white water: chilean adventures

For a few years I had the privilege of coaching at the Simposio de Kayak Pacifico del Sur, near Valdivia in Chile. It was a great event with fantastic organisers – and best of all, they invited us to stay and explore this amazing South American country!

In 2015 I spent a couple of weeks in the Pucon area of Chile’s aptly-named Rios Region, white water kayaking with Kate, Roger and Christian. Late November is a fantastic time to be there, with moderate-high river levels, warm temperatures and no crowds.

We kicked off the adventure with a visit to Puesco Fest, a celebration of Mapuche culture, local music and white water paddling at an idyllic venue close to the Argentinian border. After our weekend of partying we moved on to Pucon, where we paddled a few of the local classics. A road trip also took us further afield in this region blessed with white water gems.

As an occasional white water paddler, this combination of rivers created a perfect week of exciting Chilean challenge – highlights included the pool-drop rapids of the Trancura, the high volume tiderace-style waves of the San Pedro, the express-train speed of the Fuy and – jewel in the crown – the steep boulder garden canyons of the Maichin.

As a sea kayak coach in the tide races of Anglesey North Wales, I often use psychological strategies to assist my clients in more challenging conditions. Progressive practice, goal setting, focusing attention, positive self-talk – all help in situations where anxiety can affect performance. In Chile, the boot was on the other foot! I frequently found myself displaying the responses that I sometimes see in my clients…

It is said that we coach best what we most need to know – well, I really needed to know a few coping strategies during my white water week in Chile. Most useful was ‘Yes or No’ – the information on graded river sections was broad-brush and vague, so rather than rely on guidebook numbers, I simply inspected the rapids where necessary and made my own decisions.

This was particularly useful at ‘Last Laugh’ on the Upper Trancura, which our local paddling buddy ran with style. I was tempted but could see that the rapid was a step up from anything I’d taken on that week and was running at a high level. The line looked feasible for me, but a cross-seam move early in the sequence looked very missable (for me!). I didn’t fancy the consequences, and so I walked. I found it very useful to apply the distinction between ‘technical challenge’ and ‘consequence’, two rather different elements that sometimes get treated as one, with unhelpful results.

On the Rio Maichin we enjoyed low-volume technical class IV paddling in a wonderful gorge setting. As the gradient increased we inspected the crux rapid of the run, a bouldery line with a twisting drop halfway down the steep section. Checking out the options, I accepted that I wanted to run the rapid, knew I was able – but found my anxiety levels increasing.

I needed to apply a couple of coping strategies – first, a careful inspection of the line to identify visual markers that would help me with the key section. I took a broad-external focus to the easier water above and below, trusting that my boating skills would suffice. Where it mattered, I zoomed in to a narrow-external focus to check the exact speed / direction of the water, spotting rock / wave markers to aid my positioning in the rapid.

I also ‘chunked’ the rapid, targeting a river-left eddy that I could confidently make, just above the hard section. This allowed me to simplify the task, rather than dealing with the entire run as one long challenge. A bit of goal-setting, if you like.

I also used some positive self-talk (broad-internal), attuned to my physical responses, relaxed my muscles and reduced my breathing rate (narrow-internal), followed my usual routine before leaving the top eddy – and focused on the moment. I got the line, needed to roll after the steep drop, but made the bottom eddy – and felt great!

The locals styled it and made it look easy – but that’s the point of mental training. The level of challenge was higher for me, so the steps I took to prepare were suited to me in the moment.

Our time on the Chilean rivers was fantastic – I love the rewards that white water kayaking brings. I paddled in excellent company and thank Kate, Roger and Christian for the time we spent together.

Ben May, the owner of Kayak Chile was our excellent outfitter in Pucon and was a fantastic, hospitable host, full of useful information and great fun to spend time around. If you’re planning a trip to this part of Chile, look no further for guided trips, advice, boat rental, shuttles etc.

My biggest thanks go to Pueblitos Expediciones of Valdivia, organisers of the Simposio de Kayak Pacifico Sur – without whose invitation and friendship I would never have returned to Chile for such wonderful adventures. Muchas gracias mis hermanos!