There are three ways in and out of the little town of Futaleufú, unless you’re a condor. All are dirt road for long stretches. You can imagine that I felt right at home in this small-town environment, surrounded by steep forested ridgelines plunging down to pristine rivers on all sides. The Futaleufú, divided geopolitically into seven rural sectors, is similar in some ways to our remote little part of Northern California. Both are places so big and wild that people and our habitation seem small and temporary on the landscape. The people who live in a place like this are necessarily practical, quirky and wonderful.

La María Jose and La Erica Kate, Las Keeper Creepers, from a ferry roof heading home after a presentation in the rural Valle Espolón.

La María Jose and La Erica Kate, Las Keeper Creepers, from a ferry roof heading home after a presentation in the rural Valle Espolón.

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I was extraordinarily fortunate to be able to parachute into the reality of fellow waterkeeper María Jóse Ortiz Aguirre, sleep in her spare room, dirty her kitchen, stay up all night with her friends, borrow her bike and utilize her connections with local river guides to get two remarkably beautiful days on the river. It’s difficult to explain the waterkeeper bond, but once you’ve experienced it, you’re changed forever. In just over a week, my gracious host and I shared a number of inside jokes and an easy way of being, despite quite a language gap.

María Jóse took to calling me “La Kate,” “La Erica,” or “La Erica Kate.” Around town, she is known simply (and affectionately) as (La) Keeper. As has been my observation in every other community, the waterkeeper mantle is one laden with repute and responsibility. Fortunately, the Futaleufú Riverkeeper María Jóse is, like most keepers, made of the right stuff so she wears the mantle aptly, rather than the other way around. Although she only moved to Futa a year ago when the organization was just a good idea, she clearly has the sensibilities needed to exist in a small town organizing local people against proposed development of mines and hydroelectric dams.

An example: a few days before my departure, she and I pulled together a presentation on the issues we face in our respective watersheds and the work of waterkeepers in the face of these issues.

Jóse is recovering from a horseback riding accident in September which resulted in a broken fibula, so she goes everywhere with the help of two walking sticks similar to crutches, called bastones in Spanish. It hardly seems to have slowed her down, however. She fearlessly pivots around town, down steep switchbaking trails to the river, over fences and and up and down ladders to ferry roofs.

In any event, as we hoofed around the 20 blocks of metropolitan Futaleufú inviting people, procuring wine and oranges and most importantly, a projector and laptop, we stopped to chat with someone holding an ice cream bar. Moments after departing this conversation, we invested in our own ice cream bars and continued down the street inviting people, inquiring about details, etc. Suddenly a little station wagon pulled up, crammed with friends who had volunteered to chase down the projector.  Between bites of ice cream, Jose sent them down a block to catch the neighbor with the equipment.

While they pursued the errand, Jóse sent me running down the block in the other direction for four more ice cream bars, lest we appear selfish and ungrateful when the car full of friends and technology returned. Just in time, we piled in on the laps of those already in the car. I don’t eat ice cream, a few of the friends proclaimed, but since this is a gift…as they peeled back the wrappers and devoured the treats appreciatively.

The point of this anecdote is that La María Jóse had the good sense to reward her volunteers with the same things we were enjoying, to respect them as equals. In any case, this would have been a smart idea, but especially in a small town such as Futa it’s what will enable true grassroots organizing. Jóse is integrally part of the town she speaks for, and that is critical to cultivating ownership in a campaign for Patagonia Sin Represas(Dam Free Patagonia).

How Riverkeepers present, lol.

How Riverkeepers present, lol.

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How Futaleufú factors into the energy plans of Endesa, the corporation that proposes to build three new dams there.

How Futaleufú factors into the energy plans of Endesa, the corporation that proposes to build three new dams there.

By the end of our first of three rounds of the presentation, and a lively discussion, it was evident that ownership not just by ex-pats and residents from other parts of Chile but by a broader spectrum of locals is sorely needed in the campaign. One attendee, a raft guide in the area with a passion for preserving the simple nature-centered way of life that persists in Futa, expressed frustration at the small number of truly local people showing up at events like these. We always have these events and then go back to living our lives and nothing changes, he said, urging the audience to do more and the movement to be more proactive and inclusive. Coming from the Klamath, I was struck by how movements in all parts of the world face similar organizing challenges.

The Futaleufú river basin straddles the Chile-Argentina border in the northern Patgonia region. On the Argentine side, further up in the watershed, one dam has already altered the ecosystem. But the proposal by Endesa energy corporation to build three new dams in the Futaleufú River  doesn’t sit well with many locals. Whereas, on the Klamath we are laboring to tear down dams, here on the other end of the earth, they are fighting to prevent dams from ever going in.  If I can think of any goal more noble than taking out four environmentally destructive dams on the Klamath, it’s rejecting three massive dams before they’re built on the Futaleufú. Here is a precious opportunity to learn from our history, to reject the retrogressive notion that our progress is measured by our capacity to feed our voracious and ever-growing energy appetite, and to instead develop more bio-regionally focused economies that protect our natural resources.

The Futaleufú gives the Cal Salmon and Smith Rivers a run for its money in the river gorgeous department. It’s so clean and appealing in its glacial shimmer that visitors like me find it difficult to capture its beauty and awe-inspiring scale in photos. It’s certainly difficult to envision this landscape “pintado por Dios” after construction of dams. Hopefully, photos of toxic algae and fish kills can offer a glimpse of the nasty side effects of dams from our case study on the Klamath.

On my second day on the river, our guide scooped water straight out of the river in a cup and offered a sip. Come to Patagonia, where the water is still drinkable, swimmable, fishable, navigable…where the rhythms of the ecosystem still dictate every aspect of life. And you know what they say, once you drink the water…

At takeout on a "bridge to bridge" run on the Futaleufú River via cataraft, courtesy of Earth River.

At takeout on a “bridge to bridge” run on the Futaleufú River via cataraft, courtesy of Earth River.

On a run down the road towards Valle Espolón and Río Azul one of my last days in the Futa watershed, I breathed deep, leaned into the wind with my arms out like the wings of a condor. I felt a deep sense of tranquility, soaring along with the knowledge that I had some reason for crossing so many borders to get from one middle of nowhere to another, to come exactly here. Although it’s important that we do work on a daily basis on the local issues we know best, it’s also important to develop a global consciousness and set of allies and strategies to engage effectively in the fight against increasingly global corporate threats to our rivers.

On Todos Santos Lake, with volcanoes on all sides, in the Lake District of Chile, courtesy of Yak Expeditions.

On Todos Santos Lake, with volcanoes on all sides, in the Lake District of Chile, courtesy of Yak Expeditions.

If you’re following my travels from home, you might like to know that I have since taken a long day of buses and ferries to arrive in seedy Puerto Montt and then bougie Puerto Varas. After a kayak adventure on Lago Todos Los Santos at the foot of several volcanoes, I’m boarding a bus again and heading north to Santiago, then flying to Bolivia Sunday. I’ll try to post a purely travelogue blog entry very soon, whereas this one was dedicated to the magic of the Futaleufú and Las Keepers.

Ya. Bueno. Super. Si, no? Nos Vemos. Ciao.

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