We paddled hard against the rain and wind. We didn’t know what the conditions would bring, or the river, but we had a pump and I at least knew the way to the start. We would simply have to improvise.
In medieval folklore, a mythical island known as Ultima Thule was foretold in the north. It was a land beyond the borders of the known world, guarded by an element neither sea, nor land, nor sky – it was guarded by icebergs.
Since first learning of Lago Geike in my first guiding season on the Rio Serrano it had become a personal obsession, my own Southern Ultima Thule. Each trip I led, I passed the murky brown outwash where trees lay swept from a horizon of rock and ice, tantalisingly distant yet seemingly still reachable. I had seen the tips of monstrous icebergs roll behind the distant hills; I had heard the rumbles of ice plummeting from cliffs in the calm of night. I left last year with the Geike unconquered and still little more to me than a distant myth. This year, I returned.
Chasing the river into the fading light of a relentless rainstorm I paddled side-by-side with a new guide and friend, Matt Smith, working the river together for the season. Alongside him, I was at last chasing my own Ultima Thule.
‘Hey dude, where’s your spraydeck?’ Matt asked, as we watched the truck disappear into the distance. Shit! I had left it on the back seat. Heading three days into the Patagonian wilderness without a spray-deck made me feel like a proper idiot, but Matt broke the tension with a laugh: ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘My deck doesn’t even fit.’ He’d forgotten to check his personal gear fitted the new boat.
And so we, two apparently qualified guides, set out for a committing expedition into the wild of the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park without the proper gear. The Deckless Canoe Shit-show Expedition, as we now dubbed it, began in good humour as we paddled hard against the rain and wind. We didn’t know what the conditions would bring, or the river, but we had a pump and I at least knew the way to the start. We would simply have to improvise.
Heads down and paddles forward, we pushed hard past the many meandering curves of the Serrano’s winding channel. Our hopes of running the waterfall was dashed by our lack of spraydecks but gave us a good excuse to avoid the freezing plunge. We focused instead on breaking ‘the windy gap’ and reaching our sheltered camp in the forest on the far side. Matt, like I the year before, was experiencing the Serrano for the first time. The vista was shrouded by cloud and our attention was left to keeping waves from the decks and staying warm.
Craving cups of hot Maté, we sheltered beneath a rain-beaten tarp. The air was filled with the gentle scent of cinnamon that lifted from the leaves of the Nirre birch. Woodpeckers warbled from branches nearby. As the light faded to a dull grey, we wandered uphill to scout our route. The wide expanse of the Geike delta promised a clear path to the southern end of the outwash plain, and we slept hoping for sun the next day.
Under dappled morning sunlight streaming through the foliage, Matt and I packed slowly. The sun’s welcome warmth had allowed us to dry out our sodden dry-suits. I was mentally preparing for a long day’s hard portage with freezing toes in 2ºC water. Our aim was to reach the head of the river before sunset. 14.2km of lining awaited.
It’s a safe bet that when Jonny Cash wrote ‘Walk the Line’, he wasn’t singing about towing kayaks. Portage is a cold clutch on a stiff line, strenuous wading, and challenging navigation through dense woodland. Following a narrow offshoot channel from the Geike’s main flow, I showed Matt the bow/stern lining technique and promptly got stuck in a tree.
Poking from the clouds, the Torres Del Paine range towered against the horizon. To me, it was a familiar sight made special, seen from this new perspective. Following our vague plan to skirt the smaller channels along the edge of the floodplain, we aimed toward the brow of a thick forest to the south. Paddling where we possible, and towing the rest, we found our bow/stern lining technique an effective method of quickly covering ground with relative ease.
Predictably unpredictable, Patagonia’s schizophrenic climate delivered a feisty flurry of intense wind and hail. The sudden blast moved quickly as we moved slower with gritted teeth but passing as quickly as it had arrived and we were soon in blazing sunshine once again.
