Torres Del Paine National Park – Patagonia, Chile

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Map of Patagonia, from National Geographic

At the very end of the world, in the most southern tip of South America, exists the land of wind, fire and ice known as Patagonia. This landscape of spectacular mountains, deserts, glaciers and alpine meadows spans across both Argentina and Chile, from the western pacific coast to the eastern atlantic coast. Curiously, the name Patagonia translates roughly to “land of the big feet”. It originated from the word “Patagão” (or Patagoni) – a name Magellan gave to the natives of this new land he encountered on his expedition in 1520. The Patagoni he described were actually the Tehuelche people, who in general, were much taller than the average European. Their large footprints found in tracks led the first explorers to believe that this was a mystical land of giants. The footprints were in fact large because of the leather skinned guanaco boots that they all wore during the cold winters.

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View from the small Puerto Natales airport, staring into Patagonia

Patagonia is a land of secrets and wonder – even the story behind its name I found fascinating. It has long been at the top of my list of places to visit and finally on January 20, 2017 (inauguration day), we left Virginia to explore this untamed land.Traveling to Patagonia was no easy feat. After a 2 hour drive to Washington DC, we flew 5 hours to reach Panama City, and then 6 hours to Santiago, Chile. From there, it was a 3.5 hour flight to reach Puerto Natales followed by a 2 hour drive to reach Patagonia Camp. We broke up our traveling with a day’s rest in Santiago on both legs of our journey.

Map of Torres Del Paine National Park

I will never forget the flight to Puerto Natales Airport in Patagonia. The harsh winds created fierce turbulence and a hair-standing landing. Upon opening the cabin doors, our faces were hit with the howling winds and cold air of Patagonia. All around us in this desolate airport at the end of the world, were mountains as far as the eye could see…mountains, fields and emptiness. We would now have five full days to explore this mysterious land.

We grabbed our luggage amongst the dozens of hikers from all over the world and hit the road to Patagonia Camp (our base camp and home for the next 5 days). From here, we could rest and relax and plan our excursions into Torres Del Paine National Park each day. I hope to one day write a review about our experience at Patagonia Camp, but for now, all I can say is that it was simply an unforgettable experience with fantastic staff members.

Torres Del Paine National is one of the most popular attractions in Chilean Patagonia. It is one of the 11 protected areas of the Magallanes Region and Chilean Antarctica. The park’s 2422 square kms of mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers attract thousands of visitors each year. The centerpiece of the park are the Paine (pronounced PIE-nay, meaning “blue”) mountains and more specifically the Towers of Paine (Torres Del Paine: spanish translation). These are three distinct granite peaks in the Paine mountain range that many consider to be the 8th wonder of the world.

Lago Pehoe

Our first full day in Patagonia was spent on an easy 8.5km hike through pre-Andean xerophilous scrubland. There was plenty of wildlife to see; guanacos, flamingos, condors and grey foxes. The most elusive animal in Patagonia is at the top of the food chain. The puma. I found this to be an unusual terrain for this predator, but clearly it was very successful. The fields were scattered with guanaco skeletons that were picked clean by condors after the pumas have had their fill. I was most in awe at how different everything was from any other place that I had been. The terrain, the geology, the wildlife, climate, and of course the flora.

One of the symbols of Patagonia is the evergreen shrub know as Calafate (box-leaved barberry, berberis microphylla). It is a plant native to southern Chile and Argentina  They were scattered through the fields during our hike and we were able to taste its edible blue-black berries. These berries were used frequently by the locals to produce all sorts of goods, such as jams, flavoring and even beer. Legend says that anyone who eats a Calafate berry will one day find their way back to Patagonia.

We continued our trek through the scrubland and explored caves with prehistoric paintings that dated over 6500 years old. We came back to camp that evening and met many of the other visitors. They were really from all over the world, Denmark, Canada, Britain and the USA. Most who come to Patagonia, travel here to hike the trail to the base of the towers, in the heart of the park. And some talented hikers showed us their watercolor creations of the towers once they reached the base. We were definitely excited for what lay ahead.

