Reñihué

Jeff Johnson
Holiday 2009

Onboard the Cahuelmo, the expanse of Golfo de Ancud has tightened as we enter the narrow fjord of Reñihué. The sky is abnormally cloudless for these parts, the water calm, and the air eerily still. The muffled gurgling sound of the Cahuelmo’s engine permeates the silence. The Tompkins’ residence is only accessible by boat or small plane. Located at the base of the remote fjord, it is surrounded by lush jungle and flanked by white-capped mountains.

After dinner one evening, the Tompkins invite us over to their home to watch a few DVDs about the parks they are creating. Before the viewing, Doug talks candidly about his efforts and what has inspired him. He begins his speech with the word “love.” The conclusions he draws from the word and its origins make perfect sense to me, but I can’t help but be thrown off by this. It sounds so sensitive and esoteric coming from this seemingly tough and stoic revolutionary. “Love,” he says, “is what it all boils down to.”

In a section of one DVD titled “Sharing the Planet with Others,” Doug quotes naturalist Lois Crisler: “Species of every ecosystem around the world are going extinct, not by the hour, but by the minute.” In a stern and haunting voice, Doug makes clear which animals are near extinction.

“The huemul deer,” he says. “The result of a billion years of evolution. Almost gone, forever. The giant river otter, eliminated from most of its habitat. Almost gone, forever. The tall and elegant maned wolf. Almost gone, forever.”

Keith spends one afternoon in the workshop shaping a new wooden fin for the paddleboard – the one I had broken and lost during our paddle down the river. A few days later we take the paddleboards out for a long voyage up the Reñihué fjord. The tide is low, but from the occasional surge pouring in over the mud flats we can see it is filling in. The wind is dead calm; the air is crisp. We take our first lazy strokes out over the opaque, powder blue shallows. There used to be a salmon farm here. Doug had gotten rid of it; he said it killed most of the life in the fjord, but now life is slowly coming back.

Keith paddles ahead of me as we enter the deepest part of the channel. Up ahead we see a school of curious sea lions angling out to greet us. As we get closer to them, cormorants appear, hovering just above our heads, screeching and flapping their wings. The sea lions dive and disappear. We paddle farther up the channel, the two of us gaining momentum through the dark, glassy water. Suddenly, we’re startled by a ghostlike figure swimming beneath us. With perfect timing, as if choreographed, the dolphin jumps through the air between us, articulating perfect half-moon arcs. Then more appear, and they begin to jump and dive all around us. Keith and I sit up on our boards, surrounded by eight dusky dolphins. They seem to be smiling, and we can hear them squeaking below the surface. I pause and look up at the snowcapped peaks, and gaze out over the fjord and the lush tangles of jungle spilling down to the water.

Like a tribal drum, Doug’s voice thumps loudly in the base of my head, the words: “Gone, forever.”

About the Author

Chris Malloy chose his longtime surfing and climbing friend Jeff Johnson as the most qualified protagonist to follow in Yvon and Doug’s footsteps. Jeff brought along both camera and notebook to chronicle the entire 180° South journey, from a transoceanic crossing to a couple of memorable, near-disastrous climbs, as well as some long rainy-day talks over bowls of maté.