Earth River Expeditions

by Josh Karzen
Spring 2001

Thirty years ago, on a bike trip through Idaho, a 16-year-old boy named Eric Hertz met a river runner who invited him to run the Rogue River in Oregon. Hertz gladly accepted. The trip hooked Hertz on river running for life. He continued to return to Idaho during the summers, working on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. A steady career of river running followed and in 1990 Hertz’ commitment culminated in the creation of Earth River Expeditions. Soon after starting Earth River Expeditions, Hertz brought on Robert Currie, a native Chilean, as his partner. The two made a handshake deal that endures to this day, combining their talents to tackle the daunting challenges of international expeditions.

As a global outfitter, with trips offered on some of the world’s most wild and remote rivers, Earth River Expeditions was a natural pursuit for Hertz. The list of trips offered reads like a whitewater wish list: the Bio Bio (Chile), Upper Yangtze/ Great Bend of the Yangtze (China), Primrose (Yukon), Magpie and Great Whale (Quebec), Talkeetna (Alaska), Colca (Peru), Po Tsangpo (China), and Futaleufu (Chile). The inspiration behind Earth River Expeditions was fueled in large part by a desire to protect rivers of the world. Hertz wanted to facilitate “on the ground conservation.” Early on, Earth River Expeditions established a relationship with the Audubon Society, and created the Earth River Fund. The fund was designed, says Hertz, “to increase awareness of the danger to the world’s rivers”, and monies raised have gone to protect the Great Whale, Bio Bio, and Futaleufu, to name a few. Good intentions notwithstanding, Earth River Expeditions is a commercial outfitter, and thus Hertz needed a business model which lived up to its aspirations. Setting out to commercially run the world’s most remote and wild rivers, Hertz focused on some core themes to guide Earth River Expeditions; experience, safety, and trust. Guided by these principals, Earth River Expeditions has enjoyed steady growth throughout the past ten years.
“About 30 percent per year,” says Hertz.

The first year they took only three clients down one river, the Futaleufu. Last year 250 clients, and this year 300 will partake in the Earth River experience.

The key to any successful business is its employees, and Earth River Expeditions is no different. The stakes of the game are raised on rivers like the Colca, so the skill of the players must be raised accordingly. Calm heads, tamed egos, and a team mentality are what Earth River Expeditions looks for in a guide. A quality resume and solid references are standard also, but the quality most sought is a respectful, professional attitude. With this in mind, Earth River Expeditions will train prospective guides first on one of their runs. Over time, as the guide learns the river, Earth River Expeditions will make the call whether the chemistry is right to bring him on as an employee. According to Hertz. “The lowest ego will make for the best guide for Earth River Expeditions.”


Paddler MagazineEarth River shares river running and a passion for conservation

By: Joseph Carberry
April, 2006

Seventeen years ago at a dusty train station in Temuco, Chile, Eric Hertz squeezed into an open seat across from a young Chilean farmer named Robert Currie. Currie was traveling the country collecting supplies for his farm. Hertz was an American artist-cumraft bum, an aspiring playwright who had traded Manhattan for a drama featuring rubber and oars on a stage moving water. Call it a cosmic coincidence. Two wandering thespians in search of life roles meet on a crowded train and hit it off like an Oscar-bound actor and director. They talked all day, and Currie invited Hertz to stay at his home. “I don’t think he though I would take him up on it,” Hertz recalls. “After traveling around a bit I showed up at his place and stayed with his wife and kids. He wasn’t due home for another week.”Hertz was guiding on the Bio-Bio at the time and offered to take Currie on a trip. It would be the first of many. A year later they formed Earth River Expeditions, now one of the most prolific rafting outfitters in the world, offering trips to South America, Asia, the Unites State and Canada. “It was the smartest thing I ever did,” says Hertz. Earth River guides more than 500 clients a year, but numbers don’t mean much to these two globetrotters. “It’s not just about rapids,” says Currie. “We are blessed to guide several gems and there are very few left in the world. We have a responsibility to protect them.” Currie and Hertz are adamant about protecting the cultural and environmental legacy of the places they work.


American WhiteWaterSaving the Magpie

By: James McBeath
April, 2006

The phone rang on an early August afternoon. It was a rather distraught Eric Hertz.

Before we even had a chance for hellos, I heard him says, “They’re going to dam the Magpie!”

Eric and his company, Earth River, have long been running the Magpie with their high-end clientele. Eric has also partnered with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a number of occasions to foster the awareness and legislation to protect of some of the worlds most spectacular whitewater rivers. The Magpie is their latest challenge, and one they seemed to be taking seriously. Indeed, as soon as Eric heard of the dam plans, he ran a Magpie trip with Kennedy and leaders from many Canadian eco-organizations. To the dismay of dam planners, his trip made front-page fodder across Canada.

The mysterious Magpie River was suddenly beginning to catch my attention. Why ?such a fuss? Truth be told, Eric only runs the elite rivers of the world like the Futaleufu, Yangtse and Colca. I didn’t think the Magpie was even on the radar with these… or was it? It had always been a mystery to me that Eric ran such a little-known river – one I never took the opportunity to investigate. But, the rivers Eric had picked up the gauntlet on before were all well-known whitewater gems like the Bio Bio, and Futaleufu, so I decided to trust his judgment.


James Bay: Where Two Worlds Collide

by John G. Mitchell
November 1993

In August of 1993, Earth River Expeditions took a National Geographic writer and Photographer on a conservation awareness rafting trip down the Great Whale River to meet the Cree Indians and see first hand the destruction the James Bay II hydro project would have on the environment and the native Cree community. The following article appeared in the November issue.

Darkness is about to fall across the valley of the Great Whale River. It is the end of a long August day in the north of Quebec, in a land of black spruce and tan granite, and we have come to see how this river runs while the water is free.