In Patagonia, the unpredictable weather makes trip planning essential, and you should always a back up option in mind if your primary objective does not follow through. In this sense, I felt that Patagonia camp did an excellent job of laying out potential options for the next day’s event. They were checking on the weather constantly to decide which trails when be optimal of the next days travel. This was of course a land where you can have all four seasons in one hour. The variability in weather was also drastic even in the smallest distances throughout the park. For instance, it could be pouring rain in the west end of the park and bright sunshine and clear skies on the east end over the mountain ranges. We had originally planned to go to the base of the towers on the second day, however storms had washed away the bridge access. We decided to shoot for the French Valley as the second option, however once we arrived, the ferry (which had been out of commission for the past 3 days) was full.

We went to our third option the Lazo-Weber trail. A 12km hike with a little bit more elevation climb than our first day but not incredibly strenuous. We hiked this trail in the opposite direction from west to east. This particular day ended up being one of our most beautiful days in the park. We were able to get great angles of the paine mountains and had amazing lookouts at the lagoons and meadows. This hike allows for one of the best views at Almirante Nito (8759ft), Los Cuernos (8530ft) and Cerro Fortaleza (9514ft) and the Paine Grande (10006ft). Our hike took us through meadows, forests and mountain tops. One of the most memorable moments for me was eating lunch inside a quiet forest, to shield us from the harsh winds. At the end of the 12km, was a small Patagonian ranch where we sat, ate lunches and drank.

On Day 3, we were itching to get into the heart of the park. We woke up early and head to the ferry to finally reach the segment on the “W” trail known as the french valley. It was a strenuous day of hiking, but the breath taking views, kept us pushing forward.

The French Valley – Patagonia, Chile

As we approached the glacier, we scaled rocks up melting glacier waters and crossed several wooden bridges. This is when things started to get interesting. At several parts of this trail, we were just basically fording through ankle deep glacier water. Once inside the French Valley, we found a quiet spot to eat lunch and gaze in awe at this magnificent glacier. We sat, ate, and listened to the cracking the glacier, as it continued it’s melt and freeze cycle in the summer time. After lunch, we filled our bottles with some of the best tasting glacier water I’ve ever had and caught the ferry to the mainland.

Before we knew it, our time in Patagonia was coming to an end. I can see how someone could easily spend several months here and still not see everything they wanted to. Although we were disappointed about not being able to see the base of the towers, we were grateful for so many things. Most importantly, no one got hurt and the weather was absolutely perfect. It had rained 50 days straight shortly before our arrival so we knew we were incredibly lucky. We visited during the Patagonian summer, and although we had incredible views. Some tour guides suggested to come back in the fall when the park is much quieter and the scenery is even more colorful with the fall foliage. The winds were also apparently less intense. It was not in our fate to see the base of the towers this go around, but I hope that the story  of the Calafate berry holds true – maybe one day, we will find ourselves back to this amazing land.

The Birth of a Dugout Canoe – by Northmen

I wanted to share this cool video released by Northmen Guild (formerly known as John Neeman Tools). They are a guild of northern European master craftsmen who use traditional craftsmanship handed down through many generations to create tools, vessels and goods.

“This is a documentary movie uncovering the difficult and time consuming process of making traditional expanded dugout canoe using mostly traditional hand tools and techniques.

The master woodworker in this movie is Richard (Rihards Vidzickis) – an experienced green wood worker, wood sculptor and dugout canoe maker. Richard’s passion to green wood and solid wood creations has grown together with him since his childhood days. Richard’s father is also a wood worker and carpenter and has led his son into the beautiful world of working with wood. Richard has gone through all the traditional steps of becoming a master woodworker – starting from an apprentice, then journeyman and then receiving his Master degree in Latvian chamber of crafts. Richard’s passion to wood is not only sculpturing and carving it but also knowing the wood in a scientific level. So Richard has studied in Technical university as a student and reached his degree of Doctor in engineering materials science, so he has combined the craft, nature and science in his life and work. While working in furniture making during the studies, with making different kinds of difficult wood carving for Jugend, Barrocal, Renesance design style furniture, Richard has discovered that he tends to get back to more rustic, robust and natural forms of wood, so he created a park of massive wooden sculptures, wood crafts museum and live workshop where Richard lives and creates wooden bowls, plates, boats and accepts visitors to share his work and lifestyle.”

