A summary of my experiences in Chilean Patagonia with the NOLS January Semester 2004. Based on postcards, journal entries, an email I sent shortly after the trip concluded, and post-trip reflections.
On February 1st we left Pto. Natales after spending two full days packing, bagging metric tons of food, and getting to know each other. ‘We’ were called the Mwonos (Mwono is an indigenous god who reigns over the Canal des Montañas, one of the key passages of our kayak route.), a group of 16 from all over the States and Canada (and one Chileno), ranging in age from 18 to 28, all with different stories, experience levels, and attitudes. Personality issues and dealing with each other was a major part of the trip…I won’t go into all the minute details now.
The first few days we spend building the boats (Feathercraft collapsibles) doing skills classes, wet exits, cooking, camping, LNT, and so forth. We paddled out into the fjords to the west of Pto. Natales, caching one ten-day ration on a beach covered with people sign and golden raspberry bushes, then headed further west. We had mostly calm beautiful conditions…’Pata-Baja’ we called it. We made it into Canal des Montañas with beautiful blue skies and sunburned hands and noses, not the norm for NOLS Patagonia. Canal des Montañas was amazing…enter the first journal entry….NOLS Patagonia – Kayak Section – A Day In the Life.
February 13th 12:30pm NE Shore Canal des Montañas. Temp 17deg C Baro 1022mb dropping Sunny, cloudless, light breeze out of N
I woke cold at 6am this morning…today would certainly be clear. Cleared my groggy eyes as I wandered onto the beach to check weather with the group. No clouds, no wind, glassy sea. Today we paddle. After an hour or so of dismantling tarps and tents, and eating breakfast, we moved to the beach to pack boats. Whilst the incredible Ventisquero Zamudio creaked and groaned just west of our beach, I loaded my vessel, a Feathercraft collapsible single kayak named Cochallullu, after the Spanish word for kelp. Fuel bottles into the stern, rations for 10 days, clothing, sleeping bag, tent, tarp, and personal effects bulge the Hypalon skin of the boat. I gingerly eased my way into the cockpit, trying ever so hard not to ‘top’ my boots in the eight inches of freezing water. The water was calm as glass as I floated silently out into full vies of the face of the glacier. The other 11 boats formed up and we spent a few minutes quietly observing the massive river of ice creak and rumble. The sun warmed the ridge behind us across the Canal, building a cloudbank that surged forward like a giant hand….pulling me deeper and deeper into this place.
Point boat for the day, I led the pod away from that mystical moment steadily across Canal des Montañas. This ancient glacial trough runs perfectly north to south, rimmed by fantastic alpine spires and gleaming blue glaciers and is a funnel for northwesterly storm winds. NOLS groups have been trapped here for weeks in the past, unable to move through the heavy conditions. Today though, the god of the Canal Mwonos graced us with perfect calm, enough to stop mid-crossing to reflect on the beauty of our world.
As we neared the opposite shore, we divided into two small pods to explore a bay and some islands, meeting at the home of a family of Chileans who have carved a living out of the land and sea, smoking blanketfuls of mussels under a ragtag cluster of tarp and trashbag hovels that serve as home and workplace. We didn’t stay long, fearing cultural misunderstanding between our 17 gringos and 2 Chilenos (including instructors) and the timid fishing family.
Late afternoon found us on a white sandy beach south-east of Zamudia, 1km across the Canal. Soaking up the afternoon sun, shirtless in sandals, practicing rolls in the calm but chilly water it was almost possible to forget that this was Patagonia, not Baja. A distant rumble, a chunk of ice floating a mile across the Canal, and a glance at the stunning ridgeline of snow-tinged spires running north brought me back to reality; and what a sweet reality.
Evening came….we made plans for the following day, checked in individually with the instructor-mentors about how the course was going, ate pasta and brownies before falling asleep with ten billion glittering stars, the Southern Cross, Orion in the north, and the Magellenic Clouds and Milky way painting the clear cold sky above. Not a typical day here, but one to remember!!
