Fishing the Earthquake

To Patagonia for love, for chinook, for the terremoto.

[by Toby Thompson ]

The farmers, near Puerto Varas, whose sleep was not disturbed by tremors, were awakened by the shrieks of their animals.

Our car radio announced this, Sunday, February 27, 2010, as we rushed toward Lee’s daughter’s farm. The electricity had been out, as it was over 90 percent of Chile, so we’d heard no other news. The terremoto was catastrophic, our radio said, a ruinous 8.8 by magnitude, the seventh largest recorded and one that had ripped through central Chile, devastating the Pan American Highway and the cities of Arauco, Coronel, Concepción, and much of the capital,

Santiago. At 3:34 a.m., in a cottage by Patagonia’s Lake Llanquihue, we’d been awakened by tremors that shook us to opposite sides of the bed and set my waders dancing.

“What is it?”

“A quake,” Lee said. We held each other.

My waders hung on a porch by a lake that was 1,150 feet deep, 360 square miles in area, and ringed by three semi-active volcanoes. My first thought after daylight was, could this spawn a tsunami? I studied the water; it was eerily calm. Usually the lake held a light chop, but today, with sun glancing off its surface, it was mirror flat.

We’d met the lodge’s owner as we hurried toward our car. “Might this form a tidal wave?” I asked.

“No,” he said, laughing. “Not to worry!”

Days later, while buying groceries at a lakeside market, a woman who’d resided by Llanquihue her entire life would say: “Thank goodness the waters did not come as they did in 1960. Then, they took everything.” She meant during the Valdivia quake, a magnitude 9.5, the most brutal in history and one that crushed much of Chile’s infrastructure. In its aftermath, the government mandated new buildings be engineered as “earthquake proof,” with concrete-column and steel-beam skeletons that ensured give and sway. These, our radio host said, had saved lives.

We hurried the six miles of paved, then gravel, then dirt road to Emilia’s 25-acre farm. Its main house, built in the Japanese stick-style, was perched above a ravine on the meagerest of supports and could not have been more vulnerable. Lee, who sped like a rally driver, took the bumps and mud-sloughs hard. Every detail seemed hyper-specific: the Ulmo trees, tall hardwoods with white dogwoodlike flowers, and the yellowing fields that had been cut. Fifty hawks had hunted there yesterday; now they were empty. A neighbor’s Guernseys crowded the road and Lee snaked petulantly through them. I’d packed my rod, but whether I’d get to a river that day was immaterial.

Emilia’s house was standing. Her husband, Marco, met us in the drive.

“Is everyone safe?” Lee asked.

“Of course. What happened?”

She explained and he shrugged. “We felt the tremors. I watched that beam over our bed shake and thought, Should we move? Nah.” Marco was a Buddhist whose worldview was unequivocal.

Emilia and her small son joined us. She and Lee embraced. For years a Chilean supermodel, whom many thought the face of that country, Emilia was exorbitantly, fabulously pregnant.

Carmelita, her housekeeper, appeared. Lee spoke to her in Spanish. Hearing “Ocho-ocho,” her face dropped, then darkened. Her family lived farther north.

I was in Patagonia with Lee to fly-fish, and had been for weeks. The nearby lakes and rivers were storied: Llanquihue, where we camped; lakes Todos los Santos, Rupanco, and Cayutue; the rivers Pescado, Hueñu Hueñu, Maullin, Puelo, and Petrohué, the latter famous for its browns, rainbows, cohos, and chinook salmon.

A Perfect Morning, by Georg Miciu Nicolaevici

A Perfect Morning, by Georg Miciu Nicolaevici

The lakefront town of Puerto Varas (13 miles south) was Key West raffish, but had been settled in the 19th century by European burghers—Germans who introduced Salmonidae to the flawless waters. Today, brown trout averaged between one and seven pounds, and reached the 20-pound range when ocean-going. Rainbows averaged one to seven in rivers and the mid-teens in lakes. With coho and chinook, all bets were off: they were Schwarzeneggerian. I wanted a chinook, but the run was late in starting.

I left Lee at the farm gardening and, wary of tsunamis, drove up Río Pescado. It emptied into Lake Llanquihue and on its lower stretches it was possible, in late February, to take salmon. The most productive water was at the river’s mouth; it was rare not to see fishermen there. Today, it was deserted.

