Today we left the port at Tortel, a small village on the coast of Chilean Patagonia, with our boats filled to the brim and clouds above our heads. Rain drizzled down on our sea kayaks and smiles covered our faces as we began the next section of our 80-day Semester in Patagonia with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). The satisfaction I am feeling is difficult to describe. Something about this section feels different. Maybe it’s the new combination of instructors; maybe it’s the “real” Patagonia weather; maybe it’s the inevitability of challenge that we are all expecting. Whatever it is, it feels more like what I expected in a NOLS semester in Patagonia.
We are heading out into completely foreign terrain with no schedule, route or plans. Today we turned our backs on civilization as our sea kayaks coasted down the Rio Baker and into the sea. We radioed the Chilean Navy at Tortel to notify them of our departure then we disappeared between a chain of islands into a world of our own for the next month. In this isolated chain of fjords and islands in Southern Chile, most likely we will find no other people; just our expedition and the wonders of a land few have the opportunity to explore.
I peered down our avenue of water with mountains rising on either side and waterfalls diving down near vertical rock faces and I basked in a sense of exultation at new beginnings. After weeks of traversing the mountains of Patagonia on feet, I felt completely rejuvenated to beginning the kayaking portion of our 80-day expedition in Southern Chile. Just staring across the surface of the water at passing coastline swamped in thick flora, I felt as if I was starting a new adventure full of indefinite possibilities and immeasurable consequences.
Everything felt new and exciting. The terrain was foreign and the travel was different. Around each bend we were greeted by welcome surprises and tough decisions. The islands were hardly penetrable from the sea and we scouted the shore for possible campsites. And when one spot fell through, we were left with several kilometers to cover before another campsite might re-appear. Wind stirred the waters while rain pelted our faces. Our pod of novice kayakers weaved in and out of each other marveling at views yet unseen.
Sitting here at camp after an average day kayaking, I feel as exhausted as I did after our longest day hiking. Already I feel like I have had to do so much work. From loading kayaks at the start of the day, paddling for hours on end, to putting kayaks away and carrying our group gear in boglands so dense I will have to fight my way home, today has really worked me; though in the most welcome way. Maybe I won’t be saying this in a couple of weeks, but the thrill of new adventure has overwhelmed me.
So far the weather has treated us well. Days have been cool, but never cold. Wind has been minimal, but still breezy. Mists of rain have fallen, but not drenched us. So far as Patagonia is concerned, this is almost perfect paddling weather. It has allowed us to cover a lot of distance- 16 nautical miles yesterday and 6 today. We are approaching a tide-water glacier and closing in quickly. But I have felt every inch of it. My body has ached the past three days. My arms are sore and my lower back bothers me to no end. Sometimes I hate being in the boat. Don’t get me wrong; I love the water. But sitting in that boat and trying to paddle for hours a day is as challenging as any day on the mountains.
Though difficult, I know I’m gonna get a lot out of this section. Aside from learning and perfecting a new skill, the terrain here is just amazing. We float from island to island through wondrous fjords staring at enormous waterfalls spilling down deserted valleys. Though it all looks similar, when you see these islands up close you notice both the subtle and dramatic differences. Every where I look I see rocks and plants, beaches and coves, steep ridgelines and deep valleys, cirques and channels. There are ever-changing sea conditions, tides rising and falling, so much to take in, I can hardly even record it all in my mind. I know that one day I will look back on this experience as one of my most memorable ever; I just hope I’m able to see it all as clearly as I do now.