Patagonia. Famous for gale force winds and a harsh climate it is rare to ever see blue skies for longer than 12 hours. Surprisingly this year the summer season has begun with flawless weather. Looking ahead to a week of zero wind and unbroken sunshine an adventure was beckoning to be had.
My journey started with a routine trip down the Rio Serrano with a special client from Argentina (a tour operator keen to explore the trips she markets). I enjoyed a relaxed two days paddling down a familiar yet exciting part of the landscape I am fast growing to love. Leaving Barbara behind on the ferry; our lifeline to Puerto Natales I felt a strange pang of anxiety, for the first time I was heading into the wilderness of Patagonia by kayak alone.
Surfing the wave of the ferry which found great amusement in roaring past at full speed as close as it could get I found a building excitement, ahead I would finally find the Lago Azul; the holy grail of tour options which due to weather I had never reached…and more excitingly I hoped to go further still and tread new ground into the unknown.
Leaving the familiar behind I paddled past the might blue Balmaceda glacier. To its side 100m high waterfalls cascaded from the cliffs straight into the sea which still low on the spring melt allowed a welcome chance to drink. With a split paddle full of tasty glacial water and a sea of turquoise glass ahead I hoped to reach the lake before sunset.
Without wind nor waves to slow each stroke I averaged 8.1km/h on my journey west. The end of the Ultima Esperanza fjord grew closer and closer. For those who understand Spanish (for I do not….yet) Ultima Esperanza translates to ‘last hope.’ It was in 1559 that Juan Ladrilleros reached this point hoping to find a western exit to the Magellanic straight, alas he failed. But where big ships cannot reach a kayak can; and so my intentions to reach a lake so small, so hard to get to that it doesn’t even have a name.
To my side the imposing leviathan of rock that was Balmaceda mountain towered like a Canadian rocky alone against a cloudless sky. I found myself lost glazing into the many cracks, glaciers and ridges which splintered from its summit in every direction; I found myself imagining climbing routes there, routes I could never even contemplate in reality but in the crevices of imagination were good sport. Occasional thunderous booms roared out with an explosion of avalanche debris. Drawing closer to the shore which lined with bonsai like cypress pines & Lenga birch had its own micro-beauty. Curious hummingbirds flitted flashes of green as they darted across my bow to inspect the sudden blast of colour into their domain. Chasing the sinking sun I found the entrance to the Lago Azul; a large river flowing 1km from sea to lake. Much to my surprise I found the flow going inland…the lake was inter-tidal.
Discovering a new world around the corner I emerged into paddlers paradise. To my stern Balmaceda now rose like a castle in the sky reflected in all its glory in the deep green waters. Ahead the full might of the Patagonian ice sheet spread across the skyline. Mountains surrounded every corner, the lake crested with mighty cliffs, wide open beaches and hidden waterfalls. To explore all would take a week.
Chased by a curious condor which soared gracefully on bountiful thermals I hugged close to the shore. Each turn revealing a new wonder, sometimes cliffs, sometimes deep dark cracks with thundering water far in the shadow.
Another terrific rumbled roared ahead. The ice fell in the evening light. The mountains were alive.
At the end of the lake was a small river. Choked with trees and gurgling gently from the valley above it was my new road to discovery. As far as I knew only two other paddlers had ever ventured here before; my old boss and a good friend Cote, she had spoken of a tremendous waterfall that would block my path. I hoped to find a way around and camp high before the last of the light. The portage began.
Tying my throw-line to the bow and stern I ‘lined’ the kayak on what water I could find. Pulling the stern rope to draw the bow into the flow I could steer and navigate from the shoreline and avoid freezing my toes in the icy blue water wherever I could. For an hour and a half I hauled the laden craft over broken trees, paddled short stretches against the current and dragged, heaved and sweated my way inland. The going was arduous but I felt alive, the realisation of being so remote and so alone was a special exhilaration I seem to spend my life chasing; this was why I was here, this is what makes me who I am.
At 6pm I heard over the silence a roar. This time it was not ice, it was the waterfall. At the turn of a corner there she was. In a tower of perfect white and a deafening rush of white water the cascade fell from sheer rock into a deep crevice. At the lip of a large pool coloured a magical almost otherworldly blue by the glacial dust I sat and looked around. There was no way out.
I had two hours of daylight left and an full moon was rising over the mountains to the east. I had time to search for a way out. One thing I knew for sure, it would be climbing and it would be hard.
My first hope came in a small semi-dried river stream flowing to the side of the main falls, a storm overflow that seemed almost achievable. Ducking my head and pushing into the thicket I scraped into over-head height thorn bushes in hope of a clearing.
