Lost to the Current: Dealing With Death on the River

Floating through subtle current, staring down into the clear blue waters, glimpsing fish, losing myself in the depth and beauty of the Futa; I would have to remind myself why I was here today. I needed to remember what I was doing. I was looking for what nobody wanted to find. I was searching for a cold, creeping reality that I never wanted to encounter. I was looking for a body. I was searching for a drowned kayaker and a new friend beneath the placid flats of the Rio Futalefeu, along with dozens of others from the boating community that had come out in droves to search for the missing kayaker, an amazing paddler from France, on an adventure with his childhood friends. I had dropped my guiding responsibilities, an action that would benefit my soul more that it would my employment status.

 

 

 

Animal Crackers never tasted so good.
Photo: Kendra Kaiser

A group of childhood friends from France schemed up a plan to fly to one of the world’s most incredible kayaking locations, Chile. They rented a car and picked up a good-looking hitchhiker from Montana along the way. Piecing it together, they made new friends that would share their love for whitewater and adventure, but in the end, sadly, they would go home with less than what they had come with.

Three Nuns

 

I had travelled on a whim from one hemisphere to the next that fall. Having nothing but a kayak, a couple of drybags and surplus of faith that things would workout; I begged and borrowed my way from Ecuador to Peru and then to the Chilean border. Eventually, I found my toes touching the blue waters or the Rio Futalefeu in Northern Patagonia. I was hired at a rate of $15 a day to safety kayak and guide. I had heard mixed reviews of my new employer, but I was on the Futalefeu, a life long dream. I didn’t care if I ate beans and rice every day. All I wanted was to paddle this gem everyday for 5 months.

 

My paddle learned every eddy, cross current and surf wave that the Futa had to offer. When nomadic peoples like myself arrived on the same pilgrimage that I had set out in the months prior, I shared my passion for this place

I had just paddled with Olivier the day before he went missing. We rallied early, the crack of noon, to enjoy the most difficult section of water on the Futa. As we entered inferno canyon, the rain began to fall. The beating of fists on kayaks could be heard echoing off the sheer dark walls. Even in the most relentless rainstorm of the season, the fire burnt hot amongst the team. We routed through massive rapids, scouted the potential portages and fired some of them up. I found myself high-fiving and hugging Olivier as we cheered at the bottom of Throne-Room, the single largest rapid on the river.

 

Throne Room
Throne Room

Throne Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

We pulled into a small commercial camp, which I was guiding/safety kayaking at that season. Camp was empty and no guests would be there for days, due to miserable bookings. We invited our new friends, 3 Frenchman and a Montana gal, in out of the rain to warm by the wood-fired stove, an action that would subsequently lead to my enthusiastic dismissal from the company.

Olivier volunteered to hitch hike in the rain for the shuttle vehicle while everyone dried their bones and relaxed around steaming cups of tea. It was a volunteer-position that would leave him slogging through cow pastures, steeped in rainwater. Hours later, a whistle came from the choking darkness of the pounding rain.

Olivier had returned to the other end of camp, a shorter distance, but one that crossed the Rio Azul. The entrance required individuals to row, paddle, or swim across the beautiful Futalefeu tributary to access camp. A romantic idea, but risky at times. The crossing had its mishaps in the past. At this point, the Azul was a growing torrent pushing into the raging Rio Futa. I ferried across for the saturated Olivier on a cataraft, nearly blowing the small eddy on the return trip; A mistake that would have left us struggling to retain composure and catch a lower eddy at camp in near pitch darkness.

Later that night, on my way to bed, I found Olivier searching the trails of camp for the car key, shirtless, wearing only his soaked blue jeans, thinking he must have dropped it during his short trek from the car to the fireplace. He kicked himself. I wished him luck and ducked out of the downpour. I fell asleep to the growing sound of moisture pounding on the roof. I’ll always regret not lending a hand in that moment.

Waking to an empty campsite the next morning, I sipped my matte and figured everyone must have left late last night or early that morning.

In a blur of franticness and panic, the rickety door flew open and slammed shut. There stood my friend and fellow guide along with the Montanan.

“Kyle! We don’t know where Olivier is!”

With shock on my face and sleep in my eyes, I had difficulty processing the mix of the Argentinian accent and English dialect.

“Where the fuck is he?” I thought.

Through a whirlwind of panicked explanation, I was informed that everyone had tucked in beneath spare blankets and towels for the night, while Olivier searched for the missing car key. Dozing off to sleep, planning on quickly vacating the area in the morning, they awoke expecting to find their friend beside them, or stashed away in one of the many other dry dwellings around camp. When he didn’t arrive to the common area that morning, they searched by the early light of dawn. Olivier’s kayak and paddle were not in the same place as when we had arrived to camp the night before. However, his spray skirt and life jacket hung drying, untouched.

The current of the Azul had calmed to a reasonable level. After crossing, the search party had not found our missing friend or his kayak at the car as they suspected or hoped. They glanced down at the small rental-car. There, hanging in the door-lock, was a set of keys. Alarm bells went off. In that moment of confusion, everything became terrifyingly clear. The 2 Frenchman suited up and slid into the river with their kayaks, quickly paddling downstream in search of the third.

