Tatan, our 18-year-old kayaking instructor, looked like he’d just stepped off a skateboard in California. So his claim to be Chile’s best kayaker seemed about as valid as Kato Kaelin’s claim that he could count higher than 10 without assistance.
Apparently, Tatan took up kayaking when he was eight, went over his first waterfall when he was 12, and broke his back when he was 16. He now competes internationally when he isn’t working for Cascada, the only kayaking school in Chile.
“Sure, anyone can kayak,” Tatan explained, trying to squelch any doubts my girlfriend, Signe, and I had about coughing up $75 each for two days of lessons. Normally, he would have charged $100 but I was having trouble getting that much out of my overworked Visa card, so Signe and I got 25 percent off - a journalistic discount.
Anyone may be able to kayak, but not everyone can get into the school … or even find it. Located in the Chile’s southern resort town of Pucon, Cascada doesn’t have an office and their cellular phone works about as often as a Russian public official. The only way to get in touch with them is to hang out all day at a hostel in Pucon called Ecole and wait for one of the school’s representatives to swing by. We were fortunate we only had to wait two days.
Ecole is a story - even a sitcom - unto itself. The hostel is filled with and run by a consortium of young ecological gringos, pro-facial hair elder trekkers from Northern California, and world-class kayakers, all bonded by a profound appreciation of The Grateful Dead.
The first day of class, our intrepid band, joined by two affluent Chilean families, trekked to a nearby lake to learn the basics. Our first goal was to get all the gear on: wetsuit, paddle jacket, life jacket and spray deck (the thing that keeps the water from getting between you and the kayak). A spray deck goes on like a skirt and looks really cool when you’re in the kayak, but just walking around you look like you’re wearing a lopsided tutu.
While preparing my kayak, I noticed that a small crowd of spectators had gathered, probably to watch what they thought was beach ballet.
We eventually wedged ourselves into the boats and pushed off. Learning to paddle should more accurately be called “learning to paddle straight.” A kayak seems to have a mind of its own. It instinctively wants to go any direction except, well, forward. Paddling is a series of compensating strokes. Signe’s technique, for example, was a series of S-turns, which from a distance made it look like she was running a giant slalom course.
After we mastered moving in one direction, it was time to roll our boats - the famous Eskimo roll, or “giro” in Spanish - just in case, presumably, we needed to impress someone with a cool kayaking maneuver.
I was first. The idea is that while upside-down and underwater, you’re supposed to stick your paddle out of the water, turn it and, in a single motion, push on the paddle, snap your hips, and pull your head back out of the water without sucking more than two liters of water up your nose.
After I got the hang of this, I got a bit carried away. I was rolling every five seconds. I was as excited as a yuppie having a mid-life crisis in his first turbo Porsche, showing off for everyone. “Signe, watch this!” “Hey, you on the beach, watch this!” I bellowed.
After an hour or so, the excitement wore off and I realized that during my 150 rolls I’d accumulated an entire pond in my head.
It rained the second day and the air was cold enough to see your breath. But it seemed silly to cancel the lessons; I mean, staying dry is not exactly the object. However, the two Chilean families backed out.
In a Class I rapid, Tatan showed us how to “ferry,” which is kayak-speak for going back and forth across the river. Naturally, you can’t just point your kayak across the river and paddle, because you’d end up about 20 meters downstream from the point you were aiming at, and believe me, it’s extremely difficult to make it look like this is what you intended. Instead, you have to aim your boat between the place you want to go and, I think, Afghanistan.
After 30 minutes, we got the knack of ferrying. It was time to learn about the eddy, a reverse flow of water that accumulates behind objects in the river, like rocks, trees and the dead bodies of kayakers who didn’t see the rocks or trees. The idea is to use the eddy like a parking spot. We practiced entering and leaving it.
Sometime during our lunch of rice and beans, Tatan determined that we were ready for the Trancura, a river with Class III rapids located 20 minutes outside of Pucon. This sounded fine to us because we had no idea what class III rapids were.
At the edge of the Trancura, Tatan handed us helmets.
ME: What are these for?
TATAN: In case you tip over and smash your head on the rocks while you’re upside-down.
ME: No, really, feel free to be blunt.
We pushed off into the river and immediately encountered our first Class III rapids, which from the vantage point of a novice kayaker, looked something like Niagara Falls.
“Follow me,” said Tatan, who quickly disappeared into the whitewater. I paddled up the wave, dropped down into a trough, caught a mouthful of water and came up the other side. I wasn’t paddling so much as trying to survive for the next 100 meters.
There are two understated words in kayaking. One is “walking” and the other is “swimming,” and the idea is that you don’t want to do either. We did both.
Walking means carrying your kayak over the boulders and, in our case, also through dense bushes at the edge of the river to get around a treacherous-looking rapid. Swimming means tipping upside-down, coming out of your kayak and, again in our case, getting sucked into every hole and bouncing off every rock before Tatan, who was darting from eddy to hole with the ease of a duck, got us to shore.
Each of these only happened once and our strong desire for them not to happen again got us down the rest of the river. Eventually, we pulled the kayaks up on shore where the Cascada van was waiting. Signe and I were cold but still pumped with adrenaline, slightly in shock from what we had just done. “OK,” Tatan said, “let’s do it again.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Chilean National Tourist Board, 510 W. Sixth St., 1210, Los Angeles, CA 90014; (213) 627-4293. Cascada River Kayaking School, Orego Luco 054, Santiago, Chile. Phone: 02-2327214. KayakNet: http://web.access.net.au/%Edprice/kayaknet/index.html Books: “Kayaking Made Easy: A Manual for Beginners With Tips for the Experienced.” Stuhaug, Dennis O. Globe Pequot Press 1995. “The Basic Essentials of Kayaking Whitewater.” Kallner, Bill. ICS Books 1990. “Chile & Easter Island: A Travel Survival Kit-3rd ed.” Bernhardson, Wayne. Lonely Planet Publications. $15.95. “South American Handbook.” Box, Ben. Passport Books 1995.
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