by Jeff Johnson
Holiday 2008

Keith and I stood on a bridge, covered head to toe in 5-millimeter neoprene, overlooking the rapids of Río Negro. We were quiet, mesmerized by the constant turmoil as the ice melt rushed over large boulders and dropped into deep, swirling holes. The cobalt blue water looked inviting. We had been traveling for many days and needed to get in the water, any water. But Keith and I are not river people – we’re surfers. The only way for us to interpret the nature of these rapids was to compare them to ocean waves. The obvious difference here was that these waves never dissipated whereas ocean waves have a definitive beginning and an end. I had heard of river ratings before and told Keith that this was probably Class 1. We started laughing at this comment, because we both knew I had no idea what I was talking about.

Keith had brought down to Chile two 12´ 6˝ paddleboards – oversized surfboards designed for long, open ocean paddles. Awkwardly long and narrow in width, they are tipsy in turbulent water. And with a thin fiberglass construction, they definitely weren’t meant to come into contact with hard objects like granite boulders. Walking through the lush forest with these things under our arms, I had a hard time accepting the fact that we were about to paddle prone down a river. The excitement built up in my stomach felt as if we were about to paddle out to some secret big-wave spot in Northern California.

A thick canopy of trees wrapped in a web of vines blocked out the sun, making it hard to negotiate as we bushwhacked our way to the river’s edge. From an unseen distance, the baritone droll of the river mimicked the sound of gigantic waves. Like two clumsy drunks emerging from a dark bar in the middle of the day, Keith and I stepped out of the jungle into the bright light and halted. Whitewater everywhere – much louder than our voices. Pockets of mist undulated in the crisp, ionized air. We looked at each other and started laughing again. This will be interesting, I thought to myself.

Keith jumped in, and I followed. He immediately pointed upstream and paddled like hell as he tried to stall and surf a standing wave, but he just flew through the initial rapids backward. I careened by him and tried to shoot a gap between two boulders that led to the roughest section – the one I had seen from the bridge. The next thing I knew I was high and dry on a huge chunk of granite surrounded by whitewater. I had slid up there, board and all, and had broken off the fin. I slid back down the rock and spun backwards through the gap into the hissing turmoil. Keith was ahead of me again, rising and disappearing between mounds of water. I had very little control now that my fin was gone. All I could do was hold on and take a few awkward strokes here and there. Then, as quick as it all began, we passed under the bridge and the noise of the rapids faded in the distance. Keith and I floated effortlessly through soft riffles made golden by the descending sun.

We had made camp a mile or so down the river. The plan was that our taxi driver would send someone out and flag us in to camp. We didn’t know where this take-out spot was, and we were in wild, unfamiliar terrain. We drifted on.

We saw no one. It got dark. Keith and I floated on, moving swiftly with the constant flow of water. We didn’t know what to do. All rivers end in the ocean, so maybe we would end up there.

I rolled off my board and because of my thick wetsuit I floated on my back without effort. I lay there with my limbs spread out wide, weightless like an astronaut floating in outer space. Stars rotated above like tiny pinholes of light in a canopy of black velvet. A crescent moon rose over the silhouetted ridgeline to the north.

I had sailed from California to Chile, a four-month journey that led me far off the beaten path. An extended stay on Easter Island had been the turning point for me as I finally let go of the trappings back home – a slow and difficult process. But it was here, floating in a river on the very edge of Patagonia, that I realized home is not a physical reference to a specific place on earth but a broadening of the consciousness. Home is, after all, where you are.

About the Author

Jeff Johnson is a writer, photographer and product tester for Patagonia. In the winter he can be found chasing swells on the California coast and, in the summer, climbing in the Sierra. Jeff recently returned to California after a six-month sailing voyage from Ventura, California, to southern Chile.