Kayaking in Patagonia Part III
As night fell, so did the clouds. Hundreds of miles from the nearest light, the stars shone brighter than usual beyond a dark silhouette of sawtoothed mountains. Squinting across a column of steam rising from our morning brew I gazed out into the pre-dawn glow. Everything was silent save for the deep booms and rumbles that echoed through the night as ice rolled and tumbled from the ice sheet to the sea. Peel fjord, which until this moment had been hidden in the cloud was now shrouded only by a delicate mist which hung low across the water, swirling silver it drifted between sapphire lumps of ice which bobbed against their perfect reflection. Slowly as it rose the sun revealed a colosseum of pointed spires and rime iced walls which started to blaze in fiery orange with the first kiss of morning light.
To have pushed for days to reach this place only for it to reveal itself in such splendour was the greatest gift Patagonia had yet given, there was an excited mood in our discussion over the day that morning, we would take time to linger and explore with only the question of could we make it to the end? and Would the ice dam us inside? to our progress.
Perched upon a rocky lip, our camp looked out across the bay. Filled with millions of tiny icebergs it had thinly frozen in the clear night. Across from our porch a long white glacier boomed every few minutes echoed by a delicate tinkling as waves broke the frozen surface. Loaded and set to go I waited high on rocks to watch as Seumas as he disappeared into the vastness of the world around him, he was a tiny spec amidst a frozen sea as his kayak broke a thin line toward the spires and icefall ahead. Long before we began this journey I had heard Peel Fjord described as Mind Blowing – now I saw why.
It was only 10km to the end of the fjord, yet we took most of the morning to reach it. We moved slowly, enjoying the crunch of ice on our bow and breaking trail between the pack ice. We paused for hundreds of photographs, to spin between the largest bergs and play like eager schoolchildren in a room full of toys, I consider our three hours to reach the end among the finest days paddling I have ever then or now experienced. Watching the first of three glaciers pass by our side we noticed the water growing turquoise as the silt increased. Looking above to the high peaks I became mesmerised with the idea that somewhere beyond those impossible to scale walls lay Argentina, we were no more than a hundred kilometres from people, yet by sea we were at our absolute half-way nearly 370km from anything or anyone. Landing a kilometre from the base of the final glacier which rose like toward the sky like a massive breaking wave, we spread out on the shore and searched the beach for ‘the perfect stone’ as memento to place in our compass mounts for reaching out halfway point. The black sand radiated the sun with welcome heat under our toes while we made lunch upon a lone iceberg washed ashore. The water which was barely one degree had slowly frozen our toes over the days paddle and feeling them unthaw was a blissful small luxury. With a quick ‘paddle high five’ we clashed our blades together in celebration and ventured to the very edge of the glacier whooping ‘Patag-F**king-Gonia!’ in a triumphant yell. Seumas who had paddled ahead was now but a spec dwarfed in the shadow of the ice.
Over the course of the day the fjord was slowly choking with ice and by 2pm we decided it best to turn around before we were dammed inside. Although the thought of lingering was tempting we knew we had to escape the tidal narrows before the night. Hugging channels along the shore we pushed back through the ice, one following the other to make swift use of our forged path. Still lingering to take photos it was late evening before we turned the corner- to our relief we could see our escape unhindered, but the tide was running out at full spring bore under a spectacular sunset sky.
Eddieing out! I called as the current snatched my bow sideways and I dipped my edge to catch it. There was a tremendous grinding, smashing and yet oddly delicate sound as ice bounced against each other and the rocks, we had hidden in the eddy of a house sized iceberg to scout our options between the two narrow channels- neither looked choked so we chose the faster yet more confined option. With an approximate 5-6knot current we were now riding alongside the ice, dodging and weaving between them like a slalom. The sea felt as much like a river as it did a fjord.
