By Hank McComas & Julio Perez
Commercial guided kayak trips are usually tame. The trips are short in duration to keep the price down and to fit more trips in a season. In order to appeal to a wider range of commercial customers, the skill level requirements are usually low. The itinerary is "dumbed down" in terms of miles paddled each day, currents and winds that are considered acceptable. Distances to put in and take out are kept short to maximize on water days for the length of the trip. The locations tend to be near civilization, easy to get to and with ready access to rescue services and hospitals.
True expeditions have nothing in common with these trips. They are in remote locations where travel is difficult, rescue slow or impossible. Conditions can get nasty quickly and stay unpleasant for days on end. Participants need to be skilled, hardy, self-sufficient, self-reliant and adventurous. Since almost no one goes to these places, or even lives there, getting equipment, supplies, support and backup is complicated, expensive and time consuming.
So when Julio and I started thinking about a trip to Southern South America, Patagonia or Ushuaia, lands of harsh climate, big distances and hard weather, I was thinking "I don't really want a sanitized trip. I want something that feels like a real expedition - but without all the work." So we started looking on the web for anyone offering something like that. The only thing we could find among the dozens and dozens of trips offered was one by YakExpeditiones to the San Rafael Glacier -14 days, 12 to 14 miles per day - with a strong requirement for high level skills. It was advertized as an exploratory trip that might or might not be run depending on participation and might or might not make it to the glacier depending on the weather. April is pretty late in the southern hemisphere summer. We were a little uncertain about the likelihood of the trip coming off. Then when Julio couldn't get away in that month so that put the whole planning into hiatus. But I kept my eye on the web Googling "sea kayak Patagonia" every couple of weeks.
Then one day my browser brought up a new entry. Extremely Patagonia was offering a trip to the San Rafael Glacier too. But they rafted down a river in inflatable kayaks, started closer to the glacier and offered a trip in January, one in February and another in March. This looked promising. I started checking everything they had on the web site. The company had been in country for a number of years. Although they mostly seemed to offer glacier treking, ice climbing and mountaineer training, their web site and preparatory materials were much more complete and "proper" than the others I had come across. I began to get a good feeling about the people running this outfitter.
We checked around in our little kayaking community for others who wanted to go. Even though I paddled with a set of skilled kayakers I couldn't drum up much more interest than just the two of us for a variety of reasons. Some couldn't afford the time away from work, some couldn't afford the estimated $4500.00 cost of the trip, airfare and miscellaneaous expenses of the trip and some were leery of the bad weather reputation of Patagonia. In the end we only interested one other person in the trip who decided to go in January. She sent in a $1000.00 non-refundable deposit to Extremely Patagonia. This was before Julio found out that he could only go in February. Then this person found out that a school commitment prevented her from going at all.
I sent in my deposit and then found out that the description of the trip on the website had changed. No longer was it scheduled for San Rafael Glacier but now Jorge Montt Glacier. No rafting down the river to the put in but a 460 km one day road trip to the put in with one day back from the take out on the Carreterre Austral. Well I looked up on Google Earth and Panoramio for pictures of the two places. Although San Rafael seemd a little more spectacular, Jorge Montt was much more remote. It was an acceptable substitution. I sent in my depost and Extremely Patagonia allowed us to transfer the deposit from our January person to be Julio's deposit. That was very nice of them as technically they were not required to do so by the terms on their website. This was another plus in their favor. At that point we still had another person thinking about coming but he had not made up his mind yet. The trip details stated that there was a three person minimum for the trip to go, so we held off on getting our plane tickets, as there was no one else signed up yet.
Over the next couple of weeks several emails passed back and forth getting the details of liability waivers, medical conditions, equipment lists and safety equipment straightened out. Their list of carried safety equipment was very extensive and very relevant to remote kayaking in a harsh environment. They knew about compasses for the southern hemispere. They had all the equipment we would need. The inclusion of a satellite phone was particularly reassuring as that was likely the only semi reliable communication one would have down there.