From there, we backtracked along our route to recover some small pieces of equipment lost on beaches and our third ten-day ration. We started student leadership, with groups of three or four planning and leading the entire group for a day at a time. It was frustrating at times….leading a group like this can be hard, and following peer leaders just as. When we arrived at Rasberry Beach to recover our ration, we discovered that it was totally gone, without a trace. One-hundred and ninety kilograms of food, more than 400lbs….gone. We had about 3 days of food left in our bags, and 11 days left in the course. A LONG day and a half of discussing our options and eating rasberries left us firmly undecided whether to go back to Natales, break out the satellite phone, or tough it out. The best solution came in the way of a local fisherman stopping to fill up his water jugs…..hearing of our predicament and offering to have his father’s boat (expected to arrive from Natales the following evening) carry a ration. Two days later, stores replenished, we continued. Second Day in the Life follows:
February 24th 9:17pm Campo opposite Bahia Tranquila via Portage Temp 16degC Baro 1008mb Low clouds, calm, damp, gray.
I woke up today at 6:30am, not because I had to; the meeting time wasn’t until 8:30am, but to enjoy a tranquil morning on the shore of Bahia Tranquila. Took a morning stroll down the beach, then returned to my cook tarp to fix breakfast. Yesterday was a cold, wet, 17 nautical mile push to end our paddling on Estero Poca Esperanza (Straight of Little Hope)….today would take us across 1km of rolling hills, mud and moss to Estero Obstruccion (Blocked Straight), where our trip will end. I intended to take full advantage of the day, tying up loose ends, organizing my things, cleaning up and eating well. Kicked it all off by turning a kilo of flour into two balls of sweet dough that rose rapidly in plastic bags under my shirt. Brushed my teeth while watching the clouds build in the mountains, mirrorred perfectly in the calm bay water. I rolled out one of the doughballs and by the time my tentmates were awake had a panful of buttery cinnamon rolls ready to eat. Slathered with dulce de leche (a sweet, caramel like milk-based spread, also called manjar, one of our favorite foods) of course! I took advantage of a beautiful morning of free time to do laundry kayak style…dry bag, freshwater scooped from a nearby stream, and a drop of Dr. Bronners, shaken ’til clean. As time to portage neared, we baked the other doughball into bread and ate peanut butter and jelly and manjar sandwiches….on fresh baked bread…..ON A WHISPERLITE!
Patagonia slapped me in the face at noon, at the sun slipped away and big raindrops begain to fall on my now clean, wet but drying clothes. No choice but to don the wet layers and load up. The suffering was about to begin. Hardcore. The first trip (of the portage) was a breeze, rain giving way again to sun as we carried our ungainly goat bags of personal gear and group gear over the low hills. I returned for a second trip….latching onto a trio ready to move a tandem kayak across the portage. As we slogged along in the deepening mud, the kayak dragged us down and rain begain to fall in earnest. Michael (one of the instructors) cackled with a wild look in his eyes, ‘Grrrreat day to carry a kayak’ in the mock Scottish accent that has become a joke in the group. The fun level dropped significantly as the suffering increased and the mud crept up to our boot tops, making loud sucking noises with every step. Hiked back light for a second boat, then a third. By the time all the Mwonos and all our gear stood at the shore of Obstruccion, we were one cold, wet, hungry, thirsty, muddy, broken, sore, sorry gang. What better thing to do then than leap into the frigid water and take a bath?!
Swathed in warm fleece after the chilly dip, Morgan, Buck, Justin and I (my third ration tent and cook group) chowed down on Morgan’s lasagna and toasted the best food day ever with cups of cocoa. Now we are poised for a three day push to the end of Obstruccion and the end of kayak segment. 6 AM will see us checking weather and packing boats….so to bed with me!!
We paddled for three more days, but didn’t make the end of Obstruccion for route, health, and leadership reasons. No letdown though…we had an amazing section where we all learned a ton. We uneasily cached our boats on another raspberry beach, for our sister semester to pick up and carry south on the beginning of their route as we headed towards the mountains.
