River People of Patagonia

River People of Patagonia

Rio Baker, Aysen, Chile

In February 1975 Hugh Small, then a lecturer at the University of Concepción in Chile, travelled south alone to look for the site of an 18th-Century shipwreck off the coast of Patagonia.  There were no roads in that part of Chile, so he flew in a DC-3 to the small town of Cochrane and then began to walk to the Pacific 100 miles away.  

He followed the Rio Baker, Chile's most powerful but little-known river.  He never found his shipwreck, but in the valley of the Baker he found something more interesting: a lost tribe of old-fashioned gauchos who had come from Argentina two generations before.  They lived in a perpetual struggle with the river, rafting timber and cattle down it and hauling up supplies from the trading post at its mouth without a single outboard motor between them.  They raised horses and cattle on their homesteads on the river bank, and seldom left the valley.

These families of the Baker fed the young University lecturer, loaned him horses, and carried him up and down the river in their home-made rowing boats, refusing payment.  He went fishing with their children, enjoyed their wedding feasts, manhandled their boats through the rapids, slept by their campfires listening to the glaciers rumbling under the stars, and forgot about his old shipwreck.  He recorded some of the scenes with a Calypso Nikkor, the first commercially-available waterproof camera.  31 years later, he returned to the Baker to see what had changed.  There are roads now, but many of the homesteaders live as they did then and the river still claims its victims.

Now is the last chance to meet these unique people.  The Spanish electricity company Endesa plans to dam the Baker valley in a huge hydroelectric project.  There is little in the way of tourist infrastructure, so rafting, hiking and fishing are at present the main attractions.  If visitors help to develop a tourist industry over the next few years, it may persuade the authorities to modify Endesa's plans.  If not, at least the visitors will have seen the land and the people before they vanish

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Click to see 1975 photo essay