Published: August 2008 Special Report: Chile
Fallout on the Fu
After a major volcanic eruption, what will become of South America’s top whitewater river?
Text by Jon Bowermaster

Well before the volcano erupted, and almost since they "discovered" the region 20 years ago, gringo environmentalists and international tour operators had been fighting to preserve a stunning and sparsely populated province of Patagonian Chile known as Palena. The densely forested Andean region, which includes the 742,000-acre Pumalín Park and the whitewater mecca of the Futaleufú River, has been besieged by a near-continuous string of man-made threats: burgeoning salmon farms and the accompanying pollutants; hydropower dams slated for the Fu and other big rivers; and proposals for a gold mine and an aluminum smelter.

Over the years money has been raised, associations formed, and land bought up and set aside in often controversial efforts by foreigners to stem the tide of development; the most famous initiative was the founding of Pumalín Park by American expatriate Douglas Tompkins. Local critics believed Tompkins, a founder of The North Face and Esprit, was not only trying to lock up a chunk of their country but perhaps planning to secede altogether.

Meanwhile, a $7-million-a-year tour industry blossomed as travelers from around the globe arrived to raft, kayak, hike, fly-fish, horseback ride, and even put down roots in this wild and beautiful slice of northern Patagonia. When I first visited the small town of Futaleufú in 1990, it did not have a hotel or restaurant. Now it boasts several of both, mostly funded by foreign dollars. Locals assumed that the region’s newfound prosperity would act as a buffer against environmentally destructive development plans.

Then on May 2, Palena’s 3,156-foot Chaitén Volcano, which had barely rumbled for more than 9,000 years, decided to blow. In a series of eruptions, all that environmentalists had been fighting for seemed threatened—and not just by fire, flooding, and ash.

At first, the situation appeared dire. Within a week of the eruption some 8,000 inhabitants of the province were evacuated, mostly by ship, to Puerto Montt and the Chilean island of Chiloé. Many of Futaleufú’s residents fled across the Argentine border at Esquel. The province’s largest town, Chaitén, lay 90 percent underwater, inundated by ash-choked rivers that had burst their banks. Like some modern-day Pompeii, Chaitén was predicted to be uninhabitable for the foreseeable future, if not forever.

As a thick column of ash blew east for hundreds of miles over Patagonia to the Atlantic Ocean, 40,000 livestock were reported abandoned in fields covered in debris, left to depend on contaminated rivers and lakes, and birds perched on trees were said to resemble concrete statues. Miraculously no one died, but just a few days after the eruption, Daniel Gonzalez, field manager for Tompkins’s land holdings in Chile and Argentina, said, "From the southern tip of Pumalín to the Futaleufú Valley, ash is spread everywhere—some places worse than others. Only time will tell how much of the area will ever come back to normal."

After a few weeks, though, the volcano had settled down and a cautious optimism began to emerge. The worst hit areas had been buried under as much as 15 inches of ash. But other regions, it was reported, were dusted with just a few inches. Evacuees grappled with the unknowns. On the one hand, experts at the United States Geological Survey warned that ashfalls of greater than four to six inches can result in soil sterility and the death of all crops. On the other, they allowed that precipitation shortly after the event could dramatically mitigate damage. Thankfully, much of Palena was bathed in rain and snow immediately following the eruption.

Soon residents began to trickle back to their homes, and even more accurate and hopeful reports appeared. After conducting a series of ground and aerial surveys, Dagoberto Guzmán, the administrator of Pumalín Park (which contains the volcano), asserted that only the southern third of the park was heavily damaged, thanks to strong winds in the days after the blast.

Robert Currie, a Chilean guide for Earth River Expeditions, the largest outfitter on the Fu, was one of the few visitors to the river two weeks after the eruption. He was prepared to see massive destruction. "But it all looked pretty good," he said. "It had been raining for several days, most of the ash had been swept from the hillsides, and the ash that remained had been compressed to about four inches." The Espolón River, a tributary of the Fu, "was running milky," he added, "but in the Fu and the canyon surrounding it, there was hardly any ash at all."

Closer to the town of Futaleufú, Don Weeden, an American whose family has owned 300 acres in the area since 1997, reported that other than a collapsed barn and many downed trees, his farm, like most others nearby, seemed to have "dodged the bullet." His primary concern was the long-term effect of ash on water sources and marine life, which remains to be seen.

As this issue was going to press, many residents, especially those from Futaleufú’s expatriate and travel services community, had begun to shift their concerns to a very different threat. "Articles depicting the region as covered in ash and as a ‘paradise lost’ will be a killing blow for the tourism industry and an effective foothold for mining and dam interests," Alan Grundy-Valenzuela, executive director of FutaFriends, an association supported by Futaleufú tour operators, told Adventure.

According to Currie and others, the confusion between devastated areas like Chaitén and less affected ones can be traced, in part, to the media. When he visited the town of Futaleufú, he met with the mayor, Arturo Carvallo, and the two observed a Chilean television crew standing in a pile of collected ash and filming under a tree, which they shook so ash appeared to fall from the sky.

"In one sense, the exaggeration is good for the people because they get all this support from the government," Currie explained. Indeed, the government plans to give each displaced resident of Chaitén and other destroyed areas about $1,100 to help them start over. "And it’s put the Fu on the map for Chileans. But on the other hand, it could be a green light for the mining and hydroelectric companies."

Even before the blast, the call for these development projects was ramping up due to a nascent energy crisis in Chile, a changing political climate, and deteriorating relations with Argentina (one of Chile’s main energy providers, which has already dammed its section of the Fu). Just days after the eruption, critics of Pumalín Park unearthed a road-building proposal. They claimed that a road through the park would have facilitated evacuation and that construction should now be reconsidered. Around Futaleufú, preservation-minded residents fear a renewed push for major development projects: an open-pit gold mine near the Espolón River that would almost certainly poison the Fu’s waters with cyanide, and a hydroelectric dam on the Fu’s Chilean headwaters that would snuff out the river’s legendary rapids.

With memories of the Bío-Bío River—a whitewater darling about 300 miles north that was dammed into extinction in 1998—still fresh, advocates are imploring tourists (and their antidevelopment dollars) to return. Results have been mixed. Already, Eric Hertz, Earth River’s owner, and Marc Goddard, owner of Bio Bio Expeditions, another major outfitter on the Fu, admit that they’ve been on the phone trying to stem cancellations for the upcoming season. If the 4,000 rafters and kayakers who annually visit the Fu don’t show, says Hertz, the confusion over the river’s actual condition "will have done a lot more damage to the area than the volcano."