Photos and words by William Copestake
I had just finished circumnavigating Scotland solo by kayak, and I’d spent a winter climbing all of Scotland’s highest mountains. But now that I was back home, I felt more lost than I’d ever felt alone in my tent. The opportunity to head to Patagonia and cut my teeth as a kayak guide was, in a strange sort of way, my way of finding a new bearing. I hired on with a company on the River Serrano, a 37-mile (60 km) river at the foot of a national park. During my off days, I ventured into the nearby wilderness on exploratory missions, and I soon had my next long-term project; I decided I’d try to paddle to as many hidden glaciers in this remote and windy region of South America as I could.
This project is a race against a warming world. The glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. Over the past four years, the glacier I visit most frequently has receded by over 20 yards and others by more than 100 yards. However, local human impact has so far proven to be more damaging than global climate change. For example, the Serrano was carelessly infected with Didymo in 2015, most likely by anglers. Colloquially known as “rock snot,” this extremely invasive algae is spreading fast and, in late 2016, Chilean authorities began restricting access to more and more of the inland lakes inside the national parks. I was fortunate enough to visit a few of these sites before the algae arrived and now hope to highlight them as a celebration of their now forbidden spectacle. Yet all is not lost; there are still hundreds of spectacular adventures and glacial tongues fringing the sea which the public can explore legally and responsibly.
I decided I’d try to paddle to as many hidden glaciers in this remote and windy region of South America as I could.
The area in Patagonia that I am most familiar with is home to the Grey Glacier and Rio Serrano, a region famous for commercial kayaking. But the vast majority of the glaciated lakes are extremely isolated and require more than just paddling. With brutal portages, sometimes even climbing and hauling the kayaks on ropes, the magic of Patagonian exploration is characterized by everything conspiring against you. From the weather to to the dense, spiky vegetation, travel here is hard. Though if you can face all these trials, the rewards are tremendous.
Back in 2014, before the Didymo arrived, my first major expedition was to the Tyndall Glacier. On my map, printed in 2004, it still showed the ice stretching well into the Tyndall Lake. However, upon arrival my colleague Matt Smith and I were surprised to discover that in just one decade it had receded half a mile (almost a kilometer), crossed a hill and now drained into a whole new catchment, that of Geike Lake. While the ice had exposed some impressive fossils in the freshly excavated rock, there was little left of its once former glory.
Getting to the face of Geike Glacier, required 9 hours of lining and ferry gliding across eddies formed behind icebergs to get up a 12-mile (20km) stretch of remote Class I-II river and across a 3-mile (5km) lake. The river now has twice the flow it once had and the lake is jam-packed with ice.
We were exhausted by the time we reached the lake and we scrambled to a rocky outlook to pitch our tents. We were the only people in a 30-mile (50km) radius, and from our perch we overlooked a magical world of icebergs calving under the dancing light of swiftly moving storm clouds. The next day, venturing to the face of the glacier took an additional two hours and then many more hours to linger and explore it. Our return south on the river was far quicker with a swift seaward flow.
Next on the list was the remote Lago Azul, the first lake I needed to access from a coastal paddle. With an average summer wind of 30-40 knots, venturing from the relative shelter of the rivers and inland lakes onto the sea is not something to take lightly in Patagonia. While the height of the fetch of waves is limited by the fjords, they can come at alarmingly short intervals, and at times be dangerously steep and breaking. For many months, I waited for a weather window; it came on the first week of my second season. 2015 began with style.
Lago Azul was seen as the holy grail by our guide team since it was a place which we once offered as an extended tour but, due to lack of client ability and severe weather, none of us had ever actually reached. Even the fjord before it had an ominous name, Ultima Esperanza or “Last Hope.”
When a rare window of calm conditions arrived, I set out alone. My goal was to be the first person to ever kayak an unnamed lake further upstream than Lago Azul. It was a task I expected would require climbing and then hauling my kayak along a set of rocky bluffs. To my surprise, the 10-mile (16km) coastal journey took little over two hours. Surrounded by a theater of mountains that reflected double in the mirror surface of the aptly named Blue Lake, this illusive place seemed akin to more famous locations in Alaska or Northern Canada. I was totally alone, dozens of miles from the nearest road. That sort of isolation played strange games with my mind and the risk sharpened all of my decisions. I was often followed by sea lions or by condors, as if they were waiting for a slip-up that thankfully never came.
