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Field Notebook

February 27, 2010
Word from southern Chile

Delayed flights, cancelled reservations, bad Spanish, and I ended up stuck in Santiago on my way to Coyhaique.  Instead of preparing for the Rio Baker with everyone else, I wandered through a city of 6 million just shy of midnight, prostitutes on the corners snapping, hissing, clapping. They sounded like woodpeckers broadcasting through a forest.

It always seems to happen this way. The journey becomes an unexpected menagerie, and you're sleeping a thousand miles from where you thought you'd be. For the next month I plan to be in Patagonia on the Baker and up in the Colonia and Neff Glaciers in the northern ice field, joining a documentary crew on a river that, like so many others in the world, is threatened by major dam proposals.

Fortunately, for me at least, this was the night before the earthquake. The next morning I took the first flight out of Santiago, 20 hours before the region was hit by an 8.8, followed by bursts of after shocks pulsing along the very active edge of the Andes. We felt nothing in the cool forest around Coyhaique - a space between the quakes - and did not even notice the effects in town but for cars lined up around the corner and out of sight waiting for gas. Phones were down, nearest airport closed, far-away bridges collapsed, Pan-American Highway severed. Patagonia fell just that much farther off the everyday map.

When we could, we each got messages home. I assured my wife in Colorado we were far from any earthquakes, but she had been online and fired back that we were right in the middle of it, a state of emergency declared for a town just south of our intended takeout. She was worried about the Rio Baker, and the possibility of a glacial lake outburst flood, events that have been happening with greater frequency in southern Chile as ice melts, lakes form, and natural dams break. The Baker has seen jumps of 500% from these floods.

These floods are bad news for dams that are proposed one after the next, taking these rivers down like dominoes.  According to a study last year, dam proponents have not adequately accounted for the possibility of these outburst floods. Daniel Gonzalez, a leader in the ¡Sin Represas! campaign to stop the dams, wrote, "Among the most relevant flaws found in the study were the lack of data on seismic risks in a region known for quakes and volcanic activity."

Earthquakes are just the beginning. We came to the Aisén region of Patagonia to take a look for ourselves, and to record what are, we hope, not the last years of free-flowing water. Our brief stay in Coyhaique has afforded the time to interview local activists. Today we spoke with the Bishop Luis Infanti in his garden, where he told us that the land and the river are of God, not to be stolen or destroyed, not by human hand.

Tomorrow, we leave for the river as planned. Posts will be sporadic, but we will do whatever we can. Stay tuned. For at least the next ten days we will be gone, carried into the heart of this tumultuous land. No dam stands in the way. With the work we plan to do, we hope that no dam follows.

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