For an hour I pushed, scraped, climbed and teetered over broken trees. I had to be careful for one slip here and I knew I probably would never be found. I had at last found the main river channel and was following it in a series of scrambles over rocky ledges and painful bushwhacks. My face was covered in splinters, my hands bleeding but the hope was still there. Ducking under a bridge of rock I was just 10m from the skyline…I had almost found a way out.
Of course the idea of getting the kayak past was looming in the back of my mind. It certainly wouldn’t be tonight but perhaps, just perhaps I could drag her past in the morning. Turning the corner I was met with sheer cliff. A climb which I might attempt had I decent rope and a partner to spot my fall, but alone 25 miles from the nearest hut and 60 miles from the nearest medical point I didn’t dare. The Ultima Esperanza had lived true…the fjord had won. The ‘last hope’ was just that….it was over.
Defeated I turned back. Bush-whacking a return to my boat before scrambling back to the pool and the waterfall. I felt disheartened. I had come with such hope but been left with just a short explore into somewhere so promising. Pointing my bow downstream I paddled back to the Lake. With one last glance to the cliffs which spanned the valley I caught a fleeting glimpse through the trees at a narrow line in the rock. Perhaps? I thought.
Paddling to the far side of the water to camp on the beach below a tall cliff with a waterfall I was physically exhausted. The last few moments of daylight were glowing golden on the mountain summit, I was in shadow in mind and reality. Drinking a sip of Mate (pronounced matt-ay) a caffeinated herbal tea I summoned the energy to pitch tent and collapsed into the night.
A new day dawned as calm and clear as the last and to my delight the spring moon had not quite flooded my sleep in what turned out to be an intertidal lake. Patagonia was shining kindly on my first solo venture.
I had spent the night mulling over that glimpse in the trees and in the morning warmth felt a new surge of motivation. It would be hard, I did not know if I could but I was going to at least try!
With a empty boat and a determination to succeed I left my tent on the shore and paddled out toward the river. Chased from the river-mouth by a territorial fur seal I sprung into the river with a hope to move quickly to retrace my steps back to the fall, the thin green line of hope still fresh in my mind.
Half an hour later I arrived at an bright blue pool swirling around a low rock. Aiming for a tricky start I heaved the kayak into the lenga trees. Progress started slowly and arduous, a difficult drag through thick thorn bushes and dense forest made every meter hard work, I could see the clearing ahead and kept pulling, falling, pulling and falling my way forward.
Panting for breath and covered in scratches I eventually emerged into the open heath. Relieved I collapsed on the deck of my boat and rested, ahead a line of grass cut far uphill between the rock. It was the ribbon through the maze of rock that I was searching for. Clipping to my kayak I started to drag.
In 50m heaves I crawled, hauled and heaved the kayak up the mountainside. Sometimes pulling, sometimes lifting on my shoulder each step was laboured, difficult yet somehow exhilarating, this felt like a real adventure. With every pause I was bent double on the ground, panting for breath with every muscle burning to rest. Reaching the crux of the rocky ridge I was staring at a short climb. Without a kayak the scramble would be easy, but with 25kg of semi-loaded craft the step was tricky. Perching the boat on ledges, clambering forward, hauling higher then repeating was the only way to the top. To return I would need to get creative. I had reached the top and ahead the moors and lakes spread ahead with inviting flatness.
Letting the damp warmth of the sweaty drysuit cool in the small lakes as I paddled across I journeyed inland to re-join the river. Sliding down a rocky slab I splashed back to the dazzlingly blue crystal cool waters of the un-named river. I had past the fall and was back on track! The choice to return was no longer in vain; but would there be another fall? For the meantime I re-tied the line to the kayak and started walking it upstream. As my feet slowly froze with each knee depth step through glacial water I approached another cliff on the horizon; was this the next waterfall? I could see the river narrow through a gap and this time there was NO way around. To my surprise and utter delight as I drew closer there was no sound of rushing water, the river had carved a perfect canyon through the rock.
Sneaking past the gap I emerged into an entirely new landscape. Now I was surrounded by a world of ice and impossible rocky spires. Ahead I could see the terminal moraine no more than a kilometre and a half away. Exhausted and hungry I sat below a 1000m overhanging wall of rock to quickly snack some trail mix before the final push through the difficult boulder fields of the glacial moraine.