The sky was cerulean, the volcanoes snowcapped, and even here in this hemisphere it was hard not to recall America’s signature disaster. The skies had been perfect on 9/11, too. I drove on, trying not to imagine the devastation 200 miles north.

A run that often held anglers was empty, so I parked, rigged my 5-weight, and skidded down an incline. Surrounding me was the rain forest of Patagonia, the strange trees and plants that catapulted me to Green Mansions, The Purple Land, and other novels of South America I’d read as a boy. Elephant-eared nilque, with their chartreuse leaves, monkey paw trees and Rima, bird-girl of the jungle. Hemingway’s Jake Barnes had cracked in The Sun Also Rises that, “The Purple Land is a very sinister book if read too late in life.” He meant its romanticism. “For a man to take it at thirty-four as a guidebook to what life holds is about as safe as it would be for a man of the same age to enter Wall Street from a French convent. . . .” I wasn’t 34, but I’d carried a romanticism to Chile.

It was my eighth visit. The short of it was that I’d known Lee as a girl in Washington and had reconnected with her after a 40-year hiatus, during which she’d raised a family in Chile. I was part of it now, the family and of Chile. I was in love with Lee; I was head over heels for Patagonia.

The Pescado was narrow, brookishly so, and clear. I began at the pool’s tail and, watching fish rise torpedo-like from its depths, took them near riffle seams and at dead center. These were rainbows, none more than 12 inches, and hatchery transplants. They struck my Joe’s Hopper impetuously. They might have hit a cigarette butt. In hand, these glistening packages of color and muscle looked shell-shocked, bereft. I released each and, within half an hour, departed.

The main road circled Lake Llanquihue, and from our cottage extended north to Parque Nacional Vincente Pérez Rosales, its trails sneaking past the 8,701-foot-high Volcán Osorno. Perhaps a hike. There was an Esso station at Ensenada, and I might gas up. Llanquihue’s surface was placid and the snow-clad Osorno, 20 miles distant, stood pasted against the blue like Mount Fujiyama. Late summer flowers, purples, yellows, and reds, danced in the peculiar light, a Viagra-esque fluorescence. Few motorists were about. The Esso was closed, of course—no electricity. With a quarter tank left, I motored 10 miles to the southernmost trail.

It ran west from Río Petrohué, through scrub forest and across lava fields that had flowed from Osorno’s caldera. In geologic time, the volcano was active: it had sustained 11 eruptions since 1575, the most recent in 1869. Earthquakes shook up volcanoes. The Mapuche Indians believed they angered pillanes, the volcanoes’ spirits. As late as 1960, human sacrifices had been offered to placate them. Osorno, this close, was gargantuan and intimidating. I had no wish to offer my heart to its maw.

The black lava field, its basalt and andesite surface flecked with boulders, ran from a dry riverbed a half mile to a distant patch of forest. Crossing that expanse, no bird or animal moving, I heard the roar of jets. I saw no aircraft. I hiked on and the roar persisted. Then the ground shivered. I swiveled toward Osorno; the roar came from within. It intensified and there was a hoarse rattle, like a garbage can of rocks being shaken. No smoke rose from the caldera, so, with nowhere to run, I ambled along. Two other volcanoes shimmered in the distance.

Fishing was looking up.

Lee gardened and I fished, but once electricity was restored, we huddled before the TV, watching, as if in penance for our safety, its 24-hour coverage of bloodshed and destruction. The facts were these: 521 people had been killed (few, compared to Haiti’s 230,000, though the Chilean quake had been 500 times more powerful), and videos of teams retrieving bodies and rescuing trapped victims played relentlessly. Tsunami warnings had been issued in 53 countries and waves caused damage as far distant as San Diego, California, and as close as towns in south-central Chile. Robinson Crusoe Island, in the Pacific, 400 miles offshore, had been decimated, and tsunami warnings were issued for distant Easter Island, where Lee’s son was traveling, and for Hawaii and Japan. Near Concepción, a 6.2 aftershock had been recorded 20 minutes after the first quake, and a 5.4 and a 5.6 had followed within the hour. Aftershocks were occurring daily. By the first week of March, more than 130 would be reported. Two of Lee’s children and five of her grandchildren remained in Santiago, which had endured tremors measuring 8.0. Her family was shaken but unharmed. Lee’s Santiago maid, visiting her mother and crippled brother near the epicenter in Maule, had been jolted awake and, attempting to stand, realized the earthen floor was undulating six inches up and down, six inches front to back, then six back to front, as the adobe house shattered around her. President Verónica Michelle Bachelet had declared “a state of catastrophe” for the nation. There had been looting in Concepción and a prison riot. Food and gasoline shortages were predicted throughout the south.

