Packrafting the Northern Patagonian Icecap
A Lunar Start for Two Lunatics
The port was on fire. Jason and I had taken the overnight ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco to begin our packrafting trip around the Northern Patagonian Icecap. The captain of the ferry informed us the fish plant had caught fire, closing the port. We sat idle desperate to get going, watching the sun and pristine paddling conditions slowly disappear. When we did finally land, black smoke still billowing from the town, it was late in the evening.
We set off paddling into a cloudless night in the fjord. Our setback was a blessing in disguise, giving our first paddle a magical edge as we navigated the sea by moonlight. The mountains were cast in a soft pale glow as the water sparkled around us, overhead the stars blanketed the sky. I didn’t even feel just how cold it was until we made camp at midnight.
Mud, Bamboo and All Things Not Nice
Our first week was spent portaging through a chain of mountains. We would use the packrafts to paddle the lakes and rivers when possible and bush bash whenever necessary. We had on our backs a month’s worth of food and the gear needed for the cold, the sea and the mountains. With this 40kg load, we left behind the Aisén Fjord and paddled upriver into the mountains. The river soon turned to rapids. We packed the rafts and began reverse canyoning up the mountain.
Eventually, the trail came to an inglorious end high on the mountain with the remnants of an old work camp. From there it was thick bamboo bashing back downslope to the river. We launched the boats whilst chest-deep in muddy river water choked with bamboo shoots as thick as anacondas. This method, following old and overgrown trails between upriver slogs and rapid portaging continued for 2 days. We kept taking to the water at increasingly dodgy spots just above the rapids, paddling hard to escape them.
The terrain itself was horrific. The bamboo, thick enough to imprison the unsuspecting, would bring us to our knees crawling to fight through it as the already heavy packs would snag and wrap us up in malicious vines. Smaller broken bamboo shoots would pierce the palms of our hands as we crawled. This was interlaced with stinking bog churned up by wild cows. Spirit breaking slop trapped us thigh deep and flung us forward, threatening to drown us pack and all as it sucked at our shoes. We passed a lonely unused farm with weathered sheds in disarray, horned skulls lying about in rusting scythes and nets. The eerie silence gave the place an unsettling sense of abandonment.
As the mountains gave way to the flood plains we would paddle to the ocean, the bog lingered and more than once threatened to engulf us. A false step would result in belly deep mud whilst the motion of turning back would only further the sink whilst panic rose in a squeezed chest. It was a delicate balancing act to move carefully whilst inflating the packrafts to escape sinking.
We found a feeder river that moved in the direction towards the ocean and finally escaped the nightmare. The river was narrow and tunnel like with the overgrown vegetations pressing in from above as we shot down the valley in the swift current, more and more feeding river pouring in from the mountains making the river swell. The steep banks and thick terrain dropped away and the flood plain opened up. The rapids began in earnest.
The river was in flood from the days of heavy rain and the rapids were pumping. We moved through them as carefully as the water would allow. The terrain was awe inspiring — we were two small specks being flushed towards the ocean on a surging flow as huge ice mountains and glacial sprawls looked down on us.
Jason went through a metre-high drop in the rapids and his raft flipped, burying him in the sucking eddy. It was the quickest I had moved in weeks. I thought he would drown as his head tilted high trying to keep his mouth above the water. He managed to re-grab his own raft and pull himself into it. I paddled hard to retrieve his paddle torn from him and we got onto the bank before the next set of rapids appeared. With Jason safe, I moved back onto the river to retrieve his two packs (both critical to the trip). We were lucky, his large pack had swirled in the rapids for a while before being spat out and I managed to haul it to the bank. Undefeatable, Jason was back on the river a half hour later after a space blanket and hot drink to fight the hypothermia.
The flood plains continued down to the ocean and the rapids became smaller and more manageable. As we moved into the salt water I could not help but feel relief to be out of the mountains and back on the fjords.
70 kilometres of wide ocean fjord now needed to be paddled. Storm after storm would roll towards us, funnelled by the mountains that skirted the fjord with steep cliffs. It was a daunting sight, the colossal wall of cloud rolling towards you, swallowing up the landscape like a tsunami. The front would hit with a gale of icy rain, small chunks of ice hailing down and stinging any exposed skin. Camps were few and far between in the sea cliffs, so we paddled into the cold night looking for a spot to land.
We continued touring south down the fjord and even enjoyed a few days of sunshine and beach camps to recharge the soul. These days were numbered and once again the wind picked up to fight our progress. The wet cloth of my face buff being hit with splattering sea spray and wind gave the sensation of being waterboarded in a wind tunnel. All the while the wind threatened to blow us onto the shore rocks if we weren’t careful.
Five days later, we paddled into the San Rafael lagoon. Icebergs the size of cars flowed towards us, groaning and breaking under their own weight. Inside the lagoon the glacial flow was a white giant on the horizon, thundering as it grated passed the rocks with a slow, monumental pressure.
We paddled among the ice like giddy children in a playground as the afternoon sun lit up the icebergs in vivid shades of blue. We made camp on the shore and melted down chunks of ice for cooking and drinking.
Crossing the 12 kilometre lagoon stretch the next day, a bright sun cast blinding light off the ice and burned any exposed skin, the back of my handed bubbling. We did suffer a small tragedy… While reshuffling his pack, Jason’s GoPro slipped from its pocket and fell into the lagoon depths never to be seen again. Two weeks of his hard earned footage never to be seen again.