We discovered a small shack built by the ‘Hermit of the Balmaceda’ (a local Gaucho named Pekein). Sat in the sun with our poor maps and some warming Maté, we stared out at an expanse of open shale ahead. We were only a third of our way up the route and it had taken three hours to reach the shack. We could still see our camp behind us. Scale in such a wilderness is hard to gauge and we were forced to trust in our two maps; both different, but both agreeing there was still a long way to go. Our biggest hope was to find a navigable path through the narrow gap in the hill far ahead; there the river would be squeezed and surely move more swiftly. Only time would tell.
Heading into the southern bend of the river we watched the ice sheet hanging ahead once again swallowed by an ominous dark wall of cloud. A second blasting wave of wind and snow approached. Moving as swiftly as we could, we waded, hauled, and dragged the boats between channels, often heaving over open shingle as far as possible before it hit. Swallowed into a world of cold grey with our hoods down and teeth gritted we pushed on into a heavy snowstorm. Thick wet slush seeped through my dry-suit quickly overcoming any warmth; there was no longer feeling in my fingers and my cheeks burned red against the wind. In some strange, masochistic way, this to me is the most fun – that moment when the end of hardship is in sight, but still not quite there. A soon-to-come appreciation of getting past what you once cursed. Type-Two fun.
Swallowed into a world of cold grey with our hoods down and teeth gritted we pushed on into a heavy snowstorm. Thick wet slush seeped through my dry-suit quickly overcoming any warmth; there was no longer feeling in my fingers and my cheeks burned red against the wind.
Turning a final corner and paddling hard against the current, we emerged into a land dominated by thousands of icebergs, surrounded by mountains, and viewed by precious few people before us.
Unpredictable as ever, the intensity of the weather’s power seemed amplified by the sudden arrival of sun strong enough to melt warmth back into our hands. The dark surface of the outwash plain, covered in soft pillows of moss and shrub, now steamed in a low band of mist. The pointed summit of Donoso swept by cloud now dominated the horizon at our side like a Kamchatkan volcano.
Around two thirds of the way up the river we approached the ‘narrows.’ Here the river banks grew tall and steep and the current now rose in small, breaking waves around lone boulders in the channel. Progress became difficult. Working as a team, we clipped our kayaks side-by-side and tied the lines to double their length. Taking turns to heave the boats against the flow from the top of the bank, we made effective progress past the hardest section and, to our delight, after ferry-gliding past an iceberg, we found a current-free channel to paddle. Our maps’ inaccuracies now apparent, we eventually figured out how to locate ourselves on the poorly detailed chart. One last small paddle past the terminal moraine was all that was left; we had almost made it into the mythical Lago Geike.
Turning a final corner and paddling hard against the current, we emerged into a land dominated by thousands of icebergs, surrounded by mountains, and viewed by precious few people before us. Arriving with the last few rays of golden light, we tentatively snuck into a world guarded by neither sea, nor land, nor sky. Radiating blue, the ice reflected against the golden mercury surface of the lake. Enthralled we drifted through the sea of ice. Ahead the clouds parted, leaving curtains of falling snow lit like golden veils against the cold blue glacier hanging over the dark cliffs around us. In the distance, the mighty Cerro Balmaceda emerged for just a few precious moments between the cloud to reveal a terrific pointed spire in the mist.
Leaping between the icebergs we enjoyed our victory, yet as the light slowly faded we knew we had to find a place to camp. Hauling the kayaks onto our shoulders for a short scramble to the top of a nearby moraine, we found a small, level, rocky shingle pitch amongst a chaos of boulders. Perched above the icebergs, we cooked bacon, brewed Maté, and watched our new mythical world descend into darkness. Deciding that the morning mission would be dragging the boats over the ice in hope of a distant glimpse of the Geike glacier, we rested early.
