Expect Nothing, Anticipate Everything
We were barreling down a dirt road at “the end of the world”, a nickname given to the nether regions of South America. We were headed across South America’s southernmost terrain on, what would be, our last dark and dreary day of a month-long journey through Patagonia. I had made a commitment to document the last leg of the trip through written word. In fact, I can pinpoint the exact moment when my thoughts drifted from the actual road to this very essay. It was when, in triumphant relief, we finally spotted solid, bonafide earth after having to gingerly negotiate unstable and precarious ice and snow, limping our van (sans brakes and beat-to-hell) back over the last of two dangerous mountain passes. It was our third and final day in Tierra del Fuego. We were returning from heavenly settings located as far south as any Chilean road (and our fuel supply) would take us. Was it cold? Sí. Did everything go smoothly? No. Was it worth it? Sí. Increíble.
In case you missed other essays in our Patagonia series:
This is merely a literary slice… in fact, the final slice… of the Patagonia essay pie we’ve prepared for all of you with an appetite for adventure and a zest for life on the road. Oh, what a delicious pie it was. You might not even like pie. But, I think you’ll want to savor this little morsel. It’s been a month since the trip yet we can still taste it: the bitter washboard roads succumbing to an overwhelming richness of autumn color on Andean slopes… the subtly sweet notes of Patagonian rivers blending with a high sour intensity of brisk nights and frigid mornings in Tierra del Fuego. I’m salivating just thinking about it.
Enough about food. You’re probably curious about the blown brakes. You might be wondering about the fish. You’re biting at the chomp to learn about the route we followed through Patagonia. If you took a gander at our trip notes page or sat back with popcorn and vegged out on our Patagonia series of short films, you already have a pretty good idea as to some of the answers. As far as this essay goes… all in good time my friend. First, we need to start where we left off from the previous slice of pie…
Rebooting and Reprovisioning
Fly shops are far and few between in Patagonia. We hadn’t seen a single one since Bariloche (not that there weren’t any—we just didn’t see them). And we were just about out of 3X and 4X tippet. We were at the threshold of having to use some questionable tippet we had saved for emergencies. You know the material I’m talking about: the used, jacked-up tippet that you end up putting into those beat-up little baggies and store with the rest of your tackle for God knows how many years. These big ole trout can be a bit shy when they see the 2X cable dangling in front of them. Thinner tippet seems to equate to hooking a trout. Not surprising. The landing part, now that’s a different story.
Coyhaique was a perfect place to reboot, get a hot shower, get some writing done and publish the second of four short films on the fly (hopefully you were following the journey in real time). Coyhaique also happened to be the last city for nearly 1000 kilometers as we continued southward. The downtown was bustling. It offered some good people watching, a bunch of cafés, local arts and crafts, tourist shops and wouldn’t you know it—a fly shop. Suray Pesca (Suray Flyshop) is located right downtown next to Plaza de Armas. Not only were we able to restock our tippet supply (we paid a pretty peso incidentally), we also got some all-important camp gas. Lastly, we fueled up the van and got the heck outa’ dodge while blasting some classic GnR on the crappy sound system in the van—Welcome to the jungle! We got fun and games! Entering these Patagonian towns brings fleeting excitement. Leaving them for the unknown… now that’s ultimate bliss!
To be honest, we really didn’t have much in the way of research for the Aysén Region surrounding Coyhaique. I do know it’s quite popular with the gringos from up north. Oh wait, that would be us… as we slowly rumble down the road in our well advertised rental van. I’ve definitely seen a swath of Aysén, hash-tagged photos displaying hero shots of 16-20″ trout from the area. Aside from the fish, we unfortunately had a big monkey on our back: time. The problem was that there wasn’t enough of it. We needed to be in Punta Arenas in 13 days to catch our flights. That was more than 2500 kilometers away, potentially. To put this in perspective: in the first 15 days we covered a meager 1,000 kilometers. It’s almost as though we paid the price for having great fishing. We are human. Misjudging time and distance is a common problem on even the most disciplined of road trips. Unfortunately it’s a problem we really didn’t want to deal with. Life on the road is sweet. But life on the road is just a bit sweeter when you happen upon that special place where you can stay a couple days. You know the place I’m talking about: that gem of a spot where the fish are rising, the air is warm, the people are scarce, rainbows and butterflies, yada, yada, yada. Now that’s a special feeling. It was quite obvious that we needed to pick up the pace and cover some ground. More driving would mean less fishing (sad face emoji here). At the very least, each curve in the road would unveil a brand new sight for these virgin eyes.
