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Running Free

Last look? Author and Rios Libres co-founder Chris Kassar overlooks the confluence of El Rio Baker and El Rio Neff. This spot will become a massive reservoIr if the dam is built. Photo: James Q. Martin

Last look? Author and Rios Libres co-founder Chris Kassar overlooks the confluence of El Rio Baker and El Rio Neff. This spot will become a massive reservoIr if the dam is built. Photo: James Q. Martin

The sun rises over the Patagonian Andes. A blackened kettle bubbles on the fire. Eggs sizzle in cast-iron. In the distance, chunks of glacier crash to the earth as the enormous expanse of frozen water groans under the pressure of time. I am awake here, where the Rio Baker begins its slow journey to the ocean.

One by one, members of my new family—this crazy crew that I will spend the next four weeks with—emerge from down cocoons and arrive at the fire in varying levels of consciousness. Boulder-based athlete and comedian, Timmy O’Neill buzzes about, oozing energy and handing out cups of steaming cowboy coffee. He joined us only days after sending a few epic climbs on the north and central towers of Torres del Paine. I blame his lightning quick and often irreverent wit for my increasingly sore belly muscles.

Perched on a rock, writer Craig Childs scribbles in the tiny, battered red book that he always carries with him. I don’t know what he is writing, but I’m sure it is insightful, brilliant, beautiful. Craig has a knack for perfectly capturing the moment and I wonder if some of this morning’s musings will find their way into his next book, article or NPR radio commentary. I’m definitely careful with what I say around him.

The rest of us mill about cooking breakfast, fiddling with video cameras and sorting gear. James Q. Martin (a.k.a. Q), the passionate outdoor photographer who brought our team together, takes advantage of a rare lull in the barrage of questions being launched his direction to sip a maté and enjoy the view.

We are far from home. Over 6,300 miles lie between our backyard river, the mighty Colorado, and this camp at the source of the Rio Baker, Chile’s largest waterway. This creates a formidable gap between where we live and the rivers we are fighting to protect. So, you might be asking, how did we end up here? Why would a bunch of well-intentioned dirtbags come all this way to take on a multi-million dollar corporation that wants to drown this place for power? How can we even stand a chance?

This whole Rios Libres project started in July 2009 with a simple conversation in my kitchen. At the time, it was innocent banter between friends; in retrospect, it was a more important discussion than we could have ever imagined. That day, Q emerged from his first trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. Nature had recharged and inspired him and he excitedly shared his ideas for new projects.

“I want to shoot famous climber so-and-so on the fastest ascent of XYZ big wall … I’m going to follow the most incredible base jumper in the world as he hurls himself off various cliffs in Norway…”

I zoned out. But when he mentioned rivers in Patagonia, I returned without hesitation.

In 2000, Q drove the length of Chile in a rugged rebuilt 1984 baby blue Toyota Land Cruiser. Like so many visitors to Patagonia, he focused on hitting major adrenaline-inducing hotspots like the Fitzroy Range and only stumbled on the far-flung Aysén region as a function of passing through. But its rawness made an immediate impression on him. It stole his heart.

I enjoyed listening to Q recount yet another escapade from his time in a distant corner of the globe, but I had no idea where any of this was going.

“What does this have to do with your time in the Canyon or me or anything?” I asked.

He explained that a conglomeration of companies wanted to dam two rivers in this same part of Chile. Traveling down the Grand on the Colorado—an incredible, but broken river—had reminded Q of how special and rare it is for a river to flow freely.

“You think we could we do something down there to help?” he asked.

Of course, we could do something. Five days earlier, while Q had been frolicking through rapids, I had become another statistic of the recession when I lost my job as a conservation biologist for a non-profit. To add injury to insult (literally), I had badly sprained my ankle while running in the mountains. No work and no outdoor fun made me dangerous. I researched the issue all night, foregoing sleep to learn whatever I could.

What I found out disturbed me. Chilean Patagonia, one of the few blank spots left on the map, is under attack. Big business is exerting pressure to build five major dams on the free-flowing Baker and Pascua rivers. The majority of Chileans oppose the dams and a campaign aimed at stopping this attempt to alter the heart of the Patagonian Andes is gaining momentum, but it faces long odds.

The more I learned, the more I knew we needed to be part of the grassroots effort fighting to keep Patagonia free from dams. Soon, we were writing grants, finding sponsors, assembling a team and planning our expedition. By February, Rios Libres was born.

Our plan was idealistic and we knew it: travel to the end of the earth and explore the Rio Baker from its glacial source all the way to the sea. Then, use words, film and compelling imagery to show what is at stake and bolster the fight already well in progress in Chile. At a time when so many rivers no longer reach the ocean, this was not only an opportunity for adventure, but also a chance to experience and document a rare resource in its pristine state.