The Canoe (film) – by Goh Iromoto

If you have 26 minutes, check out this beautiful film by talented documentary film maker Goh Iromoto.

“If it is love that binds people to places in this nation of rivers and in this river of nations then one enduring expression of that simple truth, is surely the canoe.”

This film captures the human connection and bond created by Canada’s well-known craft & symbol, the canoe. Through the stories of five paddlers across the province of Ontario, Canada – a majestic background both in it’s landscape & history – the film underscores the strength of the human spirit and how the canoe can be a vessel for creating deep and meaningful connections.

Filmmaker’s Note:

I started paddling around the age of 7, and thanks to the canoe, I’ve made some lifelong friends and connections, not to mention memories and stories, that I’ll never forget.

I wanted to show how several other paddlers similar to me have created strong intimate connections alongside the canoe. It really gave me great joy to see how rich the mosaic of stories I encountered were. Whether they were young or old, or from various cultural backgrounds, individuals were taking the traditional Canadian vessel and seeking new meaning with it. For me, the diverse paddlers I met represented a Canada that has grown and evolved since its birth 150 years ago – and something that I was able to stand proud of today.

I’ve continued to paddle my whole life and plan to do so for a very long time. Seeing and hearing these stories made me appreciate and realize how important the canoe is to my life. To all the paddlers out there (and to those who want to start!), this film is for you. Keep on paddling.

Thanks Goh Iromoto for making this awesome film!

The Canoe (trailer) – a film by Goh Iromoto

The canoe plays a pivotal role in the history of Canada. It was the vessel that allowed the voyageurs to utilize the rivers as highway systems for trade and expansion. It was the canoe that built Canada into the country it is today.  In the modern era, it serves as more than just a recreational vessel, but a symbol of Canada, and our heritage. I wanted to share this trailer of an upcoming film, scheduled to be released on 2/6/2017 called “The Canoe” by Goh Iromoto, which investigates the relationship of the canoe with the Canadian people.

“This film captures the human connection and bond created by Canada’s well-known craft & symbol, the canoe. Through the stories of five paddlers across the province of Ontario, Canada – a majestic background both in it’s landscape & history – the film underscores the strength of the human spirit and how the canoe can be a vessel for creating deep and meaningful connections.”

“Guided” trailer – Seedlight Pictures

“Guided profiles the gentle spirit of Maine wilderness guide Ray Reitze, in his element amidst the whispering pines, singing crickets and croaking frogs of the North Maine Woods. Ray shares his philosophy of how to live in harmony with the outdoors to the next generation of guides, grappling with his own mortality as he transitions from the physical world of guiding to a more spiritual understanding of nature and our ephemeral place in it.”

A cool video I came across, with some beautiful shots of the wilderness and canoe culture in Maine. Definitely looks like a place I’d like to paddle one day.

La Vérendrye 2016 – Quebec, Canada

It is part of the human spirit to be curious. Our desire for exploration has helped define us as a species. When traveling through new lands, the rush of having your senses engaged in something new and unpredictable is hard to describe. For this reason, I often wonder if I will ever canoe trip the same routes again. While returning to a familiar park may offer comfort and reassurance, the allure of paddling new waters and trekking unfamiliar lands is always stronger. This need for exploration brought our latest trip to the great, Canadian, province of Quebec.

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Richmond to Maniwaki, Quebec

Quebec, similar to Ontario, is a paddler’s dream. It is Canada’s largest province, (almost 3 times the size of Texas), and is 12% fresh water by surface area, holding 3% of the world’s renewable fresh water. The parks in Quebec, however are far less visited than Ontario’s, allowing for even more of a remote excursion. For our trip, we decided to venture into Réserve Faunique La Vérendrye (La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve). The park covers a massive  12 589 square km, with over 4000 lakes to explore. One could spend months at a time exploring this park without ever retracing your path. I was excited to bring along my good friend Min, who has been with me on countless trips in Virginia but never to the Canadian shield.

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Breakfast with the locals

Our drive was 14 hours straight up north to the town of Maniwaki, Quebec in the provincial riding of Gatineau, Population 3930. On the last leg of our road trip, we found ourselves cruising through the back country roads of Quebec on a nearly empty gas tank. We arrived at 11:15pm with only 4 miles left in the gas tank…. (Rule of the northern road: never let the tank drop below half)….we got lucky. After a long day of last minute packing, wrapping up phone calls and e-mails from work, and a worthy drive, we were finally free from human society. We all slept soundly that night. A shot of whiskey with the local First Nations people helped too.