The estancia is ruler in these parts. These huge, private ranches are everywhere… as far as you can see. Not forgotten are the many amazing fisheries working their way from the mountains right through the heart of many of these private expanses of land. With estancias dominating the Aysén the task of finding legal access to water would be tough. Through the misty fog of privatization we found a true diamond in the rough: Lago la Paloma. It not only offered one of the best shoreside camp spots we would encounter on the entire trip it also offered some decent fishing. There were also no humans. And, yes, there were rainbows that stretched all the way across the sky. It was on Paloma’s tranquil, deep-blue waters where we embarked on the longest paddle of our month-long journey: eleven miles round trip. The kicker is that we only had an Autumn afternoon to complete it. The trout weren’t rising but our streamers found a few scaly friends along the structure at the steep drop-offs along the edge. An arduous, often rain-soaked, 5-mile paddle took us to the lake’s furthest shore. We passed through a narrow cut which emptied into the brilliant, aquamarine waters of Lago Azul—easily one of the prettiest settings of the trip. If only we could’ve stayed longer! The contrasting color from one lake to the other was astounding. It was on Azul’s glacier fed waters where I landed arguably my prettiest fish of the trip: an 18″ brown with the deepest of undertones and the most vivid of spot patterns. Darkness welcomed us back to the van where we cooked up some grinds and filmed an epic time-lapse under a crisp, clear, celestial sky. (See it in the film)
“Fishing” Trip… or “Road” Trip?
Those Aysén Region trout would prove to be the last we would see for the next 5 days. We rambled down the dusty Carretera Austral (Ruta 7), past the region’s craggiest peak, Cerro Castillo, and proceeded to follow the western shoreline of the great Lago General Carrera. Just beyond the quaint little town of Chile Chico we crossed the border into Argentina, our third crossing. We linked up with the Carretera Austral (Ruta 40) at the town of Perito Moreno and began the long journey through vast, windswept steppe. This was the first time we set eyes on guanaco. Here’s how the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the guanaco: “a long-necked South American mammal (Lama guanicoe) of dry, open country that has a soft, thick fawn-colored coat, is related to the camel but lacks a dorsal hump, and is considered to be the ancestor of the domesticated llama.” Sounds about right. At first, it was exciting—seeing an exotic animal for the first time. It was somewhere between kilometer 10 and kilometer 1000 of dodging the fury beasts where our excitement subsided a bit. Now, I’ve lived in many North American regions where mule deer and elk are prevalent. Hell, my dad lives in the Hill Country of Texas where the population of white tails is in full force last time I visited. The barbed-wire fences don’t seem to be much of a hinderance to those high-jumping undulates up north. The fences along the roads down here tell a much different story. Note: for any kids that are reading this: at this point you may want to skip right to the next paragraph. Reader discretion is advised… On full display was a guanaco carcass (a mixture of fur, rotting flesh and skeleton) caught up on the fence bordering Ruta 40 not far outside of Perito Moreno. It would prove to be one of hundreds that we would see. We spotted them about every 4 or 5 kilometers. Not coincidently there were no shortages of scavenging birds in the region. These birds were omnipresent during our drive patrolling the skies in search of their next easy meal.
Another new animal that we crossed off the list was the rhea. And here’s the exciting Merriam-Webster definition of a rhea: “either of two South American ratite birds (Rhea americana and Pterocnemia pennata of the family Rheidae) that resemble but are smaller than the African ostrich and that have three toes, a fully feathered head and neck, an undeveloped tail, and pale gray to brownish feathers that droop over the rump and back.” This bird became the focus for a scientist some of you may have heard of: Charles Darwin. He’s kind of big in these parts.
“Rheas attracted Charles Darwin’s attention when he visited Patagonia during his voyages on the HMS Beagle. Darwin had seen many Greater Rheas, but had only heard tell from gauchos of the existence of a smaller Rhea in southern Patagonia. Puzzled by the existence of two related but different species—which challenged the then-accepted theory that every animal was created in a fixed form, perfectly adapted to its place and life—Darwin went on the hunt for the fabled Lesser Rhea. He searched for months before recognizing the bird upon his dinner plate. The gentleman-ecologist put his dinner bones back together to form the skeleton, and with the help of ornithologist John Gould he confirmed that he had finally found the Lesser Rhea. With further examination it was clear that the Greater and Lesser Rheas were indeed two distinct, yet surprisingly similar species. This discovery helped spark his theory that species could change and diverge over time, and no creature is permanently fixed in its current state of life” – from the Conservation Patagonica News
The rhea is listed as “near-threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. For us, they were a lot more scarce than the guanaco. What do these 2 Patagonian animals have in common? They can survive the harshest of winter winds that are known to scour the grassy steppe of Southern Patagonia. When we drove through we noticed that when the winds were up, the guanaco and rhea were down… literally… their thick coats of fur and feathers taking the proverbial edge off as they seemed to hunker down out of the harsh elements. At times we almost felt that way in the van.