We made camp on the far beach enjoying the sun, melting ice for drinking and cooking water. We were blissfully oblivious to the fact we were about to suffer the worst terrain either of us had ever seen.
Never trust a GPS reading. What should have been a leisurely two-hour paddle was, in fact, a two-day trauma-fest. We crossed the headland expecting water but found an endless swamp. The reeds were too thick to paddle and the water too deep to walk. Our salvation was to inflate the rafts, place the packs within them and then push through the thick grass from behind the rafts. The waist deep water covered soft mud and decaying matter. Everything was stained a deep brown, skin included. We ploughed through for 2 kilometre of nonsense until the swamp dried out slightly and we began the painful process of pulling out our backpacks to wade, then putting them back in the rafts to push again as the terrain varied. We struck a feeder river and followed it inland towards our second glacier, the grey and icy water infinitely better than the swamp.
We were not out of the woods yet. Leaving the river, we moved through extremely thick vegetation. The bamboo was back with thick moss covering the ground. Under the gloom of the thick canopy, everything was rotten. We continued to break through the moss and fall into potential leg breaking pits. Add in sharp splintered bamboo and thorn bushes and it made for a painful crawl. Both Jason and I were at rock bottom, utterly overwhelmed by the environment. Finally, we broke free after dinner, making the flood plains of the new glacier just on dark. Never take for granted the availability of solid ground and open space.
We rafted around the packed ice field, weaving a path through the icy water. The icebergs and a horizon filled with the icecap plateau should have been a trip highlight, but I hated it. I was emotionally and physically shattered beyond caring from the week we had. We got through to the far beach late that night and I told Jason how negative I was feeling. He confessed the same feeling, as though he couldn’t enjoy such a special place due to feeling so wrecked.
Trekking south on the beach front we moved into the more mountainous section of the trip.
Following another glacial river inland, we avoided the worst of the thick scrub. We towed our packrafts behind us to ease the back and leg pains. The waters of these rivers are a pale blue mixed with a fine grey silt. It is also, unsurprisingly, ice cold.
The horizon was a grey cliff landscape peppered with large glacier sprawls. The ice cap seemed ready to burst from its rocky pen, pushing out at any gap it could find. I gazed into the terrain, the small details in the cliffs, the scope and awe of the ice. I couldn’t help but think that no human hand could ever create such a masterpiece as is etched by nature in these hard to reach places.
We made camp next to our last glacial flow for the icecap that night. The next day we spent a few hours exploring the field in our packrafts and scrambling up the ice hills on foot. Huge mounds of conglomerate ice and rock fused together in rolling waves while sheer turrets of deep blue drifted calmly past.
The outflow from this glacier would take us directly south and back on the fjords again. These fjords were narrow compared to the ones further north and lined with steeper cliffs. Countless waterfalls streamed in from all sides, streaking white across the green and grey mountain sides.
When the fjord finished, we were confronted with the first of two mountain crossings. We again followed a fresh water river inland before leaving it to make the altitude necessary to bridge the saddle between the mountain ranges. It was a bushy uphill scramble, flimsy ferns for handholds and soft moss mounds to place your feet. Once high enough, this gave way to more alpine terrain, sharp rock and low thick grass with ice and snow covered peaks looming above.
Angry Octopus Fjord
A day later we were back on the fjords. This fjord was one of many arms of the “Octopus” fjord system, each connecting a head where we could strike down a particular fjord to take us close to Caleta Tortel. The more open sea brought rough conditions. The wind roared and threatened to tip the boats as we struggled against it, the sea whipping into a white-capped frenzy. Waves would crash into the boat leaving us sitting in freezing water.
Rounding the fjord head, large swells began booming in off the open ocean. Like two corks we bobbed up and down, a couple of meters at a time as the swells rolled underneath us. More than once a stray break would bash the boat and send us flying, but we made it through without landing on the unforgiving rocks.
The fjord end was a calmer affair and brought a pod of fin whales within twenty metres of our boats. A lone sea lion also stood proudly as he watched us slink past his rocky outcrop.
Over and Out
The final mountain pass was a treacherous affair. At the end of the fjord, we packed up our boats and paddles and began to climb. The terrain was large sloping boulders intercut with thickly vegetated gullies. We climbed 300m aiming for a small saddle between two larger peaks. After a final steep climb we were at the top of the range, the old fjord far beneath us and the ocean of the far side visible. The rain was ceaseless and the wind cold but the sight of the open ocean and the thought of town made our spirits soar.
The descent started terribly. I slipped and fell down a small rock slab landing with a heavy thump. No broken bones but a deep jagged gash to the palm of my hand that started pumping blood out onto the ground. Jason struggled to apply first aid in the cold, numb and stiff fingers are not great for working zippers or compression bandages.
Jason took the lead as I struggled with one hand. With controlled falls and down climbs we slowly made our way towards the ocean. At times, we would be scrambling above high drops into a funnel of mountain water, keenly aware of the consequences of a small slip. We hit the ocean mid-afternoon exhausted and relieved to be off the mountain.
We finished the leg with two long days of ocean paddling, my hand bandaged up and throbbing with each stroke.
After twenty-nine days Caleta Tortel slowly appeared around a headland. We landed with little fanfare, just two strange and smelly men staggering into the small town in search of food and rest.