By Way of the Wind
-A kayak expedition 835km through Patagonia PII-
‘I’ve always liked going south…somehow it feels like going downhill’ – J.R.R Tolkein
Unzipping the tent with a crisp crunch of falling ice I wiped frost from the canvas and peered outside. Freezing fog had quelled all wind into an eerie stillness. The numb chatter of my own teeth as a cold wall of fresh air purged the damp musk of our warm room was all that broke the silence, moments like this here were rare and waking to the tranquility of snowcapped peaks glowing pink beyond a thin veil of mist had a magical sense to it.
‘I can’t feel my toes’ Laughed Seumas as the hiss of his stove lit up the tent with a burst of welcome warmth. Our first clear night since we had left had plummeted the temperature which was hardly surprising with PioXI glacier still dominating our horizon. Sharing one cup of coffee rather than brewing two we were eager to get moving and heat up.
Breathing life over our cold fingers we slid the kayaks into the water. Pshhht the familiar sound of our Dolphin escort sounded somewhere nearby out of sight in the fog; were they the same pod that had followed us the last few days? I wondered quietly. Bearing toward a pointed granite headland we had nicknamed ‘The Matterhorn’ the faint ‘brrwhhhaargh Gnaaaaaarrrrg’ moans of a sea lion colony echoed over the whir of hummingbirds inspecting our colourful bows. Condors swept by in the blue sky dissolving above. Beyond the dipping splash of our paddles life was stirring in the silence normally hidden by the wind and the waves.
Paddling side by side to exploring along the vertical rock walls and small rivers a lively discussion began; Tides. How could the tide which was rising into the dead end fjord be flowing south out of it? we didn’t complain at the steady 1knot push but we struggled to comprehend how or why. Whenever either one of us questioned it the other would reply ‘Never Question the Tide…duh’ our first standing joke to lighten our already high mood.
By 2pm we had reached the end of Canal Wide. The mist had broken revealing tremendous spires and impossible peaks rising from the ice sheet at our side, icebergs now bobbed ahead at the end of their long journey from sky to sea. Ducking under a waterfall with a cold blast of refreshing snowmelt we paused on a rocky shore to debate committing to an 8km passage. Open crossings in Patagonia still terrified me, the severity and suddenness of the wind here could quickly turn any good situation into an epic. As we ate our ration of cheese and trail-mix we watched the mist on the hills beyond- this was our ‘tell’ if it started to shift something was coming. It hung reassuringly still. We could set off.
Crossing Fjordo Falcon we found great pleasure in hopping from iceberg to iceberg, a novel way of breaking the usual tedium of open water in the aptly named ‘Canal Icy,’ each berg was different and all were worth an explore. Inland the gnarled flanks of Riso Patron cloaked partially in cloud gave a welcome link to the outside world; Just last year a French Team had arrived by boat, built a hut and climbed it. To find somewhere in such wilderness where others had successfully achieved and conquered their goals gave us hope and inspiration for the journey to come.
Taking just over an hour to reach the far shore we were delighted with our progress. Seumas who seemed to have found his rhythm for the first time had been paddling ahead more than behind. The dolphins had returned in the wake of icebergs and we passed together south along an impenetrable shore of smooth wave carved granite. Inland the mountains were smaller now but rocky with small moorland veins clinging to what shelter they could find- something about it reminded me of Scotland and gave a comforting sense of security in the familiarity.
Splitting responsibilities early on had brought a smooth efficiency to our daily routine. Landing in a wide bay and wandering together to discuss campsites we settled on a higher patch of moorland- we had discovered by observation that the tempting flat grass on the edge of the shore was intertidal despite its appearance and would surely flood. Seumas set about his task of finding wood and striking fire to cook- I unloaded the boats and pitched the tents and tarp. The entire day had whispered barely more than a knot of wind and we had set a new record of 40km in just eight hours. To top off a perfect day our campfire on the beach was joined with the dolphins who fished nearby beyond our tied up kayaks. Smoking ourselves dry by the crackle of warm embers life was as a good as it got. Where are we? I said, F**king Patagonia man! Seumas called triumphantly- this had now become a ‘catch-phase’ between each other.
It was a reluctant start the next morning. This time two coffees each rather than one were shared as neither of us wanted to abandon our perfect campsite. Thick brooding clouds hung over the now dark rock walls which took on a new personality shimmering with rays of light with a newfound dramatic awe. It promised to be a day of downpours and rainbows. Pushed by the wind progress was swift and easy on tired arms and our thoughts were soon distracted by the uniquely harsh beauty between the dance of glittering rock and sea.
