Paddles, Penguins and Parrots

– Paddles, Penguins and Parrots –

A Kayak Expedition in Patagonia Part I

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Will it float? Seumas asked. From a rusting tin shed we had dragged our kayaks across a rocky slab to the sea, he was only half joking; this was the moment we were to find out if we had brought kayaks or submarines. Mid-volume  5.16m (17ft) P&H Scorpio kayaks are small expedition boats which we had crammed with well over 100kg of equipment and food (mostly butter). We had given ourselves 45 days of supplies for a fully self-supported journey more remote than either of us had ever been. The boats flexed alarmingly under their load.

After a two day ferry ride from Puerto Natales we had arrived in Puerto Eden; a small hamlet on the wettest edge of the world. Populated by less than 200 hardy souls it is the last refuge of the native Kawéshkar- the original seafaring people of the fjords. It is a town so small and so wet that it has no roads- only boats and boardwalk.

The ferry had dropped its ramp in the bay and been invaded by a fleet of small wooden fishing boats in a chaotic rush of unloaded barrels and supplies.

‘Amigo de Germán?’ {friend of Herman?} beckoned one fisherman gesturing to our kayaks and then his own wooden boat; Germán had been my boss the previous year and is a true unspoken legend in Patagonian paddling- even in the wildest of places friends of friends are friends in kind so we jumped aboard. We had just been quite sternly told ‘no camping‘ and ‘no hostel‘ by an intimidating naval captain; I felt lost and my Spanish was still not up to par to resolve our intentions. The fisherman’s offer was welcome and waving goodbye to the small waving figures of newfound friend high on the upper decks of the ferry we had started our journey. I was frightened as much as excited- we had committed to 835km of labyrinth like fjords to navigate by wind and blade.

We had never met but Vilo the fisherman invited us with unwavering hospitality to stay in his home like we old friends. A humble wooden building perched on the edge of an island was his home, his car was a boat and his garage was a pier.

Forgetting that I had let two girls (Samantha and Sophie) braid my hair as a joke on the ferry our first impression with Vilo was amusingly awkward but soon our boats were stashed and we were sharing a warm fish stew around his kitchen table.

Month of planning had brought us here, but we had one final hurdle to jump- obtaining Naval permission- I was nervous about it, if they said no it would be the end of our journey and a week waiting for the return ferry. Arriving on Easter weekend  we weren’t going anywhere until Monday so in exchange for a warm bed and dinner Seumas and I agreed to labour the next day by cutting and harvesting the old mossy Lenga Forest for Vilo to sell to the local school. Seumas whose whole life has revolved around tree surgery immediately settled into a normal behind a chainsaw in an abnormal place. Blog2

Are you Will Copestake?’ …. wait what?!

No sooner had we launched our kayaks (which did float) a small dingy had arrived, to much surprise they knew us! It was Greg Landreth; a scientist and captain with Keri Pashuk of the yacht Saoirse – I had written them some time ago offering to help look for whales on our journey as they were studying a mass stranding of Sei whales on the west coast. Their work is ongoing and well worth checking out and supporting here and here.

We shared a last fresh meal of tuna aboard their impressive yacht and with Greg’s help arranged and passed our inspection with the navy before an agonisingly slow wait for what should have been 10 minutes of paper work; much to our amusement they simply copied our trip into the details of the last wayward kayakers to come this way- Erin Bastian; her expedition is well worth checking out too!

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At 4pm we finally waved goodbye to Vilo, Greg and Puerto Eden. We had the green light, we were set to go! In a race to push south and regain lost time we pushed our bows from the pier and paddled hard on a gentle following wind. As we left we were escorted from the last civilisation we would see for over a month by a pod of wild dolphin.

My boat leaks’ Seumas laughed a little despairingly; the half metre following waves were swamping our back decks and seeping in. I could feel my boat bend between the troughs, it was heavy on the surf and slow to respond but ploughed through the crests with ease. I was reminded of the first day of paddling around Scotland, that familiar fear of the unknown and excitement of finding the unplanned had rekindled and burned inside.

