It certainly was interesting how this expedition came about. Back in 2011 I had the privilege to work as a kayak guide with Aguahielo Expediciones In Aysen Region of Patagonia. This totally opened up my mind to a different perspective of this area known as ‘Patagonia’.
The name Patagonia was brought forth by Magellan during his interactions with the indigenous people of the area as they apparently tended to have large feet and the Spanish word for feet being ‘pata’, the people of the area became known as patagonians and as time went on this exotic sounding name in conjunction with the US based clothing brand became the name for the entire region. Most people when they think of Patagonia in terms of a place on planet earth, they immediately think of the sharp jagged peaks of the fitzroy or Torres del Paine mountains.
Fitzroy Mountain, Laguna Sucia, Argentina
Los Torres, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
These towering sharp granite peaks are absolutely amazing places, dont get me wrong there is certainly a reason they are famous they are powerful and spectacularly scenic mountains.
Stunning right? makes you really want to go there? Yes and you should go but I want to look at a different side of Patagonia…
Patagonia Aysen, Chile 2011/12:
Inspiration to Explore the Unknown
When I first arrived in the Aysen region of Chile in November 2011 my perspective dramatically changed. This was far more than a place of beautiful scenic mountains, there were beautiful lakes and incredible free flowing rivers through desert rain shadow landscapes to temperate rainforests to an series of windswept alpine and sub alpine environments. Below are some photos to highlight the region (By clicking on any of the photos you can navigate many beautiful photo albums of the region from 2011/12)
Teaching kayaking to the kids in Puerto Bertrand with Aguahielo Expediciones
Rafting & Kayaking rapidos of the Rio Baker with Baker Patagonia Adventura
What I really connected with was the people of this region, living with them and working together was a great experience. I was mostly helping guide/support kayaking trips on Lago Bertrand and the Rio Baker with some trips to Jorge Montt Glacier and Laguna San Rafael. At this time 2011/2012 the Rio Baker and Pascua Rivers in the Aysen region were under threat of a major hydroelectric dam development to feed the hungry mines of northern Chile.
Through this whole experience I saw how the local people of this region spoke up against this with the ‘Patagonia Sin Represas‘ movement. They were very passionate about it and after paddling the Rio Baker to the ocean in Caleta Tortel I felt a very strong connection to the area and the natural flow of this beautiful wild river. I am happy to say that this project has not happened yet and the people continue to speak up against it. However this area still remains threatened and raising awareness remains important.
A few years went by as I traveled to different parts of the world, I still had this region on my mind. I knew I wanted to go back and I know I will return to Aysen Patagonia one day. For now there was a new adventure, yet another seldomly traveled part of Patagonia I was keen to explore…
Santa Cruz Expedition January 8th to 21st 2019
I had briefly heard about the Rio Santa Cruz and the double dam hydroelectric development project through the social media and I was interested to know more.
Life and all that stuff was moving me in different directions for few years. One day when I reconnected with my friend Kenneth Storm Jr whom I hadn’t seen in almost ten years. We stopped in for a visit to his island cabin on Lake Superior as I was finishing guiding an 8 day kayak expedition from Silver Islet to Rossport with my seasonal business Such A Nice Day (SAND) Adventures. We had a brief moment to catch up and he mentioned his interest to make a trip down to Argentine Patagonia to paddle the Rio Santa Cruz. I mentioned I had a job in Antarctica for the austral summer but I had time off for most of January between contracts and I was interested to make the trip a reality. We kept in touch, met for lunch to talk in more detail. He originally wanted to make the trip in a packraft but given the extreme winds in Patagonia I knew sea kayaks were what we needed. I introduced him to trak kayaks and how they fold up to take anywhere in the world. I then made a trip down to Minneapolis where Ken lived when he was not at his beautiful cabin on the Canadian north shore of Lake Superior, and we set up some trak kayaks and went for a spin on a local lake near his place. Ken was excited about the traks and we decided they had ample space for two weeks and could handle the conditions we would face on the lakes and river. I then reached out to my fellow Trak pilot friend Cole to see if he was interested to join us for the expedition. I originally connected with Cole through Instagram as he was also a kayak guide in Chilean Patagonia who was planning to return. He was immediately in and stoked beyond belief!