Finally our third person decided that he was not going to go. When that information got passsed on to the operations manager, Graham Hornsley, at Extremely Patagonia, he suggested that we come down and do the trip ourselves without a guide. While normally that might have had an appeal to me, I had a second motivation for wanting a guided trip. I wanted to see if there really existed a commercially guided trip that provided the adventure, difficulty and remoteness of a "proper" expedition yet still provided enough support that those who were not yet ready for their own remote trip could enjoy and be safe while picking up the some of the skills required. When I communicated that desire, that I wanted a guided trip, an email came back saying that since there were only two participants that the trip to San Rafael wasn't feasible. They offered a trip to the fjords considerably farther north instead. This wasn't the type of terrain or trip I was interseted in. Julio and I decided to cancel and look elsewhere or perhaps give up on the idea of Patagonia in 2008.
Two days later I got another email from Graham saying that he had misunderstood the instructions of the owner of Extremely Patagonia and that the trip was still available if we wanted to go. Then on the weekend I received a call from Chile. it was the Ben, the owner of Extremely Patagonia, assuring me that the trip would in fact go off and that we could count on it and go ahead and book our plane flights. We did that and paid the rest of the trip costs. We were set to go.
The cost of the round trip flight from Baltimore to Santiago, Chile on LAN airlines, an American Airlines affiliate, was just under $1200.00 USD. The layover of almost 6 hours in Miamai on the way back was horrible, making the return trip 26 hours long, but it was unavoidable. The flight from Santiago to Balmaceda airport with a stop in Puerto Montt on the way down and Puerto Montt and Temuco on the way back was another $580.00. I have heard that the in Chile flights are cheaper if one books through the Spanish site and pays in Chilean Pesos, but I could not prove it. There is also a bus that goes from Santiago to Balmaceda but that would be a long trrip of two days.
From Balmaceda we needed ground transport to Coyhaique where we would be met by Extremely Patagonia personnel. The taxi rides there are price controlled, 3000 pesos, or about $6.00 USD. Several different taxi companies meet the flights as they come in. There were many option for places to stay in Coyhaique which is the capital of Aisen and has by far the largest population in the state, about 50,000. We chose a hostel that look clean simple and cheap. So now we were set. All that was needed now was to get there.
Day 1 - Thursday
The flight to Santiago was god awful long, helped only by the fact that I managed to sleep a good part of the way. Leaving Miami we flew over Cuba, Panama and then out over the Pacific along the coast of Peru, only heading back over land once we reached the latitude of Santiago. We arrived in Santiago and stood in a long line for a long time before we figured out that we had missed the visa fee lines when first coming down the steps to the customs area. We had the privledge of paying $131.00, the same fee that the U.S. charges Chilean citizens to enter our country. This was raised the week prior to our arrival from $100.00, an extra expense we were not expecting. After a two hour lay over we were on the plane for Balmeceda. Our first day was long one of just getting there.
Day 2 - Friday
As we got closer to the city, more ranches with green pastures began to appear as we followed the course of the Rio Simpson into town. One by one our driver delivered passengers to their hotels, homes and hostels in the city. Soon he was only Julio, myself and George, a young man from England headed out on a six week mountaineering school adventure with Extremely Patagonia. George decided to go with us to our hostel as he did not have anything reserved prior to arrival.
With our luggage retrieved at the small airport in Balmecada, we picked one of several vans headed into Coyhaique 25 miles away. They all charge the same 3000 peso fee ( about 6 dollars). The van was full up with a mixture of gringos and locals for the 40 minute ride to the state capital. Nestled in the fork of two rivers, Coyhaique lies in the valley of the Rio Simpson on the east side of the Cerro Catillo and the northern ice field. SImilar in look to the east side of the Rockies, the plains were covered in the yellow grasses of late summer. The sparse pines were twisted by the prevailing northwest winds. All looked starved for moisture as the adiabatic winds sweeping down from the high ice fields kept the humidity low. In spite of being told that it rained here "a lot", the vegetation just didn't look like that was the case.
