Sea kayaking is just an excuse to travel the world, access hidden wildernesses and explore the corners where no one else goes. It offers the opportunity to take on a challenge so huge, even you question whether you’ll reach the finish line. I now have a bad case of the sea kayaking expedition bug. When I look at maps I see new routes, when I see islands, I have an overwhelming desire to explore them. This is how I ended up, in the remotest region of Patagonia, toughing out blizzards and eating freeze dried food, for weeks on end. By Erin Bastian.
Patagonia is an incredibly hostile wilderness, known for its rugged landscape, inhospitable mountains and rapidly changing weather. A region, which is shared by both Chile and Argentina, yet divides Chile almost in two, due to the untameable barrier it creates for roads and transport. The west coast consists of an intricate maze of fjords and islands, where a single tiny village is the only civilization for thousands of kilometres.
Puerto Eden is a brightly coloured fishing village patched together with wooden walk ways and bodge materials scavenged from goodness knows where. The people eek out a simple living by fishing, collecting muscles and shear determined toughness. The village has a grand backdrop of towering mountains all still caped in thick snow; spring was only just settling in. We somehow persuaded the only tourist ferry to drop us off there, so that we could continue through the fjords to the nearest town Puerto Natales, still some 600km further south as the crow flies.
Excitement buzzed around the village with the sight of crazy strangers and brightly coloured kayaks. Enjoying the atmosphere, we chatted away to interested locals, in a classic mix of world recognised sign language (pointing), and broken English. Attempting to pack the five weeks worth of food and gear into our boats was no easy feat and with the nod from the Port Captain we were ready and raring to take our first few paddle strokes.
The nerves bubbled away at each stroke we took as we paddled deeper into the heart of Patagonia. I knew only in theory what lay ahead, icebergs and glaciers, whales and sea lions, violent storms and swift tides. This adventure was to be my biggest test yet. To reach our goal we needed to paddle a distance of 800km over the course of five weeks and tough out some of the harshest weather I have ever witnessed.
Lee Franklin, Mike Burnett and myself made up our small team of three. Jokes and stories entertained our rainy first few days and the landscape fascinated me – it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Bushes so thick that access to the land would be limited only to the rocky banks below the trees and steep sided mountains framed the channels with intimidating stature. For hours we paddled with no possible landing opportunity, as the mountains seemed to fall directly into the sea. Streams would pump down the steep inclines creating white creases through the rocky crags and above the tree line, lingered the still melting winter snow.
Our journey would take us to the heart of Patagonia, as close to the ice fields as it was possible to approach from the sea and to the very tip of a fjord called Estro Peel, where glaciers flow directly into the sea. The first week was littered with blizzards and hail storms as we began to learn the difficulties of locating a possible camp spot and thanked our decision to invest in our toasty Palm Dry suits. The first taste of Patagonia’s unpredictable and powerful weather had us realising the state of play for the next four weeks.
We woke one morning to blue sky and mirror still waters where hunting dolphins broke the glass-like surface, sending circular ripples for miles. The reflection of the mountains in the water added immense depth to the already dominating landscape. The rhythm of paddling continually ticked along like the second hand of a clock as time was now measured by light and dark, hunger and fatigue. Our goal was to paddle 30km a day and in the calm condition this was a pleasure.
During this period of high pressure weather, we reached one of the largest Glaciers in Patagonia, Pio XI. Standing about 60 metres in hight and 5km in length it was colossal! Chunks of ice regularly broke from its front surface and crashed into the calm water below. Shock waves would travel out, thrusting the large floating icebergs around with an unnerving amount of ease.
The dry weather was short lived and the inevitable wet weather soon greeted us again. Winds helped and hindered us in equal proportions, but always with fierce strength. Gusts would hurtle down the steep sides of the fjords, rumbling as they grew closer, before knocking us sideways as we griped our paddles tightly. When the waves picked up the Albatrosses would come out to play. They provided endless acrobatics and performed breathtaking manoeuvres on the face of the growing waves. At least they distracted out attention from the unnerving winds and occasional open water crossings.
The closer we get to the tip of Estro Peel, the more testing the weather conditions became as the cold seeped into our bones through our now damp thermals. Slipping into our cold wet fleece each morning, took incredible amounts of motivation and by this point we had not felt the warmth of the sun in over ten days.
As the fjord began to narrow the currents controlled our forward progress and the pinnacle of our trip was now within touching distance. The last corner of this dead end channel narrowed to around 20 metres. The ebbing tide nearly always dominated due to the influence of the melt water flowing through. Moving onwards we carefully dodged the hefty icebergs that were all being swiftly carried by the currents. We weaved our way through the crunching, grinding and clashing motorway of ice, until we reached the bowl where the western side of the ice field flows down off the mountains.
What met us here was staggering. Five colossal blue glaciers dropping into the sea, steep jagged rivers of ice, cracking and booming ricocheted around the natural amphitheatre, this place was certainly alive with activity. Chunks fell regularly off the glaciers front wall, creating yet more icebergs to choke our escape passage. A single night was incredible but certainly enough, it was hard to sleep with the noise of the ever moving ice, and the cold and wet was now becoming intolerable.
The next morning we headed west, retracing our steps through the narrow ice choked channels. Once out of the high mountains there would be a possibility of dryer weather, but an increase in wind. The wider channels offered less protection, but the breeze was dry enough to air our damp kit. The low level islands didn’t build rain clouds as much, and we enjoyed warm evenings by drift wood fires. The luxury of washing cloths was now on the cards, and I took full advantage of one dry breezy evening.
It amazes me how much you appreciate the tiny things in life when on expedition. Clean dry socks or finding that long lost mars bar, does wonders for moral. I strangely enjoy the simplicity of the daily expedition routine and the things to stress over, such as the route we to navigate and the weather forecast. We floated past colonies of loud smelly sea lions basking on the rocky islands and started to spot previously rare sights of local fishing boats, an early sign we were getting closer to Puerto Natales.
The biggest highlight of the trip was when we bumped into an old red fishing boat, which didn’t look much more than a floating garden shed. The fishermen greeted us with excited smiles and curios eyes, undoubtingly questioning what we were possibly be doing out here. We explained our journey and they seemed suitably impressed with our efforts. The next thing we knew they were swinging a king crab over the side, offering us this spiky and very much alive creature. Our eyes lit up with the thought of our fresh food in weeks. We feasted that evening on meaty crab legs, it is easy to say that it was the best seafood I have ever tasted.
Time had hurtled by, and distance had gradually been swallowed up by our determined paddling. Before we knew it we only had days left to go. The pushy winds now truly on our side, thrusted us ever closer to our finishing destination. We dreamt, talked and thought of only pizza and chocolate. The finish was so close now we could almost smell our celebratory pizza.
As if it were a reward on our last day we were greeted by blue sky and silky still waters. Our final hurdle was crossing a wide open gulf but in this weather is was a total pleasure. Fishing boats tooted and waved as we approached the fishing harbour and it felt as if word had got around of our travels (although that may have been my imagination). Stepping out of our boats to take in our first taste of civilisation in weeks, was mind-blowing. People, roads, cars and buildings overwhelmed our senses and a feeling of utter achievement soon flooded our bodies.
Its almost unbelievable to me that a journey I’d dreamt up, just by looking at a map, was now engraved into my memory as life changing experience. It is crazy to think of the amount of wilderness you can explore from a kayak and I can’t help but think this will not be my last sea kayaking expedition.
Twitter & Instagram: @erinbastian