Pursuit of Place

Finding purpose and community on the wild rivers of Chile

Feature type Story

Read time 10 mins

Published Jan 21, 2022

Sal Montgomery
Sal Montgomery Expedition kayaker and adventure author Sal, can usually be found in deep, committing canyons, exploring unknown whitewater and dropping off tall waterfalls. Sal’s led multiple first-descents all over the world, often in some pretty weird and wonderful places!

Don’t panic! Heart pounding, limbs trembling, a growing feeling of dizziness. I’m definitely panicking. 

This can’t be right though. Weary and confused, I’d stared blankly at the dirt-track the taxi driver had pointed towards, before he sped away. All too late, it dawned on me that I’d been fobbed off. The driver had taken my money and dumped me in the middle of nowhere. Don’t panic. I consider my options and quickly realise that even if my phone did work here (which it doesn’t), who on Earth would I contact?

Not for the first time that morning, I question what the hell I was thinking coming to South America. Did I really think I could do this? Why didn’t I listen to all those sensible people back home? The ones that questioned my silly dreams of adventure. Everyone warned me of the dangers and that travelling as a lone, young female was a terrible idea. Everyone except my best pal Nicky that is. 

Two months ago, whilst chatting through my whitewater fantasies late one night with Nicky, adrenaline flooded through my body as I pressed Pay Now for an airline ticket to Santiago, Chile. It had never been the plan to go by myself, however for various reasons everyone had bailed. For the second year running. Disappointed, after yet another year of wasted training and preparation, Nicky said ‘You could go anyway’. After what had been a bit of a rubbish few months, I decided that this was the exciting, new chapter I needed. I was going to be a bad-ass, solo adventurer who kayaked the world!

© Abe Herrera, Boof Sessions

Not for the first time that morning, I question what the hell I was thinking coming to South America. Did I really think I could do this?

What a fool I feel now. I’ve only been in the country for a few hours and I’m already lost. As well as pretty scared.

It’s still early, only just getting light but already feeling warm. Other than a few awakening birds, it’s completely silent. There’s not a soul around and I haven’t seen any passing cars in the the few minutes I’ve been stood here. A loaded sports holdall on one shoulder and a 9-foot-kayak on the other, I start towards the track. It’s a long, hot walk that seems to be heading nowhere. As soon as I decide that this is definitely not the right place and begin turning back, I hear a voice. And then another one. I pick up my pace, now pouring with sweat. As I follow the track around one more bend, an unexpected sight meets my eyes. The forest opens up, revealing a village of wooden cabins, huts, yurts and best of all kayaks. On the ground, leant up against building walls, there’s even kayaks on top of some of the cabins’ roofs. This is the right place, the taxi driver hadn’t screwed me over. I’m not just a stupid tourist after all. At least not completely.

I’m met by smiling, relaxed-looking people clad in board shorts and flip-flops. The overwhelming feelings of regret and anxiousness rapidly melt away, as I’m welcomed to the Pucon Kayak Hostel.

© Eli Castleberry & Christof Reich

As soon as we’d hit the road, I felt like a different person to the one I had been back home.

Fast-forward two days and I’m sat in the front of a pick-up truck with my new pal Eli, beginning the road-trip of a lifetime. Although this is my first time to Chile, the Parque Nacional Radal Siete Tazas is somewhere that I feel I know well. Within the park is the Río Claro, or ‘Clear River’ in English, where the crystal-like water passes through a deep, basalt rock-walled canyon. Spectacular waterfalls in breathtakingly beautiful surroundings, make this challenging and committing river one of dreams for whitewater kayakers. 

Images of perfect pool-drop waterfalls were what spurred on my training through those cold, dark winter evenings back in the UK. The times when my hands were so painfully cold, I could have cried. The repeated ice cream headaches and feeling cold to my bones, despite wearing so many layers I looked like the Michelin Man. It was the prospect of maybe paddling the Río Claro one day that made me put that wet kit on, over and over again. 

We were a small team of four, perfect for the nature of this river. Steep, narrow and incredibly committing, taking a big group could be a very bad idea. Likewise, a solid team is essential. It’s very much a ‘once you’re in, you’re in’ kind of environment, with escape being near on impossible. Even small errors can quickly turn serious in a canyon like this.