Our van driver was a most congenial and helpful fellow and drove us around town to the money exchange and then to a couple of places where we were trying to arrange participation in an asado, a traditional barbeque. But there wasn;t anything already scheduled and we did not have enough people to make such an extravagent feast feasible. So after touring all over the city, we were taken up and very bumpy dirt road to our hostel. This driver was the only one to come up this road which was considered too rough for most of the van services. We gave him a 50% tip for his extra service.
The oldest part of town is laid out around the Paza de Armas with a confusing arrangement of one way streets radiating and crossing around the perimeter of the two block wide octagonal center. The rest of the town seems to be planned on a rectangular grid although the one way streets are still a little confusing. The plaza is near the river confluence with the newer sections of town stretcing up the slope toward the imposing outcrop of volcanic rock to the southeast of the city. We walked around the plaza and some of the side streets. We had dinner at a restaurant on the edge of the plaza. I had a delicious salmon entre. There is also a restaurant upstairs with a long history and higher prices to match. We walked back to the hostel. There we met Kate our kayak guide for the trip and Graham, the operations manager for the outfitter. We arranged to meet at 1:00 P.M. the next day to talk about plans go through the gear and check out the boats. Kate (young Canadian beauty. Appears fit and confident.) and Graham (a weatherworn Brit that has been in Chile outfitting expeditions for decades). Kate is to be our guide although she has never paddled the area and has been in town for just 4 days. This is a little surprising as we were expecting that we would be going with two guides who had led the January trip to the area. With arrangements made for discussing the trip the next afternoon, we went to bed early to catch up on our sleep after the fitful nights sleep in the airplane seat the previous night.
We bulled our luggage up the steep steps to the long pine log lodge that was our hostel. This hostel is just on the outskirts of town about 3 kilometers from the central plaza. I chose it because it looked like it would be quiet and because I thought we might be able to walk into the mountains from here. Although the only walking we did was actually on the other side of town, it was very quiet. George, Julio and I were the only residents at the time, although I understand that the place does fill up when there is a NOLS group coming through. In addition to the main lodge which has mostly quad bunk rooms and several double bed private rooms, there is one cabin separated from the lodge. The lobby has facilities for dining and a simple breakfast was incuded for our 7500 pesos daily rate. A small guest kitchen facility was available and there was a tenting area in the back for those on a really tight budget. Separate sex wash and toilet facilities with showers and hot water completed the lodge offerings. After a quick shower in cold water, (I didn't know to turn on the gas water heater) the three of us headed into town for a look around.
Day 3 - Saturday
The next morning we were up early for the included breakfast at the hostel. Breakfast–Local bread, real butter, homemade jams, oatmeal with apples, instant coffee, OJ, hot chocolate with flour and malt in it. Not bad! After breakfast I met the cute little kitten hanging around the front door to the hostel. Inquisitive and playful, he kept jumping in and out of my backpack. He was very hard to get a picture of as he was always moving. In and out of the pack, around the steps, jumping at bugs and eating those he caught. He was definitely an outdoor kitty and even his mom seemed to give him little sympathy, trashing him when he got close to her with a few viscuous swats of her clawed paws. It looked like he might be in for a tough life.
By 9:30 we were once again crossing over the bridge on the Rio Simpson and walking into town. This time we continued on to the other side of town to the Reserva Nacional, a park on the southern heights of town. From there one got a good panoramic view of Coyhaique across the green pastures. The town lay upon the west facing slope under the volcanic cliffs. We arrived at the park only with enough time to immediately head back for our 1:00 P.M. meeting with Kate. George went on to walk several of the trails in the park. I had to lend him some money as there was an entrance fee for foreigners aznd he had not brought any money with him. The park attendants didn't have any change and had to drive into town to get some. Juliio and I headed back the 9 kilometers to the hostel. George would get back just before dinner time after walking 26 kilometers. He had a huge blisters on his feet. Not the best way to start a six week trip on the ice fields. We doctored him up with some moleskin and bandages out of uor first aid kits as he didn't have one. Ah youth!
Coyhaique from the Reserva Nacional
The keels of the boats showed some significant wear as well with the keel strips showing several layers of repair that looked like they could use another one as well. But without time to properly apply a keel strip before leaving, I let it go.