So we were 3 and with the launch of Trak’s new 2.0 kayaks it was a perfect opportunity to put the boats to the test.
So our plan was to paddle from the Patagonian Andes Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean navigating Lago Viedma, Rio La Leona, Lago Argentino to finally connect with the Rio Santa Cruz all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Puerto Santa Cruz. A Distance of well over 500km.Our Route starting near El Chalten and finishing at the Atlantic Ocean
We connected with Trak as I have developed a good relationship with them over the past 5+ years as a brand ambassador/pilot rep and they were keen to support our expedition as the maiden voyage for the Trak 2.0. This was special arrangement to have 3 boats released for testing purposes before its official release. Cole had already received his Trak 2.0 on Vancouver Island in October after a promotional video shoot for the new kayak we had both attended. Cole was able to bring his boat down to Chile and was able to secure some time off from his kayak guiding job in Torres Del Paine National Park for the Expedition. He met me in El Chalten on January 4th and we had Trak send the other two 2.0 kayaks to Ken in Minneapolis which arrived just in time to bring them on his flight to El Calafate on the 6th of Jaunary. I organized a private shuttle from El Chalten to the airport so we could fit all the gear in one load. We made a quick stop in Calafate for some lunch and a food shop and we off to El Chalten all together. We had an air BNB booked well in advance in El Chalten to settle in and get organized. We organized our gear and got very excited about the trip!
We all had so much to bring to this expedition. Our collaboration really came together and all of our strengths put together made for a strong team. Ken 66yrs old, was very passionate about the history of the area and traveling through it and revisiting and reliving in the footsteps of Magellan, Darwin, and a series of palaeontologists who discovered a unique age of fossils from different mammals who once roamed these lands. His unique perspective and experience on traveling really brought a deep sense of place, context, and meaning to our expedition. Ken is a skilled river paddler and lightweight expedition expert. Cole 25yrs old, very enthusiastic about learning and inspiring others to get outside. He is a very strong sea kayakers and his high intensity of energy really got us moving along. His ability to capture video and photos and prepare it for social media was a really strength he brought to the team. Zack 35yrs old, very experienced with sea kayaking expeditions and the trak kayaks. He is also very open and enthusiastic to learning and building a strong team to collaborate for projects like this. His biggest strength is probably his ability to reach out to everybody and anybody to gain perspective on the place to help make sound decisions considering our safety and goals of the expedition. So together we were out to paddle through this seldom traveled region of Patagonia, revisit historical landmarks, search for fossils and interesting geologic features to try to raise awareness and bring sweeping significance to the threat of dam development on the Rio Santa Cruz. Rio Santa Cruz from the air
Day 1 – January 8th, El Chalten, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina
After finally meeting up together and preparing for this expedition near the small tourist town of El Chalten Argentina, it was exciting to actually be underway in our fully equiped trak 2.0 expedition folding sea kayaks and all our gear. It was now absolute peak tourist season and the town was full of backpackers all here to hike or climb in the mountains.
We reached out to Santiago Arias via social media as we found a video of him paddling the Rio Santa Cruz. He was responsive and it just so happened he was flying into El Calafate the same day as Ken so we co-ordinated our transport to Chalten together. Santiago has paddled and guided expeditions on the Rio Santa Cruz and is one of the few people who has paddled the entire route from El Chalten to the Atlantic Ocean. Now he works as a mountain guide and wilderness first aid instructor, he provided us with very invaluable information on our entire expedition based on his previous trips down this particular waterway.
In terms of the mass amount of tourists in El Chalten, it was certain NO ONE was here to paddle Lago Viedma especially not all the way to the Atlantic via Rio La Leona, Lago Arengentino, and Rio Santa Cruz.
There is a perfectly logical reason why: Lago Viedma is quite the intimidating body of water that seldom sees calm days.
We knew we were going to be very alone and weather could change quickly. With help from Santiago we knew where to launch, travel, and get shelter. We made sure all our emergency equipment was in good order and ready to go.
All our gear ready to go
We were not sure if we were going to make Lago Viedma part of our journey or not but we had incredible luck with an amazing weather window to paddle this incredible Lake in good conditions.