I am traveling with Matthew Mukash. He is a Cree Indian. His people have been living in this country for 5,000 years. Across the purling water one of their tepees stands pasted against the sky, a ghostly pyramid trailing a thin white plume of wood smoke down river. Mukash, who is chief of Whapmagoostui, a Cree village at the mouth of the river, on Hudson Bay, suddenly sweeps his hand in an arc. "All this will be flooded by the dam," he says. "The river has a sacred route to follow, but they will drown it. All of it."


Sacrificial People

by Jon Bowermaster
May 1993

The single-engine Otter banks hard in a tight circle over an explosive one hundred-foot waterfall along the Eau Claire River. The pilot, a classically daring French Canadian named Pierre, dangles a burning cigarette out his vent with one hand as he drops the plane ever lower over the sprawling tundra of the Canadian Shield, affording his half-dozen passengers a first-class gaze at a wilderness few people have seen by land or air.


Last Run Down the Bio-Bio

by Jon Bowermaster
November, 1992

It is a quiet, damp morning in southern Chile. The sun is still hidden by the hills that surround the fast-running Bio-Bio River, but the cool is welcome—by noon the temperature will exceed 90 degrees. In a field alongside the river are camped forty-nine Chileans and Americans—lawyers, journalists, businessmen, advocates—engaged in something that is part travel, part environmental activism; it goes by the name of "adventure advocacy." We had journeyed to this spot 5OO miles south of Santiago to see for ourselves the spectacular river and valley that will be lost if six proposed dams are built along the Bio-Bio.

Thursday, 28 August 2014 00:00


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Adventure Magpie Earthriver"Viva la Magpie"

Adventure Magazine article on Earth River Magpie trip

By Mark Sundeen May, 2005


“If the dams are built, it will be like Glen Canyon. People for generations will be wishing they’d seen it before it was gone.”

- Mark Sundeen, National Geographic Adventure


We’re floating down a big North American river, the kind that flows for days with no signs of civilization. Each day without fail more rapids pour off the horizon, black granite lines the banks, and thick stand of fir trees crowd the canyon. But here’s the strange part: Nobody from my 11 years as a white-water guide knows this river, much less has paddles a boat down it. And even though it’s late summer, when the days are long and the water temperatures is mild, we have the place all to ourselves, tearing down rapids so seldom visited they’ve never been named.

The obscurity of the river isn’t the only thing that’s unusual about this rafting trip. For starters, most of our party speaks French and smokes Players. And they keep ducking behind boulders to yap into satellite phones.

We beach the rafts, and the 51-year-old environmental attorney bounds across the talus toward us. He shakes the hand and asks the names of a gaggle of reporters and conservationists- then heads for a picnic set upon a granite slab. Food is served, sat phones are unpacked, and live from the middle of nowhere radio interviews and dictated newspaper columns shoot back to the offices in Montreal.

This little-known place, and the cause of all the commotion, is the Magpie River in eastern Quebec, specifically a series of Class III, IV, V, rapids that rolls down from Lac Magpie (Magpie Lake) and empties into the St. Lawrence River. East and west of its banks is some of the most remote country in southern Canada, a road less and nearly uninhabited wilderness of dense forest. Those hearty enough to carve out a life in these parts- not many – congregate in the string of tattered villages along the St. Lawrence or in the town of Sept-îles, about 90 miles west of the mouth of the Magpie. Even though its mild summer conditions and continuous white water are characteristic of rivers in the lower 48, a raft trop on the Magpie feels remote, wild, more like an Alaska expedition than a guided float some 550 miles northeast of Montreal.

But for all of its one-of-a-kind attributes, the Magpie is, like many spectacular stretches of white water, threatened by a series of dams that would flood its rapids. In response to a governmental energy development initiative, the Montreal power company Hydromega has proposed a dam and generating facility, which as we paddle is under review by Quebec’s Bureau d’Audiences Publiques sure l’Environnment. Kennedy ran a portion of the Magpie with his family three years ago with Earth River on a regular commecial trip and was so taken by it that he has returned in the hopes that his celebrity and his record of river defense (he’s the president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international water protection group based in Tarrytown, New York) can help reverse what appears to be a done deal. And so, the thrill of seeing a pristine place is met with the dread that we could be some of the last ones to do so, at least over the portions we’re traveling.

If a destination’s popularity is measured by convenient flights and cute boutiques, it’s clear the Magpie has yet to be discovered. To get within floatplane range, I had to link north-bound Air Canada flights to Montreal and then to a weather-beaten town on the St. Lawrence River, Sept-Îles (Rhymes with “wet eel”) is Canada’s second largest port, the principal interest of which is a massive aluminum smelter on a peninsula nearby. The downtown is a grid of storm proof boxes wrapped in sheet metal, many of them shuttered and closed to business. The night I arrived, I walked down the lonely main drag until I reached a fish-and-chips joint where, trotting out a few tourist phrases in French, I ordered a plate of friend goodies on Styrofoam, listened to the news on French television and watched the rain fall.

Sept-îles and the economically stagnant settlements closer to the Magpie are the kinds of places where power dam proposals are well received. According to Hydromêga president Jacky Cerceau, the Magpie dam will be a boon to the redion, producing 40 megawatts of power that will be used locally and sold on the Quebec grid. Cerceau says that the dam will provide two years of construction work as well as “more than $15 million [U.S. $12 million] in direct financial contributions to the eight municipalities of the region.” Dispersed among 6,000 or so residents over 25 years (after which, says Cerceasu, the dam would be transferred to Quebec’s government), those contributions compute to about $100 (U.S. $81) per person a year. Hydromega’s promises secured the support of the mayors of the local villages, and pending approval from the provincial government, construction could begin as early as this spring.

