Backyard Biology

Nature stories from my backyard and beyond

Nature Adventures

Paddling in Patagonia

Friday, October 10, 2009

View from CampoJournal entry one: Starting Out. Our six hour drive from the Campo to our put in at Ventisquero was both visually spectacular and a jostled rearrangement of our internal organs. Driving through Southern Chile’s montane forest with it’s complex tree species and plunging waterfalls around each bend is said to be like going back to the Jurassic period. The road we take is mostly paved but, there are long stretches of corduroy, pot-holed chassis shakers or what my wife would call hemorrhage highways. Our driver and the three of us as an instructor team are in a Toyota pick-up truck racing ahead of the students who are a few kilometers behind us riding in the school’s bus called the Millennium We hope to reach our departure point and meeting with the Armada to go over our route and gear. The Armada inspects each course before they start paddling in the remote wilderness of Southern coastal Chile. We are running a bit late because of roadwork. I hate being late. In general in latin America it is not such a big deal but, I don’t want to give the Armada anymore reason to be resentful of the gringos they feel they have to keep track of. Our driver has no problem driving faster as we speed past several roadside memorials and rusty skeletons of vehicles being reclaimed by the thick growth at the bottom of ravines.

We make it to our put in and discover we have beat the Armada by a couple of hours. cow imageWe camp at a modest campground at a farmer’s home who is also boarding and feeding the road crews that are working on the road. A small calf munches in the front yard, we learn his name is Ano Nuevo and he is on the menu for that impending celebration. Chickens and turkeys run through our boats and gear which we have laid out, carefully avoiding the minefield of cow patties.

The students arrive and set up camp, excited to hear that there is a wood-stove to heat water for showers. We will practice some basic re-entry skills first thing tomorrow morning and although we are approaching summer, the sea water temperature could still be described as a little on the cool side. A white pick-up arrives and two Armada officers step out with their game faces on. Claudio, one of the instructors in our team is Chilean and does most of the talking. The two officers are thorough. They warm up to the students who all speak some Spanish. This group of students are starting their third section of their year in Chile. Already absorbed in the culture and language for a few months, they all make genuine efforts to interact with everybody they encounter. The officers check each of the eighteen flares we are mandated to carry as they joke with the students. They approve our gear and route, with a suggestion that we update our charts. As they leave the calf runs along the side of their truck.

Paddling Canales PuyuguapiWe have some time before nightfall so we plan to squeeze in a class introducing charts and wind and wave dynamics. In the next few days, after rotating the students through skills and checking the weather, we plan to move the first chance we get. Our first move in our attempt at circumnavigating Isla Magdalena requires us to head south along the eastern shore of Canales Puyuguapi before crossing into Canales Jacaf. As the evening winds down, some students split wood for tomorrow’s showers, another group huddles over the charts and a few return from an exploratory walk along the coastline. We all go to sleep anticipating our month long journey through the Chonos Archipelago.

Journal entry two: The swallows of the isles of Bobadilla. We are six days into our sea kayaking section and have been winded in on the west side of Punta Alberto. Gene approaches waterfall imageThe isles of Bobadilla afford us some protection from the relentless northwest wind. It is raining sideways in sheets, I have been for-warned from others: “you don’t know rain until you have seen it rain in Patagonia”. The river that created the gravel bar we are camping on rages, swollen with the run-off draining from the mountain forest. Periodically we hear the crack of another tree as it is pulled from it’s roots and into the river’s torrent. We stay huddled in our tents or under our tarps that snap in the wind. Every line we have is tied to a solid object. We wait for the weather to break. We plan our moves through short weather windows, sometimes deciding to break camp and move just a few miles. We sometimes wait until late afternoon before committing to set up camp.

The wind picks up. In front of our tarp, two dozen Chilean swallows descend onto the gravel beach. They settle close together, their collective heads pointing into the wind, their tell tale white rumps point back at us. It starts to hail, the tiny birds get pelted yet, they squint their eyes, readjust their feathers and wait for their windows.

The hail stops and winds diminish. The swallows are the first to leave the beach, the insects must be aloft as well. The swallows are swooping gathering dinner. We decide to follow the swallows lead. We drop the tents and tarps, load our kayaks and leave the beach. With three more hours of daylight, we could move as many as nine miles. I look over my shoulder for a back bearing before we make our crossing. The swallows fly in a small patch of sunshine above our beach. Spirits are lifted as we paddle towards the cloud shrouded isles of Bobadilla.Claudio explores image