The next morning, we enjoyed a nice breakfast at a mom and pop diner and made a quick stop at Canadian Tire to pick up some last minute supplies before making our way off the grid and into Le Domaine.

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Min charts our course over the next 5 days

Day 1: Le Domaine to Campsite (distance traveled 15km)

The wonderful sight of racked canoes, maps and photos on cabin walls, and sapphire blue waters greeted us when we reached Canot Camping La Verendrye. The staff was very helpful in helping us choose a suitable route. We sorted through the laminated maps and decided on Circuit 15, a short 45km loop.

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Approaching the big waters of Lac Poulter

When we originally set the date for this trip, we were well aware, that we were going during peak black fly and mosquito season. I just don’t think any of us knew how bad it would actually be. As we started to unload our gear, we were greeted with swarms of black flies. We scrambled for our bug jackets and finished the gear load-out in our newly christined bug jackets, spotted with a little bit of our own fresh, blood. We left the Canot Camping beach at approximately 12:30pm and battled headwinds to get to our campsite. With an odd number crew, we would have one person paddling solo. Brian braved the first leg. This proved to be quite the challenge in the windy open waters. We lashed the canoes together for the second half of the trip to keep him from straying into the wind.

The portages in this park were short with the longest being approx 400m. Nevertheless, the black flies made us pay; we suffered heavy bug bite casualties. We realized that in order to have any peace from the bugs, we would need to choose our campsites wisely.  We searched for a site that faced the wind and as far away from dense vegetation and moving water as possible. We were lucky enough to come across one of the pristine beach sites that La Verendrye is known for.

 

We pulled our canoes up on the sandy beach and felt the powerful and liberating, gusts of wind against our faces as we emerged from our bug jackets. It seemed to keep the bugs at bay…for the moment. We left ourselves plenty of daylight to set up basecamp. Our most important piece of gear on this trip was Brian’s treasured Eureka Bug Shelter. It is basically a tarp with a fully enclosed meshed area that can be pegged to the ground, allowing us to live in a bug free zone and carry out basic camp chores. The last time we used the bug shelter was on Little Joe Lake in Algonquin Park (2014). We each set out to accomplish our camp chores, filtering water, chopping firewood, setting up tents, and unpacking bedding.

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First Verendrye sunset

Min had the tall order of preparing meals for the trip. He has never let me down in the past and he certainly did not this time. He had elaborate menus arranged for us, ranging from pastas,  variety of meats, corn breads and dried fruits. We ate like kings and slept early that night to the familiar cries of the loon, officially signifying our return to the northern land. We had made it.

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wannigan and sleeping gear

Day 2: Campsite “15-15”

We awoke leisurely the next morning. Our objective this trip was to take things slow and simply enjoy the wilderness around us. Instead of moving to a new campsite, day after day.  We found that 2 nights per campsite suited our tempo. It felt luxurious. We cooked meals, boiled coffee, and looked over the maps. The bugs limited our activity to mostly the bug shelter, so we turned it into the most comfortable place that we could. We dug a small hole to have a modest fire to keep us company.

Min made quick work of some pine with handy axe work to give us a bench to sit on. It certainly felt like a home away from home. While the flies and mosquitoes buzzed at the bug shelter, we were able to sit and relax and enjoy good conversation. We discovered that interestingly, every night, at approximately 9:30pm, the bug activity just suddenly stopped….no more buzzing, no more swatting at each other. After this time, we were free to enjoy the night without the jackets. We took this opportunity to brush our teeth, bathe in the freezing waters by moonlight and enjoy a large campfire  by the stars. Life was good in La Verendrye.

Day 3: The Best Day

In my mind, Day 3 will go down as one of my favorite days of camping ever. It was my turn to paddle solo, and it was going to be a monster day. 26km ahead of us to the next campsite through some big waters. We set off early in the morning, having packed down the bug shelther the night before. The water was still calm when we launched and we made amazing time. Once we reached the main lakes, it was once again a battle upwind. we paddled against chop and waves to gain only feet at a time. At the halfway mark we came across an unusual set of small island rocks in the center of the lake. In the heart of the wind, we pulled ashore and lashed together the canoes. It was time to refuel.