As icebergs began to return on an outward pushing tide flowing from the next fjord we found ourselves on a comfortable 2 knot flow even though it should have been rising against us ‘Never question the tides’ we laughed. Pausing only to nudge against smaller icebergs and giggling as one tipped nearly capsizing me from beneath the miles seemed simply lost in distracted exploring. Just as it should be.
I have always found that the darkest days produce the brightest of icebergs- they seem to absorb and emit back the light in the clouds giving with it the coldest clearest blue but by now the light was turning from silver to gold. The sun was setting and we were still pushing hard for a record 44km day before dark. The rain and wind were gone and to our side a bursting explosion of rays dazzled the eye and ignited moral deep into our soul.
Turning a corner on the last our of light we set camp atop a small rocky promontory on a welcome square of flat heath. Swapping roles, I surfed a small wave into the entrance of a river to pick water while Seumas set about experimental tarpaulin set-ups for that little extra shelter from the constant drizzle. The dolphin returned bobbing in and around a lone iceberg caught on the shoreline. As I hauled my bags from the boat an otter snuck between the weed blissfully unfazed nearby. The cloud was starting to part revealing the stars and promise of a drier day to come.
This is unreal! The icebergs had drifted into the bay overnight and now bobbed reflected in a glittering mirror. The rain had gone and the wind was even calmer than before- I couldn’t believe our luck, a streak of good fortune that so far the wind had been unbelievably kind. But it wasn’t to last. Before our trip we had arranged my father Paul to send coded messages by text to our Delorme GPS beacon- limited to 140 characters the code gave a five day forecast to the format of each day giving a condition, gust and wind for morning midday and night. R=Rain, C=Cloud, X=Snow, wind went in knots. Forecasts of gales had started to arrive along with the code word ‘X;’snow. The prediction affirmed our choice to add what would be our first portage into the route; unlike the two others ahead this one had been chosen last minute with a quick google earth research just hours before the ferry, neither of us knew what to expect but the idea of a change in pace and muscles seemed inviting to tired arms, on the map it looked good now to see it for real.
It was a slow morning lingering in the pristine calm and exploring narrow inlets which widened inside to reveal long untouched and hidden fjords doubled in the shimmering water. Really we were both just looking for an excuse to slow down, it had been several long days racing in the good weather to cover ground and our arms were tired.
Heading inland up a dead end fjord had a wonderful sense of committal to it, every stroke took us closer to a portage we knew nothing about and further from the original coastal route. The wind was building giving a stiff and difficult to maintain course against tide and weather helm but we were in excellent spirit and quietly raised our pace both eager to spot the first glimpse of what we would have to carry.
At long last the steep and overgrown hillside dropped away revealing a short but challenging ridge to climb. Over the last week while we had been debating the idea I had built those 8 contours (80m) from the lines on a chart to mountains in my mind, in reality it was going to be a grunt but actually looked reassuringly achievable. Beyond that horizon we did not yet know what was to come.
Scouting our route first on foot we settled on a low valley. The forest rose steep and punishingly thick from the shore and every bush was covered in spikes for infuriatingly little reason for there was seldom here to eat it. Beyond a vantage on a rocky promontory we could see a small lochan and beyond that the long tail of the loch we sought to cross under the shadow of the mountains rising at its side.
One……Two….Three….PULL! Seumas and I called in unison hauling with laboured grunts the first boat into the thicket from the shore. We had unloaded what we could ferrying it through the trees to a checkpoint on flatter ground some thirty metres above, from there we were past the worst of it and the slope and density of the bush decreased. The boats still weighed in excess of 80 kilos each but Seumas who’s past job was hauling hunted stags off mountainsides was in his element. Progress was slow, hard but damn good fun, we needed each other and good teamwork to beat this one together.
One….Two….Three….Another heave another foot up the slope. Sometimes we were lifting high over rocks, sometimes around bushes or trying to navigate along a guide line we had set with our tow belts and trying not to fall to our waist through the mossy gaps in long fallen branches. This is what I felt real adventure should be, true type two fun!