As soon as we’d hit the road, I felt like a different person to the one I had been back home. I’d left behind a promising physiotherapy career, turning down the promotion of Team Leader, a role I’d been focusing on for the last five years. My colleagues all thought I was mad, giving everything up for ‘a holiday’. And there were definitely days that I agreed with them, questioning my decisions, as well as questioning myself in general. 

Our little team included Eli, two guys that Eli knew and myself. Both Christof, an Austrian man in his forties and Flori from Germany in his late thirties, were meeting us in Santiago. From there, we’d make our way south. Loading up on supplies in the last small town of Molina, we prepared ourselves for seven days of living on the river. Once we entered the national park, there would be no shops and possibly no other people. We wouldn’t be completely alone though, as the park is known for its roaming wild cats such as pumas and pamas, as well as pudu (also called Leopardus colocola), the world’s smallest deer. As curious as I was about the park’s wildlife, I was secretly hoping not to meet any wildcats whilst camping out at night.

© Casey Bryant Jones

Nerves swam through me as I clipped my helmet-buckle shut, only too aware of the watchful eyes of my new paddling companions. Neither Christof or Flori had paddled with me before, and I could sense their uncertainty about this small, squeaky British girl being part of their team, especially for such a serious river. A few minutes in and I found my groove. Forgetting the nerves and rapidly falling in love with this paddling paradise. 

Eli, being the strongest paddler of the group and having paddled in Chile for almost a month already, naturally fell in to the role of leader. I became his second in command, often going ahead to check out the next rapid or setting up safety cover in the pool below.

The next seven days were spent exploring this incredible river. Learning her twists and turns, as she wound through the steep, basalt-walled canyon. One by one, we dropped off waterfalls of all different shapes and sizes, followed by team celebrations in the perfectly clear, flat pool below. Our cheers and whoops echoed through the tight canyon.

Just a few days ago, we barely knew each other, but now we’re exploring a truly magical place together and working as a close-knit team. We understand one another’s characters, as well as know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Like a jigsaw puzzle, we each have individual roles to carry out in order to achieve our shared goal of paddling and enjoying this amazing river, as well as coming back safely. 

To have purpose, as well as to be trusted and regarded as a valued member of the team, was such a good feeling. Every day was a challenge, but each evening I’d glow with pride and accomplishment, content, after another ‘best-day-ever’. For the first time, I felt fulfilled. 

These people that I’d known for only a week, had become my people. For a long time, I’d been feeling pretty lost and alone. As much as I loved everyone back home, I was different. I could never put my finger on exactly why, but despite being from the same place and same age, with similar backgrounds, I just didn’t fit in. However, being around these three guys that I met a couple of days in to my travels, just felt right. An Austrian architect, a German engineer and an American kayaking instructor, ranging in age from 28 to 48, they shared few similarities with me. Other than a love of kayaking, travel and adventure, we had absolutely nothing in common. But that was enough.  

I could sense their uncertainty about this small, squeaky British girl being part of their team, especially for such a serious river

© Eli Castleberry

On our last day in the canyon we pulled ourselves out of our cosy sleeping bags into the crisp morning air, to get in one last dawn-lap. As the sun began to rise, creeping into the canyon and warming our chilled skin, the water sparkled as if flowing with crystals. I looked at Eli and grinned, because in that moment I was the happiest girl in world.

After the Río Claro trip, I extended my month-long trip in Chile to three months and went on to travel the world with my kayak. Almost always alone, in the confidence that I would probably meet like-minded people somewhere along the way. And so far, I always have. No matter which country I’ve been in, I’ve found my people. People from all different walks of life. Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or background, there’s a shared passion and drive. People who have likely made out of the norm life-choices. People who have chosen to make certain sacrifices, for a life of adventure.

I turned down a great opportunity to be a team leader in my healthcare past, not knowing that one day I would be a leading teams on first-descents, in some of the world’s most remote locations. I’ve had many close-calls, risking it all to push myself further. My income is irregular. My base is forever-changing, I don’t own a house and am often living out a sports holdall. There’s no partner on the scene and I’m not sure if I’ll ever start a family. But this is the life I have chosen and to find people that also have ‘alternative drives and motivations is something I hold dear. I no longer feel alone and despite maintaining my individual weirdness, I finally fit in.

Thank you Río Claro – ‘Clear River’ – for helping me to see clearly!

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