A Patagonian Kayak Adventure
Patagonia is a land of contrast: split between pampas desert and temperate rainforest by the Southern Andes. In the western fjords there are few people except for some fishermen, and the maps are poor, with little information to navigate tides.
‘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.
Three seasons as a kayak guide in Torres del Paine National Park and several remote expeditions, including a 33-day 840km epic from Puerto Eden and Puerto Natales, meant I was no stranger to the challenges of Patagonia. It’s a land of contrast: split between pampas desert and temperate rainforest by the Southern Andes, which are capped by the world’s third-largest continental ice cap. In the western fjords there are few people except for some fishermen, and the maps are poor, with little information to navigate tides. The weather is its own entity here, and must be treated with respect. Notoriously fierce winds bring endless rain and snow even in the height of summer. Out there in the fjords you really are on your own – if things go wrong rescue can take days or even weeks.
All told it is perhaps not a place many might consider for a paddling holiday, but therein lies the allure. In a week of rain, a minute of sunshine holds greater value – and spectacular glaciers, mountains and fjords are there to be found.
Re-joined by Seumas Nairn – my friend and teammate from our last expedition here – we hoped to see more of this wild place. Our plan was to venture south from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas. Our 450km route would take us through a series of inland fjords and into the Strait of Magellan before rounding the southern tip of continental South America at Cabo Froward to finish. Making the best of a lack of information, I had plotted our plans and camps and asked many sailors and fishermen of the conditions. Most gave a serious look of concern and one sailor expressed glee about how the waves ‘slap right into the rock.’
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. Yet as wild as they are today these fjords were not always devoid of people. For thousands of years the native tribes of the Kaweskar and Yaganes navigated these seas with rudimentary canoes and portaged these passes like we intended to do. Sadly they are gone, but nonetheless deserve the deepest respect – for whilst we wore Gore-Tex and Polartec they went naked with goose fat. We had a common goal in portages, to avoid the severe conditions of the western Pacific and make safer, swifter passage inland.
Helped by ‘Mono’ (Cris), my friend, employer and owner at Kayak and Patagonia, we started our journey early at Seno Obstruccion. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Wildlife was prolific here, 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.
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.
Over the next few days, we paddled through the unceasing rain towards our next portage. Wildlife was prolific here, 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.
Stormbound for the first time at the far end of our second portage, we rested after another day dragging boats through bogs and lakes. We looked ahead to Canal Jeronimo and the oncoming crossings of Cabo Crosstide and into the Strait of Magellan. Jeronimo was the second and only other channel to drain Skyring, with the addition of a second inland sea, Seno Otway. Alas, the tidal flow was again against us – and considerable.
Working through eddies on the coast we were making 2-3 knots, but in the middle of the strait 7-8 knots flowed in standing waves hard against us. Occasionally we would have to sneak through small headlands with considerable effort to progress at all. 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 me and Seumas to arrive here. We had long known legends and stories of this place, and had both read the accounts of Darwin, Magellan, and even Shackleton, who had all passed this way. 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.
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. We expected gales the following day, but after that a rare calm window was arriving – maybe just long enough to round the roughest part of our expedition in good conditions.
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, we set off with a renewed confidence and a focused pace, intent on making distance. 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 infamous Cabo Froward and the bottom corner of South America.
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.
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.
Read more from this expedition in Sidetracked Volume 12.
Will Copestake is a freelance guide and adventurer. Born in the North of Scotland, Will’s love of the outdoors grew around a childhood spent on the local coast and hills. Since then Will has travelled around the world exploring New Zealand and Iceland on foot and kayaking in Patagonia and Norway. Will is best known for his ‘Machair to Munro’ expedition in his home country of Scotland which involved a 1600km solo kayak around the border before heading inland by bike to climb the 282 Munro mountains through the winter in a journey lasted 364 days.