Moving from the forest on a 40º slope hard enough to walk in let alone drag a boat left us covered in thorns and splattered in mud and sweat. My hand now bled on the handle scarred on a sharp shard of bark. We had moved faster than expected taking just thirty minutes per boat to get to the first checkpoint. The sense of achievement was at an all time high in the wake of hard, hard work. Panting for breath on top of the first pass we sat together on our boats to soak in the last rays of the sun now setting over the hills beyond. It felt weird being so high on a kayak in such an improbable place. Hey! Seumas bent over and picked something shiny from the mud, a carabiner. It was old and rusty, someone had been here before us which although took a small part of the intrepidness from the challenge it gave a hope that this indeed would work as a bypass; this was good news indeed! Crossing into the small lochan we paddled with our hands as much as blades to reach the other side before lowering the boats down a steep drop to the main lake. Using my tow line as a body belay while Seumas guided their path it took little time. To our delight a sandy bay barely big enough to pitch lay at the head of the loch, for the first time no worry of tide nor water would affect our choice of camp for we were inland at last.
Spreading out our clothes into the bushes to dry a fire was soon kindled and dinner brewed. The sky burned ripples of orange in reflections on the water, the calm before the storm perhaps? we wondered. With time to spare and a fire to fuel endless boiling water we rationed an extra teabag between our mugs and Seumas set about preparing his razor for the wildest shave he had ever had, I looked on with amused admiration preferring to see how heinous my own moustache would get before the end. Above our heads the milky way shone in a clarity so unimaginable to seem unreal over the sky, we were so far from the light of humanity and the air was so clear that I felt closer to the stars than I have ever before or perhaps ever will again almost as if I could touch them.
We woke to wind rippling the tent. In the shelter of the mountains there were little waves but instead fiercely strong gusts that would punch long dark paws across the water ahead. It had been a good call to go inland for surely the coast would have been far too rough to paddle safely had we gone that way. Instead we re-loaded and set off by way of the wind barely paddling choosing to drift to the far end. Our day would be mostly dragging to reach the other side and camp back on the sea.
Between lochs there was another small portage, this one started relatively level but would drop down most of the height we had gained to a third loch before the sea. We figured if it was downhill it would be easy, and from there the next loch had a river to carry us out. With our boats fully loaded we set back together as a team to pull them from the water then clipped individually to drag them across the moors. For every one metre pulled the ground was trodden three times, once to scout ahead, once to return and a last to pull the boats.
Looking down past the forest the kayaks started to slide. They slid well and an easy tug spurred them on several metres at a time. But we grew perhaps too confident. Watching from behind as Seumas let his go it disappeared into the woods falling out of sight over a small cliff into a tree. With a loud THUD the tree shuddered to an amusing effect but became considerable effort to retrace our mistake, the kayak had jammed stuck between two bows in the trunk and took a hard ten minutes to pull it back, luckily nothing had broken and from then on we vowed to be far more careful.
Slowly and prickly we pushed our way to the waters edge reaching the loch after a long hour navigating our way between thorny trees. Greeted to the water by a condor we followed it to the far side in search of the river. As we approached a dull roar started to build- it wasn’t the calm grade two we had hoped but a solid rapid with an initial 2-3m waterfall to navigate. Had I had a helmet and not been over 200km from the nearest town I may have had a go as it looked clean but we decided discretion was the better part of valour; especially knowing there was a second easier channel leading around the next bend.
Leading the way I ran the smaller channel with relative ease only once or twice bouncing controlled off the rocks. Seumas who had lost his confidence in whitewater after a nasty accident a few years before that had rendered him with near permanent nerve damage in his thigh muscle was understandably nervous and quickly came to error. Caught on almost the first rock his boat jammed forcing him to bail out and wade.
Back in our boats the small channel re-joined the main stream below the falls. Here the river was wide about 15m across and flowing fast in a long rapid. Seumas now looked in a foul mood as he ferry glided solemnly across to the far side and started to walk his way down the edge, I f**king hate whitewater he mumbled understandably lost for confidence.
Spotting my line I chose to run the rapids which went in a blur of excited bouncing and hard braced turns to chase my line. The long bow and momentum of a full expedition boat ploughed through the waves with ease soon spitting me into the eddy at the other end. While I was riding a high and thoroughly enjoying myself I could see my team-mate was not…we needed a boost and to our delight nature provided.
