When looking at the Strait of Magellan with a bird’s eye view, one can see how irregular the coastline is and how complicated the system of fjords, straits and channels – a truly grand maze. The two largest Chilean localities of Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales are 250km apart overland. If we wanted to paddle from one village to the other, our journey would be that twice over. Given that there are have been very few kayak expeditions on the Strait of Magellan, not counting the one-day commercial trips, I decided to paddle from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales.
By Arek Mytko
I had two options…
The first is the classic route from one city to the other, through the strait and channels, which is used by fishing boats. The second is penetrating all the way up into the islands and channels, that is, an attempt to reach the other side through the mountains. The first option seemed too classic and not exploratory enough, therefore, reviewing the maps, I discovered a new variant with two portages through the mountains, and, possibly, in the advanced option scenario, with three portages. And so it was decided.
My trip attracted interest from a number of guides who had worked with me in northern Patagonia in the past. Due to their good communication and their professional performance of duties, I chose Mauricio and Alex. On the waters of the Strait of Magellan, a harmonious and solid team is the basis of, not so much success, but as a guarantee of safety.
To overcome the basin, called the ‘raging fifties’ (due to the latitude of the area), dangerous due to powerful winds and strong ocean currents, I needed large expedition kayaks. My choice fell on the biggest models from Tahe Marine and Zegul. Having agreed with the factory all the details of shipping the kayaks and additional equipment (suits, paddles, flotation vests), I started collecting other expedition equipment and began the physical preparation.
When I’m not on an expedition in the mountains or in a kayak, I train every day, a routine I have followed ever since I was a kid. The type of training is chosen with regard to the next expedition. And so I somewhat changed my training system, which was now focused in 90% on increasing the strength and endurance of the upper body. I gave the same guidelines to my fellow paddlers.
In early December my equipment arrived
Unfortunately, the transportation company had not treated the three large boxes professionally and my kayaks arrived seriously damaged. Two of them, Zegul Searocket and Tahe Marine Wind 585, had broken sides in several places. It looked like someone had crushed them with something heavy. The third kayak, Zegul Empower, had a crack in the rear of the luggage compartment.
For the first week I occupied myself with the repairs, during which, out of my mouth spewed insults at the logistics company. Other shipments, which reached me from Poland and the United States, also took a lot of effort and multiple conversations with local transport companies to find out when and if they will reach me in their entirety.
Unfortunately, logistics in Chile is deficient, regardless of whether the parcel travels via local post (from Poland to Santiago de Chile – ten days, from Santiago de Chile to Punta Arenas – two months), or a private transport company (theft of equipment, long waiting periods and charging of additional dreamt up fees). I wasn’t off to a very good start!
On 13th December at 0300, we started moving all of the equipment to the nearby beach. Within two hours we managed to pack everything into the kayaks and we dressed in waterproof overalls. We began the journey which we called Tahe Outdoors Patagonia Austral Expedition 2015.
For the first two days we paddled 14 hours a day with headwind and several times we had to go ashore to wait out strong squalls. In two days we covered over 70 km and the road, which originally stretched along the coast, ended for good. With the last buildings we said goodbye to civilisation. There waited for us now the long, straight Strait of Magellan. Due to the fact that we were kayaking to the northwest, and the winds mostly dragged from the west, awaiting us was an exhausting battle for every kilometre.
One of the most difficult sections was to be the very tip of South America called Cabo Froward (Cape Froward) – a high rocky mountain that is also the southernmost point of mainland South America. Several times I had visited the place, coming from the side of the mountains where the winds often exceed 100 km/h. It is one of the areas that are stressful to local fishermen and to kayakers too, because of the high rocky coast and, thus, no possibility of escaping to the shore. When we were left the next morning to try to conquer the cape, we found calm weather, which at Magellan is extremely rare. The sea was flat as a mirror and the wind had stopped. Incredulous, we paddled along the rock walls, touching them with our hands to physically mark our presence. The day ended as it had begun – without wind.
In Patagonia, especially in its southern part, you can never lose vigilance, regardless of the conditions at hand. Two days of windless weather may seem perfect for kayaking in Magellan, but in Patagonia ‘vacation’ never lasts forever as I had pointed out to my companions before the expedition. We found out how quickly the conditions can change from idyllic to a deadly storm when we sailed along the nine-kilometre wall. When the sea began to undulate gently, I began to anxiously watch the sky, the movement of the clouds, and the rock formation, which did not offer any place that would enable evacuation.
Five minutes later, our kayaks were piercing attacking waves and we had to move away from the shore, so as not to wreck on the rocks. For two hours, full of stress and tension, we were slowly covering kilometres with our bodies constantly fighting to maintain balance. When the wall finished, we thankfully kayaked into a bay with a long beach. We were able to breathe a sigh of relief and relaxed our aching bodies. Our hands were blistered from firmly gripping the paddles, which the wind had tried to snatch from us. The guys, due to this being their first experience paddling long hours for several days, began to feel severe pain in the back, arms, hands and their forearms were all swollen. We decided to spend a few days to recuperate.
During the travel between Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales we still had some difficult sections in addition to the Strait of Magellan itself. These were the two portages through the mountains, about which we had previously known basically nothing: the Jeronimo and Gajardo channels, Obstrucción Fjord and Xaltegua Bay. Jeronimo Channel is reached from the Strait of Magellan. It is a narrow channel, which is more like a river than the ocean. Depending on the movement of the sea, we found the current in line with our direction, or opposite. In many places, there are all kinds of natural obstacles, such as islands, bays, or protruding rock tips where whirlpools appear. Eddies and currents are so strong that fishermen wait for the period of tidal change, to get to the other side of the canal. The winds, which, as I mentioned, blow from the west, gain speed by pressing between high mountains and raising the waves.