Perhaps the only folks who don’t applaud the dam are the few who have actually seen the free-flowing river from a boat. Chief among them is Eric Hertz, 49, founder and co-owner of Earth River Expeditions, who has been guiding rafting trips on three continents for 33 years from his home base in New York’s Hudson Valley. When our group met in the lobby of the Hotel Sept-Îles, he look harried, having just driven 15 hours in a mud-splattered pickup truck loaded with coolers of food, four guides and his 12-year-old son, Cade. He began by ordering us to pack lightly, only bringing what was on the list.

“The Magpie is the greatest multi-day white-water river east of the Mississippi,” he told me. “But that doesn’t say it all, because when you think about it, there are no great multi-day rivers east of the Mississippi? It's probably one of the top two or three whitewater river trips in all of North America, after the Grand Canyon. I’d even rank it higher than the Midle Fork of the Salmon.”

Hertz was the first person to take a raft down the Magpie and began running commercial trips on the river in 1990. Intrepid canoeists have known about it for decades, but most are confounded the whitewater and by the expense of getting to Sept-Îles and hiring a floatplane to the put-in at Magpie Lake. The only other way in is to take a northbound train to the headwaters of the Magpie Quest (West) but this approach makes for an additional one-week descent of the 114-mile run, with its numerous Class V rapids, just to get to the standard launch. So in 1989 when Hertz chartered a small plane to take him looking for raftable white water, he believed he had, in the Magpie, discovered a world-class river. His first float confirmed this, but he liked the undiscovered nature of the river for his guests and decided not to advertise it too much. “Earth River has never made much money on the Magpie,” he told me. “But I love it. It’s one of my favorite rivers.” For the past 14 years, he has been the Magpie’s only outfitter, running just two or three weeklong trips a year. He estimates that fewer than 300 people have ever floated it.

Just a week before departure, after Kennedy confirmed his slot, the number in our raft party swelled from 25 to 38 members. So now Hertz was struggling to lighten the load in the baggage boats, one shirt at a time. As he gave instructions to us, he was on the phone hammering out logistics with drivers and pilots who didn’t necessarily speak English. Kennedy was out on a book tour and would be two days late, so Hertz had to coordinate a mid-trip meeting point with the helicopter pilot. Oh, and as long as he was at it, couldn’t the pilot dovetail the Kennedy drop-off with a quick gear haul that would save the team a two hour portage?

It was near dusk when our floatplane landed on Magpie Lake, where four of Hertz’s guides were waiting for us at our first night's camp. In the morning, we paddles across the lake following a faint current that grew and grew until we were running through the Magpie’s first chute, our raft spinning between boulders, the warm water splashing onboard.

The rapids came one after the next, without a guidebook outlining the run. The only other boaters we saw in five days were a crew of four very hearty and somewhat beleaguered canoeists who, like us, had heard about the dam, and wanted to see the Magpie while they still could.

By day three we’re under the Magpie’s spell. The paddling’s great. Kennedy is in the mix. Our spirits are running as high as the white water.

From our picnic spot on the granite slab, Kennedy surveys the river. “Damming this is like finding the ‘Mona Lisa’ in your basement and painting over it,” he says to me between bits of a sandwich. "It’s the unbroken wilderness of the Magpie," he says, "that makes it a superior experience to the Middle Fork of the Salmon.There are no bridges, buildings, and airstrips." Then, abruptly, he stops talking, cocks his ear toward the forest, and says, “I hear an osprey.”

Though he’s here on business, Kennedy can’t wait to get started on the priority stuff: catching fish and instigating water fights with his son Bobby III, 20, and his daughter Kick, 16. That night, when we make camp, he breaks out a fishing rod and recruits a pair of boys from the group. They cast their spinners into an eddy and, with nearly each toss, reel in miniature brookies.

When Hydroméga proposed the dam in 2002, Hertz’s first tactic was direct action. He and his son drove up to Quebec for a public hearing where Cade testified that he’d run the river six times, that is was his favorite, but that he wasn’t allowed to run the Class V rapid at the bottom until he was 13. If it was flooded by a dam he’d never get the chance. Soon Hertz decided that the only way to save the river was to publicize it. He partnered with Alain Salaszius, 46, of the Quebec river advocacy group Foundation Rivières, who had recently appeared on the cover of Sèlection du Reader’s Digest, the French language version of Reader’s Digest , as “The Man Who Saves Rivers.” The two men then brought out the big guns and recruited Kennedy.

While the Canadian press may have cared little about some dam on some distant river, Hertz knew they would pay attention to a famous, idealistic American with an iconic last name. (When Kennedy touched down is Sept-Íles , he was met by reporters from the local paper, as well as a handful of well wishers toting old photos of Kenedy’s late father and uncle: Senator Robert. F. Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy.)

Hertz’s argument is pretty straightforward: The river is worth more as a recreational draw for tourists than as a power generator. Hertz estimates that sometime in the future about 5,000 people a year could float the Magpie. According to the trade group Aventure Écotouisme Québec, this amount of traffic would create $3 million (U.S. 2.4 million) in annual income, which, as Saladzuis points out, is a much larger economic benefit that the promise of 40 megawatts. “If someone promoted its values,” Kennedy says, “this river would produce more revenue and a lot more jobs that building a dam that would make a few people rich by impoverishing this landscape forever.”

It’s unclear, however, if the Magpie could accommodate the numbers envisioned by Hertz. Swarms of black flies might deter visitors in June, leaving about a ten-week season from late July through September when the bugs are mild. To reach the $3 million mark, 70 passengers would need to depart from Magpie lake each day, a spike in usage that could require as many as 15 daily floatplane runs. If the weather turned bad - you’d get a bottleneck of delayed clients back in Sept-Íles. 
In any case, Hertz says it would be great if many of the outfitters on the Magpie were Quebecers, not only Americans and claims that his business interest is secondary. “I’d walk away from it in a minute if they told me they would turn the Magpie into a park even if Earth River wasn’t allowed to operate here,” he says, noting that Earthriver split the cost of our conservation awareness trip with a generous client who had done the river and fell in love with it the year before. “I’d still come up here on my own, just without clients. You couldn’t keep me away.”

