Friday, December 4, 2009

Drifting in Patagonia

Pete and I went into our three day/two night kayak trip with two wishes: to stay dry (by staying in the kayak!) and to not get snowed on.

As we started our trip with an hour drive to the Rio Serrano, one of our wishes was flying out the window in the form of big white fluffy snowflakes! We arrived at our destination and unloaded the kayaks and gear in snow blowing with a strong, cold wind. Layers of thermal underwear, wetsuits and windbreakers did not stop the cold from breaking through, so we decided to wait in the warm vehicle before embarking on the river. A half hour later the snow still fell, but the wind had stopped, so we finally decided to start our trip.

Here was our payback, we decided. For every Facebook status and blog we've posted bragging about warm weather while our Canadian friends have suffered some nasty storms, perhaps we deserved this one. Lesson learned? Maybe. =)

We were on the river for two and a half hours before stopping for lunch, and went through cycles of snow/sun the whole time. When the sun was out we were able to enjoy the brilliant scenery around us, but during the snow storms we kept our heads down and looked up only long enough to be sure that we were still following the red kayak of one of our guides ahead of us.

Our lunch stop also included having to portage the four heavy kayaks one at a time around a small waterfall for 200 meters, through clouds of large, heavy snowflakes. After the last kayak was moved, of course the snow stopped, and thankfully that was the last of the heavy stuff for the rest of the day.

After lunch we were back on the river for only a couple more hours, paddling and drifting along the mostly calm river until we made it to our campsite for the first night. With the calmer weather we were able to enjoy so much more of the incredible scenery around us, and were reminded why we had chosen this trip - besides the odd motor boat with handfuls of tourists passing us, we were exploring this amazingly beautiful part of the world in a unique way, having almost the entire park to ourselves. The beauty of our itinerary was the flexibility in it to enjoy what we wanted - drifting in our kayaks, taking it all in at our leisure, snapping hundreds of pictures as we went!

Me - drifting in the cold!

Our first campsite was on private land, in view of the magnificent Tyndall glacier. The pattern of snow/sun continued, but we were finally able to warm up around a fire while our guides Rodrigo and Jillian set up camp and made us dinner. On one hand, we were totally roughing it more than we ever have before - camping in snow, sleeping on nearly bare ground and without any of the facilities we have become accustomed to camping with. Yet, we were quite spoiled by Ro and Jill who took very good care of us and wouldn't let us lift a finger!

At our first campsite, in view of the Tyndall glacier

That night was pretty cold, despite our many layers of clothes. After the first miserable hour of shivering and trying to find a comfortable position on the slanted ground, sleep finally took over and I was out pretty heavily until we were wakened for breakfast the next morning. Thankfully, the sun seemed to be winning out, and we set off on our second day much more comfortably then our first.

The river was fairly calm for most of the day, with the exception of one section that got my heart rate going! Around one bend of the river we encountered a series of whirlpools in the water created by the conflicting currents. Ro had told us that there was nothing really to be scared of, but just to enjoy the ride of where the river would take us. What he failed to mention was that we should still keep paddling forward throughout, and thus I placed my paddle across my lap and just waited to float with the twists and turns. Instead, I got stuck in the middle of one of the bigger whirlpools, and when I tried to fight it, it grabbed my paddle and almost tipped me over. Finally, Ro fought his way back to help talk me through it, while Pete and Jill waited on the other side of the section and watched me battle the currents. Thankfully, I managed to stay out of the freezing cold water, and probably even warmed up a little bit thanks to a big adrenaline rush!

Not long after that the river lead us into a choppier fjord, and we pulled over to have lunch and set up camp at where we would be spending our second night, just a few hundred meters from a lagoon at the base of the spectacular Serrano glacier. We were excited to learn that we had two choices of paddling after lunch - either in that lagoon among the icebergs, or back into the fjord to see another glacier further up the water. With the wind almost non-existent after lunch, we decided it was the best time to try the fjord and leave the more sheltered lagoon for the following morning.

The water was absolutely still and we created the only waves in the water as we headed away from camp - my favourite time to paddle! We had some incredible views of the Serrano glacier and ice caps at the top of the mountain so we took our time to get to the corner that we would turn in order to see the Balmaceda glacier. Perhaps we took a little too much time because as we neared the corner, the wind picked up and the waves became pretty heavy in the water. We ventured ahead a little bit before I finally decided that I had had enough - wind gusts coming from different directions were grabbing at my paddle, threatening to tip me over, and we were still an hour from our destination. I felt kind of wimpy in turning us around, but also completely uncomfortable which I knew would effect my reactions should something actually happen.

The winds followed us back into what once was the calmer waters surrounding our camp. On the way back, Pete and Ro actually saw some wind devils on the water - perhaps my decision to turn us around was a good one after all! We pulled into camp at just about 6pm, and while Ro and Jill set out some snacks for us, we headed back to the lagoon and picked up some glacier ice for our drinks.

Staying in that campsite so near the glacier was one of the coolest things we've done. We could actually hear the frequent avalanches on the glacier from camp, and while Pete and I were on a quick hike to the glacier before dinner, we actually saw one happen at the top! We patiently waited to see if anything would happen to send some ice crashing to the water, but no such luck.

At the base of the Serrano glacier

Pete, Ro and I at the Serrano glacier

The following morning we had a couple of hours in the lagoon at the base of the glacier before we had to start our voyage back to town. Again, the wind was not our friend, and there was one instance where I was scarily pushed around by the waves. After that, the four of us came together in our kayaks to form a "raft" and just wait out the wind. Once it died down we drifted around a bit more (saw one more avalanche!) and paddled around the many small icebergs in the water. At 11 we were at the end of our kayaking time, and we headed back to camp to pack ourselves onto the tour boat that stopped by to pick us up. 3 hours on the boat and a stop for lunch before we were back in town and at the end of our Patagonian adventure.

Overall, an AMAZING experience, but Pete and I were still pretty happy to have a shower and be in a warm bed last night. It is currently 1pm and I am still in my pj's, having emerged from under the piles of blankets only for breakfast! After one day of recovery we are going to venture out again tomorrow for a long one day hike before we begin our trek north into Argentina. Looking forward to Christmas in Mendoza where temperatures are 30 degrees while the rest of you suckers are stuck in snow in Canada.

Lesson learned? I guess not! =)

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