In the bright sun of the clear skies, we had applied sun screen, but apparently Julio forgot to do the backs of his hands. They got really sun burned by the end of the day. Kate with her unusual coolie hat was well protected from the head to her shoulders, but her Canadian white skin and red haired complexion needed some serious solar protection. Her enthusiasm and Canadian accent was infectious, eh?
We went through the equipment, pulling out sleeping bags, dry bags, paddles and going over the food and kitchen equipment that they provided. After going over all the equipment, we went inside Graham's house to look at the charts and discuss the route planning. Kate had been in town for 4 days and had talked to the kayak guides of the NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) group who had done the trip several times before. The charts were 40 year old Chilean Navy charts of very high detail. We each had our own laminated copies of the trip route laid out on three sheets. There were a few options for camps along the way, but stopping points were widely separated in the steep sided fjords and I suspected we would find that the vegetation precluded getting very far off the shore where the rocks were not steep.
Then we learned that this would in fact be the first trip that this company was going to attempt for this area. Graham had provided logistics for trips in this area many times before for a youth group out of England. But as he repeatedly stated, he wasn't a kayaker and would not be going on this trip. So this trip was beginning to feel more and more like an expedition into the unknown and untested.
We also learned that the other guides that were supposed to have been leading the trip quit just 10 days before our arrival. The previous trip had not gone to the area we were going to but had gone on a safer less challenging trip to the northern fjords. This was due to the fact that there was only one very inexperienced client. After that trip, some personal factors caused the two female guides to quit. Details of the problem were a little sketchy. Kate, who is a level three quide in the Canadian guiding system guides, had been contracted to guide for our trip.
Our objective, Jorge Montt glacier, was only 35 nautical miles away from the put in. We were told that even having 4 to 5 days to get there that it was likely that weather conditions might prevent us from reaching the glacier. Most of the NOLS trips do not actually get there and they had more time than we had.
While the trip itself was fairly short in length, the drive down there was not. It would take the better part of two days along 460 km of dirt road to get to Tortel, the little fishing and tourist town almost at the end of the road. There we would put in for the start of the trip. Vehicle logistics (the van was needed for transport of the mountaineering clients) dictated that we would not be able to leave Coyhaique until 1:00 P.M. on Sunday. We would drive down the road and spend the night in Cochran and finish the trip the next day with a launch on the Rio Baker in the early afternoon. We would camp either in the rivers mouth on Isla Los Muertes or further into the fjord. Similarly we would take parts of two days to get back. this was different than what was posted as the original trip itinerary and cut off two days from the onw ater portion of the trip. But there seemd to be plenty of days on the water to meet the objective and the drive down there sounded like a massive effort. I thought the new schedule was quite reasonable and even advisable.
We went over the comunication and safety equipment. We would have two VHF radios, which might be useful for talking to each other, but would not be of much help otherwise as there was little chance of raising anyone else in the lonely place we were headed for. Our primary means of communication was the satelite phone that we would use to report our position each night at 8:00 P.M. to Graham. He would then relay our position and plans for the next camp site to the Chilean Navy by SSB radio. Daily notification of the Chilean Navy, who licenses and monitors all boat traffic in the area, is a requirement of all expeditions.
The safety equipment kit was quite extensive as I had determined before leaving the States. Between the one Kate carried as the outfitter guide and the one I had, we were quite well supplied with duplicates of almost everything.
Hoofing it back to the hostel we arrived just before dark. After doctoring up George's tortured feet we went to bed looking forward to the start of our journey the next morning.
Kate dropped us off back at the hostel, easily negotiating the bumpy dirt road in the capable 4WD Mitsubishi diesel. After checking with George to see if he wanted to go to dinner, we set off walking back into town. We were headed to Bomberos, a restaurant recommended by Graham for good quantities of simple fare. We were particularly recommended to Lomo a la Pobre, a big piece of cow with fries and two eggs on top, which is what we both ordered. The portion were indeed huge. The steak, locally grown without chemicals of any kind, was quite tasty if not exactly tender.
On to Day 4............