We had a small window of time Tuesday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon from viewing forecasts on windy and wind guru.
Assembling the Trak 2.0 kayaks for the first time
So we were off by 3:30pm on the 8th of January 2019. We started near Bahia de Tunel in the north western part of the lake and managed to have amazing conditions to paddle around exploring some icebergs and taking in the views of the fitzroy.
We decided to camp 13km down the north shore on an exposed and open area. There was no shelter available but this was the closest point to the other side of the lake so we were best set up to make the 16.2km/10mile crossing the next morning.
We scurried about and secured our gear while trying to photograph the spectacular scenery. It was so beautiful I didn’t care that the squall was so violent that it caused one of my tent poles to snap making a massive tear in my fly. I later repaired it without a problem when conditioned calmed and cleared. We slept in comfort.
We knew it was going to be such a nice day! Excitedly we packed up our things and had some breakfast but soon we were halted but the stunning views of the entire fitzroy mountains and Viedma glacier beckoning in the distance.
We knew it was a perfect summit day for these mountains and as the crowds rushed to the trails outside El Chalten but we knew we were utterly and completely alone on this vast lake about to make a giant 16.2km/10mile crossing.
Due to the views around us being so awesome there were too many fantastic photo opportunities causing us to be delayed getting on the water. We didn’t actually leave the beach until 6:50am. We could feel a light eerie breeze starting to pick up as we headed offshore across the lake. We had previously discussed that if the winds picked up we would set up a group in-line tow to insure safety in numbers by staying together.
The forecast didn’t have winds picking up until after 12pm but we knew this lake was unpredictable so were prepared for the worst. About half way through the crossing wind started picking up 15-20kts so we set up the inline tow and kept a steady bearing of 160 degrees with a mountain landmark to follow knowing that the closest point to for our landing would soon appear. Luckily wind gusts maxed at about 20kts with 10-15kt consistent crosswinds making it tricky to stay on course. We kept on pushing and eventually we caught sight of an absolutely beautiful cobble beach that reminded us of the beautiful north shore of Lake Superior back in Canada.
It was the kind of beach of perfect sized rocks, warmed by the sun and comfortable to walk on, 5 star beach in our minds! We could strip off our wet layers and sprawl our stuff on and not worry about any sand getting on it. It took us just over 3hrs to make this 16.2km/10mile crossing and it felt amazing to land on the beach, soak up the sun, have some lunch and take in some of most gorgeous scenery any of us had ever seen. These were perspectives very few human eyes have seen and we felt so fortunate to be experiencing this.
Soon enough we could feel the wind coming on stronger. We knew it was time to get moving. Not long after Ken was quite fatigued with kayaking in the conditions so we stopped for a rest but knew we had to keep moving to get to a protected camp but it was still quite a ways.
We decided that Ken would walk the beach and Cole and I felt confident with the conditions to take turns towing Ken’s fully loaded trak kayak in and around the this giant 12km spit so we could have less swell for ken to continue paddling with us to the next possible sheltered area to camp. Winds picked up 25-30kts with 1-1.5m waves. The towing trak surprisingly held up well and did not flip over once in the waves.
We eventually met up with Ken and we all paddled on hard for the last few km to get to this abandoned estancia to seek shelter behind buildings and trees. We suffered through awkward angled 30-35kt tail/crosswinds all the way to the sheltered beach. We paddled a total of 42km this day.
Once at the estancia it appeared to be abandoned as we were told by our local friend Santiago, one of the few people who have ever paddled this route. However, we noticed someone walking around up top by another building so we went to say hi. It was a nice Gaucho named Sebstian and he immediately invited us for a cordero asado (lamb bbq) we got chatting around there wood stove and talked about how intense the lake was and the forecast was to be worse the next days. We zonked out hard that night unsure as to whether we would be able to get on the water the next day.
We woke up at 5am and it was windy and only getting worse so we went back to sleep and got a ride with all our expedition gear and folded up kayaks to the hotel/campground at top of Rio La Leona all set to hit the river the next day at first light.
It was sad to miss the last 37km of Lago Viedma but we were also happy not to have to push ourselves after such a big day. Really what this expedition is about is a journey of deeper learner, connecting with the people and engaging with them about the power and beauty of this place, the history, and environmental threats rather than just pushing through to paddle the entire trip for ourselves.
