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Paddling Patagonia

I’m not one to pay for tours as I’ve got enough equipment and connections across the globe to do pretty much anything on the cheap. But as fate would have it, Nicole wanted to do a kayak trip with a bunch of her friends kayaking the lakes of Patagonia. Not cheap, but it sure sounded like a fun time, so who was I to say no? So just like that, we were going kayaking in Patagonia.

As so many of our trips begin, we missed our connecting flight in Santiago. After arguing with the airline for 5 hours (they wanted us to buy new tickets), we finally got a flight out the next morning via Puerto Montt into the thriving metropolis of Balmeceda. I’d never been to an airport that didn’t have beer somewhere for sale before and didn’t plan to spend too much time at this one. So we hoofed it to the sole concession of cervesas in town while we were waiting for the others to fly in. Soon the others arrived as well as our guides and we all piled into the big van for the five hour drive to Puerto Tranquillo where we spent another night on our continued journey to our ultimate journey. The next morning was a paltry 3 hour bone jarring drive to the trailhead at the Rio Leones.

As you step out onto the glacier stripped boulderscape of the trailhead the first thing you notice is the Andes looming over you from both sides of the rio. A glacier, some waterfalls and the ever present sound of water moving all about you. To say the least, this was pretty awe inspiring. We left our drybags piled for the vaqueros to load on their horses and pack in for us and began our 3 hour hike to what would become our base camp (oddly enough, every hike and paddle to every lake and every glacier would also take three hours, no more, no less). Our base camp was a visual smorgasbord. From where we sat at the headwaters of the Rio Leones we could see the glaciers at Lago Cachorro, Lago Leones and Lago Fiero.

What we were all expecting – a kayaking trip with a little hiking on the side – quickly became a hiking trip with a day of kayaking thrown in for somewhat good measure. But the weather is what the weather is and the views were unbelievable so we enjoyed it all just the same.

We awoke on our first morning of Chilean summer in Patagonia to the sound of rain on our tent. So we laughed, pulled on our rain gear, met down by the zip line over the river and slowly made our way across the frigid waters. On the other side we regrouped and began our three hour hike up to the Lago Fiero where massive islands of ice, recently calved from the glacier, waited to slowly melt and make their way downstream. The lake was like nothing I’d seen before and I longed to paddle among these giant icebergs but alas, while this was one of the many lakes guaranteed to be paddled on the company website, there were no kayaks to paddle so we just soaked up the view and hiked back (three hours of course).

The following day we went down to the shore of Lago Leones where the guides gave us lifejackets, paddles and tandem sit-on-top inflatable kayaks. It occurred to me that we weren’t about to get much more, and knowing that only three out of the eight of us had any kayaking experience, I offered a brief tutorial on paddle techniques and safety, explained why tandems are referred to as divorce boats, and helped people into their boats.

There were six of these double-seaters for the twelve of us and within 200 yards of the shore it looked as though the only married couple in the group was going to be looking for a good divorce lawyer back in Santiago. Halfway into the 10K trip to the end of the lake they sort of figured out how to make the kayak go in a straight line and we began to give them better odds on remaining married at the end of the trip. To say the water in the lake was a little cold was like saying Bush was not the best president the U.S. had ever had – it was a bit of an understatement.

Nicole and I began discussing the recipe for disaster this company had created: The guides were either mountaineers or raft guides – none had any real experience in a kayak. The company hadn’t suggested that anyone bring booties or gloves nor had they supplied wetsuits. There was no safety gear and no instruction (outside of my own). The six boats were spread out over half mile in all directions with no real direction being given other than, “Paddle towards the glacier, we’ll meet there.” Only two of the four guides had ever been here before and they were bringing up the rear. A swim in this water would have dire consequences very quickly but that was neither addressed nor discussed. On our paddle to the glacier luck was on our side.

At one side of the glacier was the perfect landing zone totally protected from the waves of the calving ice while still being within a stone’s throw. From our camp 10 km on the other end of the lake we could hear the roar of the ice caving into itself as the flow slowly ground down the Andes. Here it was truly impressive. The original idea was for a hike up to another lake but as everyone was shivering and cold (we were told to expect average day time highs of 83ºF but we were getting the low 60s) we snapped a few photos and jumped in our little duckies and began the paddle back to camp.

And now the wind came up. And with the wind, the waves. A following sea in a 16 foot Necky Chatham can be a heck of a lot of fun – surfing the faces and all – assuming you know what you’re doing. A pair of novice paddlers in an inflatable kayak with a following sea in freezing cold water is – at the very best – not a good time. The wave catches the stern of the boat and pushes it sideways. Now you’ve got a kayak facing 90º in the wrong direction and rolling in the waves. These inflatable kayaks had been rigged for rudders but the rudders were missing and so were the foot pegs. Sweet. The rudders would have made a remarkable difference as you can steer the rudder with your feet while paddling forward instead of constantly prying your paddle against the water in an effort to keep the boat from broaching.We also only had two guides in one boat as the other two left early to get dinner going. Very quickly the divorce boat couple was a 1/4 mile off to one side with the guide boat in pursuit and Nicole and I were paddling amongst the others showing them how to rudder and brace their paddle. Before things got too out of control I pulled everyone into the wind shadow of large rock outcropping about half way down the lake at one side and demonstrated the advantage of rafting boats together.

After passing the chocolate bar around and another brief paddle seminar and discussing the importance of staying close in these conditions and our options for the remaining km of open water, we headed back into the wind and the waves. Then, in the following hour, things got bad. The wind picked up to 25-30 mph with waves beginning to break at 3 feet. Nicole and I were hoping to corral everyone one back into safer distance when I saw the last boat flip. Things at this point happened fast. I couldn’t tell if I had seen one boat flip or two. Making a considerable effort not to end up in the drink ourselves, we turned the boat around and began beating back into the waves while trying to count the boats and the paddlers. And then I saw it, 200 yards upwind, a lifejacket. By this point, another kayak had gotten back to the flipped kayak and rafted up to them. Nicole was positive it was a drybag but I know a lifejacket when I see one, and was at this point completely confused. As we got closer we could see the PFD was empty and turned the kayak to catch and raft up to the two other boats. The boat that turtled was the two guides and they had lost both their paddles and we had no spares. So with the wind and the waves still building we held on tight to the boat in the middle and let the conditions beat us to shore, which luckily, was only a 100 yards off by this point. We negotiated some rocks and crashed none too lightly on this desolate shore. We managed to get everyone off the kayaks and through the pounding surf without so much as twisting an ankle.

We pulled the boats up past the highwater mark and began stripping and redressing the two swimmers. Fortunately, I had my medicinal flask of Patron tequila ready for just such an emergency. Wet, cold and alive we beat feet to the top of the moraine and within a mile we were back in camp. The guides completely downplayed the direness of the situation which was fine with me. That’s their job to put on a happy face and they did it well. But my face wasn’t happy in the least. Wind and waves easily qualify as an “Act of God”. The total lack of preparation, proper dress, training and safety equipment was nothing less than negligence.

Nobody was too interested in getting back in the boats after that. And despite the wind and the rain the rest of the trip was a great time. We’re definitely heading back to Patagonia but we probably won’t be trying to repeat this vacation anytime too soon.

And now that I’m done with the blog, I can get back to my friendly email to the owner of the company with some none too unclear suggestions.

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