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 onshore 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."
What to Know Before You Go
Chilean National Tourist Board
510 W. Sixth St., #1210
Los Angeles, CA 90014
Telephone: (213) 627-4293
Cascada River Kayaking School
Orego Luco 054
Kayaking Made Easy: A Manual for Beginners With Tips for the Experienced, by Dennis O. Stuhaug (Globe Pequot Press, 1995).
The Basic Essentials of Kayaking Whitewater, by Bill Kallner (ICS Books, 1990).
Chile & Easter Island: A Travel Survival Kit, 3rd ed. by Wayne Bernhardson (Lonely Planet Publications, $15.95).
South American Handbook, by Ben Box (Passport Books, 1995).
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Follow acclaimed travel writer and out-there humorist Doug Lansky as he continues his Vagabond Adventures.