The leak in Seumas’s kayak would later be found entering from a disconnected skeg tube which was easily repaired with Aqua-seal; if Duct tape fixes things that don’t move and WD-40 sorts those that do, then Aqua-seal is the answer to ‘ wet stuff’ and the ‘do everything glue’ for anything kayak related. The leak hardly mattered for Seumas, his dry-suit was borrowed, old, leaking and already damp with the steady rain.

At this point it is worth mentioning that this was my second big kayak expedition and after two seasons working in Patagonia as a kayak guide I felt I had the tools to plan and prepare well. I had spent months researching and acquiring gear and knew what to expect in terms of weather and emergency. Seumas is one of my oldest childhood friends and as close to a brother as I have ever had and to do an expedition together has been a dream for many years. A few months before I had casually mentioned the idea of Patagonia as a prelude to a van trip through Norway- with one month before setting off he had replied simply and boldly YES! before turning up with little idea of the magnitude of the journey and quite what to expect- I had told him to be ready for ‘wet, cold and general gnar’. He was jumping in at the deep end- setting out from Puerto Eden and facing a month in the fjords his longest expedition before had been a 5 day gentle explore around our local islands ‘The Summer Isles.’ Where I had slowly collected fancy gear he was going hard! I had a brand new Kokatat dry-suit, a 2inch thick air mattress and a -20ºC hydro-down sleeping bag, Seumas had a leaky old suit, a half length inflatable foam pad, a -2ºC bag and a thermal diving fleece. Pushing away from the last people we would see until we either finished or got rescued was seriously intimidating, I could see it was dawning on Seumas too. We truly were ‘In Patagonia‘ now.

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Two hours along the coast we were loosing light but had made 15km on a choppy following sea. Our first camp was behind the battered remains of a rudimentary fisherman’s shack which gave a modicum of shelter to boil water for our tea. Perched on top of a mountain of old mussel shells I couldn’t help but think about Vilo’s poor cat whose whole existence was to eat his Mussels; when it inevitably dies the mussels have Red Tide and are seriously poisonous; Rule #1 of Patagonian paddling- DO NO EAT SHELLFISH.

It’s a f**king Penguin! Seumas shouted! A hummingbird had just flown over-head mistaking our colourful boat for a big tasty flower. Unbelievably he was right! A Magellanic Penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) bobbed ahead of our bow. In one morning we had seen parrots, hummingbirds and penguins – what is was this place?

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Our first small 2km open crossing had seen us battered by a stiff 20-25knot northern squall – the waves grew steep and capped white with an immediateness that is hard to prepare for. It is true what they say ‘Patagonian wind is more Digital than Analogue’  it simply turns on at an alarming speed and enough ferocity to make any crossing a serious consideration. Our heavy boats handled it well and had brought us easily to the shelter of the next fjord and another old fishing shack. Wind off- the sea went smooth.

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We were now headed south east and protected from the northern gusts. The coast no longer looked like the rounded heath mountainsides of Scotland but rose instead from impenetrable temperate rainforest to bare granite mountains scoured steep and smooth by ice and wind. To hide from the rain we sheltered under overhanging Stalactites of sphagnum moss which dangled from the towering walls and crept our way along a vertical shore.

Lets go closer in’ Seumas beckoned. I had started to return to old habits of my Scotland trip and was going direct from headland to headland in the unconscious rhythm of making efficient passage. He was looking at the expedition with the fresh perspective of a first trip and he was right, we were here to explore and not blast blindly by in a race for the end- there would be times to push for distance but now was not it.

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Dwarfed beneath the walls which poured water into the sea we chased parrots along the coast eager to discover the next waterfall or wave cut wall waiting around each corner.

Crossing a small bay the smoothness reared again from force zero to five in a matter of seconds ‘Wind ON’ we called to the air as we dove for sheltered campsite. Stripping off under a tarpaulin we pitched our tent on a sheltered ledge at the edge of a small shingle bay. In the morning we would turn north for our first glimpse of ice.

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The majority of our route followed the prevailing wind which although reliably unreliable generally goes strong from the north and west but in addition we had planned three detours to explore the more impressive fjords in search of ice and adventure.

Steep 1m waves broke over our bows in a relentless thuds, heading upwind was a lot of effort for a little progress. We crawled our way into Seno Eyre. Far in the distance a thin blue line stretched across the horizon from the mountains; Pio XI- South America’s largest glacier.

