Kayaking in Patagonia Part IV
One year ago; In a tent, stormbound. Peering beyond the door, I watched as rain lashed white on windswept waves. It had been this way for 7 days. Unrelenting and unforgiving pausing only to release a thick bout of snow-‘ahh summer’. Outside, just a few metres away my client was huddled in her sleeping bag pitched as best she could on the shingle. I could hear our kayaks rattling against a gnarled tree which I had tied them to and hoped the ropes would hold with each roaring gust. She was ill and we were awaiting evacuation. It had been three days of desperate satellite calls, we did not know it but the navy had closed the ports on account of the storm.
Once in a while I would scurry across to deliver soup, tea and whatever morale I could muster. We would laugh and chat as she poked her head outside to smoke damp cigarettes interrupted with violent vomits. In a position of responsibility and with nothing I could do but wait, I had never felt so remote or so alone.
Those waking hours spent gazing into the ferocity of a Patagonian gale went slowly. I remember looking out to a distant corner beyond tremendous spiralling walls of spray whipped from the waves. I had thought beyond that bend must lie the gates of hell not a hot hell but a cold unreachable and unforgiving world not now nor ever a place for kayaks. I was comfortable knowing I would never venture there but curiosity did creep into daydreams. We were after all in the ‘Canal of the Mountains’ even if I had only seen a few hundred metres of trees cut off by cloud what we had found had a harsh beauty to it, never have I seen such mercilessly heavy and unrelenting rain. What lay around that corner would, I presumed, forever remain a mystery.
Today Seumas and I were paddling home from the ‘other side’ of that bend.
In familiar ground for the first time in almost a month I found myself looking back at that beach with whole new eyes. Then it had been the most remote and lonely place on earth now it marked the beginning of the end- I was comforted by the thought we were close to home. We had long debated the choice of venturing into the Canal De Los Montanes [Canal of the Mountains] and had decided to let weather and energy decide. There was no doubt now that we would make it home in-fact we had almost enough food and fuel left to turn around and go back to the start, neither of us wanted to return to the ‘city’ yet. The idea of ‘glacier bagging’ one last time was too great, at the mouth of the canal we turned away from the channel leading back to town and went north, back to the wild and ice.
We were no longer totally alone and started to see fishing boats pass along the channel, some of them were close enough to see other people which to our excitement waved back from a distance- first contact we joked. Our more familiar friends; the dolphin escorted us toward the next glacier: Zamudio. It was the first time I had seen this place free of cloud, there were mountains up there and they were spectacular.
Reaching a familiar line of rocks that sheltered the short fjord to Zamudio we turned in and pulled our boats onto the shingle shore. Setting camp on the exact same patch I had a year ago we watched ice falling from the face while nestled in our sleeping bags with a double ration of dinner.
Unsurprisingly, camping in-front of a massive wall of tumbling ice meant we froze in the night. Waking to heavy patters of slushy rain did little to stir us from our comfortable bed the next morning, but by coffee number 3 the urge to pee over-rode the longing to huddle inside.
When we could procrastinate no longer and after much rubbing of toes to stir some life into them we were back in the water. Fighting a stiff wind we set our course to the next glacier: Bernal . In similar conditions to what I remembered the year before where Bernal had been the ultimate turnaround point of my last trip we slowly crept north. We had noticed that in a strong wind we often travelled faster, without pausing to talk putting effort instead into pulling motion from the ocean we went into what we called ‘beast’ mode.
I was driven by a long wanted urge to go beyond this spot and complete the canal, the thought of closing the chapter on what I felt was an unfinished story here was deeply alluring.
Landing on a rocky moraine and clambering up onto a house sized rock felt eerily similar to how I remembered it, yep It was still wet and still cold here.
Dragging the kayaks over the loose boulders we moved inland. Paddling along the shallow channels of meltwater toward the ice we hoped to explore the face. Filled with silt the water had a deep azure hue as if it remembered the sapphire hue of the crevasse it had just flowed, the contrast to the bleakness of the wet rocks was awesome. Larger than the last glacier Bernal’s shallow wide face gave the chance to get close safely. We had long forgotten about making passage and instead ‘wasted’ time the sea and the time of day, now lost in the awesome scale of the ice.