Where the water swirled on the far side or the channel a giant gentle whirlpool had filled with ice forming what could only be described as a slow yet perfect kayak blender, we would have one chance to get it right and would have to be extremely cautious. To be caught inside would be a serious risk. Nosing my bow to a thin gap I raced hard to escape an with an excited wooop bounced over a large chunk to splash onto the far side, Seumas swiftly followed, we were free. Spat back into the wide mouth of the main fjord feeling exhausted after a day of excited exploration we headed for the nearest river and set camp on a low grassy beach. To our surprise we had still covered a full 31km over the day arriving on the last purple glow of dusk. To celebrate paddling past our half way mark we broke out the only packet of chocolate pudding packed between us, it said a lot about the trip that we didn’t really need it but it was a welcome luxury never-the-less.
How’s this one! Seumas said cheekily as he dropped a large chunk of Ice into the plastic recess meant to mount a compass on my bow; we had started a tradition of keeping a pretty stone in them, but this had developed into an amusing game of finding the biggest ugliest stone to place on the others boat without them noticing- this morning it was ice.
For a second day in a row the sun was out and there wasn’t a breath of wind rippling the water. Brushing ice off the tent with my paddles I watched as bergs clattered together on the tide nearby, although the water was out on the shore the flow was still strongly going south… ‘Never question the tides’ – we chuckled.
Dragging my boat to the water I noticed much to my annoyance that at some point in the tide race I had snatched open and snapped off my skeg- ironically I had kept it up all day to prevent this exact thing from happening. The little keel helped maintain course on a following wind, and without anything to replace it with I would have to improvise or go without at extra effort for the rest of the journey. Remembering a wooden crate on one of our camps earlier on the way into the fjord I devised a plan to carve a new one that night. To our surprise the wide channel of Estero Peel, which on our approach had been almost devoid of ice, was now packed with a long stream spreading out from the eastern mountains. The horizon was white and we didn’t know if it would allow us to pass through, perhaps we hadn’t quite escaped yet we wondered, but so far we could push our way past with relative ease.
At our side the ice-cap and mountains shimmered in a glorious mirror of itself across the wide open bay- retracing the familiar ground south felt like an entire new adventure in better weather.
Reaching the end of the fjord after a smooth 47km paddle and setting camp on a shingle bay I set about modelling a repair while Seumas started a fire. On the side of the small wooden fruit crate retrieved from the beach was written ‘MABEL’ in large bold letters.
Mabel would be the perfect solution to the broken skeg and with a rough carving soon vaguely resembled a replacement. Each morning from now on I would hammer it into the recess once used to house the original. While Seumas was drying his suit I decided to reveal the ’emergency rations’ – long before the trip I had hidden four chocolate bars at my footwell for ‘halfway or lack of moral’ – it was now clear that moral was going to stay high so I took it out. To much amusement after dinner we were both too full to eat any.
The best mornings were those camped on a shingle beach when it didn’t rain, it meant being able to pack our kayaks in our crocs and underwear and go for our morning ablutions before putting on the drysuits, the littlest of luxuries like this went a long way.
The wind had lifted a little, now blowing south west out of the fjord. I was excited to break into new undiscovered ground again and we were delighted to see the conditions so benign. We were approaching a much discussed point of the trip which we called ‘Erin’s Windy Corner’ an homage to a previous expedition where she had been hammered with force 10 winds on a largely un-landable coast. Our greatest challenge was a fighting tide and a beam breeze- hardly the epic we had prepared for that day.
Pushing for a long day before ‘the lucky weather window’ finally broke we hoped to get close to the next inland fjord before the days end. The wind had turned onto our back and brought with it short, metre high waves which sped us along as we surfed past the battered shore.
Spotting a distant boat far in the distance gave us a boost during a slow afternoon silently progressing, both Seumas and I were clearly tired but stubbornly pushing to make the next corner. The brief sign of life gave a surprising rise to our energy, for a while knowing someone else was out there felt in a way comforting. Pulling out the tarpaulin stashed on under my bum we rafted together to try our own hand at sailing. For half an hour we played with the wind enjoying the different pace and chance to rest and to chat as we gently drifted south- our rig was fairly ineffective but with practice could have worked very well, we sailed until we grew cold before finally committing to search for a camp.