A Chilean cargo ship, the Mama Dina, picked us up and carried us north, past Pto. Natales (where huge seas actually forced us to dock and spend the night, but none stepped off the boat…..not wanting to break the continuity of our expedition.) to a spot west of Cerro Balmaceda, south and west of Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine. Mountain section started off hard. HARD. Seventy-plus pound packs and wicked off trail terrain, combined with 50knot winds and driving rain and cold on the second day left a lot of people suffering hard, scratching heads and wondering both what the heck they had gotten in to and how on earth to get out. We learned quickly though, and soon made our way to the reration spot north of Balmaceda. We lost a member there, due to leg injury sustained in a fall…Gailan was evac’d to Natales. Second ration we moved hard and fast on friendlier terrain through kinder weather to the western lateral moraine of the Tyndall glacier….a HUGE tongue of the Southern Icefields that runs near the western border of the Parque.
March 9th, 2004 (From a Postcard sent out with Gailan on her Evac)
Life has changed in Patagonia! We are now on mountain section.cold, wet, windy. Life as a kayaker was fat and happy. here it is lean and hard. We carry huge loads: 60 – 70 lbs of rations for 10 days plus equipment over the most interesting terrains.boggy turba with knee deep water, hellish jungle-like bushwhacking through Calafate thorns and dense Canelo trees, all the while dealing with incredibly harsh weather. First day of mountain section we hiked 4 km. through massive rain, 50 degree F temp, 50 mph wind gusts. It has rained for most of every day this week.though today is nice, 60 degrees F and only rained a bit this AM. Now we’re at the intersection of Rio Balmaceda and Rio Serrano near the home of a poblador (subsistence rancher) named Marin who is holding our rations. Unfortunately, we’re losing another group member.Gailan hurt her leg on a steep downhill bushwhack two or three days ago and has been struggling since. She was kind enough to mail this card for me. We’re all sad. Anyway, we are hiking in probably the most amazing place in the world. From camp yesterday and this AM we could see Cerro Balmaceda, Cerro Donoso, the Cuernos del Paine and the unbelievable bulk of the Tyndall glacier stretching off into the limitless icy waste of the Southern Icefield. We hope to cross the Tyndall next week. 8 km across the windy, crevassed ice. May be able to do some peak ascending as well.Donoso in particular. Again learning a lot like aggressive drying, appreciating the blue sky I’m writing under like never before, crossing waist deep rivers, dealing with constantly wet boots, suffering and loving life. Eating tremendously well.baking lots, huge meals every AM, PM. Starting to smell bad. wasn’t a problem on kayak section.but nearly 40 days in the same clothes is adding up.
We crossed the Tyndall on a day of beautiful weather, 12km across the ice, a huge accomplishment for our group. On the other side we got rained on nonstop for a few days (even when the skies were blue…quite bizarre) and climbed some short ice pitches on the side of the glaciar. Satisfying.
Third ration our missing member rejoined the expedition by means of a runner team and ‘invac’ party, then we moved to a high camp on Cerro Zapata, a 1599m peak on the southern edge of the icefields. We waited three days in constant snow and rain and cold, tentbound, for a weather window that never came….so we retreated, somewhat sad and somehow proud to have been shut down by a peak in Patagonia after giving it an honest effort. The ration ended with us traveling in small groups, sans instructors, to the park ranger station by Glaciar Grey. Another incredible experience.
The course finished with a 10 day section in groups of 5, traveling totally independently in separate areas without instructors. ISGT (as the section was called, independent student group travel), was a serious highlight for me. I enjoyed my group…some of my favorite people from the trip and I chanced to be together….and we traveled in an area of pampa (dry, scrubby land) east of the Parque….with tremendous views of the Torres for almost the whole hike. On day 5 we hiked to the top of Cerro Obelisco, a non-technical 1629m summit that gets considerably better weather than the rest of Patagonia. Despite that, we were scared out of our wits by a freak lightning bolt and hailstorm and on the way down…..we moved faster down that hill than any group in history. The section ended with a few mellow days of hiking through the dry land in beautiful weather, drinking mate, eating the best food I’ve ever eaten….maybe even in civilization, and perfecting everything we had learned in two and a half months of living outside in Patagonia.
Finally, we returned to Puerto Natales, where we spent a day or two cleaning gear and reacclimatizing to civilized life. All in all a grand adventure and learning experience unparalleled in all my wanderings. Only after spending months doing personal trips in South America and returning home to the USA did I begin to truly appreciate what all I took home from NOLS.