The last morning we paddle up to the Magpie’s finale, a 25-foot waterfall just above a Class V rock garden that has a couple of really nasty holes. A few weeks after our trip Earth River sponsored a trip with a small film crew and a group of world renowned kayakers including Steve Fisher to bring an awareness about the river's plight to the kayaking community. The kayakers named this final falls, “Les Chutes d’Eau Eternelles,” or “Eternity Falls,” because it’s the Magpie’s climatic and most menacing drop, and it’s the rapid that would be lost forever beneath the dammed waters.

We line the boat around the falls and then scramble along the bank to scout. A hard rain begins to fall for the first time all week, and coupled with the fog and the foam spraying off the torrent, it feels ominous.

“One time we flipped here with a boat full of lawyers,” Hertz says. "So we jokingly refer to the rapid as Litigation Falls". Nobody responds.
 To be safe, we’ll run just one craft at a time. A second guide will paddle in each boat, for more control and the other guides will wait at the bottom with rescue ropes.

Hertz’s crew is first. They climb down a slippery granite slab to the raft, which is roped in place in a swirling eddy. When everyone’s seated, Hertz reviews the route, reminds them which way to swim if they end up in the river, then gives the signal to release the rope. The paddlers take a few strokes into the mist and float irreversibly toward a tiny chute above the froth. With a quick forward command from Hertz, they dig in their blades. The raft drops over the horizon, buckles, and its gone. We hurry down the banks to watch the boat as it’s buried beneath the foaming crest of a wave, stalls, and then finally emerges, swamped. The crew lets out a celebratory whoop and paddles safely to shore. 
One by one we launch our boats, paddle to the brink, then tear down the narrow chute, skirting big, growling pour-overs on either side and exploding into the wave train below. Everyone has a safe run. Soaked to the skin, we celebrate on a flat rock at the bottom, teeth chattering but bodies shot with adrenaline, then load up for the Magpie’s final mile.

Our trip ends at the proposed dam site: a derelict hydroelectric generating station where the Magpie runs under Route 138 before its confluence with the St. Lawrence River. Hydroméga points out that its dam would affect just one mile of the river and the company’s Web site predicts that “the raising of the water level will not prevent sport enthusiasts from enjoying their sport, but rather will improve the access to the area… with the construction of an access ramp along with various paths.”
While Hertz and Kennedy admit that this first dam would leave many miles of free-flowing river, they can’t risk it.

“Once the first dam is built,” warns Kennedy, “The next one comes along and you can no longer argue that it will destroy a pristine river. And then you’ve lost the fight.”

In the months after our trip, the battle has simmered on. The Gazette in Montreal issued an editorial condemning the dam. The mayor of Havre-St.-Pierre, a village near the mouth of the Magpie, attacked Kennedy and Hertz and their “little gang of environmentalists” for meddling in Quebec’s affairs, while Canadian conservation groups have launched a Web site ( to organize boaters and activists. Saladzius has been hard at work crafting a new dam proposal that would use the existing structure at Route 138 and not change the river’s flow. Support for this plan, though, has not taken root. In January the mayors of the eight local villages reaffirmed their endorsement of Hydroméga’s dam. Ultimately, the fate of the Magpie is in the hands of the Quebec Ministry of the Environment, which at press time, was at a standstill. A decision is expected this spring.

Whether the result is preordained or not, Hertz believes the Magpie is worth the fight. “This is a river that changes people,” he says. “When they see such a beautiful place and are able to enjoy it with their kids, they are going to want to fight to protect it.”

If the dams are built it will be like Glen Canyon. People for generations will be wishing they’d seen it before it was gone.

Thursday, 28 August 2014 00:00


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"The Accidental Explorer’s Guide to Patagonia"

May, 2003
By Tim Cahill


"The Earth River expeditin to the Lakes of Patagonia may be my absolute favorie out of all the many trips I've taken. It is Patagonia written large, with more glaciers and flowers in closer proximity than anywhere else on earth I've I've ever been. It is a trip almost anyone can do but you can make it as physical demanding as you'd like. The whole endeavor is suffused with wonder and even more by the absolutely exhilerating sense of discovery."

- Tim Cahill


The float plane was following the deep valley of a mud- choked river. It wheeled this way and that against glacier- clad spires glittering in the sun. The colors were intense in this corridor of ice: The river below ran over gold sandbanks that rose sharply to become grassy hillsides, bright green against the dazzle of the ice above. It was incredibly beautiful.

“Isn’t this incredibly beautiful?” Eric Hertz shouted over the howl of the engine. He was so pumped up and so sincere that I just couldn’t help myself.

“If you like this sort of thing,” I said.

In fact, I love this sort of thing. I had an aviation map of the area open on my lap. Our plane had risen out of the lake called General Carrera here in Chile. We were in the lower portion of South America, at about 46° south latitude. The floatplane was flying at about 2,500 feet (762 meters), under jagged icy peaks that rose to more than 6,000 feet (1,829 meters). The guy sitting beside me, Dave, a pilot himself and an aviation buff, pointed out the advisories stamped all over the map: "Relief Detail Unreliable." In other words, this area of Chilean Patagonia was so little known that no one could say precisely how high the mountains were.

Mark, our floatplane's pilot, followed the Río Leones as it ascended into what is known as the Northern Ice Field. Combined with Patagonian glaciers just a bit to the south, in the Southern Ice Field, this area is sometimes called the "third pole." It carries a lot of frozen water, all of it cascading lickety-split down the mountains. There's a lot of geology happening here, and it's happening right in your face.

