Magellan On My Mind

A journey to the end of the Americas

Feature type Story

Read time 7 min read

Published Feb 13, 2020

Photographer Will Copestake

Will Copestake
Magellan On My Mind

Seumas Nairn leading the way into the narrow entrance of Canal Gajardo, the hidden sea route through the southern Patagonian mountains

Suerte Amigol’ Cris waved, wishing Seumas and I good luck as we pushed our kayaks seaward. Cris would be the last human being we would see for almost two weeks. Seumas and I joked that this was ‘Round Two’ as we embarked on a 450km voyage to remote and seldom ventured fiords at the very edge of the world: the Strait of Magellan, Cabo Froward and glacial exploration was our goal. This trip was a continuation of our previous 840km expedition from Puerto Eden to Puerto Natales. If we completed it, we would have kayaked over 1000km through the Patagonian fjords.

Paddling in Patagonia is an experience of spectacular contrast; a realm of constant interplay between beauty and beast. Vast glacial tongues curl out from the Southern Andes pulling columns of spray from the sea with their ever-present wind. As a kayaker, there is an alluring remoteness and commitment to the terrain that lies west of the mountains themselves. This region is completely disconnected from civilisation by the Southern Patagonian Icecap (after Antarctica and Greenland, it is the third largest in the world). Being out there is the paddler’s equivalent of big wall climbing or deep jungle exploration. Once you set off, it is entirely up to you to get yourself back.

Throughout three years of kayak guiding and exploring this far flung corner of the globe, I’ve learned through experience the challenges and rewards of its unique environment: fierce Austral winds that can average 30 knots (Force 7) in summer, torrential rain, and freezing glacial air. Southern Patagonia is an unlikely candidate for a kayaking destination, but there is great reward in being immersed in this raw, untouched wilderness. It is not a stretch to imagine the early explorers such as Magellan, Darwin and Shackleton crossing these waters, following the long-laid footsteps of the local Kaweskar indigenous peoples.

The Kaweskar are now reduced to a few isolated communities, but they were the first masters of this intemperate sea. They travelled in open canoes that were masterpieces of engineering using wild materials, and they lived a nomadic existence by hunting and gathering. Unlike Seumas and I, who were kitted in the best modern Gore-Tex suits and Polartec base layers, they wore little more than loin cloths, and they lit fires on a clay hearth inside their boats to survive. It was these flames, spotted by early Western explorers, that gave rise to the name Tierra del Fuego: ‘the land of fire’. I have found that Patagonian expedition planning is made easier by channelling ‘Kaweskar thinking’. This means utilising portage [transporting kayaks by land] between exposed straits, and also carefully checkpointing camps with good landing zones. Such strategies are the key to unlocking safe passage.

Paddling here is highly dynamic, and must be constantly reactive to the winds that turn on and off with such immediacy. But before all that begins, you need a red stamp.

Crossing the infamously rough Cabo Crosstide close to the calmest point of the tidal flow: our first true sense of the Strait of Magellan.

Fighting across the fjord against spindrifts of spray we searched for a storm camp, watching columns of salt water whirl into the sky.

The notoriously officious Chilean navy are the gatekeepers to any adventure in this region. Without their permission, even the smallest of trips is considered illegal. To pass their rigorous inspection, a kayaker must demonstrate complete confidence in skill, preparation and equipment. There were gear inspections, meetings, and detailed presentations where we had to plot the co-ordinates for every conceivable camp — and for all our emergency escapes. Even with all this in order, the local help from Cris was essential in persuading them.

Finally we got the all-clear.

‘The eyes of the Chilean navy are on you, good luck.’ The captain stamped the form after months of planning. The gates were opened and, finally, we were free to go.

Unusually calm conditions let us paddle 45km on our first day, which was not bad in boats loaded to the deck-line with over 110kg of supplies, food and gear. Soon after leaving the harbour, the shore turned to its usual wild state of spiky vegetation hanging low over the water between long stretches of impregnable cliffs. Struggling to find any landings – let alone campsites – we raced the light for a river delta on our maps, and camped on a shingle spit barely wide enough to fit our tent.