Entering the Jeronimo channel, the high tide had ended and the wind not so annoying so we continued our kayaking. After an hour, the direction of the current changed and an uphill battle began. With the upcoming evening, the wind began to blow more fiercely, and at one point it became strong enough and, in addition, striking from the side, that our kayaks were pulled towards the rocks. The situation was dangerous because it became very difficult to keep control of the kayaks, with the paddles trying to fly out of our hands. It took us two days to cross the channel against the currents and strong wind. However, when we made it, we had to go 10km to the other side of the mountains. The first portage was not so difficult technically, due to two lagoons and the small amount of trees. We managed to find a passage and the whole thing took us only three days. Now, Xaltegua Bay awaited us – well known for its strong winds and high waves, due to the direct connection to the Pacific Ocean.
After a hard day of paddling, we camped in a charming bay and prayed for the rapid advent of a weather window which would calm the sea and give us a chance of crossing the bay. At night the wind died and at about 0300 in the morning, I woke up the guys and ordered the ‘evacuation’ which, in our language, meant fast packing of the belongings into kayaks and leaving immediately. The sea was unusually calm, but we were covering the kilometres nervously, crossing the bay to the other side. When, after three hours, we were about to enter the Gajardo Channel – the wind began to blow.
On one hand, we were lucky because we had managed to get to the other side of the bay; on the other hand, we were two hours short of reaching the narrow bottleneck of the channel. We were amid the small islands, where the opposing current started to move our kayaks backwards. The water heaved and began to form eddies. Fighting the strong current and wind, we hid behind a rock island, which protected us from the wind. It was only a temporary shelter because this place had no beaches or, especially, drinking water. We decided to wait for the storm to pass, and when it seemed to us that the wind eased, we paddled out into the bay.
For two hours we paddled hard, cutting through the waves and wind. We decided to enter the channel with the change of tide that was due to come in another two hours. It gave us a chance to rest and prepare a meal. Gajardo Channel is a picturesque canal which, in the middle of its length, tapers down to 50 metres. It is easy to imagine what is happening at the constriction, where the ocean pours from one side to the other. We arrived at the narrowing on the second day soon after the tide change. We had to overcome 200 metres of a ‘mountain river’. The kayaks were thrown in all directions as we struggled through the strong current and numerous whirlpools. We managed to overcome the difficulty and on the other side waiting for us, was a ‘mirror’.
We arrived at the second portage after a few days. First, we tried to get into another fjord near the Campo Nevado Glacier, but when we climbed on to a high rock, we noticed that the fjord was clogged with ice and so we continued on our planned way. However, 10 km before the portage we were detained for a few days on the Skyring fjord by a storm. The second transfer of kayaks had already demanded more from us and it took us five days to overcome the five kilometres of wetlands.
During this period the wind blew continuously, which brought us comfort as we knew they do not blow forever and in the end there must come a moment of silence, like at Froward Cape. When we entered Obstruccion fjord, which reaches almost to the Puerto Natales, we were already prepared for opening the champagne bottles, the lack of actual champagne – meant this was only in our imaginations! However, the first kilometres of the fjord shattered our plans of quickly reaching the goal. The wind, which was blowing mostly from the side, wasn’t even allowing us to leave the bay, where we found perfect shelter.
For five days every day, we tried to leave the bay and every time we had to come back. The wind on the open fjord exceeded 100 km/h. It was impossible to keep the paddle in the hand, not to mention safe paddling and it was impossible to breathe. We were two days from our destination, hungry and tired. Our rations, which over the last few days had diminished, finally ended and the wind blew constantly, without even giving us a chance of catching fish. Whatever we managed to catch by the shore, we ate in its entirety, including the bones. In addition, we gathered mushrooms that grew on trees. It was not much, but it filled the stomach.
After a week of waiting, eventually there came an opportunity to paddle out of the bay. At 0400 in the morning I ordered ‘evacuation’ and we went ahead. The jagged ledges of the coastline, over which earlier the waves had smashed furiously, could finally be bypassed. Two hours later came the wind, but we didn’t care, as we had fled the most difficult section of the fjord and the high waves that rolled through the kayaks, we welcomed with a laugh. We were slowly reaching civilisation.
Two days later we reached the port of Puerto Natales. Hungry, tired, but happy. The entire journey took us 33 days. The longest section at sea, which we covered in one day, was 73km. We paddled 10-14 hours a day, using the fact that the days during this period of the year were the longest. The average speed of a fully loaded kayak was 7km/h in excellent conditions. Depending on the current and wind, this speed was different and in general was lower. During the 33 days of the expedition we had two days when the wind was blowing from the stern and three days of windless weather. In other cases, the wind was blowing in our faces and, in the final stage of the expedition, from the side. During this time I lost five kilogrammes.
Thanks to our Sponsors of the Tahe Outdoors Patagonia Austral Expedition 2015:
- Tahe Outdoors – kayaks: Zegul Empower, Zegul Searocket, Tahe Marine Wind 585 and kayaking equipment
- Cascade Designs – Thermarest sleeping bags and sleeping pads, MSR stoves and Seal Line dry bags
- FoxFoto – photo video equipment and Readleaf cameras.
- Trujillo – 40kg of delicious meat.