EXPEDITION BETWEEN PUERTO NATALES & PUNTA ARENAS
Time: 15 Days
There are a few places in the world that conjure adventurous excitement. The Strait of Magellan is one of them. Notoriously difficult for sailors to navigate, it is narrow with unpredictable wind and tides. Yet for centuries has been the destination of legendary explorers who seek to sneak past the rougher Drake passage or pause en-route to Antartica. Names like, Francis Drake, Shackleton, Captain Scott and of course Ferdinand Magellan himself. As Seumas returned and we donned our shiny new Kokatat drysuits we couldn’t help but think of them to muster courage before our own adventure.
450 kilometres between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas lay ahead. Our second Kayak expedition, a continuation of our last, had begun.
The true masters of the fjords were not those burly explorers, however. For thousands of years the indigenous natives excelled in one of the worlds harshest environments. We would be paddling through the historic territories of the Alacalufe, also known as the Kawéskar, a nomadic hunter gatherer people who travelled like us, but canoe. They didn’t have the luxury of Gore-Tex, but goose fat and fires lit aboard. Whilst European disease and extermination campaigns in the early 19th century largely illuminated them, their legacy will never be forgotten in local culture, nor should it be from one paddler to another. It is easy to see how the encounters between western explorers and the Patagonian native tribes of the Alacaluf and Kaweskar were met with curious respect.
‘The eyes of the entire Navy are on you this month – good luck’ said the new captain of Puerto Natales’ naval armada as he shook my hand with stern approval. Weeks of planning and arrangements for meetings, inspections, and even a formal PowerPoint slideshow describing our plans, were over. At last we had the notoriously difficult-to-obtain red stamp of approval from the Navy. We were finally free to explore the fjords of Patagonia.
Helped by ‘Mono’ (Cris) and Leslie, my friends, employers and owners at Kayak and Patagonia, we started our journey early at Seno Obstruccion a morning drive south of Puerto Natales. We packed the kayaks that Cris had kindly lent us with over 100kg of gear and food and set off at a confident pace. ‘Suerte Amigo’ (good luck, friend) Cris called as we left.
47km on calm conditions brought us close to darkness. An autumn trip was a compromise; the lack of light was the price we paid in exchange for calmer conditions than the longer, warmer days of summer. We had almost forgotten how hard it can be to find camp in Patagonia. What little coastline that isn’t bare rock polished smooth by wind is swamped in overhanging forest, impenetrable and full of thorns. Experience had taught us that refuge could often be found at the deltas of large rivers, perching on the shingle just above the tide. We landed on our first night under the glow of head torches.
I am a firm believer that a ‘proper’ Patagonian kayak adventure should involve at least one portage. There is something about the heinous activity of dragging kayaks between fjords that amplifies the sense of leaving the civilised world. Following Kawéskar routes long forgotten and overgrown, we had a common goal in our portages, to avoid the severe conditions of the western Pacific and make safer, swifter passage inland.
A series of short, strenuous bog drags and windy paddles on inland lakes brought us through the first portage with relative ease. To our surprise, a local venture had built a path on the first section, and much to Seumas’s delight he found a spoon to replace the one he had forgotten, an unlikely bit of luck in such wilderness. Over our drysuits we wore cheap oilskins to protect the Gore-Tex and, looking like two fishermen, we arrived into Seno Skyring amidst flurries of snow at the edge of nightfall. A quick race across the fjord found a passable campsite amidst the bogs and bushes, not perfect but enough for the night.
Skyring was the first of two inland seas between which we hoped to pass. Connected to the open ocean by a long fjord barely a kilometre wide, the 80-by-16km sound promised tremendous tides further down the channel. It was the third day. We were already a full day ahead, so with the extra time we decided to detour south into a narrow dead-end fjord evocatively named the Estrecho De Ventisquero (Strait of the Glacier).