Pausing only for water from a small stream we decided to camp on an island ahead amidst a small archipelago. By now the wind was stiff and cold at our backs. Landing first on what had appeared to be an open grassy bay we found only large boulders between the grass, our second stop was no more successful and night was closing in. We were both exhausted.
Following a scattering of Steamer ducks around the back side of the island we landed on a stinking beach covered in old mussel shells, the smell of sulphur from rotting weed filled the air. Beneath the trees hid a small flat site between the bushes which much to our surprise was a swathe of wild mint. Our tent now filled with the fresh scent as we brewed mint tea and enjoyed a spectacular sunset no more than a half hour after emptying the boats.
Waking early we watched a long ominous cloud sweeping across the mountains inland- today promised to be our last day before the next storm broke and we vowed to go as far and as hard as we possibly could do before it came.
Leaving the archipelago and setting south on a strong following breeze we headed across the fjord on a downwind tack. By the far side we were surfing on the fetch which crested a metre and a half or so on the beam, to my delight Mabel the skeg was working wonderfully and kept the kayak on track just as well as the original. It was strange to reflect back to the start of our trip where these conditions would have been uncomfortable where now we were accustomed to the following fetch and rather enjoyed it’s push rather than lament the hinderance.
The rocky scoured mountains at our side felt similar to home, it reminded me of the Sutherland Estate in Scotland and for both Seumas and I seemed to reduce the sense of where we were and trick us into a sense of being close to civilisation even when we were not.
Rounding the headland into Paso Stewart and heading east, we hugged the sheltered shore and left the fetch. The cloud had parted back to sunshine which blazed an intense heat down on our backs- comfortable in the conditions we unzipped our dry-suits to relish the welcome breeze on our skin.
At our side the full might of the ice capped mountains revealed themselves- strangely we had almost become accustomed to the awe-inspiring pinnacles and shattered blue crevices in the distance yet I nor Seumas never tired of them. I spent as much time craning my neck sideways to the mountains as I did focused on where we were actually going.
Surpassing our hope of getting to the eastern fjord we settled on landing on a rocky shore early- we were getting tired of landing at dusk and the idea of an hour enjoying the sunshine ashore was very attractive. Hiding the tent amongst the bushes I set about making camp while Seumas gathered firewood on the shore. Before long we had emptied our kayaks in an explosion of gear spread out to dry and walked topless along the rounded rocks – Simply existing, warming and drying was the greatest gift the day could give.
To both our surprise the rain held off during the night and the wind remained still but we could see the clouds were moving swiftly in the distance- something was coming. Chasing the rocky shore past the bare rocky mountains of Isla Owen we turned south into a dead end fjord and towards our second portage. I was eager to spot a feature which had long since fascinated me on the map – a strip of land which stretched narrow into the fjord like a thin tail. In reality the feature was just a low bank of forested ground, but for me it meant more, it meant we were getting closer to home- the end of the journey now not only felt close but actually achievable.
Amidst the usual cathedral of spires rising against the ice which on cloudy days seemed to almost glow with a radiating blue, I spotted a strangely familiar peak. Slowly looking from map to mountain I realised why- it was familiar. On the far side of the mountain was the un-named lake which I had reached at the start of the season, I had been just over that horizon and knew what was there- it was a magical moment of perspective. We were now south of the Rio Serrano, the river I worked and loved and knowing what lay beyond the horizon had a strange comfort to it.
‘I reckon if we pause for a dinner we can make it to the end tonight!’- Seumas said summoning energy from deep down. We were getting to a position that our rations were plentiful enough that we could afford ‘Double dinners’- by taking a half an hour pause to light up our stoves on the beach and brew a quick blast of warm food for body and soul we could push on. I could see in Seumas a familiar spark, the chase of a challenge that seemed to ignite an energy in him- if we made it to the end we would for the first time break 50km in a single days paddling- the challenge was on.
