Suchbegriff eingeben

Patagonia by Packraft

Over the two months of January and February in 2023 myself (Jan) and a friend (George) went on a little adventure through Patagonia. With the help of our two Anfibio Rebel 2K packrafts we covered 1150 man-powered kilometres on a journey from north to south. The aim was to have an adventure, not the adrenaline fuelled ‘red bull’ kind we often see today, but rather a journey to experience unknown wilderness, the reward a feeling of total freedom.

From Jan Pritchard @ridgepathpictures

Beginning on the Rio Puelo just east of Puerto Montt, we spent 4 days testing our equipment in the most beautiful setting. We encountered our first rapids, lake crossings and portages, learning quickly what worked and what didn’t. What distance was realistic to hike in a day, how much wind it was feasible to make progress in, how much food was too little to survive on, and how heavy the bags really were! We left the turquoise waters of the river once we reached the sea, both feeling inspired and confident.

Heading back east we crossed the border into Argentina. We were invited to camp the night in a local settlers’ lakeside garden, in a show of Chilean hospitality they fed us generously with meat from the barbecue. They showed us the remote border control office on the far side of the lake where we needed to get our passports stamped before entering Argentina, informing us that unfortunately no ferry was running until the next evening. We told them slightly smugly not to worry, “we’ve got our own boats with us”. This was the first of many of these incidents where the packrafts proved their worth (and brought confused expressions to the faces of others!). The next day we learned of the power of the wind, deciding to wait an entire day before crossing a large open lake. This is just the way things work in Patagonia. Nonetheless when we crossed the next morning, even with calmer conditions a wave caught George off balance sending him into the water. He quickly became separated from his raft, and it was lucky I was there to bring the raft back and help him in. I made a serious note that if ever attempting an exposed crossing in conditions again (especially solo), a leash from the body to the packraft (and paddle as well of course) could avert a total catastrophe. The drysuit worked as it should, keeping George warm and dry. Already, bringing them along had been worth it.

The following 4 days we spent hiking over a mountain pass to reach the next valley where an enticing new river awaited as our reward. Our packs weighed an estimated 25kg+ and with all signs of a path having soon totally disappeared we learned the realities of bushwacking. The realities were that it was physically tough and extremely slow. We were hiking under 1 km an hour at times, climbing over endless fallen trees and pushing through dense new cane growth. The GPS proved invaluable, we’d have been lost without it. 

On the way down we found it easier hiking in water of the stream itself, rather than trying to push through the dense woodland. But despite the hardships for three full days we met not a soul, experiencing a landscape almost untouched by humans. This was the adventure we had come for. 

The following week had us paddling a beautiful seemingly endless network of crystal-clear rivers and lakes all the way to the town of Futaleufu where we arrived on the day of the local horse-riding festival (Chilean rodeo), what a treat! After restocking on food and gas we spent 4 days on the Rio Palena following it all the way to the sea. For the first time we experienced true Patagonian rain, the kind that eventually finds its way into everything. But you quickly learn that it will dry out just as quick as it got wet, so there’s really nothing to stress about once you accept that. Down by the sea in the fjords around Port Raul Marin Balmaceda we spotted our first dolphins, a magical moment.

Once in the vast network of fjords it's hard to get back out with a tiny packraft, so we opted to take a ferry south, launching our rafts again on Rio Ibanez, just south of Coyhaique. What a powerful river it was! In just one day we had reached the shores of Lago Buenos Aires, having had to portage an impressive natural waterfall section. Now some lakes are just too big to cross in a packraft, too much wind creates too many waves which creates too much risk. We were not here to ‘through-hike’ from north to south anyway, rather to enjoy the ‘packrafting highlights’ on offer in the time that we had. So, after another ferry ride we were in Patagonia National Park. 

3 days of hiking without seeing another human footprint was incredible. For a few days it was just us, the Guanaco, and the Condor. At one point a park ranger showed us images taken the night before of a puma crossing the hiking trail we were taking the next day. She warned us jokingly to be careful of leaving the tent at night to go for a pee. It didn’t feel as funny that night when I was doing just that, staring into the darkness, heart pounding at the slightest sound. Crossing Lago Verde by packraft was like a dream to me, never before have I seen such turquoise water, let alone paddled on it. 

I was in love with the landscape here, although harsh it was truly breath-taking. I could have stayed forever, but the journey must go on. We left the park in style, floating down the narrow and lively Rio Chacabuco all the way to where it joins the Rio Baker, just downstream of its renowned high-volume class 5 rapids. 

Rio Baker was the mightiest of the rivers we paddled. Its tippy eddylines, giant boils and whirlpools toyed with our little rafts. At times the tail end of the raft would be sucked under and we’d be taken for a spin as a playful whirlpool formed below us, then we’d be released and pushed up and away by a strong boil. 

With our heavy backpacks balanced on the front of the rafts our setup was a little top heavy, which had us frequently needing a low brace to stop us from going over on the disturbed water. At one point we encountered headwinds of such force that they whipped up meter high standing waves on the river. It was a battle between the wind and the current, and we were caught in the middle. It rained so much during our descent of the Baker that we were forced to find shelter in old, abandoned shacks, our tents already soaked through. Overnight we observed the river level continue to rise. As the current had us racing along we had to pay extra attention not to miss the get out points to portage around otherwise deadly rapids. 

The coastal town of Tortel had a pirate-town vibe to it with its kilometers of raised boardwalks over the boggy ground it is built on. After supplementing our meagre rations, we launched straight into the fjords. This was a new environment for us to be paddling in, and we soon learnt that one must have total respect for the fjords. The weather changes dramatically, visibility can suddenly disappear, the wind tries to snatch the paddle from your hands, it rains, hails, and snows sporadically, and through all of this you are surrounded by steep rocky cliffs with very few opportunities to get out yet alone pitch a tent. 

We loved our few days paddling the fjords, the raw energy of the forces of nature could be felt strongly all around us, but a few days was enough. In the fjords having the spray deck on the Anfibio Rebel 2K was essential to stop the raft filling with water from both swell and spray, our neoprene gloves were also a life saver! The sunny days of swimming in the lakes were long gone now as we shivered in the cold waking up to fresh snow on the hills around us each morning. We were entering the cold south…

From Villa O’Higgins we secured passage across a rough Lago O’Higgins, crossing into Argentina again on foot. El Chalten was our final destination, a hiking mecca of Patagonia with the eye-catching mount Fitzroy its icon. I remember clearly the first time that beautiful mountain came into view, and how then over the next three days of hiking and paddling the mountain was always there, alone on the horizon, guiding us to our destination. Being a hiking mecca there were many more tourists here all struggling to arrange and pay for ferries and buses through the remote landscape. We simply inflated our rafts and paddled on unfazed, enjoying the astonished, envious, and sometimes confused expressions we left on the faces of others. Floating down the last section of the Las Vueltas River into El Chalten was emotional, it was the last time we would be on the water together, the raft and I, we felt as one by this point, an amphibious entity that nothing could stop. However it was not the end of the trip, I left the raft in town to experience the sunrise on Mount Fitzroy and hike the Huemul Circuit, passing by one of the largest icefields in the world.

Its wasn’t until we started looking at how to get back to Puerto Montt where we had started that we realized how far we had actually travelled by packraft, and how difficult it was to get to any of the places we had experienced by road or other conventional methods. The packraft seems to be the perfect companion to explore Patagonia with, and I’m extremely grateful for what I got to experience there as a result.

The route