Lining our kayaks past the end of the fjord, we ended a day’s paddle in the rain with a promise of sun. The precipitation hadn’t stopped since we began and already we referred to the weather as ‘Rain,’ ‘Hard Rain’ (hail), ‘White Rain’ (snow) or ‘S’ (we never mentioned sun lest we jinx it). But as we arrived into a mirror-calm lake, crammed with icebergs, our hearts lifted to see the clouds part. Mist unfurled from the long tongue of a fractured glacier and, slowly, the spired pinnacles of the Gran Campo Nevado mountain range drifted into view. We lived for these short hours. To rest totally alone, in a place so normally cold and harsh, amidst sun and the splendour of floating ice felt thoroughly earned.
Returning to Skyring the next day, we rounded an exposed headland with a welcome tailwind and turned south into the narrow confines of Seno Gajardo. We expected tides – the channel was barely 100m wide and less than 10m deep at its narrowest point – and sure enough found them as we ventured closer. The currents here were as unpredictable as the weather, changing and skipping direction whenever it suited them. The conflicting inflows and outflows brought step tides, surges, and diurnal rises and falls in a chaotic confusion. Our best effort was to make use of eddies and sneak along the shore. Entering Gajardo felt like we were cutting into the true heart of the mountains as the walls steepened and the shores became less and less forgiving. Yet there was an advantage to these narrow channels: they brought shelter from the winds, and escaped the ocean swell entirely.
Rain lashed in curtains across our bows amidst the tremendous roar of hundreds of waterfalls threading their way from ice and granite walls to the dense vegetation on the shore. By now everything inside and outside our kayaks was saturated. Water had come to define our trip; whether paddling on it, living in it, or hiding from it, embracing this cold, damp world we had placed ourselves within, we both battled and admired it. Drifting between icebergs, we pushed through a gateway of vertical rock, the narrowest point of Canal Gajardo. Like a beast disturbed and awakened, gut-wrenching booms rumbled from a glacier beyond a sea of ice.
Luckily the expected tide was flowing south, gentler than we had anticipated. It pushed us at a couple of knots through the narrows alongside the icebergs; as we rounded the corner, we drifted into a field of ice ahead of the calving glacier. In the rain and wind we didn’t venture too close lest the ice pack up and crush us amidst it, yet from afar the grandeur of the floe seemed greater in the brutal conditions.
After a nervous night spent watching the step tides rise alarmingly close to our camp, we set off south along the fjord. As the icebergs melted smaller into little chunks at our sides the mountains rose into spectacular granite walls. Should climate change ever make them dry, surely climbers would flock from all around. Alas, it was still raining.
Over the next few days, we paddled through the unceasing rain towards our next portage. Making the committing ‘open’ crossings past the end of Canal Gajardo in a welcome calm window. Long races against the daylight often meant late camps and exhausted final ours. It was here we had perhaps our least favourite camp as one evening we arrived to the inlet marked on our map only to discover an in construction fish farm. It was noisy, industrial and smelly. Our camp, hidden in the trees was wet and lumpy. In an instant our sense of wilderness broke, for just one night. Chile is sneaking more and more of these farms into the wilderness, as is the encroachment of Kelp dredging. Both are invasive and offensive to see in such an otherwise pristine area of untouched beauty. One thing I noticed most of all was the immediate presence of rubbish on the shoreline, wherever and whenever we strayed near such a farm or into the shipping lanes. It is clear, where people travel we leave our mark.
Despite all this however, wildlife sightings were prolific. With occasional otters curiously inspecting our boats, and penguins diving shyly into the water as we approached. Hummingbirds would fly from the bushes at the sight of our colourful kayaks, expecting the biggest flower they had ever seen, whilst giant petrels and black-browed albatross soared gracefully by. Fur seals and sea lions uttered Chewbacca-like growls from rocky colonies and dolphins slipped past in our wake.
Our second portage was a series of lochs and drags like the last. This time without a nice path to follow and an air of mystery beyond the final loch. One map said it was intertidal, the other did not [it wasn’t]. Encamped under the tarp on the first loch, we scouted and planned our approach. Drag, and haul was the only option. Brilliant!
