Final Curtain for the Bio Bio


   The sad last chapter of the fight against constructing the Pangue Dam is now playing out. Last fall the Supreme Court of Chile overturned a lower decision to halt construction, smashing the last hopes to preserve this world class river experience. The dam is being built.

   What will be lost?

   The Pangue Dam site is at the foot of a gorge named the Royal Flush–an intense series of major rapids stacked one right after the next. In one steep, narrow, hydraulic, half mile are: the Ace–a long, fast curving rapid with humongous holes in the center; Suicide King–where the entire river narrows to a boat-width, doubles back on itself and slams into an overhanging cliff; Queen of Hearts–an appalling boulder garden where no two boats ever make quite the same run; and the worst of all, One-eyed Jack–an evil hole field with a huge bedrock island in the middle and no sane or non-violent run on either side. Immediately below the Jack is a winding, wall-slamming rapid called the Ten–now a severe rapid due to the blasting for Pangue Dam.

   All this will be inundated, but equally tragic is the loss upstream. For a day or so, as you float from the upper gorge to the Flush, you run dozens of rapids (the sex rapids: Bump, Grind… leading up to Climax). Fun exciting rapids that keep you pretty wide awake without too much terror. But this is also the land of a thousand waterfalls. With every turn several more cascades join the Bio Bio, each one engulfed in nalca (giant rhubarb with leaves up to four feet across), fuschia in full bloom and a chaos of ferns, moss and other greenery. At the very head of the reservoir, the Termas de Avellanos, a riverside hot springs named after the local filbert-like nut tree, will go about ten feet under.

   In all, about half the rapids and one third of the 60 or 70 mile run will be lost. But this is only the beginning. Next comes the Ralco Dam, a few miles above the Pangue Reservoir. That will knock out the whole upper stretch. And then more.

   We had hoped, in fighting this dam, to let the Chilean people know that they needn’t make the same tragic error that we did with places like Glen Canyon and Flaming Gorge, denying the magic of these places to all foreseeable future generations for such a short term reward. But it was not to be.

   I spent five amazing winters on that river and writing this piece hurts as much as writing an obituary for a best friend; one that died needlessly in her prime. What to do? Keep fighting, keep trying. There are organizations like David Brower’s Earth Island Institute, that try to help third world countries develop without destroying themselves–to selectively harvest rather that clear cut; to come up with low impact, high yield, appropriate long term alternatives, rather than scolding them, “No you can’t cut your forests or dam your rivers.”

   We live at a time when our industrial might has finally overpowered nature’s ablity to heal quickly. Once we eradicate ourselves, the planet will put itself back together in due time, but that’s not the point. We owe it to ourselves, to our children and to the world around us to try and preserve the remaining magic. Keep up the fight.

Brad Dimock