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Middle of Lac Poulter
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island eggs

We needed to get food and water back into our sun beaten bodies. We hungrily devoured tuna wraps with onions, with generous helpings of dried fruit and plenty of water. Food had never tasted so good. We could feel our bodies recharging and our spirits lifted. We pushed on afterwards towards the second half of the trip. We all dreaded the 3 short portages that waited ahead for us. As we continued to paddle, the unmistakable sound of white water became louder and louder. We had reached “Les Rapides”, the short white water section of our trip.

This left us with two options: Portage around the rapids, or run it. No brainer. Running the short white water segments was exciting and the reward was two fold….we got to skip all portages. We estimated that we were able to shave at least 1.5 hours by running the rapids. This spirit boost was what we needed to finish the final leg of the journey to our next campsite. 26km done.

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Min sneaks in a quick rest before approaching “Les Rapides”

 

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Northern lights signify the beginning of summer

We didn’t speak much as we set up camp. We had only been out in the wilderness for 3 days but it our actions felt deliberate and well coordinated. It was clear that we were getting acclimated to our surroundings. This campsite was at a higher elevation with much less vegetation, the wind broke through camp easily and kept the bugs at bay. We were all exhausted and passed out for a nap shortly after dinner. I awoke around midnight to do some night fishing with Brian. While collecting some water by the shore, the unmistakable emerald hue of the northern lights danced over the forest canopy. We stood there and watched in awe. I have never considered myself much of a religious man, but I do believe that such moments are simply too beautiful for coincidence. They truly touch the spirit. We paddled 26km that day, ran whitewater, found a killer camp site, fished and were treated to a beautiful display of the northern lights. It was the best day of camping.

Day 4: Campsite “10-53”

One thing is certain when you’re out on a camping trip. It will reset your circadian rhythm. Having just come off a night float rotation, it took only a couple of days for me to be fully adjusted. Out in the wilderness, there are no alarm clocks, you simply obey the sun in the sky. When it rises, you rise. We woke to the early cries of loons and the sun beating on our tents. It was a relaxing day of swimming, fishing, photography and paddling. Life out here is pretty simple, and I certainly love it. No busy schedules out here, no pagers, no phone calls, no e-mails. When you’re thirsty, go filter water. You’re hungry? Get the fire going and heat up some food. Dirty? Go swim in the lake. That afternoon we paddled out and fished on different islands.  None of us claim to be great fisherman and only had a few bites here and there. Nevertheless it was still a great time. Maybe one day we will land that giant northern pike.

Day 5: Paddle out

I guess all good things must eventually come to an end. Before we knew it, our time in La Verendrye had approached it’s end. After 5 days in the sunshine, it was time to head home. The water was calm that day as we packed up the remaining bits of gear and tied up the wannigan. It was a good half a day of paddling to reach the Le Domaine beach. We arrived at approximately noon where we met with some fellow canoeists. We chatted briefly and shared our experiences of the circuit. These experiences are what make canoe camping so special. The launch sites are always filled with interesting people from all over the continent, who have traveled great distances to enjoy the same beauty.

Our time in La Verendrye felt far too short and we were able to explore only a fraction of this gigantic wilderness area. I am truly glad we decided to come here and canoe in French Canada.  I don’t think any of us could have asked for anything more: no rain, no accidents, and a spectacular viewing of the northern lights on the first day of summer. I will always remember this land for the incredible scenery, the blue waters and the magnificent sunsets. Au revoir La Verendrye.

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Pike Place Market – Seattle, WA

One of the first places we visited in Seattle was the Pike Place Market. Open since 1907, it is one of America’s oldest public farmers’ markets. It attracts more than 10 million visitors annually, earning it the rank of 33rd most visited tourist attraction in the world. Certainly a place to overwhelm the senses; the smell of fresh cod in the air, vendors bargaining, the fresh, salty air from the Elliot Bay and of course tastes of all different sorts. I was able to pick up a cool book on canoeing in British Columbia, serving as a little incentive to return one day.