The oddest effects had been seismic. Wikipedia, citing NASA, reported, “Seismologists estimate that the earthquake was so powerful that it may have shortened the length of the day by 1.26 microseconds and moved the Earth’s figure axis by 8 centimeters or 2.7 milliarcseconds.”

 It added that “the earthquake shifted Santiago 11 inches to the west-southwest and moved Concepción 10 feet to the west.”

I read this to Lee.

“I certainly feel off-center,” she said. Her face was solemn, her demeanor numbed.

Rio Grande, by Georg Miciu Nicolaevici

Rio Grande, by Georg Miciu Nicolaevici

In this, she was not alone. The walking wounded, in Puerto Varas, were ubiquitous. Charles Darwin, having survived the 1835 Valdivia quake (magnitude 8.5), had written, “An earthquake like this at once destroys the oldest associations; the world, the very emblem of all that is solid, moves beneath our feet like a crust over fluid; one second of time conveys to the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would never create.”

We slept where the earthquake had tossed us, at the far reaches of our bed.

Weeks earlier, Lee’s other children and grandchildren had visited, and barbecues at the farm were a constant. We swam the lake, fished the rivers, and Ping-Ponged at the quincho. Lee played incessantly with the kids. In the midst of this happiness, there had been tragic news: Three young men, children of Lee’s friends, were killed in a plane crash, and another friend’s daughter drove off a cliff, perishing. These deaths weighed on her, but she persevered for her family. At night, she was saddened, remote.

Her son, Tomás, and I pounded the local waters on jaunts that culminated in an excursion with Marco to a vast tract of private land on the Río Petrohué. It was a rowdy outing, with aggravated male banter the 15 miles from Ensenada to the preserve. A caretaker met us at its gate, and we drove one kilometer through a rain forest that, where not pristine, was in restoration by its owners. Río Petrohué was a “big river,” equivalent to Montana’s Yellowstone or Missouri. It ran fast through the hills, and where it met the Hueñu Hueñu created a long, deep pool, a staging point for salmon emigration north from the Reloncaví Estuary.

No one had spotted a chinook, so we and several acquaintances rigged for trout, mostly browns, some seagoing and monstrous. The Chileans were proficient anglers—great jolly fellows who, after an aperitif, urged us toward the Hueñu Hueñu. “The Petrohué is too bravo,” one said. “Trout are in the smaller river.”

Rafting parties, having shot the upper rapids, bobbed ashore as I strung my 7-weight in hopes of something hefty. The Double H’s confluence with the Petrohué had formed a sandbar behind which chinook were said to idle like Freightliners. There had been rain, however, and the sandbar pool was too deep to wade. I studied it, hoping to spot a roll. Nothing.

“Up here!” our compadres shouted. I walked toward them and stepped into the Hueñu Hueñu.

I was startled by its coldness. I should not have been. This was southern Chile, where in fall temperatures drop to the mid-30s and rise to, perhaps, 75. In thin summer waders, I wished I’d worn long johns.

This was what I’d been fantasizing about, though—a private stretch of South American river so remote it was nearly hidden. The mountains’ shaggy foliage enveloped us, Osorno a ghost’s cowl on the horizon. I began to cast.

I took nothing from the lower runs, bypassed by the Chileans. So I reeled in and tracked them a quarter-mile upstream. Arturo, the largest and jolliest, cast a fly at a riffle where a feeder stream met the Hueñu Hueñu. His line straightened, his rod bowed, and a trout of several pounds broke the surface.

Arturo fought it downstream, hunting an eddy, but broke it off in rapids below the pool.