‘Bollocks. I forgot my spoon!’ Seumas chuckled, shaking his head in disbelief as we both laughed. Journeys like this brought Seumas and I back to our childhood growing up together in Ullapool in the Highlands of Scotland, an experience which had laid the foundations for where we were now. It is our strong belief that burly adventures need serious planning, but also a healthy dose of humour.

The next morning, we paddled the remaining 5km to the end of Seno Obstruccion and arrived at our first of two major portages. To our surprise, someone had built a walkway through the dense vegetation to the first lake. More incredibly, inside the remains of an old shack, Seumas found a spoon to replace the one bed left behind. Luck was on our side, or so it seemed.

Four kilometres of lakes and portages lay between us and Seno Skyring, an inland sea which we hoped to reach next. There was no easy way around but to unload, shuttle gear and carry the boats across. This is where Seumas – a gamekeeper by profession came into his own. Dragging stags of Scottish mountains isn’t much different to pulling kayaks through Patagonian scrub.

It has always been a conscious decision in my planning to buck the trend of most foreign expeditions in Patagonia, which normally take place during the longer daylight of the summer months. Unwittingly, such trips take place in the windiest conditions of the year. I prefer to mimic the locals, who tend to travel on the edge of winter, forfeiting daylight for calmer air. The payoff was better and easier paddling, in exchange for twilight races for camps.

Short days aside, we had made fantastic progress. Just two days into our adventure we were already a full day ahead of schedule. This gave us the opportunity to add on a bonus fjord hidden in the western end of Seno Skyring; the enticingly named Estrecho de Glaciares, or ‘Strait of the Glacier’.

Jogging up and down a beach to warm our feet up, we guzzled a handful of trail mix and a block of rubbery cheese we had nicknamed ‘Dunlop’. The water had turned from deep blue to an opaque emerald by the combination of tea-coloured river flow and suspended turquoise glacial dust. In the distance, a deep blue curtain of ice flowed between the Gran Campo Navaro mountain range, whose peaks were hidden by the incessant rain. The occasional thunder of ice crashing from the glacial snouts broke the silence.

Seumas Nairn portaging a fully laden 100kg+ sea kayak across inland lakes between Canal Gajardo and Canal Jeronimo. Here, the team were following an ancient Kaweskar route; hundreds of years ago the Kaweskar people also pulled their canoes between these waters.

Clinging to lines attached to the bow of our kayaks with numb fingers, we pulled the boats upstream through a short rapid to reach the glacial lagoon. As if by divine intervention, our arrival coincided with the clearing of the cloud. As the wind dropped to a glassy calm, the spectacle of an iceberg-filled lake and the emerging peaks mirrored double. Suddenly, we had the first glimpse of clear sky we had seen since our departure. The immediate warmth of the light saturated body and soul. Glaciar Galeria was soon fully exposed before us, from lake to peaks.

The rain and wind, though, soon returned overnight. We paddled back to Seno Skyring at a sprint the next morning against a stiff headwind. The shoreline was dramatically steep, and even through the sleet the towering rock walls were impressive. As the fjord opened into Skyring, we turned south.

Seno Skyring is a tremendous inland sea which drains through two narrow channels. We hoped to follow the western route through Canal Gajardo. At less than 100m wide at its narrowest point, this channel experiences raging 15 knot tide races, and would be a logistical challenge. Away from the main ocean, the fjords have their own tidal cadence. The little information we’d managed to find never matched reality. Instead, we would have to plan upstream camps in case the flow was too strong, and react to what we found on the move.

Even by Patagonian standards, our journey into Gajardo was wet; seldom have I seen such heavy rain, and I’m from Scotland. The air was filled with the churning roar of hundreds of waterfalls cascading like white ribbons. Occasional glimpses through the thick blanket of cloud revealed deep blue crevasses in the icecap atop the towering rock walls around us. The ice itself seemed to glow in the monotone light.