After a restless night with intense winds pounding against the protected wall we were camped behind, Cole woke up early at 4am with some crazy energy, packed up and had mate ready for me by 4:30am. Wind was howling all night finding it’s way to wrap around any protection in all directions. It was very unmotivating to wake up in the dark and wind but Cole certainly got us going. I had discussed with my friend Nicole that she would join us for the day and meet us at 5:30am for a 6 o’clock start. That didnt quite happen we were all running a bit late. Luckily when we packed up the wind died down nicely, the sun started peaking out and by about 7:30am we were off on the river.
Floating down the La Leona River was a magical experience. It was a nice change from the craziness of Lago Viedma. Ken was truly in his element and loving every moment. Rio La Leona had a nice grade to it and there were some fun sets of little Rapids and we were really moving along. The landscape was sort of like the badlands you find in south Dakota or Alberta in North America. We made a stop and walked up a small hill for a nice vista of the river valley. Some really interesting geology and we found some petrified wood. Not too much further along we ran into a guided group of kayakers from Santa Cruz Kayaks who invited us along on another hike to see a whole series of fossils including dinosaur bones. We found prolific fossils of oysters along with giant petrified logs and an enormous dinosaur bone. These specimens are likely from the Cretaceous period (not confirmed) as the dinosaurs in this area disappeared long before those of North America. At that time it must have been a more equatorial climate to support dinosaurs and other sea creatures.
The hike was long and hot and we knew we had a long way to go still and wind was picking up. The forecast had wind picking up to 40kts around 3pm. We knew we had to keep moving. We ended up hiking nearly 5km into the badlands it was absolutely magnificent and we were so lucky to join the guided hike. It was just after 1:30pm by the time we were back at the kayaks ready to continue. The wind didnt seem to be too bad but there were some serious gusts. Nicole had an empty fibreglass kayak and was really having a hard time keeping the boat into the wind. We knew there the road was close around the next bend and then kayak Santa Cruz van was waiting for their group so at 2:30pm we quickly made the decision to land and get Nicole to a safe pick up point, inreach messaged her ride back to El Calafate and we continued on.
The fully loaded Trak 2.0 kayaks performed exceptionally well in the extreme high winds and gusts as we continued down river with the current. When properly packed with gear, with their low profile nature, and fixed full keel these boats can really plow through anything and keep the course.
It was a long afternoon with the wind at full force mostly in our faces with the occasional meander where the wind was at our back reaching speeds of nearly 20km/hr. The beauty of the current is that no matter how strong the headwind, we were still making progress downstream we just had to keep our boats straight.
The river started splitting and there were several ways to go often difficult to follow the main current. At one point Cole hit ground hard and soon realized he was taking on a lot of water. He eventually notified us with some intense blasts of his whistle and we made a stop to dig out the tear-aid and aqua seal to make the quick repair.
Finally we made our way around the last meander and could see the protected tree area before the bridge where the Rio La Leona flows into Lago Argentino. We thought we had made it but here the river opened up a lot and the wind was in our face at full force along with the sun. It was extremely difficult to see where the river went and figure out what direction the current was moving we just had to plow through at full force. Eventually we made it into camp. We knew the next day was going to be full on winds again so we messaged Nicole who had agreed to drive to get Cole and I to bring us into Calafate for the night where we made some plans with some friends and had some resupply items to pick up the next day before the next leg of our trip. Ken stayed at camp and relaxed.
We spent the day in Calafate and arranged a ride back to our camp for 6pm. We brought some steak and made a nice meal together with Ken that evening and enjoyed a beautiful sunset on the hill.
Once again Cole woke us up enthusiastically ready to go at 4am in the dark with pretty intense wind gusts. I did not have a good feeling about paddling out into Lago Argentino this morning. Ken still didnt feel 100% as he was getting over a cold. We decided to go for a walk up to the hill for a view and could see that it was quite intensely windy. We decided to just rest another day and wait for better conditions the following morning as was forecasted.