Eager to tick a long sought after goal I hauled my kayak into the mouth of the ice and followed into the dark blue cave. I hoped to ride the river along the winding channel in the ice that led past the face of the glacier- technically riding an ice river. Much to Seumas’s amusement on the first corner I crashed, got stuck and in attempting to get out skidded on the slippery bed and bobbed off down-steam into the lake…ah well box ticked.
As we left an unexpected burst of sun brought a radiance of colour to the water and a golden glow on the rocks. Still hoping to reach the next fjord before night we paddled back to the sea comforted by knowing we could return here, just across the fjord was our chance to portage across the hills and go home later in the week.
It is perhaps the unexpected surprises that holds the most value, arriving at the head of the next fjord and catching a glimpse into a deep dead end scar in the mountains, we chose to use the last of the light to venture inside. What we discovered was perhaps the most spectacular hidden world of our journey.
Following Seumas who led the way I entered into a world sunk between thousands of metres of rock. Swallowed into shadow I craned my neck upward to mist veiled spires and arêtes which gave way to impossibly steep glaciers. At our side the autumn shades of hardy trees clinging to the shore burst reds and oranges to an otherwise harsh grey world. This valley was alive and rumbled with booms of avalanches cascading to the sea from the clouds above. Each corner revealed a new more spectacular wall of ice which dwarfed us into insignificance on the water. In a hushed voice as if not to disturb something Seumas muttered Wow.
The allure of the fjord made us forget about the night and we arrived back to the main Canal on the edge of night. By the time we pulled our kayaks from the water we were under head-torch and seeking what ever small patch we could to pitch our camp. Hiding in the shingle beneath the rocks we laid plans to reach the top of the canal the next day. Chasing rainbows north under light drizzle we paddled north on a mercury smooth mirror, in absence of the usual wind only distant booms of ice hidden in unseen fjords broke the air. We paddled with hope, ahead of the bows were two more fjords to detour into and a band of blue sky ahead. Arriving just as the sun burst onto the mountains in full blazing glory we pulled our kayaks onto the freshly exposed rocky slabs and spread out for lunch in-front of a might glacier. We stayed on the rocks for a long time, simply existing and absorbing the views. I played balance tricks on my kayaks while Seumas explored the shore, we both soaked in the sun and the view with delight and even brewed a hot dinner for lunch, this was exploring done properly! Whenever a calving occurred we both reeled around to eagerly watch the explosion of ice and waves at the face but after spotting a lone iceberg some 5m above the rest on the rocks we decided not to test the size these calves could get. Just two km ahead was the next glacier to find.
The last fjord held the most ice yet. Two near vertical walls amidst a narrow channel of sheer overhanging rock. We did not linger long incase the ice fell from the face and was amplified into a tidal wave in the narrows between the mountains, but the time we did spend we played like kids in sweet shop amidst the icebergs. Following the shore in the last of the evening light I followed the familiar peak above the ‘unknown lake’- we had now nearly circumnavigated it. As we landed at the river mouth at the top of the fjord we made Chewbacca impressions back at a nearby seal colony. We had made it to the top of the fjord, but it wasn’t the end.
Let’s go up it! With time and energy still to spare we decided to explore the river and portage uphill as far as we could for a day. When we thought we had gone far enough we would turn round and start paddling south toward the portage. Unfortunately overnight I had taken ill and spent most of it vomiting outside in the cold while Seumas slept blissfully. At least the full moon had given a spectacular if a little queasy view. Recovered-ish by my second coffee I suited up and we set off.
It was a glorious day and we soon found ourselves totally immersed in lining, paddling and weaving our way inland. It was hard for me at first as I felt weak but soon forgot as the numbness of my toes over-rode the feeling, no more than an hour into our exploration that we decided to abandon the idea of paddling south and instead go as far inland as we could. Feeling like ‘proper’ explorers we pulled our boats around fallen trees moving slowly upstream. We hoped to find a place to look into the mountains.
Reaching a confluence between a number of small tributaries we had reached a point where returning before nightfall would be getting difficult. We had made it some 8km upstream. Spotting a gigantic salmon in the clear water of the tributary Seumas immediately set about stalking it into the shallows with determination to catch one with a noose.. Eager to find that final view I pushed on alone around the next few bends before re-joining him to return to the sea. I did wonder if we could get to the lake beyond the horizon, I knew there was one more glacier- yet it would be there for another journey.
