a sip and repeat the words of Maclean’s:
“I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.”