It is not uncommon to paddle from one side of this small tributary to the other without a spray skirt, or even without a paddle for that matter when the water is low. But, at levels that indicate flashfloods high in the Patagonian mountains, this small tributary can transform from a waist deep trickle into a violent cacophony of extreme CFS and woody debris, something that a person would never know unless witnessing its full power first hand.

The Azul overtakes the Futa
The Azul overtakes the Futa

My fellow guide and I had to report for work that morning, hoping that the small search party would iron everything out in the meantime, finding Olivier sleeping in the camp sauna or something just as laughable. Surely the outcome would be a silly story that we would all joke about later. On our drive into the small town of Futa to report for duty, a truck with CABALLERO (police) pasted on the side, raced past us in the opposite direction with lights flashing. My stomach dropped and my friends face was gaunt. When we returned to camp that evening, the police were swarming the campsite. The small search party, now 2 Frenchman and 1 Montanan, sat crying on a wood-carved bench. There was nothing laughable about this and we would surely not be joking about this later.

 

The cold-hearted hammer fell around the dinner table that night. The employer, who was out of town for a week or so, was represented by his second in command.. With the all the warmth of a stone, she relentlessly finger pointed, accused and dreamt up outlandish assumptions. My blood boiled at the lack of compassion for Olivier or his loved ones. Internally, I snapped at “We just need to go on like nothing ever happened” slipped out from her lips.

We still didn’t know where he was for God sake!

For what it’s worth, the business owners were blindsided by this traumatic event, and we employees were in such a state of disbelief that we failed to notify them immediately.

The next day I found Arron & Sarah Rein, two of the most amazing people in the Futalefeu valley and river community. Their humble, yet beautiful home above the Rio Azul acted as a location for dozens of paddlers from the area to congregate at before a full-scale search was to be initiated. Eyes and hearts swelled around me. This was truly the raw soul of the community. Without knowing this missing person, paddlers came out from the woodwork to help find him.

Floating through subtle current, staring down into the clear blue waters, glimpsing fish, losing myself in the depth and beauty; I would have to remind myself why I was here today. I didn’t want to look down. I wanted to search the shore for a strong young man laughing on the bank with a “Woops, I messed up” look upon his face. It never came. I watched as paddles prodded deep holes and cracks. A reality check. I forced myself to stare more deeply into those cool waters than ever before.

After what seemed an eternity, a scream of disbelief came from around the corner. We all knew what it meant. A communal sadness echoed through all of our chests with the vibrations of that cry. One of Olivier’s best friends found him, suspended 13 feet below the calm water of the giant eddy. Quiet, frozen in space, wearing those same blue jeans that I had seen just 2 nights ago.

There is a moment that is blurred in my mind. It was the moment I found myself stepping from my kayak onto shore while the cataraft rowed over to my beckoning hand. I don’t know what prompted me to do it. Maybe I hoped to save anyone else from the burden of something that I was so closely related to. With a rope and sling in hand I submerged into the cold water of that massive river. Not a sound was made amongst the group. The goggles pressed tightly to my face as I dove deeper, watching the blue jeans riffle with what tiny current there was. Pressure. Silence. The sling slid around his chest with ease. My lungs began to burn as I clipped the carabiner. I held him as we were pulled to the top. His face was so peaceful as he lay across my lap on the wooden deck of the cataraft. We gently wrapped him in cloth and delivered him downstream to the officials to be flown home to his motherland.

 

I’m not positive what happened that night and nobody can ever really know for certain, but the indicators are there. Kicking himself for losing the keys, or so he thought, Olivier shouldered his boat and paddle to cross back over the Azul to the trail that lead up to the shuttle vehicle. As many kayakers, with far less experience and talent had done before, he simply hopped into his boat to ferry across. On his way over, like a skier, he caught an edge in the current or was struck by a rogue wave that, with no spray-skirt, swamped his boat. With the current moving swiftly, he was pushed out into the Futalefeu, an estimated 50,000 cubic feet of water rushing downstream. He had no Life Vest, no spray-skirt, in the pitch-blackness of the rainy night. He abandoned his kayak to swim for shore but the current held him. A piece of drift-wood in the heart of a raging deluge. He was gone.

About to drop into Inferno Canyon with the team Amigos

 

In the days following, I would help carry Olivier’s body to the plane to take him back to his family and friends; back to people who would never understand why this gregarious person would no longer be in their lives. Back to people who would never enjoy his laughter in their presence again. This was the cold reality of it.

Portaging Zeta

In the following weeks I would be fired w/o the meager $1000 of the full month’s previous work. A price I will gladly burden in order to understand who and what the heart of the real river community is. I was embraced by a river family of friends, new and old, and paddled away with a new understanding and respect for life and just how fragile it can truly be.

Oliver on the way to the Futa

 

We continue to make new amazing friends along the riverbanks and mountain trails. However, I am often reminded that in the end, everyone must embrace the current.

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