We topped a ridge, and an immense lake, Lago Leones, surrounded by mountains and ice, lay before us like a dream. The water was pea-soup green where it was shadowed by shards of wind-whipped mist and emerald green where slanting shafts of light fell on its surface this bright summer day early in December.

Mark put the plane down, helped off-load our camping gear and inflatable kayaks, then went back to pick up the rest of our crew. This was an "exploratory" trip mounted by Earth River Expeditions, the adventure travel company owned by Eric Hertz and his Chilean partner, Robert Currie. Some commercial clients—I count myself among them—prefer exploratories. Eric had come to find a new place to bring clients and I was looking for my new favorite place on Earth. These weren't necessarily antagonistic ambitions.

Eric Hertz is not a chest beater; he's simply enthusiastic and so obviously sincere that his fervor is contagious. Over the years he's led clients, journalists, and celebrities to speak out about saving this bit of wilderness or that. The guy's heart is in the right place, and several months ago, when we began talking about a trip to Patagonia, I was swept up in the current of Eric's passion. He said he was looking for a discovery. Me? I'd settle for a new fave.

Read the literature: Patagonia is either an Eden of soaring mountains and alpine lakes or it is a monotonous revelation of the merely horizontal- more than 300,000 square miles straddling portions of Chile and Argentina in the southern cone of South America. The Encyclopaedia Britannica calls the Argentine portion a “vast area of steppe and desert” stretching from 37° to 51° south latitude. Of course, the topography offers a bit more drama if you include the lower spine of the Andes along the international border. But many travelers have nonetheless come away with the image of unrelenting flatness as the primary impression of the area. Charles Darwin, who visited the region on the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, said that “these plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless. They can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants.”

These wretched and useless plains, I must confess, have used up a goodly portion of my life. They came to my attention a quarter century ago, when I met climber Yvon Chouinard. In 1968, Yvon and several friends had driven a van down to Patagonia. A summit flag taped to the back window identified the occupants as “Phun Hogs,” and indeed, they scaled peaks, climbed glaciers, rode horses, walked mountain trails, and caught several dinners worth of large, dumb trout. They never made it all the way to Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago at the end of the Americas that is politically split between Argentina and Chile and that some geographers say is part of Patagonia proper. The actual borders are a bit hazy: Patagonia is as much a state of mind as it is a region. Chouinard, impressed with this state of mind, visited the region again in 1972, which is when he decided to call his garment company Patagonia. Maybe you’ve seen some of his clothes?

There have been a lot of deep but ill- defined sensations in the half dozen times I’ve visited Patagonia since I first talked about it with Chouinard 25 years ago. Clearly, the region was not all arid plain and desert. On the peninsula Valdes, three- ton elephant seals lie like slugs on the beach, or they battle one another in bloody contests of sexual domination. Orcas motor up onto the beach and eat baby sea lions like canapés, while Southern right whales breach in the deeper waters.

Not too far inland, there is a kind of cowboy heaven just east of the Andes, near the towns of El Bolson and Esquel. If you were to drive a gravel road out of El Bolson, you’d notice fat cattle and fast horses in the fields and old log cabins on the riverbanks. Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place lived in a few of those cabins, on land they ranched for four years.

The old cabins are tumbling down now, and bees hum in the fields. The river flows into a large lake, and glaciers glitter in the mountains above. All in all, this place is a Southern Hemisphere mirror image of my home in south- central Montana, except that when the snow piles up above the windows in January where I live, people in Patagonia are enjoying 16- hour days. Riding horses. Having barbeques.

Aside from this seasonal inversion, Patagonia can be conveniently compared to the American West: There are endless scrublands and deserts and canyonlands and mountains and glaciers and any number of extraordinary places to set the soul soaring. It is a place of special oddities. In 1905, for instance, Butch and Sundance were said to have robbed a bank in Rio Gallegos, about 700 miles south of their ranch.

I’ve seen the robbed bank at Rio Gallegos- it still stands- and later on the same day I visited the nearby penguin colony. It was the same American West, all right. But a bizarro version, with hints of another dimension leaking into the scene. I was forced to imagine a daring daylight bank robbery, accomplished on horseback, with penguins strutting underfoot.

And people ask me why Patagonia is my favorite place on Earth.

There were 13 of us standing on the shores of Lago Leones, all men. “We had one woman who wanted to come,” Eric said, “but she runs marathons for fun and didn’t think this trip would be strenuous enough for her.” People find Eric’s trips on his website or are attracted by word of mouth, but most everyone on this go-around had traveled with Earth river before. Aside from gender, there was no common denominator: Ed was a doctor; Fermin was an accountant from Mexico; Jose Luis, from Chile and John, from Canada, were businessmen. Some guys were wealthy; some were just scraping by. All knew that things seldom run absolutely smoothly on an exploratory trip like this. They liked that.

So we were an all- male expedition, ready to endure any hardship, and we might have felt pretty macho out here in the Northern Ice Field, except that the only woman who took the time to investigate the expedition thought it was a sissy trip.

I believe the marathoner might have changed her mind that very afternoon when we went looking for a waterfall we’d seen from the plane. It was several ridges over from our campsite, and we side-hilled it through thick, intensely annoying, ankle- grabbing vegetation. When you fell, and everyone did now and again, the vegetation caught and enfolded your body so that it was difficult to get up, in the manner that its difficult to get up when you’ve fallen into deep snow on a steep hill.

Every once in a while we’d pass red flowering plants with woody stems that sported flowers like hands with way too many fingers. Jose Luis, who as a Chilean knew such things, said the plants were called ciruelillos. They grew from two to twelve feet high and were our friends. We could grab the whiplike trunks and take a few easy steps over the matted vegetation. Our feet never touched ground; we moved on uneven, springy beds of branch and vine. We looked, altogether, like a bunch of drunks stumbling over the hillside.