Approaching the narrowest point in the channel, we accelerated on the outflowing tide into a bottleneck and were pushed through to the other side. Squinting through curtains of rain, I could see Seumas forging a path through the ice toward the glacier. Sheltered in the lee of a headland, we listened to the boom of icebergs calving. The rain saturated and stung our skin but turned the sea alive in dancing ripples around our boats. ‘Time to go!’ we agreed by spinning a hand signal to turn around, since it was too loud to hear each other clearly. The wind was rising, as was the risk of the ice packing together and crushing us.

Finding refuge between the sheer granite walls was a serious challenge, especially with light fading fast. All apparent campsite options were overgrown with deep hummocks. Cutting a small clearing into the vegetation in case of emergency, we took a calculated risk and pitched on the beach, hoping we had assessed the tide right. It was a sleepless night spent inspecting the rise and fall at the water’s edge, which came to within metres of our tent.

As the rain grew heavier overnight it dampened the wind to a rare, calm day. We started early, hoping to reach the end of the canal and cross one of the most exposed sections of the entire trip to reach portage number two before the next storm.

Nature was everywhere on this seldom visited coast. We watched dolphins rise and follow us between the melting icebergs, and otters curiously peered out from the kelp. Sea lions barked. Grey sky, silvery rock walls and granite mountains formed a monochrome world. In contrast, vibrant pink flowers amidst the lush forests, the bright orange bills of flightless steamer ducks, and the yellow feet of kelp geese gave flashes of colour. Albatross and penguins were here as expected, but the parrots and hummingbirds who shared their territory seemed out of place.

The mighty rock walls opened into a wide bay, and we crossed a sound under misty conditions at a fast pace. To reach the other side was an exhausting push, especially as the wind rose and turned hard in our face on the final section. Turning east into a heavy following sea, we headed into a dead-end fjord to our second major portage. Here, we would cross east and join Canal Jeronimo and the Strait of Magellan. Finishing early, we chose to shelter under our tarp and rest before a full day of hauling boats.

Sht from atop a small island, Seumas Nairn is dwarfed under the snout of the Santa Ines Glacier at the end of Seno Ballena, the scale of ice was incomprehensible from our tiny kayaks.

The landscape was open and windswept. We were following a traditional Kaweskar route; between fleeting snow showers, it felt every bit as wild as it would have for them. Scouting a path then hauling bags and finally dragging boats, we slowly closed the gap between the two fjords. A final 150m long stretch of class II-III whitewater led to the sea. In an unloaded kayak it would be a straight run, but the risk of damage to the hulls was too high. Instead, we waded down the riverbank with the boats on a line, tracking our way into the sea triumphantly.

A while later, fighting across the fjord against fierce spindrifts of spray, we searched for a storm camp. Watching towering columns of salt water whirl into the sky, we waited stormbound on a promontory for a whole day as it passed by.

A fiery sunrise greeted us with fair wind the next morning. On the horizon a pointed granite tower dominated the fjord as we ventured into the tidal race of Canal Jeronimo. Averaging 7-8 knots of tidal flow, we were unfortunate to have it against us all day, with no choice but to fight it. In the middle of the narrow channel, impressive standing waves broke a playful surf, but were far too strong to fight. We clung to the vegetated edges, using the counter—current eddies of each headland to pull us south at up to 3 knots in the right direction. Our fear was reaching a headland too large to round, but thankfully it never came. At one point, Seumas ventured uncomfortably close to a sea lion colony; the boisterous animals provided good motivation to paddle harder.

Chasing a pod of whales in the distance, we made it to the mouth of the channel. Finally we were in the Strait of Magellan. It was a short but special moment: to experience a place so familiar from stories and adventure lore was exciting and emotional. These were the waters navigated by some of the greatest explorers in history – Magellan, Shackleton, and Fitzroy – and here we were joining them. Across the Strait we could see Carlos III island, and the infamously rough Cabo Crosstide. If we were to round it successfully, there was a hidden fjord famous for whales and glaciers to explore. But to get there we had to paddle now, and paddle hard. Aiming on a sight transect far upstream of the island, we ferry glided across on the flow reaching Carlos III just a kilometre downstream of Crosstide. Fighting our way against the flow into chaotic water breaking across our bows, we crossed the tide. The effect had strange familiarity to ‘The Swilkie’ tidal race in Scotland’s Pentland Firth, where Viking folklore tells of an angry drowned sailor who stirred the ocean from beneath to pull others down.

