Colorado Mountain College students packraft and learn about river preservation in Chile
A group of students from Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs and other community members escaped the cold last winter to head south — way south — and spend 12 days packrafting in Chile while learning about the importance of protecting rivers.
In a CMC course called “Rivers of Life: Sustainability & Wild Rivers of Chile” offered through the sustainability and outdoor education departments, the students — 11 in all, joined by instructors John Saunders and Matt Jost — received five credits while learning far more than they would in any classroom.
After five preparatory courses and a half-day field session in Steamboat, the group traveled to Santiago, Chile, where they met their in-country hosts with Pucon Kayak Hostel to start their adventure.
First stop: Packrafting the Rio Maipo and visiting the Astoria family, which is committed to protecting Chile’s rivers from dams. From there, they packrafted the Rio Nuble, later hearing a presentation by local community members regarding the imminent damming of their local river for industrial purposes.
Trips down the forested Rio Trancura and lower Rio Maichin came next, followed by an overnight raft trip on the San Pedro River. There, they were able to witness firsthand a dam project that had been halted midconstruction due to engineering challenges pointed out by community members.
In all, they floated five rivers while visiting communities in various phases of dealing with dams, either those being proposed, those being built or those that were defeated. They also interacted with community leaders and human and environmental rights advocates to get a full picture of the country’s preservation movement.
“We wanted to provide a rich international experience in a diverse sociological, economic and ecological setting to let our students reflect on our own water and growth challenges in our communities,” Saunders said. “It provided a unique platform for students to experience other cultures and economic and sociological systems, and use this knowledge to take thoughtful action in our own communities.”
The theory worked.
“It was great immersion into Chileans who are making a difference and standing up for rivers and giving them a voice,” participant Ryan Doughty said. “It’s a communal thing, but on a global scale, and honestly, it made me appreciate the Yampa a whole lot more.”
As for the packrafts, he said they were the perfect tool for the job.
“They were great because you could travel easily with them and they were user-friendly for those who were new to paddling,” he said. “Plus, they got us up close with the rivers we were studying.”
After their final few days at the Pucon Kayak Hostel, the students gave a presentation to the local community, outlining what they learned and their appreciation for what the locals were doing to preserve their waterways.
“They all returned pretty fired up about water issues,” said Saunders, adding that a few of them even organized a kayak snow race when they returned as a fundraiser for Friends of the Yampa. “I think many of them are now converted river folk.”
The trip was so successful that Saunders is offering a similar packrafting trip to Chile in January 2020.
To reach Eugene Buchanan, call 970-871-4276 or email ebuchanan@SteamboatPilot.com.
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