An occasional tree, looking vaguely tropical, rose out of the low vegetation. Thunder rumbled in the distance, but this late afternoon was perfectly blue and cloudless. We were hearing the sound of the glacier pouring into the lake as it calved off great icebergs. I contemplated the glacier, juxtaposed with the seemingly tropical vegetation. Here was a good slice of Patagonia bizarro: a world of ice framed by red flowers and lush plants.

A mist rose from the drainage one ridge away: it was the waterfall, less than a mile off and, we calculated, about, jeez, another hour and a half away. Hell with it, we abandoned the waterfall. Probably wouldn’t have been a favorite place anyway.

For the hike back, we moved to the high ridges, which were less choked with vegetation, and it took us only 27 days to get to camp, or so it seemed. My infallible adventure watch, with time and date and altitude and compass functions, said that we had been fighting through the foliage for only about five hours total. We were beat, and it would have been easy to think of ourselves as highly robust hikers except for one fact I’ve neglected to mention: Eric’s ten year old son, Cade, was along on the trip and done everything we’d done, only faster.

Cade was writing a diary for a school project, and it is instructive to see a ten year old cover the same day with a good deal more dispatch than I can muster: “My dad the guides the clients and me went on a hike to a creek. We did some bushwhacking but did not see much except for bushes.”

The next day we inflated the kayaks and paddled down the lake toward the glacier. The sun was bright, and there were more thunder like rumblings that grew even louder as we approached the ice, a wall perhaps 80 or 100 feet high. Some in our party, thought it was closer to 250. Lets call it 150 feet.

Occasionally a chunk of ice the size of a three- or four- story building calved off the ice cliff, and this calving occurred in what appeared to be slow motion. The ice, exhibiting a great deal of leisure, tumbled lazily into the water below, eventually sending a fountain of spray 30 or 40 feet into the air. These calvings generate waves several feet high, and the waves became a concern as we approached the glacier. It was, according to my watch, 65°F out, but there was a cool breeze from the glacier, as if someone had left the refrigerator door open.

Lago Leones, according to the infallible adventure watch, which is usually right plus or minus a few hundred feet, was only 1,070 feet above sea level. A lowland lake. It is true that there are glaciers at seas level in high latitudes, in Alaska, for instance, but this was 46° south. Portland, Oregon is close to 46° north and also near sea level, but you seldom hear of glaciers stopping traffic on the interstate there.

Beyond this glacier, to the west, there were some pretty substantial mountains, including Monte San Valentine, which, at 13,240 feet, is the highest point in Patagonia. So it was staggering to think that if all these glaciers were grinding away down here at a thousand feet, there was surely ice beyond comprehension at 13,000 feet.

Our kayaks were doubles, and I was paddling with a guy who prefers to be nameless in this instance. We decided to defy the thunder and paddle close to the glacier. A line of calved-off icebergs floated near the place where ice met water. We calculated the risks and moved in among the bergs. Every now and again we could hear this odd clicking. It was the sound you hear when a really cold ice cube is dropped in a glass of water. We moved in closer yet and sat in the kayaks, staring up at all the ice in the world. My paddling partner said, “Makes me think of my girlfriend.”

I looked up at the frigid world above and almost said, “I’m sorry.”

Silence seemed the best course. He said, “it’s the blue color.”

In places, parts of the glacier had fallen away in huge, hundred- foot- high pillars, and the underlying ice was a deep and clean cornflower blue that seemed to glow, as if from within. ‘She has blonde hair and blue eyes,” my partner said.


“So I’m thinking lingerie.”

A few judicious questions established that the woman did not presently own any blue lingerie. That situation would be rectified immediately upon my partners return.

Thus occupied with our thoughts, we threaded through the icebergs floating at the base of the glacier. None of them was much bigger than a house. The smaller ones were not blue but white in the sun, all pocked and melting, with small rivers flowing off their backs. The sun was sculpting these bergs into various fantastic shapes. One looked like a fox’s head with water dripping off the nose.

I was contemplating the oft made assertion that there is no geographic cure. If you’re an alcoholic in Maine, you’ll be one in Missouri, or so they say. The observation, I think, is both smug and erroneous. My favorite spots have all been something a good deal more than a photo op. Once, I climbed to the foot of the glacier in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. No big thing, except that I was recovering from a back operation I’d needed after a climbing fall. For two months before the operation, I had been unable to walk. Torres del Paine is a favorite place. I learned to walk there.

I visited the Peninsula Valdes during a career crisis that involved a lot of angry, high- volume negotiations. On the peninsula, I took some pleasure in watching three- ton monsters battle on the beach. And outside El Bolson the wind whispered that a sudden and unexpected vacancy in my love life was all for the best. For both of us.

So it is my contention that favorite places have the capacity to heal. I wasn’t presently in any particular mental or physical turmoil. But, as every Boy Scout knows, it is wise to be prepared. I was looking for a new, favorite place, just in case.

It was the warmest part of the day, and the glacier was calving frequently. Massive quantities of ice fell, and the rumbling thunder was constant for 20 or 30 seconds at a time. A few moments later, a wave formed at the base of the glacier and radiated outward, lifting the icebergs all about. It was no good running from the wave: the aweful thing could simply crest up over you and drop several dozen tons of ice on your head. No, we wanted to face the wave and paddle over the crest, dodging ice as we rose five or six feet on the swell and then fell down the other side, drawing ever closer to the glacier. In the interval between calvings, we retreated rapidly.

“Lingerie? I asked my partner.

Ice clicked suggestively on all sides. “Lingerie,” he said.