6 hours of hard work finally paid off. A final clamber past a large boulder and swim across the current brought my kayak and I to the edge of a vista seldom beaten. An amphitheatre of rock and crumbling ice. From pinnacled ridges, deep crevassed glaciers and towering walls avalanches thundered into the crystal blue lagoon. So filled was the lake with ice that I could barely paddle further than a few hundred meters between the narrow channels, it did not matter for I had made it. There are a few moments in life that I will treasure forever, the feeling of being totally alone in a craft where no other had likely ever been (after asking locals it is now almost certain) in such pristine conditions after such difficult work was the biggest reward I could ever wish for. I lingered for an hour and a half to play amongst the icebergs and relish the silence of the world to which I felt so small beneath. Can you spot the kayak?
Reaching my turnaround cut off time at 3pm I returned to my boat. Equipment now tied down, ropes stashed I turned my bow downstream; now the current that I had fought would become the helping hand to push me down. Tightening my helmet I grabbed my paddles and set out into the narrow trails of grade 2-3 whitewater.
Rushing water, foaming white around the scrapes of blade and boat on rock were contrasted with perfect calm as I drifted though deep blue pools. Reminded that I was now paddling alone on a river in Patagonia I felt a wonderful rush of excitement and concentration with each rapid. I had never paddled whitewater in a 16ft sea kayak and found the technical challenge difficult but delightful, I soon discovered as long as my bow past the rocks I would launch past any obstacles. For only 2 turns I had to emerge back to the water to portage past ‘strainers’ (overhanging trees in the river).
Mostly downhill the portage back below the falls was far faster and went in a short hour of pulling. The climbing step now took an anchored abseil to lower the boat before tying off and climbing down to secure the craft and returning to the river. My thoughts now turning from exploring to camp I hoped to find my tent unscathed from curious condors and further still to find the time to de-camp and paddle on.
Finding the tent exactly as I had left it I re-filled with water from the nearby waterfall before stuffing the equipment away. It was just 5pm and the sun glistened beautifully on the water ahead. I set my sights on a gentle evening paddle back to the eastern end of the lake to investigate a new campsite. Passing the cliffs and waterfalls on still mirror calm waters I soon reached the far side where a wide stone bay promised an inviting camp.
Behind the lenga forest the might walls of the Balmaceda range stood tall before the rising full moon. Stripping naked and laying out the gear on the shingle I wandered alone in the evening sun letting the warmth caress my tired muscles. The simple pleasure of the simple existence in a quiet wilderness was the perfect way to end a tough yet rewarding day. Without readily available water to cook for dinner and a reluctance to drink the algae filled intertidal lake I turned to the luxury of the kayak; my client had left an un-drunk bottle of wine in the bow which now became the base of an potato & bacon coq au vin (or bacon au vin) stew. Sipping carmenare naked in the sun I dosed off into the clear starry sky lit by the moon.
Four days in a row with no wind and sunshine! This was unbelievable! Waking to first light I packed the tent and looked out to the sky. For the first time a band of cloud was approaching from the western horizon and the sky was slowly filling with the long wispy tails of cirrus cloud; a sure sign that the weather was turning and wind was coming. It was time to paddle hard and reach the ferry at Estancia Perales some 40km from camp. It was 9am by the time I left, I had until 15.30 to catch the ferry. Head down and blade forward I paddled a 7-8km/h average without the wind with a 5 minute break every hour and a half, so long as the wind stayed down I would make it with comfort.
Around lunch time the wind picked up to a strong force 4-5 headwind, my progress slowed and I started to feel the two hard days before me. Landing on a beach, de-hydrated, exhausted and hungry I collapsed in the shingle and rested. Out at sea the water started to break white, I wasn’t going to make it back in time.
Yet to my surprise and delight the wind was short lived. Before I had barely returned to the boat the sea returned to the mirror that it had been all week. Paddling back to the fjord beneath cliffs hundreds of meters tall I found myself in a Jurassic park. Pausing for a drink straight from the cascade I put my head back to the journey home. The weather was growing colder, the mountains ahead now had snow drifting in gentle curtains over their distant summits, I was ready to go back but knew I would soon wish to return.
At 15.20 I arrived out of breath and sweating heavily. For the last hour I had paddled at a sprint in a desperate blast to make the time I had lost to the wind. The ferry still docked on the pier had slowly grown closer and closer.
HOLAAAA! Copete! (co-pet-ay) the captain shouted; the crew had started to joke that my last name sounded like the chilean word for ‘drink.’ With an open hand and eagerness to hear of where I had been I was welcomed aboard with open arms. I had made it. Looking out to the clear sea I sat in the wheelhouse sharing mate I relaxed with a smile. My first solo Patagonian paddle had been as perfectly challenging as I could ever have hoped for.