Weary and tired we arrived at the end of the fjord on the edge of night. Seumas had gone into ‘beast mode’ and set off on the final few kilometres at a blistering pace to warm up before we landed- I preferred to stick to a constant rhythm and catch up on shore. Our mood was high despite the rain, we had gone further than ever before and in the morning a portage promised a whole new challenge for the day. Throwing up the tent and wading up a river to escape the brackish inlet and collect water seemed to dissolve into exhausted routine.
Pouring with rain it was a decidedly ‘Scottish’ morning. ‘we aren’t here to feed the blackflies, Lets go’ ushered Seumas as he swatted a swarm off his face. We decided to spend the morning scouting out routes before returning to the kayaks and tackle the crossing. Between us and the far side was a 2km drag over a 100m rise- of course as usual dense with thorn filled forest.
Following the river upstream our best plan of attack was to use the channel to pass as far inland as we could before pulling through the trees to cross the hill. Wading into the cold water we started to clamber inland. Under the watch of the kingfishers we climbed over trees choking the channel and found a route out onto the grassy lip of the pass- turning back we would return with the kayaks.
Floating and dragging the kayaks over the slippery fallen trees felt like proper adventure. Some pools we could paddle, others we could drag but the progress up river was largely relatively easy. On our return we had marked with a fern leaf an extraction point to leave the river and go for the hills, just before a massive log jam that would be impassable by boat. Now working as a team we returned to the same 1.2.3…pull! system that we used on our previous portage.
Slowly and steadily we hauled the boat up through the dense, thigh deep moss and thorn coated bushes. Seumas went at the stern hauling and heaving with all his might while I grabbed the bow dragging and pulling as hard as I could- covered in mud and sweat, out of breath and with beating hearts we climbed from the forest into the mist.
To our surprise on the summit of the pass an old poorly built stone cairn stood with striking similarity to the Trig Points so often found on Scotland’s mountains. We knew that this portage was a historical route of the ancient Kawésqar canoeists, but this was modern- perhaps a mark for the navy who may pass here once in a blue moon, elsewhere was no other sign of people and nor did we expect to find it.
Following the ridge line sometimes dragging alone others working as a team we slowly crossed the pass- the muddy grassland much akin to that we were used to at home. The far side was growing closer with each laboured haul. Pausing only for a quick snack on the summit we pushed our boats onto the long heathy slope and started to descend. The final hill I sat on my kayak and sledged to the bottom with a satisfied woop! We had passed our second crossing, paddling through a small lake and down a tiny channel we were back on the sea- just as the storms arrived. Hammering Mabel back into my boat we were set to go.
Pushed on the wind we rode the gusts south as a flurry of snow cast across the dark shimmering granite at our side, the landscape here was bleakly beautiful. Our bows still covered in mud, moss and leaves seemed to burst with colour against a world of grey- exhausted we searched eager to rest for a sheltered camp. For the next two days we remained ashore. Hidden on the mouth of a river in a surprisingly sheltered bay we sat under tarp and tent watching thick snowflakes flurry past our door. The water at our side was calm and inviting yet beyond the peninsula we watched distant waves crashing against the shore. To rest and recuperate felt good, we made games and read/re-read the short information printed on the back of one our maps, in those short bursts of welcome sunshine amused ourselves filming a music video to the theme of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ but to kayaks. I had been most concerned about the stretch of water ahead of us ‘Canal Collingwood to Seno Union’ was famous for it’s harsh exposed weather, so far it was playing up to the name, yet in three days of paddling we would be past it and on the home run. We did not know how long we might be stuck, but we had enough food to last and moral stayed high. Our temporary useless existence felt surprisingly useful in resting.
Waking on the third day we looked out to a calmer albeit still breezy day. We debated most of the morning about going or lingering once more. Despite what you might read in newspapers or magazines do not agree that ‘brave’ choices are the finest attribute to a kayaker- instead timid selection is more desired, it keeps us safe. The line between timidness and the right decision is as fine as bravery is to stupidity. Us two timid paddlers had huddled enough and now the chance to hesitantly step back out into the windy world beckoned us.
