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 story of their extraordinary adventure.
Perched on the gunwale of a fishing boat I watched rain dancing on the water. At my side was Seumas, my best friend, who had flown down from Scotland to join me in perhaps the only place on Earth wetter and windier than home. Catching a fleeting glance beneath his hood, we shared the same unspoken thought: what are we doing here?
Intimidating terrain lies beyond the approach to Peel Fjord
Famous for a record 9 metres and 361 days of rain per year, Puerto Eden stands on the shore of a lost temperate rainforest in the heart of southern Patagonia’s ice-capped wilderness. These humble houses perched on rocky islands in a town without roads, connected only by boats and boardwalk, were the last refuge of the native Kawésqar people, the original canoe fishermen of the Patagonian fjords. Their tradition was to build fires inside their skin-on-frame canoes on a bed of clay to keep warm in the harsh climate: proof that you can have your kayak and heat it.
Entering the Canal de los Montanes
We relied on a more modern approach. Our low-volume sea kayaks were loaded with 45 days of food and fuel, along with camping gear. They weighed over 120kg each and flexed under their own weight. For the next 840km we would depend on whatever we had fitted inside. There were no roads or escape routes between here and the end.
Arriving at Bernal Glacier in an approaching storm
After two seasons as a local kayak guide I knew what to expect from Patagonia. I was once told that ‘to carve this landscape from heaven took the weather from hell’. As homage to the conditions we christened our boats ‘Viento’ and ‘La Rafagas’ (‘Wind’ and ‘Spindrift’ in English). At the same time, we had just watched parakeets flying past and a hummingbird whirred over my bow. Nothing was normal in this land of contrasts.
The camp at Bernal Glacier
"After two seasons as a local kayak guide I knew what to expect from Patagonia. I was once told that to carve this landscape from heaven took the weather from hell"
Paddling south between showers, as the Patagonian weather constantly changes
Following a north-south route to make best use of the prevailing winds we had paddled slowly beyond the town and into the committing wilderness. The shore at our side was dense forest or vertical granite. Slowly we were finding our rhythm and growing more confident. We hoped to break our race for the finish by taking three detours north in search of glaciers, and a further three inland to portage across several exposed headlands.
Celebrating our progress south on a pinnacle high above the Canal de los Montanes
Seumas broke through the crest of a wave in an explosion of glittering spray which cast a rainbow around his blades with the first sun we had seen in over a week. It was a seminal moment. The sea, dense with floury glacial silt, now radiated a creamy blue as the light burst through the breaking faces of steep waves.
"Seumas broke through the crest of a wave in an explosion of glittering spray which cast a rainbow around his blades"
Looking towards the frozen upper world from a peak above the Canal de los Montanes
Silhouetted at our side, a giant storm petrel soared with graceful ease, its wing-tips outstretched just inches from the waves, defiant to the elements. How I marvelled at its grace in seizing the wind that we fought so hard against. Driven by a distant ribbon of blue on the horizon we ducked when salty spray broke over our boats, determined to draw closer to Pio XI, South America’s largest glacier.
In the cold and damp conditions of the expedition, maximum attention had to be paid to keeping the camp area dry
"Our tent became a bubble of comfort to hide inside after a long day on the water"
One of thousands of waterfalls that plunge into the fjords of southern Patagonia
With a gut-wrenching roar, a tremendous column of mud-brown water rushed into the air, the noise like thunder as ice shattered against ice. We stood together in a safe place mere metres from the glacier that collapsed into a huge lagoon beneath us. Watching house-sized lumps of ice tumble to the end of their thousand-year journey from mountain to sea, we were drawn in by the sapphire crevasses left in the face behind. This was not a place for humans, but somewhere to gaze at, awestruck, from afar.
A hard portage on the final section of the voyage
“Not bad for a first glacier, mate!” I said with a chuckle to Seumas. We had by chance arrived at the perfect time, when an ice face some 11km long by 200m high was calving off every few minutes. Our boats rested on the beach behind us, far from the impact zone and stuck fast in the mud that was pushed by billions of tons of moving ice. The mud saturated my clothes and would remain there until the end of our journey, nearly a month ahead.
The awesome backdrop to Peel Fjord
"We would wake up, paddle seven to nine hours until the light started to fade, then find a camp, rest, and repeat"
Reflections on a calm day in Peel Fjord
After wiping ice from our tent the next day, we turned back south and settled into a daily rhythm. To think about the full 840km route was daunting and so we took each day on its own, breaking the trip down into easier tasks. We would wake up, paddle seven to nine hours until the light started to fade then find a camp, rest and repeat. I took upon the responsibility of setting camp and fetching water; Seumas took the task of lighting fires and cooking.
Our kayaks were dwarfed by the immense scale of Peel Fjord
Our discipline in keeping a dry space was key here – once wet our gear may not be dry again until we finished, so our tent became a bubble of comfort to hide inside after a long day. As long as we paddled more than 20km a day, we would make it home on time with our rations, but by the end of the first week we were already several days ahead.
Heading south in racing light
"A real adventure is best defined as one from which you might not come back alive, and certainly not as the same person"
- Yvon Chouinard
Seamas Nairn knee deep in the Patagonian bush on the hard second portage of the journey
"I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone white cliffs... There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass"
- Bruce Chatwin, 'In Patagonia'
Spot the camp: Will, Seamas, and their kayaks take a pit stop at Bernal Glacier
The second part of this two-part feature will be published soon