Slow morning wake up tried to get up at 4am but didnt really get up until close to 5am and were on the water just before 7am. Conditions were finally perfectly calm with some overcast skies to the east and clear skies to the west with a great view of the mountains at the western end of Lago Argentino. In just over an hour we were on the Rio Santa Cruz. We made a quick stop at the bridge for a photo opportunity then continued down. Immediately we were amazed at how abundant the wildlife was. Hundreds of guanocos, rheas, and a plethora of other birds were along the shores and upon the hills along the banks of this magnificent river. The Rio Santa Cruz is the life blood for all these species. We made a quick lunch stop at Rio Bote and looked at this strange empty house on the opposite bank. We soon continued and pushed all the way onto the next possible sheltered place to camp totalling our day at 78km. Just before our planned camp we saw some guys fishing and they mentioned the president of Argentina was visiting the dam construction site on this day and a lot of work was going on. We had uneasy feelings about the dam and witnessing the reality of this devastation. We arrived at camp around 6pm in this little popular tree stand that was outstandingly beautiful. The weather was actually nice and sunny so we all washed some clothes and took a fresh dip. Ken got a msg from his friend with updated forecast for tomorrow with winds gusting up to 50kts. We decided this evening to sleep in and rest the next day.
[ ] Sleep in and rest is precisely what we did. We were all up around 11am and winds didnt seem so bad, we also knew most of this day was heading east and the prevailing winds were from the west. So we packed up camp and left by 1pm. Once on the water and in the full force of the wind we were really moving along. Not long after setting Ken needed to stop to make an adjustment. After this the wind increased full on and Ken was not comfortable. Best quick thinking decision was for all of us to raft up together and Cole and I could direct the boat as needed. This worked quite well and we made incredible headway. We clipped quick release carabiners to the easily reachable deck lines just forward of our cockpits and had one of our cow tail quick release towlines connected across the back. We came to a site where the Santa Cruz formation was protruding and Ken was keen to go look for fossils. Unfortunately none were found at this location but the hike was certainly worth the amazing views.
[ ] After the hike to this site it was close to 6pm, the wind was still very strong. Along the steep river bank we found some protection along river left. Soon after setting off the wind died off a little bit and we were all able to paddle on our own again. We arrived at camp a little disoriented as to where exactly the protected camp was but we eventually found it around 9pm totally our day at 49km. This site was directly below condor cliff and it looked much nicer in the air photo. We experienced a lot lower water and it was windy with only some very small trees for protection. We made some polenta and crashed hard.
We woke up 6-7am had some breakfast and mate. We left our camp set up but collapsed our tents so they wouldn’t blow away during the day if they wind picked up as it tended to do late morning. Our plan for the day was to hike up to Condor Cliff. This is a significant site as Charles Darwin Beagle expedition climbed up here in April 1834. Darwin climbed up the basalt cliff to view the surrounding area and hypothesized how the landscape was formed through time speculating that the Rio Santa Cruz was potentially a strait like the strait of Magellan further south. He was fixated on the elevation of the landscape to try to really understand it. He recorded seeing many condors here and so the cliff was named accordingly.
We followed a fence line from an old estancia that led us right up to the top of the cliff. From here we could get magnificent views of the entire landscape. We could clearly see the extent of the dam contraction that was underway in full force. This was very sad to see… the Chinese and Argentina governments have invested an absurd amount of resources into building up the walls of the natural canyon near condor cliff to create a mega dam structure that would significantly change the natural flow of the river forever.
We could watch vehicles driving back and further am between the workers camp and the construction site there had to have been hundreds of workers here going full force. We could see a bridge in the distance which looked to be no problem to pass. We had heard and see video footage of a lower pontoon bridge with constricting current and potentially very dangerous to pass. This new bridge appeared to be no problem.
We enjoyed a nice lunch and nap up top the condor cliff. We eventually made our way back down via a trail that led to a road to an old abandoned estancia which we poked around at. We were amazed at the amount of abandoned estancias in this area. It was interesting to visit and walk back in time imagining how prosperous these ranches/farms once were.
When we arrived back to camp the wind was still up. Ken and I decided to move out tents way back and out of the wind for an excellent night of uninterrupted sleep.
