This morning, Ben and I remained silent. There wasn’t much to say, or maybe we just couldn’t find the right words. Some things are better left unsaid. We are tired, scared and very aware this is not the headspace to be entering Chile’s infamous Pascua Canyon.
We had been traveling together through South America for almost three months. Our journey started on the Argentinian side of the Andes with a complicated high-water descent of the Rio Tunuyan. Then we crossed the border to Chile and headed south to complete the first descent of the Rio Ano Nuevo, and the Patagonia Triple Crown: the Rio Baker, the Bravo and the Pascua, which had been attempted in 2017 by a team led by Evan Garcia.
In the last couple years, I have been lucky to paddle with expedition kayaker Ben Stookesberry and learn from him. He’s a mentor, adventure partner and good friend. Our journeys have had their ups—successful first descents, delicious picnics and marginal dance moves. And downs—four-day portages, honest grinch time, broken gear, lost drone, bad lines, savage bushwhacks and injuries, to name a few.
But this was the lowest.
This morning I woke up with the worst hangover of my life. Coffee has no taste and I struggle to eat my oatmeal. This is the end of our trip. Our good friend Erik Boomer has left after joining us for a month of exploratory kayaking. Our team lost not only its best dancer and asado aficionado but also the optimist of the group.
Ben and I could have called it and just done easy laps on the Rio Baker and the Futaleufu. But we decided to give this trip a last push. We drove south until there was no more road, all the way to the very end of the Carretera Austral. We wanted to try to paddle the Rio Pascua and see if it was as scary as everyone says. It was. And here we are, right where we thought we wanted to be.
We spent four days bushwhacking and paddling flatwater with 100-pound loaded creek boats in heavy headwinds to get here. On the way, we portaged around the gnarliest whitewater I have ever seen. Watching from the shore, I could not stop imagining what it would be like to drop into one of those monster rapids. It is quite something to feel like you are in a rainstorm standing 100 feet above river level, to hear the roar, and see hydraulics bigger than houses. It is humbling and terrifying.
I cannot stop thinking about all the water in the box canyon we are going to paddle.
By the hour, our confidence drops. Doubt settles in. The what ifs keep popping up. On the second big portage we realize the water line is almost at the trees. “I am no fucking hydrologist, but this river is fucking high,” Ben says.
I was just as scared but turning around isn’t an option. Not yet.
If the Pascua weren’t hard and scary we wouldn’t be there, I say. We agree to check the first rapids of the canyon before making our final decision. Whether we will paddle through or hike out, we have to see for ourselves. And that’s what we will do as soon as we finish our breakfast.
What if it is too high? What if there is a death hole in the middle of the canyon? What if we are not good enough?
Coffee now cold, it’s time to get going. What Ben doesn’t know is today is March 13, and it’s a special day for me. On this day four years ago, I lost one of my best friends to the river.
Today I am hungover, not from any alcohol but life. I am sad but also incredibly grateful to still be here, chugging cold coffee, scared and overwhelmed. I want to crawl into a ball and cry. I want to tell Ben, but I can’t. It is not the time or the place.
Instead, I tell him two days later with a warm cup of coffee in hand after we successfully paddle out.
Nouria Newman started paddling at the age of four in the French Alps and is one of the world’s most accomplished kayakers.
Nouria Newman on the Engano River in Patagonia, Chile. | Featured photo: Erik Boomer / Red Bull Content Pool