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Ríos to Rivers, or Susan’s Next Scheme to Save the World

Did I ever tell you the story of the month that I spent in Cochrane, Chile, under the tutelage of Roberto and his kayaking club, Los Escualos? The month I spent wearing a patched wetsuit and fraying dry top, with my legs wedged into a battered kayak, learning to do an Eskimo roll? The month that changed my direction in life? No? Well. Allow me to fill you in.

Cochrane is a small town near the Río Baker, the most voluminous river in Chile, the one that HidroAysén wants to dam. Roberto Haro Contreras is the high school gym teacher and director of “Club Naútico Escualo,” a free kayaking club that holds weekly sessions to teach local kids and adults how to paddle, roll, and eventually, how to run the Baker. I went to Chile last November to write about the proposed dams on the Baker, to dispassionately record the opinions of the local people, to remain unbiased. I succeeded, for the most part, until February, when I met Los Escualos. I lived with them, I learned with them, and I paddled with them for three days on the Río Baker from Cochrane to the Pacific Ocean. The river is incredible, but the kids, even more so. It was impossible to watch the young kayakers come to life on the water and remain unmoved.

Roberto, “El Profe”, learned how to kayak from a German tourist over 13 years ago. “Kayaking changed everything,” he told me. He began to see the river and the natural world in a brand new light. Roberto teaches his young protégés this way of seeing in a subtle but powerful manner. The club also builds self-esteem and maturity. It gives the kids something to be good at. Many of the club’s most devoted members have trouble at school or at home, but on the river, none of that matters.

Los Escualos on the Rio Baker

When I was invited to collaborate on a project to bring the Escualos to the Grand Canyon, I jumped at the chance. I’ve talked for years about the power of travel as an educational tool. Traveling teaches a person what is beyond the walls of their community or culture; it reshapes one’s vision of the world. Giving these kids the experience of traveling outside their remote community to one of the premiere whitewater destinations in the world has the potential to blow their minds and change their lives. This is the project I’d been waiting for.

“Ríos to Rivers” has become my full-time unpaid job. I’m working with a filmmaker from Colorado (see a preview of his short documentary about the club here). We’ve gained 501(c)3 tax-deductible charity status and are running fundraisers in California, Utah, and Colorado. We’ve built a partnership with the Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CRMS) and developed a full-blown exchange program. In March 2013, a group of students from CRMS will travel to Cochrane to meet the Escualos kayaking club and discover the Río Baker as I did. In August 2013, the Escualos will travel to the U.S. and join the same CRMS students for a twelve-day trip on the Grand Canyon. Weston and I are building a program that we hope will grow someday to cover other rivers, other regions, other motivated and gifted whitewater kids. We’re building a program that we hope will change the world – or, at least the worlds of the young participants.

It’s been less than a year since I traveled to Chile to write about the Río Baker, its people, and its controversial dams. I set out to develop a career as a freelance writer and instead discovered a career in nonprofit development. It’s hard, all-consuming work, but I am passionately committed to the cause. I’m eager to share my work with you all, if you have time to peruse some external links.

First, the photos of kayaking the Río Baker: http://susanmunroe.zenfolio.com/p41318576

Then, the Ríos to Rivers website: www.riostorivers.org

Ríos to Rivers has also been getting a fair amount of press:
Canoe & Kayak Magazine – An interview with Weston and me.
BikeRaft.com – Written by me!

Stay tuned. This project is still gaining momentum! Thank you, as always, for your support. Just knowing that you’re out there reading means the world to me.

If you’d like to contribute in a more direct way, you can make a tax-deductible donation at http://www.riostorivers.org/donate.html or send a check to “Ríos to Rivers” c/o Weston Boyles, 266 Wildwood Ln., Aspen, CO, 81611.

Thank you – much love to you all.

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