An Unexpected Adventure
By Tyler Freitas (College of the Atlantic ’15)
This next adventure began in the pre-dawn dark in the small coastal town of Tortel. In the early morning hours, Chloe, Frances, Cameron, Jonny and I walked down the boardwalks upon which the town is built to one of the several docks. We were on our way to the highly remote national park: Bernardo O´Higgins. There, waiting for us by the 22 foot official CONAF motor boat, was our captain Luis and the Guarda Parque (Chilean park ranger) heading to the park with us, Orlando. Our captain was a short, stout, mustached man, with surprising strength and an even more shocking and incessant giggle. Orlando, who stands a bit taller at 5’ 11” and with dignified graying short hair and stubble, helped us load the boat and shove off. We powered through the bay and along the dramatic coast of the southern Patagonia fiords. We traveled past dramatic cliffs rising out of the ocean; their spectacular rock faces carved by the ocean and glaciers and topped by lush, moss covered temperate rainforests with waterfalls cascading into the ocean.
The rising sun appeared as a faint red glow, unable to quite fully penetrate the persistent rain and mist enshrouding the landscape. We continued on and within the first few hours of our 6-hour trip the first signs of trouble emerged. Beginning rather inconspicuously as brief engine stalls, which were remedied by pumping the fuel pump a few times, the outboard motor´s troubles became more and more frequent. As we paused to attempt McGuiver-like engine repairs, our captain continually laughed and declared “Mui frigado!” with an enormous smile. The engine got worse and worse, to the point where constant manual pumping was required and our boat crawled along at 4 knots. Our 6 hours trip slowly stretched to 10, then 12, then 15 hours, slowly forcing us to admit defeat for the night and pull into one of the countless small inlets.
We set up two tents on the only flat area of ground, a small, waterlogged mass of moss. We crammed in the tents for the night after a warm and cheery dinner with our new friends. The next morning brought a little less rain and the hope of either fixing the engine or being rescued. After breakfast, while we waited for some work of magic that would fix our boat’s engine, we wandered across the peninsula. We navigated a cross between a trail and a river that runs through the thick moss-dominated forest to the far shore, where we are greeted by extremely curious Chimango Caracaras and Turkey Vultures.
Upon returning to the boat we discovered that the engine was completely dead and help was not coming. We whiled away the day by catching up on some academics, playing games of riddles and making plans to escape to Bernardo O´Higgins. We hunkered down for another night and the following morning loaded up our makeshift sail, set the oars and rowed out into the open water. After some time we rigged up our sail, made from driftwood and a tarp, and while moving at a slow crawl we made our way to the edge of the national park. The waves rocked our small vessel, while the wind billowed in our jerry-rigged sail and our CONAF friends rowed, with determination, the final 30 km to the national park border.
By mid-afternoon a small inflatable dingy appeared, piloted by a weathered, nearly toothless man in a tattered jacket and a small life jacket. It turns out this man was not only our rescuer but also the keeper of the refuge whom Orlando was relieving. We fashioned the tiny outboard engine from the dingy onto our boat and steamed to the refuge at a comparatively fast pace of 4 or 5 knots. As we continued, we surprised dozens of sea lions who awkwardly clambered down the rocks into the ocean or poked their heads curiously out of the water, watching us with a wary curiosity. Later the sharp dorsal fins of dolphins sliced through the water towards us. For the next few hours we are escorted by pods of Chilean and dusky dolphins, swimming gracefully with our boat, playfully twisting in front of the bow, jumping in the air and whacking the boat with their tails. Jonny and I laughed with excitement as we hung onto the side of the boat, the cold wind pounding us and the dolphins passing in the water just out of reach. The day grew late and finally around 10:30pm that night, after a 6 hours trip that lasted almost 64 hours, we arrived at the refuge. We collapsed in the refuge exhausted and thankful to finally be at our destination.
The next day we set up our camp and cleared out an area for the rest of the group, who just happened to arrive right before noon, a little over 5 hours after leaving Tortel. We enjoyed the rest of the day getting settled in and celebrating the biggest group Bernardo O´Higgins has seen in a thoroughly Patagonian fashion: with food, accordions, and dancing.
The next morning the boat captains left and we set out, as a full Round River group, on a walk through the seemingly ever present rain towards the massive glacier east of the refuge. We bushwhacked our way through tall and thorny Calafate bushes and incredibly deep moss towards the rocky coast of the river leading to the glacier. The spellbinding mass of ice appeared even more breath-taking than it did from the refuge. We stood in the rain watching the icebergs in the river and after a short while a few of us trekked even closer to the glacier while the others returned. We crossed streams and followed the hillsides lining the shores of the river, growing cold as the rain soaked us to the bone. Still the ever increasing majesty of the glacier and the incredible curves of the huge floating chunks of us make the discomfort well worth it. We returned to the warm refuge where hot drinks awaited us.
The next day the other CONAF guarda parque, Felidor, who came with the second group, took half of our group to find huemul deer, while the other half started the trail work with Orlando. We took the small dingy across the inlet and hiked out, over green fields covered in ashy-headed geese, brilliant yellow flowers and the sporadic bunches of tall golden grass which stretched out to the gleaming blue of the river with the icebergs and glacier beyond. We were rewarded by seeing group after group of these highly endangered deer. Some of the huemules came within 3 meters of me before stopping short suddenly and bending their muzzles to the small red berries growing on the ground. They are incredibly beautiful creatures and being so close to an animal so endangered sent waves of excitement through me. After finding close to 1% of the world´s estimated huemul population in our new front yard, we returned to the refuge for lunch before heading out in the dingy again to get even closer to the glacier. We marveled at the fantastic and mind bending shapes of the ice floats as we passed among them, rapidly taking pictures and constantly bailing the water out of our slowly deflating dingy.
The last day of this exciting week brought the now usual rain and a day of switching activities. My group headed out for trail work while the others went to look for huemul. Cameron, Sarah, Bolton, Johnny and I followed Orlando down the trail the others started a day ealier. Orlando carried a heavy duty weed-whacker and the rest of us were armed with work gloves, a pick axe and a machete. We chucked the armloads of moss and thorny branches left in Orlando´s wake off of the newly cut trail. We worked on in the rain, Cameron or Jonny in the front and myself in the rear hacking away at branches or roots with the machete. After a while we switched up and I began chucking branches, while Jonny used the machete. However, before long, an unfortunate accident occurred and Jonny cut his hand with the machete. We stopped working and brought him to the house for some first aid. It turned out he would need to be evacuated and we waited for a plan to emerge.
Meanwhile, our record-breaking group size was short-lived, as a kayaking NOLS course entered the park. We welcomed them with a warm meal and a roaring fire, enjoying the new company and small talk.
An update on Jonny: He was evacuated from Bernardo O´Higgins after the accident and was flown to his home in the UK for surgery on his hand. He is currently recovering from surgery, with his hand in a cast. In the meantime, we are grateful to have Fernando Letelier, a Chilean from Santiago who has assisted on past programs, join the group in Tortel. Fernando will be with the group for the remainder of the program.
Sometimes our adventures take an unexpected twist, but that is all part of the excitement of Patagonia.