We were up around 5:30-6am and on the water just before 8am. We could here dam workers rush hour traffic and were feeling very emotional about witnessing what we were about to see. It was truly devastating to see a death of a river in the making. There was an awful smell of dust and diesel as we approached closer. Some dam workers stopped and just looked at us as they pulled out their phones to snap our picture. The one thing that was nice to see was that there were Guanacos and the Rhea holding their ground right in the middle of all the machines at the construction site. We passed under the bridge no problem it has created a constriction in the river that made a pretty nice class 2ish rapid of wave trains to run in the kayaks. We had a fairly nice tail wind today that wasnt too strong but allowed us to make some progress and we flew down the river making a lunch stop in the beautiful Bahia de Fossils. This was a beautiful outcropping of the Santa Cruz formation. We spent several hours walking around looking for ancient fossils. We found a number of fossilized bones that were difficult to identify. We even found some parts to a glypodon (giant armedillo) shell. As we continued down the river we came across a black zodiac with two military guys on the beach surrounded by plastic bags full of rocks and artifacts. They were delighted to see us and invited us ashore to learn more about the archeological work they were conducting. There was a group of 6 archaeologists from Buenos Aries who were hired to search for indigenous artifacts. They had found a tremendous amount of flintknapped rock and finely detailed arrowheads and hand scrapers of the teheulche people along the riverside of the Rio Santa Cruz. We stopped and shared our passions for the area. We all expressed a deep concern for the construction of the dams on the river.
Upon leaving these guys, the westerly winds picked up in full force and we had battle before finally reaching our camp at an old abandoned estancia just before the La Barancosa dam site around 8pm. It was a big day covering 72km of river. We made dinner and Ken called it a night. Cole and I explored the abandoned creepy estancia house and enjoyed a spectacular sunset.
We were up at 5:30am on water 7:45am paddled a short distance to a valley to hike up to a location where Darwins beagle expedition visited and his artist Conrad Martins drew a sketch on location at a place they named basalt glen on April 26th 1834. We hike up searching for the exact place of the painting and found it. It was amazing to connect directly with this historical path and view this place as Darwin and crew had so many years ago.
We then continued through the 2nd dam location. Not quite as much progress as the condor cliff site but still a lot of construction in the making. There was no bridge yet but we could see the pontoon bridge ready to go in. Once past this site we were into the wilderness other than a few small irrigation farms. We had lunch at another abandoned estancia and continued on fo barranca Blanca a nice fossilifurous area full of fossilized oysters. We pushed on, wind picked up and we came across a fishing lodge that was closed for season. We set camp here at around 6pm, had some dinner, enjoyed another epic sunset and crashed. We covered 63km.
Up 5:30am wind just howling. We cumulatively agreed we were not going anywhere so slept in and had a relaxing day at this fishing lodge. We really could not ask for a better spot on the river the have a layover day as we were perfectly sheltered and had nice grass, and picnic table shelter to cook, relax and clean/organize gear.
Up 4:30am and on water by 6:30am. 74km paddle arrived at Isla pavon 3pm battled rain and headwinds out of the east the entire way. We ended up staying in a Canada so we could organize our gear. We took a taxi into pierdrabuena and went for dinner at Nano pub the only pub in the town apparently. We later got a hold of local paddlers Alexandro and Daniella along with some others and we organize to meet and paddle together the last leg of our trip. We were tired from a long day but pressed for time cause Cole needed to leave ASAP to get back to his work in Torres del Paine national park in Chile. Ken was done and decided he would rest and organize instead of paddling the last leg to the Atlantic Ocean.
Up 5am on water 6:30am paddled to Pierdra Buena to meet Alexandro and crew for 7am but they were late
They told us to start paddling and they would join further up the river. We eventually met up with them around 9:30am. We were a little surprised at how much current there was against us on way out. The high tide and slack water for Puerto Santa Cruz was at 11am. It was also January 21st and it was a full moon with tidal exchange of 13m. Nw winds picked up, Alexandro checked in with the Prefactura (argentine navy) and we were not permitted to continue to Punta Quilla so we ended at Puerto Santa Cruz 32km about 17km shore of Punta Quilla. Even if we had the weather we could not entire the coast into Mont Leon National park because the only road into the park to access the coast was under serious construction.