On Friday afternoon, I stepped off a bus into the ugly outskirts of Puerto Varas, Chile, berated by rain and discouraged by cold. As I dragged my 45 pound pack to the town’s information office, however, the weather turned from Chilean normativity to an encouraging clam of blue skies and rising temperatures. I took this fortuitous change as a sign from God to abort my plan to stay at one of the town’s hostels that night. Instead, I found a minibus headed straight for Petrohue – gateway to Vincente Perez Rosales National Park. And that has made all the difference: by the time I left Petrohue two days later, I had caught a 20 pound salmon, met seven Chilean friends, two American adventure women, and a dog named Flor.
Despite the one obvious omen, the signs started to change for the worse rather abruptly. When I arrived at the Petrohue’s boat and bus station, at the junction of Lago Todos Santos and the Petrohue River, the rain accelerated its deliverance to tierra firma. An old man with few teeth and little hair, told me the park’s campground was closed, and that my only option was to camp across the river at the private run campground. Not believing him, I first asked the park rangers who confirmed his instructions.
After paying the boatman, I arrived at the campground, where Walter, Gabriel, and Melanie were seated inside the campgrounds lone’ shelter trying to stave off boredom. At this point, the weather continued to work against me, with the rain increasing its tempo. As I laid my tent on the ground and began setting up the rainfly, the heavens opened to unleash hail on my half-covered tent. Finally, with all of my gear thrown inside and in the midst of changing out of my wet jeans, thunder rippled through the air. I couldn’t wait to get out from underneath the tree that was protecting my tent. My nerves also started to perk up – when I camped in El Bolson, Argentina, the incredibly strong winds snapped one of my tent poles in half – making me worry about a subsequent break.
In a sea change, however, the next five hours proved transformative. After meeting my fellow tenants, I learned how Melanie and Nicki, two American girls, were traveling through Chile to showcase two kayaks provided by an American company looking to expand its market share. They had settled in Petrohue for a few days to film descents down the river’s rapids. Walter and his large extended family owned the campsite and the dozen houses that sat flanking it, and Walter worked as a fishing guide. Gabriel, a goofy native of Santiago, had spent the summer working as a guide in the nearby national park. During the afternoon and evening, the five of us successfully started a campfire, crossed the river to fetch ingredients for pisco sours, and returned to cook homemade salmon. The day before I arrived, the Chileans and the Americans had spent the day fishing, and Walter brought home a 30 pound salmon. It was delicious even on the second day, only needing some salt and olive oil to bring out the taste.
After finally getting to bed at around 2 am, I got up the next morning to say good bye Melanie and Nicki. They were leaving this part of Chile for Patagonia to film shots of running the kayaks through caves. After their departure, Walter informed me his mom was making us pancakes, but he gave no timeframe for when they would be ready. And since he only speaks Spanish, all I could understand was, “despues”, later. In the meantime, I decided to hike up the trail behind the campsite. The entire reason I came to this national park was to hike the path that passes near the Orsono Volcano. But for the first two days, the weather was too awful to even try.
As I walked out the back of the campsite, Walter’s nephew’s dog, Flor decided to inquire as to what I was trying to do. After telling Flor my plans, she decided to tag along. We fought through branches and pig manure to ascend the mountain, but we eventually reached a rock wall too steep to surmount. As I sat looking at the obstacle, Flor ran up behind me. Looking down at her small legs, I concluded she couldn’t make it up the wet, rocky face, so I moved to turn around. At that point, she scampered up the trail without inhibition. Despite her encouragement, I decided to return, hopefully to pancakes.
Arriving back at a damp, windy campsite, I turned on my stove to some tea and continue reading the salmon farming chapter in The Ethics of What We Eat. Just as the authors were detailing the horrors of salmon fishing and how it had led salmon to infiltrate Chile’s natural riverways, Walter asked if I wanted to go fishing with him and some of his friends. Of course I agreed, and he said we would leave in a half hour. This being Chile, I figured we would leave in an hour or later. But in less than 30 minutes, he yelled for me to hop in his boat, so I threw down my book, grabbed my rain jacket, and ran to the dock.
We only drove across the river, where some of the friends picked us up in an F150. Driving downstream for four miles, we reached another outpost of the national park, a set of waterfalls. We parked in the woods, and found an illegal path that heads into the national park via some local trails. After walking for 20 minutes, we made it back to the river beneath the rapids. Salmon jumping out of the water greeted us as the fishermen attached lures to their rods.
For the first 30 minutes, I was content to take in the views watching the experts rake in fish. One of the guys from nearby Puerto Montt, caught two salmon much to the chagrin of his friends. Walter’s brother took pity on me and shoved a rod in my hands to keep me busy. After 10 or 20 abysmal casts, nearly taking out some of the other fishermen, I finally remembered how Grandpa Baumhover had taught me to fish. I had similar luck, though, and didn’t haul in any fish.
As the day was winding down, and the pescadors were getting restless, Walter finally hooked a salmon. Again looking out for me, the brother shoved Walter’s pole into my hands, ensuring I would bring dinner home for everyone. A bit nervous, I took over the pole as the salmon ran with the line down the river. Walter and his brother were constantly shouting instructions at me, very little of which I understood. Eventually, I got the hang of reeling, lifting the pole, and keeping my finger on the line so the salmon couldn’t run too far. Despite two long runs, I got the salmon to shore where the brother clubbed it to death with Walter taking as many photos as possible.
Walter’s brother took the fish off the line and cleaned it immediately along the river, but not before Walter got some pictures of me holding the fish up for size. We fished for another half hour before the light ran out, and we had to head back. Back out our campsite, the fishermen all came with us, making for a party of 8 hungry men. The fire was slow to get started, so we had to wait for it to warm up and smoke the fish.
Throughout the day, I was the butt of many jokes. Chileans speak Spanish very distinctly and the rural inhabitants speak with extensive use of slang and modified pronunciations to the point where I could understand almost nothing. So, while my Spanish is hardly fluent, I can understand quite a lot, except when I’m in rural Chile. Periodically, the Chileans would attempt to talk to me or invite me into the conversation, but the barrier proved too stark. Besides, I was too exhausted from sleeping in a tent and the late night before to converse intelligently.
Finally, around 11:30, the fishermen left to drive back to Puerto Montt. In the end, I couldn’t help thinking about what an ordinary experience it would have been in back in the U.S. Simply, I spent an afternoon fishing and drinking beers with a bunch of guys. We got lucky, caught a salmon, and grilled it for dinner. Because it was in the rural backwoods of Chile, it one of the favorite moments of my trip.
Finally, on Monday morning I decided to leave the little campground that provided me so much enjoyment. I think company can overstay its welcome, so I decided to leave before I became a nuisance. And on this particular morning, the volcano decided to show its top, beckoning me to climb its foothills.
I tracked down one of Walter’s relatives to give me a ride back across the river to begin climbing the trail up to the volcano. Sad to say goodbye to the campsite, I knew the two days would leave a lasting memory. Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.