At first blush, Patagonia inspires many comparisons.
“It is like Switzerland, only with volcanoes.”
“It is like Norway, only with semi-tropical vegetation.”
“It is like the San Juan Islands, only in Alaska.”
It doesn’t take long before these comparisons fall away when replaced by a the realization that, despite any similarities to other places, Patagonia is truly unlike any other place on earth. The name itself evokes a sense of remoteness and adventure. Especially for kayakers, Patagonia’s mixture of rugged terrain, deep fjords, challenging conditions, and beautiful scenery make it a unique destination.
Note: If you use a program like Google Earth, you can enter the lat/long coordinates located in the text in the search field and see the exact locations described in this story.
We quickly found out there is a lot to Chile. The country stretches 2,880 miles (4,630 kilometers) north to south, but only 265 miles (430 kilometers) at its widest point east to west with some of the greatest ecological and climatic diversity to be found in a single country. We started researching options and sought advice from a paddling friend and long-time Patagonia guide, Reg Lake. With his guidance we decided to focus on the fjords of Pumalin Park in northern Patagonia.
We decided to book the kayak portion of our trip with Yak Expediciones of Puerto Varas, Chile. The owner, Juan Federico Zuazo (Juanf), would be our guide. With Reg’s guidance, we worked through the details and itinerary thereby modifying one of Yak Expediciones’ standard 11-day trips into a 6-day trip with a boat shuttle out. It would mean some challenging days with 100 km to cover, but Juanf was amenable. Despite never having taken a child on the trip, he was also open to having a child, our then 10-year-old daughter, McKinley, as a paddler.
As part of our package, Yak Expediciones provided the kayaks (two Prijon singles and a Necky double), paddling and camping gear, food, and transportation from the hotel. We brought our own drysuits, personal gear, cameras, sleeping bags, and Greenland paddles (for more on how we managed to transport our Greenland paddles see this link http://www.qajaqusa.org/newsletter/Masik_Winter_2008_Vol4No2_v6.pdf). We met with Juanf the night before we left to discuss the route and packing. He looked at the small mountain of gear on the spare bed and declared it too much. “You can take about half of that. We need the room in the hatches for important gear.”
The island was covered in lush forests with splendid waterfalls tumbling into the ocean. We heard a loud blowing noise and were surprised to find ourselves surrounded by a group of playful dolphins.
The next morning, after several hours driving and a landing craft ferry ride, we arrived at Hornopirn (4158’6.37″S 7228’6.66″W). After lunch at a local inn, we headed to the boat ramp to begin our sea kayaking journey.
As we unloaded and packed the kayaks, the surroundings diverted our attention from the tasks at hand. To the east and south, seemingly close enough to touch, rose the snow-covered Andes forming a majestic amphitheater around us. To the west and directly in front of us, we could see just a few of the countless islands of Patagonia. Behind us, to the north, we could see a ring of volcanoes.
Packing the kayaks we better understood Juanf’s desire to limit our belongings. Along with the standard gear, he had six bottles of Chilean wine , ten kilos of oranges, and a host of other items. As we questioned some of these, he just said, “Don’t worry.” We finally packed the last bits of gear, suited up, and waited for the approaching tide.
During the unloading, we met some of the colonos (colonists), the area’s pioneers. They have been in the area for over 100 years and are comprised of several large, extended families of fishermen/farmers who live in and around the fjords and islands. Juanf told us of their importance the night before as he showed us how to use the satellite phone he carried. Our true safety net was provided by the colonos, with whom he had built relations throughout his many years of guiding in the area. Through an informal network of fishermen, Juanf let people know where we would be and approximately when we would be there. As we found out, the ten kilos of oranges were not for us, but rather gifts for the colonos along the way.
At over 2,700 square kilometers, Pumalin Park (Parque Pumalin) (http://www.parquepumalin.cl/content/eng/index.htm) is one of the largest privately owned parks in the world. Conceived and started in 1991 by Douglas Tompkins, founder of The North Face, he saw it as a way to protect a pristine area that he felt was being threatened.
We finally started off with my wife, Jenny, and me in the singles and our daughter in the double with Juanf. The first day’s itinerary was a reasonably short “get acquainted” paddle. We set off in the lee of Isla de Los Ciervos (Deer Island). To our left the sheer cliffs of the Andes plunged straight down to the water’s edge. The island was covered in lush forests with splendid waterfalls tumbling into the ocean. We heard a loud blowing noise and were surprised to find ourselves surrounded by a group of playful dolphins. They formed an escort that stayed with us for a good bit of the afternoon. As early evening approached we stopped at a rustic inn at Llancahue Island (42 4’33.55″S 7230’57.85″W). We were about to discover one of the secrets of Patagonia.