Otter! Seumas shouted, now on the sea and looking far happier he had turned about and was paddling close to the shore. The mother and pup shared no timidness with their Scottish cousins but instead had a natural curiosity. As we grew closer they turned and started to approach. To both our dismay they came right to our side, Seumas even stole the chance to tickle the belly of the youngest which seemed barely phased by the contact. It was a magical moment and a fine welcome back to the ocean we had left.
Being pushed hard south along the fjord the waves soon built with the distance of the open water. Before long we were loosing sight of each others head between white caps in the biggest following sea we had yet seen. The wind was getting fierce and growing stronger and few campsites presented themselves along the densely wooded shore.
Hiding at the end of the fjord after a bouncy and particularly exciting hour of surf along we found a spot on a rocky point sheltered by the headland. Following each other in a fast pace to warm up we paddled on to fetch water before returning to set tents and washing lines. By now the wind was fierce and building we were going nowhere the next day.
For the first time in 240km we stayed ashore the next day. It felt great to simply exist not needing to paddle nor put effort into anything. We made ourselves gently busy re-organising the holds, stringing up our clothes to dry and brewing tea. I plunged in for a bath in the 5º water with brisk determination to wash. We decided to double ration our dinners and maximise our recovery. We hadn’t admitted it until now but once we had stopped we realised we had need a rest.
‘Its so beautiful!’ Stood on the rocks in our underwear in the dark we were staring transfixed at a dazzling raft of lights. At first we thought it might be the navy but as we watched the distant blaze of electric glow turned to reveal a huge cruise liner. It was the closest we would come to people the entire journey, and gazing on from our position of simple existence governed entirely by the very harshness of the nature we sought to explore I felt conflicted between being so close and yet so distant to ‘civilisation.’ We imagined comfortable people inside blindly enjoying the richest luxuries of life unaware or uncaring of the world passing in darkness beyond their window. Were those people really seeing this place? I imagined with a smile of our divide in values, for us the simplest luxury of extra butter in our dinner meant everything, to them it was something to be forgotten on the side of a china plate.‘I bet it’s warm in there’ I thought aloud with a quiet satisfaction that so was our tent, I doubted that those inside even know it was windy. But therein lies the nature of adventure, to those distant sailors their journey meant just as much as ours to us, to them it was still something new and exciting even if their approach was different it wasn’t wrong.
Morning arrived and once again it was just us and the open fjords. The wind had gone in the wake of heavy rain which danced on the silvery water. Cloud hung barely 200m above us on slopes freshly peppered with snow. ‘It finally died!’ we cheered as the large gas canister given to us at the last minute by Matt (who was initially going to join us) finally ran out. It had lasted since we first set off earning it the name ‘the everlasting fire’ it had been an unplanned addition to the 15 cans stowed beneath my feet and had granted us a full nine days head start on our fuel rations. This meant from now on that extra tea and hot water bottles at our feet were now freely available and welcome options in the evening and hot water could be poured into our frozen boots in the morning.
It was bitterly cold start. Setting off at a blistering speed I guessed like myself Seumas was paddling hard to try and warm up. The thick sky brought a strange and ominous darkness to the morning light making the air feel brooding and uneasy like we were paddling on the edge of night. My arms were heavy with thick extra base layers as I set into rhythm under a lashing of icy sleet. Only my eyes poked out of my buff to the sting of the cold air on this particularly frigid morning.
It looks good? Lets go. Discussing a five kilometre crossing to jump a fjord it looked calm so we turned to silent rhythm choosing to venture into imagination rather than the monotony of reality. We didn’t know it but we were about to get a true taste of the elements.
On the horizon beyond a curtain of rain and colourful ark of a rainbow a darkness could be seen approaching on the water. Far upwind in the fjord white horses had started to gallop our way- we were in the middle, things were about to get ‘interesting’.
As if a last parting goodbye a short burst of sunshine broke from the clouds bringing colour to the grey wall of an inescapable granite shore rising beneath a dark blue storm cloud. The waves and wind were growing closer paddling hard it was now a certainty that we had been caught out, blindsided by a Patagonian squall.
‘This really is a Beautiful Bastard of a Place’ Seumas called as beauty did indeed turn into a bastard. It would be the last thing either of us would say for over an hour as conditions brought us into silent concentration communicating only by nods and glances to check the other was ok. The wind was growing strong now bringing streaks across the waves and a building fetch. Slowly we started to loose our heads between the troughs and then our paddles as the waves built to over a couple of metres. They were steep and often capped in white which meant our pace slowed as we worked hard to get to the other side and harder still to keep ourselves on track and upright. This was where training all season on the windy rivers truly counted. I was worried about Seumas as I knew this was easily the biggest sea state he had ever paddled in but he was coping strongly albeit with a determinedly wide stare in his expression. I too was pushing my comfort zone for a loaded boat and was fighting hard to both keep her in line and position well incase a rescue was needed.