Seno Ballena, or ‘the Fjord of the Whales’, lived up to its name. As we paddled we could see their characteristic spouts and tail slaps in the distance. We could also just make out a line of floating ice flowing from the glacier hidden around the bend. This was to be the piéce de resistance of our whole journey; a hidden world I’d long anticipated exploring. Seldom have I rounded a corner to such an immediately breathtaking spectacle.

Four kilometres of lakes and portages lay between us and Seno Skyring, an inland sea which we hoped to reach next. There was no easy way around but to unload, shuttle gear and carry the boats across. This is where Seumas – a gamekeeper by profession came into his own. Dragging stags of Scottish mountains isn’t much different to pulling kayaks through Patagonian scrub.

Icebergs crunched past our bows, and a colossal icecap reared up at the head of the fiord. The scale was awe-inspiring

Ice and silence: Seumas Nairn deep in the fjord directly under the snout of the Santa Ines Glacier.

The calm wasn’t to last forever, and the next day we were blown right back to Carlos III island. Seeking refuge, we battled north around the island in hopes of finding company at a remote eco-dome settlement manned by a lone caretaker. To our surprise, we found a French yacht and a fishing boat moored in the bay. Welcomed in with open arms, we were treated like kings by the caretaker who offered us a night in the domes and a hot meal.

The fishermen thought we were mad, but the yacht’s crew were suitably impressed. Looking out to the wild wind ripping down the Strait of Magellan, all I could think about was the next few days. The committing nature of the Strait, and the wind battered Cabo Froward – the most southerly point of the South American landmass – made me nervous. I felt slightly nauseous thinking about venturing into it. This was the crux of our entire expedition.

In the early stages of planning for Cabo Froward, I had sought local advice from sailors and fishermen. They all warned of the treacherous waters, and the team at Carlos III backed up these fears with confirmation of wind-torn cliffs and rough seas. But later that night the forecast of our dreams pinged through on the sat phone:

High cloud. Wind speed: Zero. The race was on!

Starting and finishing in the dark, Seumas and I paddled like demons along the Strait. We covered 60km in 9 hours, 6 hours of which were against the tide. To my surprise, the shore had been probably the safest, most land-able and camping friendly of the entire journey. As so often happens, the stories were far worse than reality. Landing on the banks of the Rio del Oro, the river of gold, we looked out in the dark to a lighthouse flashing some 11km to the east. The southern tip of the South American landmass was finally in sight.

On our first and only clear night, we celebrated with an open fire for our exhaustive efforts: we’d done 400km in 12 days. We had high hopes that an early start would allow us to round the Cape before the afternoon storms returned. Escorted by a pod of Magellanic dolphins, we soon arrived under the mighty cliffs of Cabo Froward. 300m above us, a great cross marked the apex of mainland South America. Throwing our paddles in the air in triumph, we high-fived our first continent rounded. The celebration was as much one of relief to be on the home strait as it was of triumph in reaching this landmark, as beyond Cabo Froward our final 50km was largely sheltered from wind and waves.

It seemed appropriate to land and wander up the steep hill to the cross. Taking with us some assorted fine cheeses kindly donated by the French yacht, we enjoyed a luxurious lunch at the end of the Americas with trusty ‘Dunlop’ left firmly back in the kayaks. Ahead of us were two days of gentle paddling, winding down and reflecting on the completion of another epic journey together. The many miles of rain and wind, the spectacles of ice, the constant surprise of wildlife, and the laughs shared in the shadows of mountains all merged into a sense of deep satisfaction. The sure sign of a successful trip, though, is the rising thought of a single question at the end:

What’s next?

This story was first featured in BASE magazine Issue #01, for the latest content, subscribe online or in print.

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