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Packrafting Patagonia

Stay Wild

Story & Photos by Kevin Barthelemy

“Cuantos pingüinos en tu mochila?” the man asks me at the ship’s luggage check. With my newly-acquired Spanish, I try to crack a joke: “There are ten penguins in my backpack. Please feed them.” Getting a laugh from the crowd, I figure my Spanish is improving. My friends later inform me that I had actually said, “There are ten penguins in my backpack, and they are my food.” Communication is not my strong point.  

Most of what I knew about Patagonia was from watching other climbers’ slideshows and that it’s a remote place. This would be my first time out of the States and my passport application needed to be expedited. I had to Google packrafting to see how it worked, but I was already hooked. 

“Hey, what are you doing?”

“Nothing.”

“Well, I’ve got three gringos here who need a ride down Valle Exploradores and they will pay.”

“I’ll be there in five.”

We rumble down the dirt road that traces the top of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field. At our planned launching off point in the river, the rapids are way too much for our packrafting abilities. So we walk ten miles down the lonely dirt road with full packs. We are carrying eight jars of peanut butter that we bought at the local supermercado. 

 

Two days of paddling our inflatable boats and the river brings us to the fjords of Bahia Exploradores. The scenery changes slowly at the delta from vegetated mountains to sheer cliff walls with the narrow passages offered by the fjord. The weather is uncharacteristically nice, and around 5 p.m. we see a flat beach to camp on. Naive to how steep the fjord walls are further ahead, we pass on the site. Three hours and one storm later, we are all singing “Amazing Grace” while navigating our inflatable rafts through whitecaps. I’m worked, mentally and physically. My world narrows to a seven-pound inflatable boat, my tired arms, and the horizon I have been staring at for hours. 

Finally, Adam finds a small rocky ledge on a point. The ledge isn’t big enough for our tent but we can sit. We bust out the peanut butter in need of some comfort food. There is talk of spending the night out in the open. We decide that the cliff around the other side of the point can’t be any worse. Leaving our small ledge, we paddle around the point to find a white sandy beach.

After a few more days on the fjord, we find ourselves in a river valley that will take us inland towards the ice field. I attempt to improvise new shoes by duct taping flip flops to my neoprene surf booties. My new shoes don’t work out too well and I fall in the freezing river. We spend the rest of the day bushwhacking up the valley away from the fjord. 

The glacial lakes at the end of the valley connect us to the Rio Sur, and we paddle down this river back to Rio Exploradores. This creates a loop and we are back in “familiar” territory. We walk down the dirt road back to town trying to thumb a ride. Eventually, a truck full of Chileans stops and they let us ride in the bed.  

“Keep in the truck bed or you will die,” the driver tells us in broken English. We bundle up for the cold ride and try to get as comfortable as possible for the next few hours. I ride in the truck bed facing backward and watch the mountains disappear with the setting sun.

That night we pitch our tent and sleep in the backyard of the driver’s girlfriend. This is what I came here for. I needed to get away from the sprawling, cookie-cutter life of Southern California. When I boarded the plane to fly down here, I thought the second I landed in Santiago I would be in grave danger. I’m starting to learn the comfort in just going with the flow and trusting what happens next. This stop wasn’t planned. There wasn’t a TripAdvisor report for the backyard. It just happened.