As the new day dawned, we woke to a surprising gift. The gentle wind had changed and swept a perfect channel between the leviathan icebergs. Our pristine path to reach the glacier was now mirror-calm and ice-free. Not only might we see the ice-field, but perhaps we would even be able to touch it.
The scale of Patagonia’s vast, open spaces is one I am still unable to quite describe. At our bows a vast sweeping tongue of deep blue swept inland to distant snow-coated nunataks far away on the horizon. The Geike glacier seemed a short and simple paddle ahead, yet an hour’s steady, rhythmic paddling still left a considerable distance to cover. Hugging a shoreline of bare rock freshly scoured by receding ice and towering waterfalls, eventually we landed upon the very edge of the glacier, gazing up at its tremendous wall of ice.
Unable to resist temptation, and taking into account the frequency and severity of what ice we had seen move, I chose a fleeting paddle at the very edge of the ice. Knowing, heart-in-mouth and just a few blade lengths from a six-storey ice wall, that at any moment your existence in this world might be extinguished by the explosive end of a thousand year process gives an incredible insight into the glacier’s silent power. It is a ‘sport’ I will rarely undertake, but the rush is immense (and the consequences potentially severe) and a special relationship is born of it. Turning from the wall with a throbbing pulse of adrenaline, I felt I had pushed my luck for just long enough, and returned to a safe distance on land.
Back on land at the edge of the glacier, Matt and I wandered along the freshly-scoured rock to reach a low ‘safe’ zone where we could reach out and touch the ice. Venturing onto the the edge of the glacier we peered awestruck into a deep abyss. The crevasses seemed to radiate an unearthly blue glow and, although strangely inviting, the words of the mountaineer Joe Simpson sat in the back of my mind: ‘This is not a place for the living.’
We paddled slowly along the face of the Geike. According to our maps, printed just a decade ago, we were paddling 100m under the ice flow. Our regret at the speed of the receding spectacle was at that moment somewhat in conflict with a feeling of awe at the huge structures, and the frequent clatters of falling ice.
A beep on my alarm broke the silence. It was 1am – turnaround time. To reach our camp far behind Cerro Balmaceda at Puerto Toro we had to start paddling again. We turned our backs to the ice-field to instead gaze up at the rare sight of Balmaceda’s cloud free summit. Rarely does this shy mountain poke from the mist but when it does the views are spectacular.
Having taken a tough eight hours to ascend, we were surprised to find our journey back to the Serrano lasted little more than an hour. Under sunshine and with a relaxed pace we set out sights on reaching the coast. Turning our bows south on the outflowing stream we drifted down toward the end of an epic journey.
Reaching Puerto Toro under heavy wind and rain we hadn’t quite escaped the last kick of a weather front which had crept across the landscape behind us. Sheltered under the trees, listening to a roar as gusts pushed along the coast like a passing express train, we settled in for our final night. We were not alone at camp – along with the usual rangers, another eight paddlers had arrived from a standard Serrano tour. Sharing wine we enjoyed sharing our own stories, whilst a fox crept slyly through our tents in search of food. For Matt, it had been a familiarisation with Patagonia that would prove hard to beat during his tenure as a guide here; for me, it had been as much about adventure as fulfilling a dream and visiting a place that belonged in legend.
Will Copestake grew up in Ullapool on north west Scotland. After a childhood exploring the local coast, gorges and hills he took his love of adventure to New Zealand. During a 10 month gap year he hiked the famous ‘Great walks’ and discovered a passion in the outdoors. Upon returning to Scotland to begin a degree in Environmental Science and Outdoor Education at Stirling Will and friend Remi McMurtry hiked across Iceland from south to north.
Aged 22 years old Will circumnavigated Scotland solo by sea kayak before cycling back home to Ullapool via a winter ascent of the 282 Scottish mountains above 3000ft known as the Munros in a journey lasting 364 days. Now 25 Will is following his passions in photography, writing and the outdoors by working as a kayaking guide in Chilean Patagonia.