Silverthorne resident photographs Patagonia for new book
The water is in another hemisphere, but Chile’s Futaleufú River is a destination that captured the heart of Silverthorne resident Alex Nicks. The kayaker and photographer has been visiting the region since 1997. Today, he wants to highlight the valley in the middle of Patagonia for all to see in the new book “Portrait of Patagonia: Futaleufú, Chile”.
“Futaleufú, for kayakers, is a bit like Hawaii for surfers,” Nicks said. “It’s one of the most spectacular and spirited Class 5 races on the planet.”
Nicks is one of the connoisseurs of his expert-rated Class 5 whitewater. Growing up in England, he was part of the British Freestyle Kayaking Team and was named European Champion. He started the sport in high school and has since traveled the world kayaking in places like Iran, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo and even the White Nile.
“For me, I love the fact that I don’t have to wait for someone to throw a ball at me to get involved in the sport,” Nicks said. “I love that it inadvertently takes you to all these crazy places.”
Nicks entered the realm of film and photography via kayaking. In the late 90s he got a job on the Zambezi River in Africa filming rafting trips and getting paid for what had previously been just a hobby. Nicks was a Class 5 kayaker at this point, and he said it was easier to train someone to use a camera than to train a photographer to paddle rapids.
His big break was a job for National Geographic for a sea kayaking series called “Oceans 8” – not to be confused with the fictional heist films – which took Nicks around Polynesia, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, the Croatian coast and Tasmania. Recently, he shot a pilot for a Netflix TV show in Tanzania and filmed people diving into the marina pit.
A love of kayaking, as well as skiing and mountain biking, is what later brought him to Colorado. When not traveling for work, Nicks typically spends his summers in Colorado and his winters in Chile so he can kayak year-round.
One of his favorite places to go in Colorado is the Gore Canyon near Kremmling, partly because the dam makes it a steady stream.
“It’s probably the most reliable Class 5 coin in the state,” Nicks said.
Of all the places he photographed, the book focuses on Chile due to the seasons of working with Bio Bio Expeditions on the Futaleufú. The 65-mile river begins at Los Alerces National Park in Argentina, connecting the two countries as it empties into the Pacific Ocean.
Along the way is the eponymous farming town that was founded in 1912. More than 3,300 people live in Futaleufú today, and Nicks tries to document the farmers, ranchers, and empanada makers, as well as the mighty river. He wanted to balance the clear, turquoise water with what he calls a modest, resourceful group of people living rustically, using oxen to get wood from the hills to build houses.
“It’s partly a love affair for them, because they’re pretty great people,” Nicks said. “You can combine that with the natural look, and it’s a recipe for success in terms of visual presentation. I think it’s beautiful.”
Since 2000, river tourism has been the region’s main economic activity. Nicks said anywhere south of Santiago has the snowmelt and precipitation needed for whitewater. Routes vary from ultra-low volume coves to massive multi-day self-guided trips as adventurers head further south to Patagonia.
“It’s quite a lifesaver actually,” Nicks said. “The rafting industry has brought in a lot of work and money. … There is a wild country there, and we try to represent it in the book. It is exquisitely beautiful.
Another Bio Bio guide, Liz McGregor, approached Nicks with the idea for “Portrait of Patagonia”. Based in Newcastle, Maine, McGregor also lives seasonally in Chile. Nicks had inadvertently started building a photo library since 2011, and the book began to take shape around five years ago to document the area they adore.
“Sometimes with artists and photographers you need someone else to be a catalyst just to push you over the edge; otherwise, you hang on to it and never do anything with it,” Nicks said.
Nicks said taking the photos out of the book was almost like choosing a favorite child. It took time to gather and organize the shots – and some were left on the cutting room floor – but he said it was better to have too many than not enough.
“It takes time, but it’s a labor of love. This project is not a very sensible financial undertaking,” Nicks said with a laugh.
The book contains mostly photos of Nicks, but McGregor also contributed his own, as a set focused on a local rodeo. While Nicks naturally developed his landscape and whitewater photos over time, they also had to hunt to cover other cultural and personal aspects of the community. Other photos in the book, especially historical ones, come from the Casa de Cultura de Futaleufú.
Writing the brief introductions to the chapters based on sections of the river was a team effort, and McGregor’s Costa Rican husband did the Spanish translations that appear next to each English paragraph. The book should also be released in Chile.
The pages are mostly photo collages apart from the intermittent text because readers won’t see the captions next to the images. Instead, captions are grouped together and placed at the end of the book. Nicks and McGregor wanted people to absorb the photos for themselves and then read the captions if they needed more information.
“I think that’s one of the appeals of photography,” Nicks said of the film. “It’s a bit more mercurial. It’s kind of an untold story. People can kind of attribute to it what they like.
The coronavirus pandemic meant that Nicks had not returned to Chile since leaving in February 2020. However, the couple had thankfully finished the photography strand by then. Some subjects have since died, and “Portrait of Patagonia” was released in October to show life in Futaleufú before it changed too much due to climate or industrialization.
“As we go, there’s less and less wilderness in the world, so this stuff is pretty valuable,” Nicks said.
Although far from it, Nicks’ next project is a book based on his time in Africa to tell the story of the wildlife and conservation efforts he witnessed there.