Our party lunched on a rocky point overlooking the glacier, which creaked and groaned beside us. Below, it cracked and boomed into the lake.

I had read a report about a Chilean climbing team that had entered the Northern Icefield by way of Lago Leones and spent 22 days on the ice, climbing Valentin, among other peaks.

“It is not well known,” said Jose Luis, who lives in Santiago but has a cabin a couple of hours north of where we were sitting. “I’ve been coming to this area for over 20 years, and I never heard of Lago Leones before.”

Presently Eric said, “Let’s go find that high lake we saw from the plane.” It had looked pretty good from the air- a potential favorite place for sure- a small alpine lake set up against a headwall maybe 2,000 feet high.

It took us two hours to climb 600 feet. The high lake was still about 1,400 feet above us, which meant that we were only a third of the way there. I didn’t think I could get up to the lake and down to the kayaks before dark. Eric thought otherwise. Ed the doctor and John the Canadian elected to come with me. Eric’s partner Robert also joined us, and we chatted on the way down the rolling boulder slope.

Robert was Chilean, but as a child he had lived in the US and Mexico. Back in Chile, he had owned an import- export business. That business kept him away from his wife and kids too much, so he bought a farm and worked it hard. Then, in 1989, he met Eric Hertz on a train. Robert felt as if he’d been a guide in training and hadn’t even known it. “Because of my background I can fix mechanical things and the farming made me strong.” Robert was still plenty strong. He looked like he could pull a stump up out of the ground with his bare hands.

We arrived back at the lake, and it didn’t look good at all. A late afternoon wind was howling off the glacier, and Leones was a sea of whitecaps. The icebergs that had been floating at the base of the glacier were off in the far distance, congregated near our campsite several miles away, sailing on the katabatic wind that poured off the ice. John the Canadian and I launched first, and that was the last we saw of Robert and Ed. The lake required our full attention.

We knew we had to cross quickly or the wind would drive us past our camp, which was on the other side of the lake. If we missed it, there’d be no paddling back. This required that we take the shortest possible route across, which pit as broadside to the wind and waves. “Never…thought…sea kayaking…was…an adrenaline sport,” John yelled.

But it was. There were four and five foot waves coming in sets, and they slopped over into the kayak, which, thankfully, was a self-bailing model, or we’d have been sunk. John thrust his paddle into the belly of the waves as they reared up on us, and I steered in a manner that put us three-quarters broadside on the crest of the waves, which brought the rudder out of the water and rendered it useless for several moments. All that was required in that situation was a quick corrective backpaddle. In this way, zigzagging through the wind and waves, we crossed the lake and neared the icebergs, which were spread out in a defensive line blocking the promontory we had to round in order to get to camp. They glittered in the sun, melting to death in various evocative shapes as the waves exploded against them, sending spray ten feet into the air.

John and I decided not to chance the icebergs and made a pretty fair surf landing on a small stone beach one ridge away from our camp.

Presently, we began to wonder what happened to Robert and Ed. They weren’t out on the water, or we’d have seen their bright yellow kayak cresting the waves every once in a while. We climbed up the ridge for a better view and stood facing the wind-whipped lake. We scanned the water for ten minutes or more.

There was a rustling behind us. “You guys just get in?” Ed asked. He and Robert were carrying their gear to their tents. They had followed us across the lake, zigzagging in the same manner, but had made it through the line of icebergs and around the promontory.

The winds died down, and the surface of the lake glassed off and mirrored the sunset. Eric and the rest of the group came paddling back through the various reds and pinks around ten o’clock. They hadn’t quite made the upper lake, just as we hadn’t quite made the waterfall a day ago. Eric said he wasn’t going to push things too much with Cade along. If his son got hurt, he’d have to answer to his wife, and then he’d be in the cat box.

“The cat box?”

“It’s a step down from the dog house,” Eric explains.

"Anything lower than the cat box?”


I slept like a rock and woke late the next morning. It was 10:70. Apparently, everyone left except Robert, who offered me a cup of coffee without a trace of sarcasm.

“Where is everyone?” I asked.

“Asleep,” Robert said.

And it occurred to me that there was no such time as 10:70 and I was looking at the altitude calibration on my infallible adventure watch. I punched a button and discovered that it was actually 6:15.

The next day we broke camp and made our way to another, higher lake called Lago Cachorro, Chilean Spanish for Puppy Lake. We found a rough trail hacked out of the bushes, but other than those few machete cuts, there were no signs of human visitation: no plastic bags or bottles or candy wrappers. We didn’t even find a single fire ring.

That afternoon, as we set up camp at Lago Cachorro and reinflated the kayaks, horseflies assailed us in a continuous swarming attack. I found myself wishing it would rain and drive the insects away. So, of course, the next morning dawned cold and gray and a steady rain drummed down on the tents. The sun bullied its way through the clouds by about 11, and we paddled off down the lake through various shafts of light that angled down out of dramatic, even operatic, cloud forms. We made directly for the end of the lake, where a snowcapped mountain stood behind the others like the fin of a shark.

The lake ended at a perfectly vertical rock wall that rose 3,000 feet (at a guess) out of the water. We turned left, into the narrow arm of the lake, and paddled down a fjordlike channel with rock walls rising close on either side of us. I was beset by a sudden vertigo. The rock loomed over us. A dizzying assortment of ledges ran every which way: They rose on a diagonal and then dropped like a bad day at the stock market. Waterfalls fell silver against the slick black walls that now towered between 4,000 and 6,000 feet above us. There were more than a dozen falls, and they dropped down obvious drainage patterns or followed the rock ledges for a time. They braided back and forth or pooled up on shelves, then poured over flat, vertical slabs in wide sheets, an effect architects attempt in the fountains of buildings that aspire to grandeur. One of the more substantial falls plunged down rock carved and weathered in such a way that it resembled a ski jump. The water was propelled out into space and fell 150 feet or so to the rocks below.