Past the end of the lake and an hour of lining along a small stream, I reached the Salto De Puma, a spectacular waterfall that was cyan colored thanks to glacial dust. Every paddler I’d talked to about this place had turned back at the waterfall. I kept going. Landing my kayak on the riverbank, I set about exploring a route, then ferrying gear, and finally dragging the kayak through impossibly thick vegetation.
Moving a little over half a mile took four hours as needle-thin spines on the plants pierced my skin with sharp pricks. Progress was punishingly slow and at times small scrambles or simple climbs meant rigging ropes to pulley systems to haul the kayak up. I often asked myself, Why am I doing this alone? The simple answer was that I had not yet met anyone else to join me.
Late in the afternoon, I reached the lake as the sun was dipping into the tremendous ice sheet overhanging from the cliffs above. A place so remote it remains nameless on the maps, the lake was packed with ice and the water was as blue as the sky.
My toes were frozen from hours of lining in the near-freezing water. My hands were cut and bleeding from rope burn and scrambles over sharp boulders. My nose was burning in the sun despite white zinc across my skin. But beneath that was a satisfied smile. I had done it!
So far, these expeditions had lasted no more than 3-4 days, yet each had a sense of isolation unlike anything I had ever experienced. As legal access to inland lakes began to grow tighter, restricting options to the sea, I set my sights on where I was allowed to go.
Joined by my lifelong friend from Scotland, Seumas Nairn, we set off on an 520-mile (840km) expedition between Puerto Eden and Puerto Natales, a journey via three northern ice-filled fjords.
Our P&H Scorpio kayaks floated just below the cockpit as they were laden with an arm-buckling 265 pounds (120kg) worth equipment and 45 days of food rations. Normally for a trip of this length, you should choose a high-volume kayak, but this was Patagonia and we had to settle for the low-volume models that were kindly lent to us by my boss and friend at Tutravesia.
Our journey began with a two-day voyage on a ferry, before being dropped at Puerto Eden. A 200-person outpost perched on an archipelago, it was a town without roads. Our mandatory naval inspection was passed with relief after a few days wait, and we were off, paddling back home via three major glacial fjords.
For the first three days, we were blown south by the wind only to turn the corner and face two more days of paddling against it. This brought us to Pio XI, a colossal white tongue and the largest glacier to flow from the Patagonian ice sheet. The sheet is the third largest continental ice mass on earth, behind Greenland and Antarctica, and the glacier is over 7 miles (11km) wide. For Seumas, it was his first-ever glacier.
After another ten-day paddle and a portage, our next stop was Peel Fjord. At 260 miles (420km) from the nearest point of escape, this was our remotest position on the journey. We felt alone, and we were. By now we had faced all types of weather. Some days were spent battling wind and waves in snowstorms and others drifting gently on glassy waters gazing up at the ice sheet. All the while it was strangely comforting to look to the mountains. As the crow flies, we were not too far from our friends but we could not be further away by virtue of our only viable route: the sea.
There is something about good luck that comes in waves. Despite some rough conditions we were mostly treated to spectacular weather in Peel Fjord just as we had been at Pio XI. Having arrived in fog, we woke the next morning to a world of ice. We lingered to explore the narrow fjord lined with several colossal glaciers and seracs that poured from the steep-sided pinnacled mountains surrounding us. Breaking trail through the ice and later racing between bergs as we were spat south on a strong outward tide we felt every bit the explorer; we were venturing to seldom visited wonders.
A further ten days south and we arrived at the Canal De Los Montanes — “The Canal of the Mountains” — a 60-mile long (100km) fjord running north to south and lined with hidden channels and spectacular glaciers. This was perhaps the closest “remote” wonder to our finish point in Puerto Natales, which lay just a one-day portage and two more paddling days to our east. After a week of mixed weather, stormbound for a few days, replacing a broken skeg with one carved from wood, and another tough portage, we arrived at this last treasure with dream weather. Yet again and as if by design, where we wanted to linger, the weather gods granted our desires.
We spent a week in this fjord, ducking and diving between the glaciers, camping near their faces and even climbing a small hill in wetsuit shoes to gain a closer vantage of the ice. We lined up a river just because and shouted hello to the seals, whose growls reminded us of Chewbacca from Star Wars. The Canal provided a glorious cap to our quest to hunt and explore glaciers.
Since returning home to Scotland, Seumas and I went north to Lofoten in Norway, hoping to find further fjords to explore. They were equally spectacular to Chile’s but felt far less remote. Now I am back in Patagonia and writing between guide tours. On my wall are the next nautical charts where pencil lines sketch out more routes. Seumas and I hope to head further south, exploring down toward the tip of the continent in search of ice in April 2018.
The call of the wind blows, and we will follow it.