Faces of Patagonia
I hate to call animals a distraction, but that’s sort of what they were as we sought our next destination: Monte Fitz Roy. If you haven’t heard the name, you’ve probably seen photos of these perfect granite faces? With social media sweeping the modern world, every Joe Shmoe and Jane Shmane seems to make this trek to duplicate the photo they saw of these mountains on Instagram. Call me Mr. Shmoe.
We started the two-day backpacking jaunt from the gateway village of El Chaltén. Alone, we were not (says Yoda). Hundreds of our best friends, most of whom spoke languages we couldn’t understand, joined us on the trail. The highest peaks were hidden by clouds. It wasn’t until a couple hours later after we hit base camp and set up tents that we snuck our first peek at the sublime spectacle. The misty veil was lifted just in time for sunset. Part of the beauty was the severe environmental conditions surrounding the craggy precipices. The wind howled 50+ knots carrying the frigid air down the great shoulders from the glaciers above. Every element within this terrain displayed the most extreme of characteristics. The mountains were pale and jagged. The clouds moved swiftly. The scattered erratics were the size of houses. The trees were stunted as if conjured up from a wild dream only to be used in a children’s book. Their color—vibrant from autumn’s embrace. With one sunset and one sunrise under our belts we began our descent back to the van that patiently awaited us in El Chaltén. What would’ve been an easy hike out quickly became one of pain and anguish. Having come from Maui, my heels hadn’t seen hiking shoes in a while. This fact was never more apparent as when twin, silver dollar blisters formed on each foot. Thank Jah I brought my slippahs from Hawaii. They came in handy as I gingerly negotiated the terrain. Bonus: the looks I got from hikers were priceless.Hold on a second. What I just wrote about Fitz Roy just didn’t sit right with me. To do a quickie synopsis of our time in the shadow of this amazing mountain-scape is a disservice to the reader (that’s you) as well as the mountains. I will say this: I don’t think I will ever witness a mountain setting more breathtaking. You’ll have to see it for yourself. Click here for a little help on how to get there.
The watersheds south of Fitz Roy near the town of El Calafaté offered some promising fishing. Sadly the wet weather caused the rivers to flow brown—too blown out to don the waders and rig up the fly rods. Instead of fishing we decided to keep with the touristy theme as we were lured to the ever-so-popular Glaciar Perito Moreno. Having spent a few years as an expedition leader in Alaska I’ve seen enough glaciers to know that no two are alike. Never was that more evident than when I set eyes upon this Andean wonder at the southern end of Los Glaciares National Park. Designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO back in 1981 this glacier is truly beloved. Its expansive terminus creates and divides two huge lakes: Lago Argentino to the North (Argentina’s largest), and Lago Roca to the South. About once every 5 years or so there’s a massive breach in the natural levee created by the advancement of ice. The glacier calves with enough ice loss as to set forth a flood sending water from one lake into another. Now, if we could only predict when… Aside from the natural beauty and power of the glacier and its surroundings, the man-made viewing platforms are something to behold. They are beyond anything I’ve encountered in Alaska. No need for a yacht!
NOTE: Critical decisions had to be made after leaving the Perito Moreno glacier. The weather was not cooperating and our time in Patagonia was running short. On top of that these southern regions were a big question mark for us. During the bulk of the trip we had avoided facing this next move. Do we hit Torres Del Paine? That would mean more time backpacking among world renowned mountains. It would also mean less time fly fishing. Do we roll the dice and seek some fishy, hard-to-reach water? With populations so sparse and estancias overwhelming the accessible land our chances of finding good fishing while actually having the time to figure out the water were slim. Because we didn’t have this luxury of time on our side, any wrong decision could spell disaster on this final leg of a truly epic journey. But, we didn’t come here to do things the easy way. We rolled the dice!
Gazing out onto the endless, wavy grasslands of Southern Argentina is like setting your eyes on a golden, turbulent ocean. Another day’s journey saw us further down this vast steppe landscape and onto the banks of the Rio Gallegos just 50km east of El Turbio. This was one of the few rivers on mainland Argentina where we had a chance at sea run brown trout. These giants make their way great distances inland from the Atlantic to spawn. Being from the States, it’s not often you get the opportunity to cast a fly to trout such as this. Generally speaking, these beauties are, by nature, anadromous. They are born in rivers, migrate to the fertile ocean where they grow fast and large by feeding on krill and small baitfish, then ultimately return to their natal rivers to spawn. Sound familiar? We all know how big Steelhead can get… and how difficult they are to catch. We were crossing our fingers, our toes, eyes, anything we could as we casted heavy streamers attached to sinking line into deep, perfect runs. We covered as much water as time (and access laws) would allow. Unfortunately we only had an afternoon, an evening and a follow-up morning to spend on this stretch of the Gallegos. After some heavy hits with no hookups we finally landed a few browns of the 20″ variety. Although nice fish in their own right, they didn’t appear to be sea runs. And they say, once you catch a sea run brown you will know.