Sunshine burst between snow showers as we slowly made our way across the hills. ‘Gladiator Ready’ and ‘Pull’ called between each lumbered step, boat in hand and teeth gritted in happy determination.
I had been reading the story of Shackleton’s adventures, while Seumas who had just finished an account of the history of the British SBS (Special Boat Service) now turned to that of Captain Scott. We started to refer to things in ‘golden era’ phrases, ‘a mild day = a storm’, a hard step ‘a minor inconvenience.’ We soon decided that the greatest goal any modern adventurer could aim to reach would be in the eyes of Shackleton ‘an able fellow.’ – to be described as ‘Hard or Capable’ far beyond the reaches of soft modern standards.
At the end of the drag, we reached the ‘intertidal loch’ only to discover the water was fresh. Much to our relief a hundred metres of class II or low class III separated us from the sea. Had we not had 90kg of kit in borrowed boats, I would have easily considered straight running it, but the sharp rocks risked damage too easily. Instead we carefully lined our way down to the sea along the edges.
A short crossing in some fierce snow storms and headwinds brought us to a sheltered camp high above the shore. Spin-drifts were whirling around the fjord, and the forecast bore clear sign of a day ashore the next morning. Pitching up for a long stay, we settled into a day ‘storm bound.’
Stormbound for the first time, at the far end of our second portage we looked ahead to Canal Jeronimo and the oncoming crossings of Cabo Crosstide and into the Strait of Magellan with trepidation. Jeronimo was the second and only other channel to drain Skyring, with the addition of a second inland sea, Seno Otway, huge tides were a given here. Never have I found such unpredictable and hard to read tides as in Patagonia, there are diurnals and semi-diurnals, step tides and surges. All in a single tide. This was the navionic prediction for the morning of our route into Jeronimo, it didn’t even come close to matching what we found.
Working through eddies on the coast we were making 2-3 knots on the backward whirls, in the middle of the strait 7-8 knots flowed in standing waves hard against us. This was pure and brilliant reactive sea kayaking. Seumas and I worked all of our experience, skill and strength to make passage against the flows. Occasionally we would have to sneak through small headlands with considerable effort to progress at all even at a sprint. Seumas took the prize for ‘most exciting moment’ as we passed a large sea lion colony. I went wide, paddling furiously into the flow at barely any movement, he went close in the eddie. Many ‘disgruntled’ seals reared up at his bow ensuring he paddled a little more spiritedly past that particular headland- much to our mutual amusement. Perhaps the most magical part of this was the immense kelp forests which swayed beneath us as we went, truly a remarkable sight to behold. In an ideal world we would wait for the turn of the tide, but at this time of the season it wasn’t an option.
A distant pod of whales greeted our arrival at the infamous Strait of Magellan. It was a special moment for both of us to arrive here. It had been a huge unknown whether we would make it this far. Without needing to take our escape options east through Skyring or Otway were were here at last. We had long known the legends and stories of this place, and had both read the accounts of Darwin, Magellan, and even Shackleton, who had all passed this way. But we couldn’t linger more than a chocolate bar, by good fortune the tide was slackening. If we were to round the infamous Cabo Crosstide and cross the strait we had to go. Now!
Fighting across a strong flow to cross the strait, we bounced through the notoriously rough Cabo Crosstide and into the lee of Carlos III Island, triumphant and ready to tackle our final glacier before the long paddle home. Even on the brink of slack tide, the point had been a fair bounce, this would not be a place to mess with in foul weather. It reminded me a little of Scotland’s ‘The Swilkie’ off the north end of Stroma in the Pentland firth.