“Ay!” he shouted. “A kilo at least!”

His friends cursed in Spanish and Arturo laughed. He tied on a second mosca.

It resembled a stonefly, so I dug through my gear to see if I could match it. The closest I came was with a size 6 Mystery Meat Hopper, tan foam with a yellow head. I cinched it on. This was a confusing summer; something might eat it.

Not wishing to crowd, I waded a quarter mile north as the river bent and narrowed, looking more like a Western stream with each step. I found myself scanning the brush for grizzlies. Below a picturesque run with a snag at its head, I worked the riffles, taking bumps and inconclusive hits, until I reached the logjammed pool. I tossed my Mystery Meat like the dog biscuit it was, and waited. Nada. Five minutes, 10. I moved along. There was so much picture book water, it was criminal to waste it.

On impulse, I changed to a sinking-tip line and a Shenk’s White Streamer, a chub imitation with a Woolly Bugger torso and flared skirt that had worked for me in Montana. I quartered it downstream 20 feet above the downfall, and just before its branches, I took a strike that bent my rod into its handle.

The current was fast, adding weight to the fish, but as my reel gears screamed and I thrashed toward an eddy, it shot closer. A good trout. It spotted me and streaked away. I played it carefully, not wishing to lose it, but also not to kill it. In minutes I slid it to shallow water, and after a splashingly comic pursuit, took it in hand. A brightly speckled brown, 18 inches and at least three pounds. I’d never held a trout of such hue. Its

black and red spots, encircled by gray, against its brown and yellow green body were lit by the pinkish purple of the failing sun.

Tomás and Marco had taken fish and were set to go. They and our compadres stood near the Petrohué, grinning. A hail of caddis fell about us as we joshed our way to the car.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it me?”

“No, it’s me. There’ve been so many deaths.”

“They’re not your fault.”

“I know.”

“Is it the terremoto?”

“Could be.”

“Should I drop you at the farm?”


Puerto Varas was empty but for gasoline lines, when there was gas, and bank lines when there was cash. It was an odd feeling to seek an ATM and find machine after machine empty. The grocery stores were depleted. Tourist businesses were shuttered and what travelers that had visited PV, during the Great Recession, fled. Its tinkling casino was one outfit that stayed busy. Chile’s turnpike was passable to Santiago, but with 24- to 36-hour delays and intermittent fuel availability. There was little traffic heading south, and though still early fall, the hotels debated closing for winter. Emilia and Marco’s business, a salon, had suffered, and eventually would fold. Chile’s natural catastrophe had become a financial one.

Our lakeside market, with its vegetables and chickens supplied by local farmers, kept us fed, and there were provisions from the garden. I had not needed to kill fish. I returned to the Hueñu Hueñu, discovering I could wade from the highway bridge downstream and fish without permission. I saw no other anglers. The great benefit, for me: the terremoto was angler-free water. I caught several kilo-size browns and my fill of hatchery rainbows in the Río Pescado. No one else was fishing. The solitude was exquisite.

In mid-March, I urged Marco to beg approval for one more excursion on the Río Petrohué, and on an overcast afternoon we drove up-lake then south from Ensenada. Emilia was uncomfortable in her pregnancy, their son cranky, and Marco was ready for a break. A handsome, strong-jawed Argentinian with a quick smile and flashing eyes, he, like Emilia, had modeled worldwide: Paris, New York, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, you name it. Today he was a photographer and painter who had retreated, with his celebrated wife, to this unlikely Eden. “It’s so far in the freakin’ middle of nowhere,” he said, “nobody knows we are here.”

The caretaker admitted us, and Marco pushed his red pickup through ferns and foliage to the Petrohué. There were no rafters, no compadres; the riverside acreage was deserted. It had not rained for weeks and the Petrohué was lower. We peeled on our waders and I saw a big fish, perhaps 30 pounds, arc upstream in a boomerang of silver and red.

“Chinook!” I said, pointing. Within seconds, five or six others, rising like porpoises, surfaced in the channel. We trotted toward the staging pool.

