Nestling deep in the fjords of southern Patagonia, Puerto Eden is one of the most isolated inhabited places in South America. For Will Copestake and his childhood friend Seamas Nairn, this lost settlement on the edge of the world would mark the beginning of an epic journey by sea kayak over some five hundred miles to Puerto Natales, the port town on the fringe of the Torres del Paine national park. The pair kept to a vague route south through some of the wildest terrain in Patagonia, eventually arriving in Puerto Natales a month after setting off from Puerto Eden. This is the second part of the story of their extraordinary adventure.
Heading south in typical Patagonian weather
“Gladiator!” I shouted, quoting the early 90s TV show. “Ready!” Seumas bellowed as we both heaved forward in a slow lurch, and our kayak slid forward another half metre. Our first portage was short but steep, a 40º incline through near-impenetrable undergrowth. Sweating and panting for breath I clutched a bloodied hand on the bow of the boat.
Progress was slow, and everything here was inexplicably covered in thorns that tore my skin as we moved. Covered in mud, rosy cheeked and out of breath we were both smiling, for there was something strangely satisfying in the hard work – this felt like real adventure.
Towering above the Canal de los Montanes, these distinctive granite spires are known as the 'False Towers' due to their resemblence to the famous Torres del Paine.
After lowering the boats on ropes into the shadow of a mountain we found our way onto a ribbon of water that cut across the headland: the lake that would guide our secret passage past the forecast strong winds on the headland we had avoided. Two days of paddling and dragging saw us spat into the sea on the far side by a swift river, the thrill of the rapids soon swapped for big seas and a stiff following wind.
Camping at Bernal Glacier
After a week of testing conditions with two-metre waves breaking across our boats, and relentless rain, sleet, and snow, we snuck back north to a narrow inlet known as Peel Fjord. The only other person I knew to have been there had described it simply as "mind blowing". But we arrived to find lots of icebergs and no mountains, as they were lost in the mist.
The kayaks were dwarfed by the awesome scale of Peel fjord
“Dude! Wake up!” Silhouetted in the entrance of the tent, Seumas was gazing outside. To our surprise the sun had broken through the cloud. Outside, a low bank of mist glowed ethereal and gold in the morning light, mirrored in the calmest waters we had seen for days. This coliseum of mountain and ice dwarfed the icebergs now. Lingering to explore, we spent a day barely moving under a skyline of ragged spires and broken ice cap, the silent air booming and rumbling as icebergs crumbled to the sea. We were now 350km from the nearest human being, in our own private paradise in the heart of the wild.
"We were now 350km from the nearest human being, in our own private paradise in the heart of the wild"
The Southern Patagonian Icecap makes its presence felt under a stormy sky
Thoughts turned to home as we steered back south once more. Then the weather changed. Stormbound for several days as snowstorms and gales passed, our route became a race to round the final committing corner. Broken only by a second portage, our days became brutal 40-50km pushes. But we felt strong, and wanted to show it to ourselves.
Hard route-finding on the second portage of the journey
The Canal De Los Montañas (the canal of the mountains) was the first time I felt back on familiar ground. Just one year before I had sat stormbound for days with a client looking out at the channel. I remembered thinking how harsh it looked, and how curious I was about what lay beyond; but content in knowing I would never know. But now we knew. And to my surprise our perspective had changed: back then it had felt like the end of the Earth, now it felt like home.
Huge granite walls plunge often straight into the fjords of southern Patagonia
We didn’t feel ready to go back yet. So, blessed by a final week of near-perfect conditions with sunshine and no wind, we decided to linger in the fjord. For a week we explored glaciers and dragged our boats up rivers. We set camp at the foot of the ice and climbed a mountain in wetsuit shoes; just because we could. Our worries about reaching home were gone now and the love of adventure and all it entailed now filled our days with the same curious exploration we had relished together as kids growing up in Scotland. All that was left was the ‘short bog drag’ described by the locals for our final portage.
The approach of a storm front seen from fjord level: time to make for shore and find camp
Nine hours later, 200m high and abseiling our kayaks on our towlines we chuckled and joked about the ‘easy’ drag we had been described. In reality it was wonderfully character building. Beyond the narrow gap we returned to the ocean and for the first time in a month saw open, unbroken sky. Ahead there were no more mountains but an empty horizon; behind us a wall of dark brooding cloud approached from the ragged chain of peaks in the distance. It was time to get back to civilisation.
Seamas Nairn in full sea kayak combat mode as the pair face strong headwinds and poor visibility
"Ahead there were no more mountains but an empty horizon; behind us a wall of dark cloud approached from the ragged chain of peaks in the distance. It was time to get back to civilisation"
Leaving the fjords of southern Patagonia at the end of the voyage: Puerto Natales is just a short distance to the east. This will be the first civilization Will and Seamas have seen for over a month.
It is not often that anyone gets the chance to truly lose contact with the world. In the fjords we had rarely seen signs of people except for the occasional boat in the distance. With no-one around but ourselves we had fallen into the rhythm of a routine driven by our surroundings. Our pace had changed.
“Just listen to it” Seumas muttered. Through the still morning air, the distant hum of humanity buzzed from rooftops far ahead. At that moment I was hesitant to get there, but I realised we were already planning our next adventure in the mountains beyond. Our expedition had been a success because we’d finished still wanting more, still wanting to keep on going.
Looking back towards the fjords on the final morning of the journey
"Our expedition had been a success because we’d finished still wanting more, still wanting to keep on going"