Saturday, August 23, 2008

Rebuilding Chaitén, Rescuing the Fu

As the southern hemisphere spring approaches, the Chilean town of Chaitén remains off limits after the eruption of its namesake volcano in May, and that is likely to affect travel along the northern Carretera Austral for the entire season. Still under tons of ash, most of its buildings severely damaged by flood (as pictured here), the town seems unlikely to be rebuilt at its present location.

Under normal circumstances, Chaitén is the port for auto/passenger ferries from Puerto Montt and the island of Chiloé but, given the volcano's continuing activity and the massive cleanup still necessary, it seems equally improbable that ferry service will be available this season except for the Navimag ferries from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco. This, of course, deposits travelers at the highway's approximate midpoint, so that it will be impossible to travel the length of the Carretera Austral without backtracking or, alternatively, entering via the Argentine province of Chubut to Futaleufú.

Futaleufú, of course, has its own problems. While not so directly affected by the volcano, it lay in the path of prevailing westerlies that deposited huge amounts of ash even though the town was not completely evacuated. A recent photo essay in the Buenos Aires daily Clarín depicts the accumulations of ash, the need for masks and even respirators to venture outside, and the impact on domestic animals, whose feed and water have been contaminated.

Futaleufú, of course, takes its name from the Río Futaleufú, one of the world's top whitewater rivers, and several international adventure travel companies have camps for rafters and kayakers in the vicinity. In last month's National Geographic Adventure, Jon Bowermaster summarizes the situation in an ecological and economic context in which Chile, a country dependent on mining and desperate for non-petroleum sources of energy, could use the image of a destroyed ecosystem to justify a huge hydroelectric project - similar to the one that drowned the legendary Río Biobío in the 1990s.

Ecosystems, though, can be resilient, and recovery from the 1994 eruption of Volcán Hudson, near the town of Chile Chico south of Coyhaique, was surprisingly quick. Bowermaster quotes whitewater operator Eric Hertz, of Earth River Expeditions, to the effect that if the 4,000 anticipated rafters and kayakers don't show, the "confusion over the river’s actual condition 'will have done a lot more damage to the area than the volcano.'"

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