Twilight on the Santa Cruz River

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Argentine Patagonia's most endangered river

Text and photos by Michael Gaige

Editors Note: The following is from Issue 8
At dawn, a rare moment without wind on the Patagonian steppe allows me to hear the birds and the rushing water. I pack my tent, ready my packraft, and wait for enough light. The morning provides a pleasant, if short-lived, window for passing through this unforgiving landscape. Calm air is fleeting on the steppe. In just a few hours the insistent winds will shove me off the river. 
I’m two days into a 320-kilometer (200 miles) solo journey of the Santa Cruz River. I came to explore the heart of Patagonia, trace the footsteps of Charles Darwin and Francisco Perito Moreno, and see what’s at risk on Argentine Patagonia’s most endangered river.
The Santa Cruz runs a long journey east, across Argentina’s arid steppe to the Atlantic.  It is Patagonia’s southernmost large river, and one of its most significant. Its massive water volume is comparable to that of Chile’s Baker and Pascua rivers (and North America’s Colorado River). It flows especially fast in its upper reaches. At times, the massive water feels overwhelming in my small craft. I move along meanders that turn on themselves, the mountains first at my back, then at my front. Eddies and boils tug at my raft.  
After paddling for three hours into the sunrise I pull off the river at the confluence with Arroyo El Lechuza, a stream that is one of the Santa Cruz’s largest tributaries. The water here trickles. But a rare oasis of lush vegetation paints the landscape green and, like me, animals follow this verdancy. A dozen caracaras adorn a tangle of shrubs while Chilean swallows zip around in pursuit of insects. My imposition sends a ñandú (Darwin’s rhea) trotting away while a mother fox and her kit slink by and vanish into thick vegetation. In every direction guanacos keep watch on me, periodically bellowing sounds like a horse whinny crossed with a laughing hyena. Like everything in this landscape, their presence is passing. So is mine. I leave my gear and head to the crags high above the river.
Cóndor Cliff
Perched on a basalt cliff, I rest my back against a smooth granite boulder. To the west, condors circle above with high Andean peaks in the far distance. Charles Darwin shot a condor here during a side expedition from the Beagle in 1834. Although the Tehuelches, who inhabited this area knew it as Yaten-Huajeno, the place became known as Condor Cliff.
The Santa Cruz­­ River courses through this tawny steppe like a turquoise jewel. Ferdinand Magellan’s 1520 voyage – the first circumnavigation around the world – anchored at the river’s mouth, and named it Santa Cruz. But no European, until the Beagle, had penetrated its pushy current. Darwin, with Capitan FitzRoy and a crew of 23 men, ascended the river seeking to stand on summits of the Andes. Though they spotted the mountains, their expedition fell short of making it to the river’s source at the vast Lake Argentino and Lake Viedma, which lie between Patagonia’s famed granite spires of El Chaltén and Torres del Paine. They never learned these lakes are filled by meltwater from massive glaciers including the Upsalla, Spegazzini, and Perito Moreno. Nor did they discover these glaciers flow from the Southern Patagonian Icefield – a vestige of a much larger Patagonian Ice Sheet that once reached Condor Cliff.
From a two million-year-old basalt ledge on the cliff, I peer down below on groves of Lombardy poplars, trees that In Patagonia author Bruce Chatwin called “the punctuation mark of man.” An old sheep ranch, Estancia Condor Cliff, lies hidden among them, abandoned. Like the ice, that era on the Santa Cruz, has passed. 
Condor Cliff promises an additional landmark – the proposed location for the Santa Cruz River’s first dam. The dream of engineers since the 1950s, the Santa Cruz dams have faded in and out of political ambition for decades. In 2007, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner revived the plan. Today, with financial backing from China, the dams are closer to reality. In early 2015, China deposited its first loan payment for the US$5 billion project. An environmental review is due in October and the Supreme Court is expected to resolve the project’s impacts. The project seems like a done deal. But ramped-up opposition and court review provide some hope that this little known river will continue to flow.
This is the most biologically rich site on the river, and the dam will kill it all. Named the Néstor Kirchner Dam in honor of Argentina’s previous president, it will rise 75.5 meters (248 feet), span almost 3 kilometers (1.8 miles), and pool the river 80 kilometers (50 miles) back to Lake Argentino. Environmentalists’ concern spotlights the dam’s potential effects on glaciers – including the famous Perito Moreno – if the level of Lake Argentino is stabilized. A shorter dam would protect the glaciers, but even so, the river will cease to run.