Closer to the shore there was little comfort or moment to pause, it was totally inescapable and the steep granite gave nothing but chaotic clapotis to deal with. Hugging into the confused waves we took advantage of the chop which dropped the height of the fetch enough to make a slow and calculated push at the side of the wind. Occasionally small grassy cracks gave the bizarre relieving notion that ‘I could at least climb out there’ even if it would be just as much trouble as not escaping at all. Between getting caught in the middle and finally rounding what felt like an eternally distant headland three hours of intense concentration had worn us down.
Where are we?…..F**king Patagonia man! This time came with a different tone- a tone of relief but also an underlying daunted realisation that it really could build fast here, I hadn’t seen waves like that since rounding the north coast of Scotland and had little desire to push into them again if given the option, but now in hindsight it seemed ‘fun’ at the time.
The rain had turned to sleet and small bouts of snow flurries. Sat on a small rocky shore we took barely a few minutes to guzzle our lunch ration through shivering hands before getting back on the water. Now sheltered by a long band of small islands we had lost the fetch but kept the wind with a welcome push. To our surprise it seemed to be dropping in strength, the beauty was coming back from the bastard. Thoughts of landing and camping now turned to motivations of going hard. It was a tough call to make but we discussed as a team and chose to carry on back into the waves.
Close to the shore we found to our delight that the wind now bounced back from the walls dropping the waves to about a metre and a half descending later to a metre. It had been a big committal to go on as the next fifteen kilometres was sheer cliff without so much as a cleft to escape, beautiful yet intimidating. Rainbows started to appear between squalls which brought boughts of wind and harder paddling. Occasional dolphin sightings and the excitement of a distant sailing boat passing by spurred us on with a newfound yet wary confidence against the elements.
Despite the strongest winds and hardest waves we had yet seen we had been pushed south fast. To our surprise as we set camp hidden in the bushes of a sheltered bay we had made a record 47km south. Although the wind had now built again and whistled above in the trees there was now serious discussion as to whether we could actually include a detour north to Peel Fjord. It was the one major choice- to miss it was to shorten the route incase of bad weather but in doing so to sacrifice one of the most interesting gems of the western fjord. We were now days ahead of our planned schedule and decided to go for it.
The morning started badly as I dislocated my thumb trying to cram the last bag into a hold, relocating it on the beach left it throbbing and weak. It would suffer from the cold far worse than any other part of my body for the rest of the trip. On the upside it was with great relief to round the end of Canal Pitt and turn our boats north again into the entrance of Estero Peel. Although stunningly barren with its rocky mountains and vertical shores the conditions we had met Pitt in had been intimidating. Now the thought of a few days hidden in the lee of the northern wind with icebergs to chase and glaciers to approach gave me a new energy.
It didn’t matter that it was raining. The sun glinted on the rocks with an alluring shimmer, and otters still followed us with the dolphins along the shore. We hugged the cliffs which without waves let us drink straight from the streams pouring off them. At long last we were chasing ice again.
It took us two wet, cold and grey days to approach the wide open bay hidden within the fjords that led to the narrowest of entrances to a foretold hidden world. Glaciers now appeared rolling from the clouds hugging the mountains and what we knew to be icecap somewhere above. Their deep blues brought colour to a world of grey beyond the bright un-natural yellow and red of our boats. Our main discussion focused back to tides- we knew the narrow entrance would be a strong current especially as we had arrived on springs but how to time it when the flow follows no rule? We knew when it would be high, but had no idea which way it would flow any more.
To our delight and good luck we timed it by sheer co-incidence at the absolute turn and rode in on a gentle current before being spat out in the eddy past a dam of icebergs into the main fjord. Even on slack we could see the house sized lumps of ice roll and drift in and out along the narrow channel tinkling like fine china or broken glass. Excitement built with the increase in ice on the water, mountains started to appear out of the mist. Around the corner we were heading into the heart of the wild- the swan song of the western fjords and home to more glaciers per unit area than any fjord we might else find. This was it…This was what we had come for….we were going into the ice.
To Be Continued in Part III