In the cypress wood- and-copper-nail boat that waits at his dock, Elvis Ormeno will ferry you up the same crystalline body of water that claimed his father's life nine years ago.
He is an independent boatman and lives at the southern edge of the Tamango National Reserve in Chilean Patagonia. Fly fishers and hikers hoping to glimpse a huemul , the endangered South Andean deer, make up the bulk of his clientele. On the bank of the Cochrane River, opposite the modest house he shares with his mother and four of his eight brothers, there is a shrine built into the steep rock wall where the Virgin, encircled by flowers, gazes benignly over the dazzling blue where his father disappeared under the waves.
On this fine Saturday morning in late November, at the start of the South American summer, the Virgin recedes into the distance as Elvis guns the Evinrude. We are on our way upriver, fly rods at the ready, to hike and fish and gulp down what we can of this magical region of Aysen, Chilean Patagonia's least-populated- and rarely travelled -region. It lies 1,900 kilometres south of Santiago, where I will touch down briefly tomorrow on my way home. Now, though, sitting on the middle gunwale is Pablo, a young fishing guide from the spectacular eco-resort lodge Hacienda Tres Lagos, an hour's drive down the Carretera Austral. I've been travelling in Patagonia for a week - by plane, pickup truck, and now small boat - and have counted no less than a dozen roadside shrines along the 377-kilometre stretch that winds and dips through and along the Andes between Coyhaique, the region's capital, and the outpost town of Cochrane.
The Carretera Austral, completed in 1988 - known alternatively as Route 7 or the General Augusto Pinochet Road - is the only land link between central Chile and its deep south. As we travelled its length over the past few days, it seemed not so much a perilous route as an enthralling roller-coaster ride through a landscape of cornflower-blue lakes, swift freestone rivers and the flashing snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Oriental. Thousand-foot waterfalls emerged from crags in the rock like willowy strings of cotton thread. Condors swooped in perfect arcs through the Andean sky. At the Bosque Muerto, or the dead forest, we stood in the centre of a valley through which a lahar , a devastatingly fast slide of water, mud and often rock, had spilled forth following the eruption of the Hudson Volcano in 1991. There were no casualties but for the forest itself, stripped bare now and rising from the silt and ash among rivulets of glacial runoff like a skeletal chorus of praying hands.
Halfway along our journey up the Cochrane River, 10 minutes removed from his dad's shrine, Elvis powers down the Evinrude and points to a coffee-brown dot at the cliff's edge. I squint and see a huemul , one of an estimated 1,500 left in the world, snacking on a tree. The South Andean deer is a stocky, thick-coated animal and, as bad luck would have it, remarkably tolerant of humans. It turns its head to us, munching steadily, before calmly walking off. Its first instinct at the sign of danger is not to flee, but to hide. It is easy prey to poachers, pumas and wild dogs, but here in the 7,000 hectares of the Tamango National Reserve it is protected from poachers, and it's an important symbol of Chilean Patagonia's efforts to announce itself to the world as a first-class destination for serious eco-tourists.
But, much more than just the huemul , I discover an entire way of life is endangered here, at least according to the Patagonia Defence Council. This is the group spearheading opposition to HidroAysen's plan to build five hydroelectric power stations on the Baker and Pascua rivers. Billboards throughout the region signal a groundswell of popular resistance against the $4-billion project. Everyone I meet talks about the dams; there's a palpable sense of disbelief that such a paradise could be put up on the chopping block. "Why don't you write something about the dams?" Pablo, the guide, asks. "The world needs to know about the dams."
From a rock perch, I watch trout hold steady in water as clear as the mountain air. The day is warming, but the river, issuing from glacial-fed Cochrane Lake a few kilometres east, holds firm at a bracing 10 degrees Celsius. The rainbow are active, darting left and right as they pick food from the current. They turn their noses up at the nymphs and streamers we offer, so we continue farther upriver over trails, crossing back and forth through the cold water when we are able, until we find a small cluster of trout hovering over a bed of pebbles.
Though the Cochrane doesn't figure in HidroAysen's plans, I wonder about the damage the project could bring to the area. Twenty-three hundred kilometres of transmission lines, to be built by Transelec Chile SA (investors include the CPP Investment Board, the British Columbia Investment Management Corp. and Toronto conglomerate Brookfield Asset Management Inc.), would require the world's longest clear-cut up through the heart of Patagonia's untouched temperate forests.
Environmental activists say it would be nothing less than a social and ecological disaster. Sixty-four communities and 14 protected areas would be directly affected. Tens of thousands of acres of valley, forest, and farmland would be flooded or razed. From where I stand that afternoon, it seems an unlikely prospect, but the project remains under environmental review.
In Patagonia, it is said, you can experience four seasons in a single day. I catch two beautiful trout that afternoon before the rain clouds roll overhead. As it's coming on 4 o'clock, we meet up with Elvis and troll back under a brooding sky.
It's the rain's turn now. The wind is up, but there are some nice fish housed in the deep water along the banks here, Elvis says. So, downriver, approaching the rock ledge where the Virgin's shrine sat, I let out 50 or 60 metres of line, well over half of my reel's nylon backing, and watch the landscape slip away.
Soon, we'll be in the pickup heading back to the Tres Lagos Lodge, on the shore of Lago Negro, where tonight I'll fall asleep to the sounds of horses snorting and munching on cold lake grass just outside my cabin door.
My introduction to Patagonia is already playing in my mind like a nostalgic series of old photographs: I experienced the brilliant hospitality and guiding expertise of the Coyhaique River Lodge, where I stayed earlier in the week; and from which we launched an unforgettable afternoon of fishing for large brown trout using beetle patterns and caddisflies at Lake Elizalde. I stood ankle-deep in ash and marvelled at the life cycle of the south Patagonian volcanic region.
And then, as we motor past the old shrine, my rod - as if suddenly juiced with a spiritual electricity - hooks downward like an emphatic question mark.
The river swells at the promise of a serious fish, and when I finally boat it 10 minutes later, Pablo leans into Elvis and says under his breath that it is good of his father to offer us this parting gift.
The dead man's son smiles and says yes, yes it is, and then the weather starts to clear again, and the boat, steady in the water, continues on.
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Pack your bags
Air Canada and LAN fly from Toronto to Santiago. LAN offers connections to Balmaceda in Chile.
WHERE TO STAY
Meridiano Sur Petit Hotel Santa Beatriz 256, Santiago de Chile; 56 (2) 235-3659; www.meridianosur.cl; from $75. Coyhaique River Lodge Camino a Coyhaique Alto, Coyhaique; 866-242-7541; www.coyhaiqueriverlodge.com; from $4,090 a week. Hacienda Tres Lagos Carretera Austral Sur, Cruce el Maitén, Chile Chico; 56 (67) 411-323; www.haciendatreslagos.com; from $294.
WHERE TO FISH
The Cochrane River In the Tamango National Reserve, on the Cochrane River, for browns and rainbows; 56 (98) 2319967; Spanish only; $50/boat. Lake Elizalde Spectacular dry fly fishing for big browns at Lake Elizalde; contact Gaston Urrejola at Coyhaique River Lodge.
ON NON-FISHING DAYS
On foot Explore the Valley of the Dead Forest, off the Carretera Austral between Coyhaique and Cochrane. By boat A boat ride on South America's second-largest lake, General Carrera, to visit the marble caves. $60/boat. On a glacier Glacier hiking at the Campos del Hielo Norte; 52 km west of Puerto Rio Tranquilo; half-hour and full-day hiking tours. By raft Whitewater rafting down the Baker River and horseback riding; contact Hacienda Tres Lagos.
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