Each day of our trip is punctuated with one incredible experience after another: we encounter endangered deer, watch 13-tiered waterfalls tumble over cliffs, listen to ancient glaciers creak and crumble and drink directly from whatever water source is closest—unfiltered seeps, streams, rivers and icy pools. When we are thirsty on the Nef Glacier—the source of the Rio Baker—we simply bend down, cup our hands and drink directly from the crystal blue waters flowing under a break in the ice. After a long hot hike through thick forest, we stick our heads and bottles under a cascade of cool water flowing over a sheer granite face. It feels as if we are traveling back in time and tasting the untouched place the world used to be.

We navigate through breathtaking terrain—ice fields, rocky tundra, glacial lakes, stands of gnarled mossy trees—and we see firsthand how the damage from the dams will reach far beyond the rivers. Plans to clear-cut at least 1,000 miles of old-growth forest to make way for the longest power transmission line in the world would scar the landscape, ruin ecosystems unique to Patagonia and destroy habitat for species found nowhere else on the planet and those in danger of extinction like the condor, puma and Huemul deer.

Our journey is not just about the land and what we see, but who we encounter along the way. These rivers support a way of life that is traditional, rare and reminiscent of the Wild West. Gauchos roam the hills on horseback and people live in harmony with the land. Those we meet along our journey, fighting to preserve this way of life, explain that the transmission line will transport electricity northward to support Chile’s massive mining industry, but not a single watt will go to anyone actually living here.

The most striking character we meet is Bernardo, a gaucho who lives entirely on the land, growing food, raising sheep and making everything by hand. He embodies the same pioneer spirit that has brought us all here. When conversation turns to the dams, he sums up the concerns of many who could lose their land and their livelihood:  “What do we gain when our country sells its water, sells its land, what remains for us? I have lived here all my life and it would really anger me if one day some company came, even worse if it was foreign, and said, ‘You all have to leave because here we are going to dam the river.’”

One morning, our guide, Jonathan Leidich, who grew up in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver asks, “Why did you drop everything to come so far and put so much time and energy into the Rio Baker?”

It’s a good question.

“I came down here because I know that there are other ways Chile can meet its energy needs and I know this one—building five dams and a huge power line—is a bad idea, economically, ecologically and socially.”

The answer is true, but as I chew over Jonathan’s question, I realize that my reasons have changed. I’m no longer an unbiased biologist studying a distant dot on a map. I didn’t mean for it to happen, but I have fallen in love with Patagonia, its people and the Rio Baker. Inaction is no longer an option.

I also realize that the missteps made in my very own backyard have motivated me. I live in Flagstaff, Arizona in the shadow of Glen Canyon dam and I constantly ask myself what could have been if this place had not been buried underwater. That dam stands as a beacon, reminding me of a past heartbreak and calling me to action.

I wasn’t alive when Glen Canyon was drowned so I couldn’t speak up, but I am here now. I know that without the small group of people who did make noise back then, the entire Colorado River—including the Grand Canyon—would have fallen victim to a whole series of dams besides Glen Canyon. The lessons learned there have made me (and many of us in the Southwest) unwilling and unable to stand by and allow the same mistakes to be made, even in remote regions thousands of miles away.

On the third day of our trip on the Baker, we reach the most powerful, tumultuous and inspiring waterfall I have ever seen. It’s also one of the proposed dam sites. I kneel on the jagged rocks that hug the mighty rapid. For a moment, I feel a perfect peace. Tears stream down my face.

“Enjoy it while it’s still free!” Jonathan says. “Don’t spend your time worrying.”

We do our best… but we are not carefree kids on a river trip. A palpable undercurrent of concern flows within each of us. Are we passing through country that would one day be under water? Would we look back and realize we were simply, as Timmy put it “creating yet another beautiful eulogy for what used to be?”

This idea hits me particularly hard the following day as I walk alongside the river. Although my pack is feather light, I feel an overwhelming weight on my shoulders. At one point, I step over the exact spot where 340 feet of concrete could block the furious turquoise flow of this beautiful river. My heart breaks.

Right now, the dams are still only plans on paper. The fate of these rivers—and the Patagonian people—rests in the hands of politicians who will make a decision in the next year. A national and international campaign aimed at preventing the dams and convincing the government to adopt a sound and sustainable energy policy is gaining strength. Team Rios Libres, united by a common love for the Colorado River, came to support the people who are fighting to keep Patagonia wild. I hope our efforts will help tell the story of a place that is still whole and give voice to the river, land and people of Chile.

Can we really help save one of the last wild places left on the planet? I’m not sure. I stop for a moment, harden my resolve and I walk on more certain than ever that we have to keep trying.

– Chris Kassar is a conservation biologist, guide and writer.

Rios Libres is working to keep Patagonia wild by augmenting and amplifying the work of local and international grassroots organizations. Rios Libres has produced the movie “Power in the Pristine” and a Spanish version with actress Leonor Valera, showing in North and South America to raise awareness for what is at stake. In addition, Rios Libres is using articles, speaking engagements, photo exhibits and outreach opportunities to educate as many people as possible about the issue.  To take action and learn more, visit or join them on Facebook.

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