I waded to its sandbar, ominously submerged in a current that had to be 10 mph. I shuffled waist-deep but the footing was precarious: one slip, let alone a strike, and I’d be swept away. Marco followed. We cast, but the fish had convoyed midchannel and were impossible to reach. After 30 minutes we quit, retreating to the Hueñu Hueñu.

It had lost water, but the pool where Arturo hooked his big one held sufficient depth. We began there. The weather had improved, and though the greenish black mountains were striated with mist, the sky was blue. Within minutes I caught a trout, a slender brown of a radiant palette that Marco photographed as I held it. My Shenk’s chub was working. I took a second brown, 15 inches, and Marco filmed its landing. His commitment

to sport had been subverted; he measured light and snapped pictures avidly. I waded to the logjam where I’d fished that first day, but its pool was inches deep. I cast above, but the river was too low. “Forget about it,” Marco said. Wading toward the Petrohué, I saw a chinook arc 50 yards out and freaked. I tied on the longest streamer I owned, a black lion-maned thing called the Home Invader, and flung it. Marco tried a spoon, but even that wouldn’t reach. Working toward the car, fishing every reachable pool, we prayed for a strike. Nada.

The caretaker’s cabin was dark as we left. His wife greeted us. We signed her guest book by cell phone light. The electricity was down.

We were dining by candlelight at Club Aleman. “Will you try the salmon?” Lee said.

“Might as well. I’ve tried it everywhere else.” She didn’t laugh. As if in reproach, a mounted coho hung above the chimney piece.

It was a lovely evening, the fuchsia pink and speckled with bees, the lake obsidian, and the comic bandurrias, ruff-necked ibis, honking as they passed overhead. We’d walked from our cottage to this Bavarian restaurant for a romantic tête-á-tête. That’s how I saw it.

We were the only customers.

“I’ll have steak,” Lee told our waiter. “Medium-rare.”

She touched her hair which, though tinted blond and hanging midback, was, due to her facial structure, due to an overall beauty that had poleaxed me since we were teens, appropriate for a woman of her age. If Emilia’s was the face of contemporary Chile, Lee’s had been that of 1960s Washington. She’d made her debut in the Virginia hunt country, and that party—lasting 20 hours—was spoken of all season. Her face’s perfect angularity adorned the society pages, and though taller than me by an inch, I’d danced with her at every function.

A friend of my father once asked if there were a girl I fancied at cotillion. I blushed and mumbled “Lee,” adding that she was “pretty tall.”

“Tell her to come on down to your size,” he said. In recent years I had.

To Lee’s credit, she had left Georgetown for Chile and the romance of an unscripted life with an eccentric designer. She had survived a coup d’état, raised four children and, though divorced for two decades, had prospered. We connected in 2002 at a reunion for our respective schools and fell in love. I was smitten by her warmth, her generosity. She introduced me to Chile; I introduced her to Montana. We shared her apartment in Santiago and found a house by the Yellowstone.

I sought romance in Chile as well as fish, and this trip, my longest, was to last three months. I’d been writing when not angling and perhaps not tending the potato patch. Love had been a hard row to hoe.

“Is Emilia feeling better?”

“Her stomach’s so big, she’s having trouble breathing. She can’t sleep.”

“I’m sorry.” Silence. “These rolls are hot, will you have one?”

“No thank you.”

It went like that. We had our meal, paid our tab—and as the waiter brought change, Lee’s eyes met mine in desperation. I could not speak. We trudged up the road to our cottage. Its lights were out, and the stars above Llanquihue were like dagger points.

It was my last day, and the chinook run was in high gear. Fish had been spotted north of Reloncaví Estuary and were muscling up the Petrohué. We needed a boat and, on this final afternoon, I called Marco and told him I’d spring for a guide. Booking one was not a problem; when airline service had been disrupted after February 27, most anglers had canceled their trips.

Our host was a retired pilot who drove the lake road kamikaze-style and wouldn’t stop chattering. By the time we neared Ralún, he’d covered fishing, flying, philandering, and the foibles of negotiating a post-earthquake economy. His company had bought substantial acreage on the Petrohué, built an expensive quincho and purchased several skiffs, to be grounded midseason by this catastrophe. The pilot was upbeat, however, and efficient. Quickly we were on the river.