Early in the afternoon we packed our tents, my fingers were bitterly cold and barely working, with each knock on the plastic hatch they burned and stung with the frozen snow. Escaping the warm bubble of our tent had been difficult but we could see our chance and were taking it. Seumas set off at his usual blistering pace to warm himself up, following at his stern trying to coax my arms into a rhythm I watched as a lone spindrift flurried around our bay. To add that final element of doubt the wind built at the head of a snowstorm to a stiff blast against us, but we were off and even if we made it just a few kilometres we were doing something. Comparing ourselves to cars that first hour I was running on diesel- Seumas Jet fuel, it felt good to push hard but I was definitely lagging a little.
Reaching the end of the fjord which turned east we huddled to a kelp bed in the lee of an island. At our side was a small shingle beach- a possible if undesirable camp and a good escape option, ahead we looked out to decent sized waves which capped in white across the bay. 4km across the sound was Isla Young- shelter and a chance to rest.
In the lee of snowstorm the waves had shifted to our beam and on our back, we sat for several minutes discussing very seriously about whether it was wise to go or not- we both felt that we could handle the squalls and so set off into the open sea.
Confused and broke the waves rolled in different directions- perhaps affected by the un-predicable tide although it was hard to tell. At first the commitment had been daunting but we soon found our slow rhythm as we lost each others heads between the troughs. No more than a metre and a half at their worst the fetch was surprisingly ok. As we passed half way there was a moment- a tiny second of colliding forces that for me I will always remember, it summed in a single splash all that there is to Patagonia. – Seumas was ahead and just as he and I rose on different waves in a perfect symmetry the sun suddenly and unexpectedly burst from the dark clouds. An explosion of spray now became a shower of glittering gold, I focused on the snow capped peaks and spires ahead, the blue of the ice under the dark cloud and the nearby Giant Petrel soaring so effortlessly across the very caps of the waves, no sooner had I hit the next crest had the sun gone and all was grey once more. There in that moment was Patagonia, a single second of perfect beauty in a day of bitter digits and gritted teeth.
Reaching the far shore we rafted together to share our eleven o’clock snickers bar rations, we felt triumphant- the water was now calm and sheltered with only a gentle breeze now on our nose to fight against.
We found new motivation in rounding the island and chose to push on a little further into the heart of Canal Collingwood. Continuing for an hour down the coast and watching as the squalls grew stronger and waves higher we soon changed tack and tucked into a sheltered cleft along an otherwise un-landable shore- timing our entry we rode over a kelp bed past now substantial waves and landed on perhaps the smelliest beach yet. Several feet deep in rancid seaweed we squelched into the grass beyond and hid under the trees in a muddy hollow.
As forecasts came through on the GPS we knew we were in for another day stuck ashore and so turned off the alarms for the next morning. Little was achieved the next day, we huddled inside from the rain venturing only as far as the nearest stream. Over the night gales roared over the headland rushing through the trees and drawing deep booms of waves on the far side of the headland- hidden, sheltered and safe we listened as the storm came and went in the dark.
Emerging to a calmer day with a light following wind we turned back out into the bay and pushed south into Collingwood. Seldom pausing to talk we were content in our own quiet rhythms to reach an archipelago of islands 20km down the coast. Arriving as the sun broke through the clouds to dapple the mountainsides we found amusement in sneaking close to a sleeping sea lion who dozed none the wiser as we drew near.
As we crept along the shore with a following wind a pod of dolphin came to our side and drifted under our boats. Watching their shadows go just metres beneath my hull as others broke the surface with the gentle hiss of their breath. In the distance mountains were approaching now covered with ice once more. Watching as a naval boat steamed past we had started to see more boats in the distance, after three weeks in the fjords we were now on the main channel between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas and growing ever closer to people once more. As a torrential shower came and past we followed past waterfalls toward our final ‘Big Corner’ – around the bend were the Canal De Los Montanes- ‘The Canal of the Mountain’ and for the first time I felt close to home.