The autumn colours had arrived, giving warm contrast to the deep blues of the ice floating in Seno Ballena. All morning we had chased the whales to which the fjord owed its name and arrived to the glacier earlier than expected. With the extra time, we explored amongst the floating ice long into the afternoon before turning back towards the Strait of Magellan and home. There are few places I have ever seen as magical as this particular fjord. Perhaps it was the relaxed lunch on an island in-front of the ice, or the time to explore and linger, or the sheer scale of it all. In short- truly awesome.
We turned with hopes that the gales forecast the following day would blow us into Carlos III island for shelter. There was an eco camp settlement on the northern side which may be our sanctuary until an approaching miracle calm window was arriving, – maybe just long enough to round the roughest part of our expedition in good conditions.
Landing after a short blast in a stiff wind, we arrived onto the pier at Carlos III. Fishermen from a moored on the pier looked on with admiration as we crawled from our kayaks. The caretaker arrived and immediately offered us a bed, free of charge in the eco tents, little domes hidden in the forest. But before that we were whisked away on a zodiac by a french film crew, also moored off the island. The chilean captain of the chartered yacht had served his training in Scotland, and was ecstatic to have us aboard. In less that an hour everything had become suddenly very civilised. We had our first shower, tea, cakes and coffee in the company of the crew. The star of the show was Jaques Cousteau’s grand-daughter. Stuffed, we returned to camp only to be beckoned into the fishermen’s boat for a round of coffee, bread, lamb and cheese.
By dinner number 3 with the caretaker we were feeling truly bloated, tired and delighted to have made the call to stay. Offshore, white horses ripped past the straight with frightening ferocity. The hospitality of all we met was beyond expectation. All we had hoped for was a nice spot to camp.
Famously rough and dangerous, the Strait of Magellan has wrecked many boats, and during our day on the island I could see why. Spindrift and strong winds strengthened the waves that funnelled directly down the strait without a chance of shelter. I felt nervous watching them all evening. But, waking to calm seas before the sun rose, we set off with a renewed confidence and a focused pace, intent on making distance. The race was on!
For the first hour we had tide at our back, launching a good head start across the fjord and down the far shore. When it did eventually turn against us, it would do so for the next 9 hours. We took few brakes, racing as hard as we could in such calm weather.
It was a pleasant surprise that for the majority, the shore was actually very land-able shingle bays. Not the gnar I had expected, and probably the safest point of our trip so far, as landings were concerned. The exceptions were Cabo Holland, a rocky cliff lined peninsula of windswept trees and craggy shores, and the infamous Cabo Froward, still far ahead on the horizon.
Paddling hard we made 60km along a surf-beaten coastline before darkness. On the edge of night we set camp just a few miles west of the cape, exhausted but confident we may pass the final hour round the corner in the morning. With a fire on the shore, we spent a comfortable night under a spectacularly rare starry sky. A good omen, I thought.
From camp we could see the famous 30m-high Christian cross erected atop the peninsula. It took less than an hour from our tents to round the headland, making best use of the calm conditions at dawn to reach the lighthouse. Here we threw our paddles triumphantly in the air. This desolate outcrop marked more than our southernmost point, but also the completion of our final major commitment. From here, we knew we would make it home regardless of the conditions and were at last able to explore the coast at our leisure without the pressure to make passage whilst good weather lasted.
A quick pause to climb the 320m peak and ascend the lighthouse marked the final crux complete. A final two days north to our end point now easily in sight, we turned our thoughts to home. Another chapter came to a close, the next one opening around the corner. . . We hoped to stretch our legs in Argentina’s Fitz Roy national park before our flights.
For 15 days Seumas and I had relied on each other utterly – not only for safety, but also for companionship. Our second expedition here had been one of as much laughter and adventure as hardship and effort. Our friendship is perhaps deepened by the challenges of our two southern journeys, which now total over 1,000km through Patagonia’s fjords, and reflections on the momentary challenges of wind, cold and rain soon fade whilst the highlights remain etched in memory. Humbled and inspired by the western edge of Patagonia, discussions on our final day turned away from thoughts of home comforts toward when we would return and what would be next: a sure sign of a successful adventure.