All of which was dizzying enough, but when I followed the waterfalls to their source at the top of the cliffs- it was necessary to crane my neck and lean back- I saw any number of glaciers peeking over the ridges of rock several thousand feet above us. Streams of meltwater streamed out from lingerie-blue caves under the glaciers. The ice was poised, hanging there and ready to fall at any moment, so that the slender arm of the lake was filled to the brim with the certainty of imminent avalanche.

We felt reasonably safe in the center of the channel, though a few immense rocks poked five and ten feet out of the water, and it was pretty clear where they had come from. Every 15 minutes or so we heard a sharp crack and then a rumbling that echoed through the high rock canyon. It was difficult to pinpoint the location of the avalanche, and we looked up at the assortment of hanging glaciers overhead. The sound grew in volume, overwhelmed the echo, and drew all eyes. The ice that had broken off the glacier above was battered violently against the cliff so that it was cracked and finally fell like water, silver against the black rock, a mobile margarita kicking loose a few Volkswagen-size rocks that bounded joyously above and beside the waterfall of crushed ice.

The banks of the lake were narrow, and it was no more than a hundred yards to the cliff face, I suppose, but the ice hit this gently sloping apron and piled up on itself, forming large ice fields where you didn’t want to be standing when the daiquiri of death came thundering down the cliff. Streams from the waterfalls flowed under the piles of ice and emptied out into the lake.

This was my new favorite place on earth.

We beached our kayaks on a gray, pebbly shore at the end of the channel, where the largest of the streams poured into the lake, and just stood there for several minutes, silent and stupefied. After some moments, we attempted speech. Eric was keen to come up with a name for the place. He didn’t think people would want to travel thousands of miles to see Puppy Lake. We tried the Ice Palace, the Glacier Gymnasium, the Coliseum of Ice. Eric conferred with Robert, who, in his farming days, had worked with Chile’s Mapuche Indians. They had a word meaning “where heaven meets earth.”

“Too pretentious,” I said.

“The Shackleton Arm,” Eric said without a moments pause.

“Historically inaccurate.”

Eventually, Robert and Eric came up with an evocative Spanish name: Canon Cascada de Nieve. I liked it: the Canyon of Cascading Snow. As we contemplated the name, another avalanche dropped a daiquiri of death on an ice field just a couple of hundred yards away. The name seemed appropriate.

I stood there, looking up, and felt something inside me rise with the rock. It was strange. Here was all this violent geology going on all around, and it seemed to inspire a certain tremulous serenity. I suspected that the sensation was something you might feel after sitting in an empty room meditating for a couple of decades.

Dave, the aviation buff, and I talked about it for a while. We’d both paddled kayaks in Alaska, where the lakes were bigger and the mountains higher. “But,” Dave said “everything is always somewhere off in the distance.” Here, the mountains and glaciers rose directly out of the lake, right in front of you, and there was something in the proximity that generated grandeur. Dave, with his aviation background, called all this sudden rearing up of rock and ice “immediate vertical relief.”

I liked the phrase and wrote it down in my notebook. If life ever got the best of me again and I started going bughouse, I think I’d take a pass on the pills and come down to Canon Cascada de Nieve for a couple days of immediate vertical relief. It was a place that kicked and pummeled you into a state of reflective tranquility. And I’d already scouted it out.

The others had turned their attention to the rushing stream at out feet that was pouring out of the only nontechnical climbing drainages in the whole canyon. It rose about 2,000 feet in a series of ridges that terminated at another cliff wall crested with glaciers. Eric expressed his opinion that there could be a lake up top, located between the last ridge and the headwall. Eric always thinks there’s a lake up top, and even if there isn’t, inconclusive walks are the very essence of exploration.

We climbed for a couple of hours, rising up over gray granite, moving even closer to a small glacier at the base of the headwall.

I was walking alone, at a meandering pace, when Eric and Cade passed me on the way down.

By the time I got down to the kayaks, most everyone had left for camp. Fermin from Mexico and Ed the doctor were standing on the shore. Jose Luis from Chile was still up there, as was Robert. Those of us on the shore thought it was best to wait for Robert and Jose Luis, just in case.

Presently, it began to rain. After 20 minutes, Ed and Fermin and I got really good at standing in the rain together. A stiff wind sprang up and drove the rain horizontally into our faces. We retreated up-canyon to a house sized granite boulder, where we perfected standing in the rain behind a rock in about 10 minutes flat. Ed and I walked down the shore, emptied out a kayak and carried it back to the rock. Then we practiced huddling under a kayak in the rain for an hour and a half. God, I loved Patagonia.

It was eight in the evening before Robert and Jose Luis got down all that treacherous rock. We piled into the kayaks and paddled hard, racing the approaching darkness. Back at camp, we drank mugs of steaming tea while Eric talked about tomorrow, our last day. The float plane would come late in the afternoon. In the morning, if it was clear, we could climb the ridge just across the lake, where there would be fantastic views of the mountains and ice fields.

Dave the aviation buff I went back to the Canyon of Cascading Snow: my new favorite place. The folks doing the real exploring did not have a great deal of fun.

From Cade’s diary: “The rest of us went on a hike to a good view of the mountains and a glacier. We did not make it. We went through prickers over my head and down a giant slide full of rocks.” The next line is my favorite in the whole diary: “I went on that hike with pants and came back with shorts.” The very last line of the diary rings with conclusive finality: “the float plane came and picked us up.”

And that’s exactly the way it happened. There is no mention of Eric’s contention that it is possible that no other human being had ever seen the Canyon of Cascading Snow, which, I think, is really just my friend Eric’s way of saying that it is one of his favorite places: a setting where a human being might come in a time of emotional or spiritual crisis and experience vertical relief.

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