The lure of fossils and fish
Mid-way into my journey, I camp at the base of another cliff. Fossils abound. The sediments here comprise the Miocene-aged Santa Cruz Formation, a 17 million-year-old layer of mud, sand, and ash lining much of the river. It’s famous among geologists as one of the greatest vertebrate fossil beds in South America. In ten minutes of looking I recover two handfuls of bones. None are identifiable to me except for the scutes of a glyptodont—an ancient armadillo the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
Following Francisco Moreno’s unraveling of Santa Cruz geography in 1877, a host of explorers ventured upstream in pursuit of natural history. Beginning in the late 1800s, and continuing to the present, the Santa Cruz basin, with its Miocene fossils and Pleistocene glaciers, has been a caldron of scientific inquiry and exploration. Today, new discoveries continue to frequent scientific journals. The Santa Cruz River could be a monument in celebration of scientific exploration and discovery in Patagonia. 
Most visitors today, however, come for fish, which are the river’s only real economic lifeblood. Non-native Chinook salmon, originally from the Pacific Northwest in the United States, have escaped Chilean fish farms and migrated to the Santa Cruz. But the real draw for anglers here is the world’s only run of Atlantic steelhead. Introduced to the Santa Cruz over a century ago from California, the sea run trout today average 6kg (13 pounds), with some reports of fish topping 9kg (20 pounds). Come March and April each year anglers scurry to Santa Cruz’s only riverside town, Comandante Luis Piedrabuena, to enter the river in search of fish. 
Tourism officials I would meet at Piedrabuena at the end of my trip cringed when I asked the fate of the fish if the dams go forward. No plans for fish ladders, passages that allow fish to get around dams, have been announced, and with a mostly secret planning process it’s unclear if they’re being considered.
La Barrancosa 
Just past sunrise on day five, I approach Estancia La Barrancosa, where green corrugated buildings stand among exotic tamarisks and willows. The place is abandoned, except for European hares. I help myself to a self-guided tour and find most interesting a sheep-shearing shed with its New Zealand-built wool press. The presence of sheep, like everything else in this landscape, was ephemeral; on my entire journey, I saw only a few dozen. The shed is swept clean, but I hear its galvanized roof rattle and wrench in the wind. The sound creates an unsettling presence.
La Barrascona is the site of the Santa Cruz’s second proposed dam. Named the Jorge Cepernic dam, after a provincial governor, it will stand 43.5 meters (143 feet) high and push water back to the first dam. In all, 51% of the river, including the richest, most diverse areas, will be flooded.
In five short paddling days, I’ve coursed 185 kilometers (115 miles) of river, and five years from now all of it could be underwater: the nesting grebes, the fossil beds, puma den, Tehuelche sites, and abandoned estancias, to name a few. The entirety and richness of natural and human history here will be drowned.
Yet, instead of the dams flooding all these riches into obscurity, a couple of defined campsites and some basic information about the Santa Cruz River could attract much more adventure seekers like myself. A Santa Cruz conservation corridor connecting Monte Leon National Park on the Argentine coast to the parks of the Andean spine could protect its wildlife, its geological fascinations, the history of settlement in Santa Cruz, and the ghosts of Patagonia’s most famous and celebrated explorers.
At my last camp, near a site the Tehuelche called Chickerook-aiken, I sit on a bluff at sunset in a stiff northeast wind. The low light at these high latitudes is as beautiful as it is fleeting. It seems everything on the Santa Cruz is fleeting: the glyptodonts of the Miocene, the great ice sheets that dropped granite on Condor Cliff, the Tehuelche culture and later the sheep culture. Like the tracks of a puma in soft river mud, nothing lasts here. Blown away on a fierce wind.
And the dams, if they are built, will be fleeting as well. Like all dams, they will one day be removed. Only then will the true effects be known. In a short century the dams will come down and the river will run wild as it had for millions of years. The dams, too, will one day die. But until then, so might the Santa Cruz River. 

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