by Jeff Johnson
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.