The next morning we turned south and on a strong following wind surfed most of the way down the fjord to return to Bernal Glacier. Seumas had decided early in the day to answer everytime I spoke with blaaarrrggg arrrrggg sounds in imitation of the seals. I knew if I showed irritation that would be it for the rest of the day, I could see he was greatly amused with it…to be honest so was I. Only when we surfed with a whooop onto the moraine infront of the ice did he forget for a moment- This is Special… Ahhh f**k he said then blurted as he realised. Game over.
Before dragging over the portage the next day we decided to camp in-front of Bernal so set about returning along the narrow channels. Treated to a spectacular sunset and clear starry night we shared one last evening of ice booms and views.
To our surprise we were hammered with wind overnight- around 2am I had to jump outside and scavenge massive rocks from the moraine to weigh down the boats and guy lines while Seumas clung onto the inside of the tent. By morning the calm had returned and the only evidence were the rocks now frozen to our boats. After a chilled morning and a brief skinny dip (Very Brief) we found an overwhelming urge to stay. Aspirations of resting quickly became a mission to climb as high up the nearest mountain as we could. Spreading out out clothes on a line we plucked gear into our bags and set off toward the far wall.
Clambering through massive loose boulders we found ourselves in the forest. After a failed attempt to clamber through a near vertical wall we bashed through the bushes and found a very steep but passable route to the open ground.
As we grew higher the barren grass and rocks grew steeper and steeper. We were hot, even in T-shirts the sun cooked on our backs. Below the braided channels and long tongue of the glacier spread out in a glorious vista before the Canal. Reaching about 2500ft we found ourselves on snow. Now cutting steps with a rock in the near icy slopes we quickly realised this was probably not the best idea. To this day it is the highest place I have ever made it in wet-suit shoes. Sacrificing the summit which we knew we would never reach we instead clambered onto a large rock to look over the view both above and below. Pat-a-fucking-gonia! Seumas yelled into the silence from the top! This was the highest point in mood and elevation of a fantastically unplanned day. Back at camp we sipped coffee, double dinner rationed and prepared for a final portage before home.
Unlike any other portage this was one I had been given ‘intel’ on by my old boss. He had described it as ‘a simple bog drag’ which we hoped would take us no more than half a day. Lingering on crossing the fjord as we took hundreds of photos of the mirror perfect reflections it was almost 11am before we reached the other side. To our surprise finding a small wooden sign on the shore- People had been here before!
Exploring up a narrow river took us far inland quite quickly. The channel often allowed us to punt and paddle our way through wonderfully vibrant autumn forest with relative ease. I started to find hope that this would be a breeze and we would be on the other side in no time; I was wrong. Gladiator. Ready! Together we lurched forward, using our weight to pull with all our might on the kayak which slid forward a metre. Slow and steady we counted down, pulled and moved. Dragging in stages we tackled the first of two brutally steep and unrelenting slopes. Not exactly the ‘bog drag’ we had imagined, instead finding a brutally steep hill on the far side of the ‘half way’ lake. There was an unspoken satisfaction, our combined stubbornness against the effort gave a masochistic reward. This was exactly how leaving the west fjords should be, hard work and as a team.
With my boat on the summit pass we were now some 200m above the sea level which rippled satisfyingly below. Resting the boats by an old wooden sign which read ‘Mirador de Viento’ (View of the wind) we went back for the next. The signs of people felt strangely intrusive after so long without them.
With a system in place and now feeling ‘warmed up’ we took much less time in getting the next boat to the top, just over 7 minutes was pretty satisfying even if we were gasping for breath and red in the cheeks by the top.
Both of us had assumed that this was the end of the ‘hard part’ and that going down would be easy- we were wrong. ‘It’s bloody steep!’ Seumas bellowed from a thicket of trees ahead. I could hear the creak of ropes as he started to lower it on a friction abseil.
Descending together we moved slowly in short rope lengths. Using our tow lines, slings and spare rope from the tarp we shifted the weight in double backed up descends- should one rope snap then the next should catch it- to loose the boat entirely would be seriously dangerous to the person below.