As the opposing tide around the headlands pulled the waves up to around 1.5m we lost sight of each other between each trough, the sun blazed turquoise through the surface of the water which glittered in exploding spray in a dance of wind and light. Southern Petrels soared giant and graceful on extended wing atop the crests, teasing the spray with the tips of their feathers- this was Patagonia; a perfect harmony of the brutal and the beautiful.

Until now we had stopped almost hourly to stretch our legs which were crammed beneath bags jammed in our cockpits. As expected the first few days were tough on our joints, our rhythm was slow and yet to find a routine but now on an un-landable coast we were fighting hard into the next level of personal paddling. Seumas was tackling the waves with apparent ease in what was now his biggest sea conditions to date.Pio XI (Pronounced: Pee-oh On-zay) at 11km wide and up to 200m high on the face was one hell of a goal to fight for and not a bad start for his first ever glacier.

When the cloud did break the sun radiating through an ozoneless sky  brought instant heat against our soaked salted skin. The caps were growing and conditions were getting chaotic and challenging. An 8 hour day for just 24km was what it took to find our first good camp tucked away beneath a colossal waterfall.

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We had decided on our second morning that to make our system faster we would dedicate ourselves to separate jobs. I was responsible for the tent and tarp while Seumas took up the task of fire and cooking. It now took little time to get between the ‘shiver stage’ of stripping suits to being warm in our sleeping bags. We enjoyed the shingle beaches which were kind on our camp shoes…croc sandals.

Our first dry afternoon gave us the chance to spread ourselves out in an explosion of gear hung on washing lines and trees- a fire was kindled and the race to dry had begun, but no more than an hour after brewing tea on the fire the rain returned to fill the waterfall thundering at our side- we dove into the tent and tucked into our dinners and watched the snow line creep closer down toward the mountainside.

Outside the tent was a roar- not from wind but from the waterfall. The dawn brought a glassy sea so peaceful as to feel the whole world had stood still. Pssssht sounds broke the silence ahead of our bow as we pushed off, the dolphins had returned to dance mere inches beneath our hulls with graceful speed and curiosity. It didn’t matter that it was gently raining we were warm and the rays of morning light cast shadow over the ice in the distance drawing the blue out of the crevices with alluring intensity. Icebergs had started to bob at our side as the wall of blue grew higher- the scale and distance of the ice sheet was hard to measure between a thousand eager strokes to reach it.

ApproachDolphinStuck fast in a thick soupy mud we struggled to drag our boats onto a small beach at the front of the glacier. The viscous silt sucked at our boots and the air was filled with the scent of rock dust; this was a bulldozer slowly eroding a new path across into the sea. Unlike many of the worlds Glaciers Pio XI ice is moving forward with surprising speed.

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IMG_9875IMG_9824To our delight we had found a safe landing point far from waves and ice cast from calving chunks. Free at last from the mud we wandered on sun baked silt to the foot of the ice where the glacier was rounded enough to make a close encounter safer than elsewhere. Following a sound like splintering glass we settled on an outlook over a wide bay- it was the perfect perch to gaze awestruck at tremendous calvings falling in quick succession away from us. Never will I tire of watching ten story high columns of ice plummet to their explosive final swansong at the end of a tremendous journey back to the ocean.

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Running excited like schoolboys in a playground amongst the ice and mud we lingered to explore, the scale of the blue wall above our heads stretching unto a distant horizon was mind blowing. The crevices seemed to glow with vibrant blues, drawing a foreboding attraction; these places are not a place for the living to venture but for the curious to gaze from a safe distance.

Staying until the afternoon we found it hard to tear ourselves away but we had a long way to go still; we had done just 1/8th of our route. Returning to the ice filled water we turned south and set out to the end of the fjord which we had taken to days to paddle up. The water around our blades now grew less muddy with every stroke. Chasing the shore and singing Scottish shanties we searched for camp; we had found an addiction in ‘bagging’ glaciers and spirits were high. With one last chunk of ice we shared the ‘spare’ miniature whisky in celebration of a successful start.

Now it was time to head into the fjords, to put our heads down and distance under hulls, to push hard and delve into unknown. Ahead the channels were open and waiting.

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One Comment on “Paddles, Penguins and Parrots

  1. fantastic stuff Will…..I feel like I was there with you both. xxx

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