Our guide, Federico, was a young man who’d grown up near Puerto Varas and knew his way round a motorboat. He flung us at the current, which swung our skiff like an Ulmo leaf then sought to flush it to the estuary. He opened up full throttle. The canopied mountains here were wild, more so than near the Hueñu Hueñu, and their overhanging foliage was laced with fog. The Petrohué ran light green. One could see a fish move at considerable depth.

The chinook averaged 10 to 50 pounds, and from 33 to 58 inches in length. The sportfishing record was 97.25 pounds, but the largest commercial catch was 126—heavier than many tarpon. Federico tossed me a multicolored streamer. I hefted my 7-weight and felt ready to rumble.

I cast from the bow, Marco working a spoon midships, and I immediately spotted a fish. It arced, breaking water, its skin a rusty green and dried-blood red, then hung in the channel. I false cast once, then hurled my fly in its direction. It landed 10 feet ahead; I let it sink then twitched it past the fish’s snout. Nada. A second fish rose to port as Federico shouted “Aqui!” I cast above that one. “Let it sink!” Federico said.

I did, but no go. The fish spooked, alerting others. Like antelope pogoing, they arced upstream.

It went like that. A fish, a cast or two, then nothing. My arm began to ache. Federico moved the boat choppily and I feared pitching off its bow. The river was deep, its shoreline spooky—a bit of Apocalypse Now to its forest. I’d sailed at night through the Panama Canal, with monkeys screeching and branches dripping snakes on deck, and that held nothing on this. I half expected headhunters to appear, launch their dugouts, and make for us.

Federico hugged the bank, with Marco and myself casting but raising nothing. We could see fish but they moved quickly away. The boat was spooking them. “Let’s drift,” I said. “Motor up a quarter mile, cut the engine, then coast down the far shore.”

Federico cranked the outboard to a roar and the dense foliage passed, but not speedily. The current was fierce. At a slight bend he killed the engine and we swung about; the quiet was narcotic. It was what we’d been missing. Small birds twittered in the foliage, and the doofus honks of bandurrias echoed above a clearing.

There were no visible fish, but we cast toward the bank, basking in silence, drifting as Federico rowed and feeling like anglers. I felt a bump: nothing. Then Marco’s reel screeched and his rod leapt from his hands and over the side. A chinook? Federico powered upstream. We spotted Marco’s rod six feet beneath the surface, hung on a log. “Ay, no,” Marco said.

It was the company’s property, and at first I thought Federico might abandon it. But he started the engine, grabbed a second rod rigged with treble hooks, and told Marco to try to snag it.

The process wasn’t brief. Federico surged forward as Marco lunged, missed, then lunged again. The current was such that Marco couldn’t control his gaffing. The outboard roared. I began to shake.

It started as rage, but changed to fear and then a kind of grief. Tomorrow we would leave Patagonia, negotiating the Pan American Highway through detours that would take us past scenes of horrific destruction: crumpled highway bridges and shattered concrete four-lanes, towns with blocks of crushed adobe houses, their owners crouched beneath tarps, eyes vacant, faces hungry. We’d pass children playing soccer in the rubble with coffee cans, and a few old people who waved tiny Chilean flags. In Santiago, the freeways out, we’d inch through neighborhoods as shattered as those near the epicenter, Santiago’s neocolonial architecture in ruins, with many pre-1960 buildings leveled. There’d be Lee’s apartment, with books and pictures strewn about, its plaster rent and massive antique sideboards flung to the corners, and Lee’s marble vanity cracked like an Easter egg. We’d push her bed against the wall and lie there, shuddering.

In Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan asks his girl, Maria, “did thee feel the earth move?” She says, “Yes. As I died. Put thy arm around me, please.” They had just made love, not ridden an earthquake. We hadn’t died but the earth had moved, and with our arms entwined, lying there, we would know it was finished. I shook in the skiff’s bow, not bothering to hide my tears.

Marco snagged his rod and, cursing, hauled it across the gunnel. He spat something in Spanish. Federico shrugged. “It’s a crazy time, mon,” he said. “This terremoto.” 

Toby Thompson is the author of several books of nonfiction, including a biography of Bob Dylan, Positively Main Street. He teaches nonfiction writing in the MFA program at Penn State.