The Futaleufú guidebook can be found here. Below is a note from Steve Merrow, the author of the guidebook.
My arrival in the town of Futaleufú for the first time in 2017 was a bit surreal. Three days of flights, buses, and ferries was tiring, sure, but standing in the place I had spent nearly a decade dreaming about felt like a paradigm shift. During every new job I’d ever taken and river I had explored, the Futa remained in the back of my mind, hoping one day to have the experience and opportunity to guide here.
Why the Futa? As a young guide in Alaska, the Futa first came to my attention when I overheard experienced guides talk about the biggest and best whitewater around the world.
Along with Africa’s Zambezi and Nile, the Futaleufú is the biggest commercially raftable river in the world. A place for guides, kayakers, and guests to test themselves through legendary rapids with names deserving of riverside campfire lore: Terminator, Throne Room, Mundaca, Casa de Piedra. I wanted to experience all of them. I wanted to take my new found love of rivers and see how far I could go. The Futa was – is- the test of tests, and I was eager to see how I would fare.
2017 was a unique year to begin working on the Futaleufú. A large snowpack filled the reservoir in Argentina, and substantial rain filled the tributaries in Chile creating a high volume environment I had never experienced. With the Chucao gauge well over a 100 and four tubes releasing out of the dam for all of December, commercial rafting companies were struggling to find any stretch that was safe enough to run. Our guide team at Expediciones Chile relied heavily on owner Chris Spelius, one of the pioneer kayakers and commercial operators on the Futa, to find bits and pieces of sections we could manage with clients. For the most part all we could do was train, so, train we did! Taking catarafts and kayaks onto Bridge to Bridge, Casa, and Las Escalas nearly every day for a month at very high water was an absolute baptism by fire. With more rowing experience than kayaking I assumed my rowing would thrive and my kayaking might struggle, but it was quite the opposite. Rowing a safety Cataraft for the first time, I felt like a bird in a cage getting thrown down a hill. The massive features on the Futa tossed me around the metal frame, covering my legs with black and blue reminders that I needed to adapt quicker. Long days on the water were followed by relaxed evenings where the conversation naturally drifted towards the most interesting thing in our lives- how big the Futa was! Together, the collective experiences on the river during the day and breaking down rapids each night galvanized our team and produced a group ready to thrive when the water came down.
By mid-January the tributaries abated and Bridge to Bridge finally opened up for commercial use. The dam eventually cut tubes and like dominoes falling Casa de Piedra came in next, followed by Terminator, and eventually Infierno Canyon sometime in March. As I experienced more and more iconic sections, I realized my laser focus on preparation for Futa’s whitewater had left me little bandwidth to anticipate the remarkable beauty this place would offer. Lush forests begin at the river’s edge and quickly ascend to snowfields, glaciers, and sharp mountain ridges that appear to pierce the sky. In hindsight, I am happy the landscape came as a surprise. Whitewater can feel like the main event, but more often than not it’s largely a vehicle within which we experience remarkable places and people.
Futaleufú is a draw for guides, kayakers, and travelers from all over the world. The melting pot of cultures is best experienced in the small town of Futaleufú where the traditional frontier town is still very much intact. I have never experienced such a healthy balance between tourism and traditional culture. From my first day in Futa, the locals have been nothing but welcoming, helpful, and confident in who they are. The river community mirrors that vibe. It’s hard to find a kayaker or guide who isn’t smiling and excited to share a river that so many of us have been dreaming about and now get to live in that dream.
I ended up spending three consecutive seasons on the Futaleufú with Expediciones Chile, guiding and kayaking around 150 days on the river. After the steep learning curve during that epic highwater December, I settled into a rhythm and confidence that enabled exploration of the variety of lines and water levels available each season. The foundation of that confidence always came from the stellar guide team we were able to create each season.
When I think about the Futa my mind naturally drifts towards my perfect day on the river. It’s a sunny day with a flow that is approaching the high end of medium. That means all the best sections are in, but they are big, and they are hard. We put in at Rio Azul and descend the 22 kilometers downstream through Terminator, Bridge to Bridge, and Casa; the best day of rafting on the planet. I am in a raft full of excited and nervous guests. I look downstream and see a safety Cataraft and two safety kayakers; friends who under their calm demeanor are prepared and fired up to support if anything goes array. My goal is to have a perfect line in every rapid. It never quite happens, but deep down I know it’s more about the pursuit. The day finishes with a collective sense of exhaustion and deep satisfaction of accomplishing something both difficult and meaningful.
It’s clear to me now that these days, spent with these people, on this river will be some of my best.
Whatever images or experiences I conjured up before arriving in Futa, the actuality of the place and the river is so much more. Long days on the Futa often felt like a dream and as I write this, they honestly still do. I sincerely hope this guidebook inspires you, informs you, and fills you with just enough confidence to trust that although the trip to Futaleufú is a long one, it is well worth it.