It was turning into dusk by the time we reached the water. Behind us a narrow v in the otherwise impenetrable wall of rock stood like a towering gate, beyond dark brooding storm clouds approached, ahead in the distance familiar mountains rose in sunshine, sometimes nature makes its own metaphors- we were almost home.
Enjoying a gentle day we paddled along the fjord toward the widening skyline ahead. It truly felt like we were escaping the mountains and heading toward the pampas. There was a soft light which I realised was the first proper sunrise unhindered by mountains we had seen in over a month.
Heading toward Cerro More the mountain which stood over the north of Puerto Natales we moved effortlessly closer to the distant hum of the many fish farms that spread across the shore. Where there were people there was trash, the sad reality of beaches covered in colourful bags, pipes and rope which until now had been such a rare and intriguing sight, yet even this couldn’t dampen a rising excitement of seeing people again.
Of course it wouldn’t be the end without one last flurry of wind. Going for distance with the hope of getting close to Puerto Natales for a mid-afternoon finish the next day we suddenly saw a familiar darkness ahead on the water. A stiff headwind soon brought good metre plus waves which now seemed to pass with ease under the usual ‘head down’ push.
Tired and searching for camp we came across a new problem; water. Away from the mountains we struggled to find a river, tempted to stay on the finest cow mown grassy peninsula we resisted and continued in search of a stream. Ahead now lay an enormous sky and thin pencil line horizon, the sense of open space was overwhelming.
Landing on a sandy beach I left Seumas who was just as cold and tired as I to sit ashore. Running toward a house in the trees I found myself feeling nervous- this was the first house we had seen in months, would there be someone home? Would they be friendly? Could I still muster a basic Spanish conversation? The thought of speaking to someone else was a little daunting.
I cannot imagine the surprise on the farmer who answered, the weathered smile of an elderly man greeted me at the door- I was wet, dripping and shivering. Aqua? Ci!! I stepped inside and shook his hand, the humble room was filled with the smell of freshly cooked lamb which I looked longingly at on the stove, I couldn’t stay we had to find camp before dark. Our contact was brief, but ended an era. We were back to civilisation.
Camped a kilometre away in a field we dragged the kayaks under a barbed wire fence and spread out one last time. Our final night was one of stars and reflection and double dinner rations.
Spilling my coffee over my sleeping bag didn’t matter- it was our last morning, staying dry no longer mattered. Our day started with great amusement, it had frozen solid overnight well into the minuses and the wet wipes had frozen. Chipping chunks of wipe-ables and wandering off to the bushes I laughed hard as seumas tried to cook his portion in the pan.
Giggling subsided and toes almost warmed up we pushed off with the crunch of ice that covered the sea in a thin layer. It was a glorious day, with no wind and calm seas we would be finished early. ‘Just listen to it‘ Seumas muttered- the sounds of people, the gentle hum of cars and clunks of industry broke the air- we could see the fog of exhausts hanging over the town in the temperature inversion. But below those distant shimmering houses were our friends, beer and a hot shower.
Flamingos! I shouted with a chuckle, a large raft of pink bobbed between us an the distant shining rooftops of Puerto Natales. It seemed the unlikeliest of sights, nearby a small penguin swam about the calm water. It was the final swan (well flamingo) song of the journey.
Landing in the harbour we dragged our boats into the mud one last time. We gave each other a quick hug, high fived our paddles and drank the little bottles of whisky that had come all this way in our Buoyancy aids. It felt funny merging with the people by the cafe nearby, we felt so achieved but to them we were nobody and few paid any attention- the satisfaction was ours and ours alone until we could share our story with friends and family. 32 days- 12 glaciers, 840km, two friends and a lifetime of memories. Struggling to portage the kayaks back to the office at Dittmar and meet our friends at Erratic Rock Hostel, we were given our first introduction to town by the kindness of a stranger- Victor, an elderly gentleman who stopped his car to offer a rather interesting lift home and insisted on a humble dinner with his wife; it was good to be back.
Massive thanks to all those who followed us. For the above for supporting us and for Dittmar & Tutravesia for a fantastic season working as a guide and the lend of the kayaks. Also to Erratic Rock and everyone there for being the best friends anyone could ever hope for and the best of reasons to make it home safe. We will be back.