Layering up for Tierra del Fuego
It was on the Rio Gallegos where we first started to feel a noticeable difference in daytime temperatures. No longer did the chilly mornings succumb to midday warmth. No longer did the sun seem to shine from above. No longer could we don single layers. And, definitely, no mo’ slippahs! It was like we’d been kidnapped, drugged and had woken up in an entirely new country (not that we know what that’s like). We had entered a phase of the trip where the days were short, where the mean temperatures remained low (often frigid), where the freezing rain came in sideways… a phase in the trip where the risks were the highest, but the rewards greater… hopefully.
We ferried across the famed Strait of Magellan. It was cold and wet. Not even the weather could take away from that unmistakeable feeling we were experiencing something great. This was a stretch of water that, after being discovered by explorers, would forever change earth exploration and global trade, not to mention the further introduction of guns, disease and slavery. Without the daunting task of having to navigate the treacherous seas around Cape Horn, sailing to and from the Pacific would become a much safer endeavor after 1520 when explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his fleet of ships successfully passed through. On his way he spotted a bunch of fires burning along the coastline, possibly made by aboriginal inhabitants. This land would eventually be known as Tierra del Fuego, or “land of fire”. That’s how the story goes anyway. We all know how stories can get a bit skewed from generation to generation. Hell, Columbus discovered the “New World” right?! And, he was a great man right?! Wrong and wrong. Aside from the fact that there were people already there, the Vikings had been the first Europeans to arrive 500-ish years earlier than Columbus. And, Columbus was a slave trader… but I digress.
A Grande Defeat
Fuel, or lack-there-of, would pose a problem. You can probably count on one hand (even a hand with a couple missing fingers) the amount of gas stations in the Chilean version of Tierra del Fuego. With help from the amazing iOverlander App (truly a Godsend from day one) we found fuel at the remote Russfin lumber mill along Ruta 85. With a full tank we continued south until we crossed over a world renowned river: the Rio Grande. Even though we weren’t near the heavy sea run brown trout waters closer to the Atlantic on the Argentina side, we simply had to try our luck. Remember, sea run trout can travel great distances. That, and that alone, enticed us to stop for a go at it. What didn’t entice us were the 40 knot winds hammering out of the West. The river looked promising—fast water, slow water, braided channels, riffle sections, nice runs with deep tail-outs. After nearly 3 hours of methodical wading and repetitive casting of every worthy fly we had, not a single trout stirred on that blustery afternoon. Tails between our legs, we continued deeper into the heart of Tierra del Fuego where the terrain drastically changed. The region’s southern mountains would prove to be a place where dreams and nightmares would collide…
If Ryan wished for snow on his birthday, he got his wish. I’ll never forget rolling the van door open on that early morning to unveil a motionless lake surrounded by an ethereal, winter wonderland with the softest of edges separating an array of pastel hues. Everything but the water was covered in a healthy layer of soft, white powder. To be honest my state of mind questioned what I was seeing. As my eyes struggled to adjust to the brightness of the morning Lago Deseado‘s tranquil surface was temporarily disrupted by the back of a slowly rising rainbow trout… one of substantial size. That woke me up. In less than a minute, with 7-weight in hand, I gingerly moved toward the water sporting bedhead, fleece and poly-blend socks with flip flops. With anticipation I launched a frozen bunny leech. Cheehoo! It wasn’t my birthday, but it felt like it was as I landed that nice rainbow on the first try. Could you ask for a better way to kick off a day in Tierra del Fuego? (Don’t answer that). The rest of the day consisted of kayaking, catching big fish, drinking, eating… and drinking… an unforgettable day. Happy Birthday buddy.
Fin de la Carretera; End of the Road
With the tire chains removed and stowed we slowly descended from the second snowy mountain pass and gazed at the fishery where we would make our final fly casts. Lago Fagnano (also known as Cami Lake) sat in an enormous basin flanked on the opposite side by the glacier laden Cordillera Darwin (the Darwin Mountains), named after you-know-who. That huge body of water drains into the majestic Rio Azopardo which then empties into Bahia Jackson, an arm connected to the Strait of Magellan. So, due to the fact that the ocean wasn’t too far away… maybe, just maybe, we’d get into some sea run fish.
We had made it to the final extension of Chile’s primitive infrastructure. We parked the van at the headwaters of the river. The fuel gauge showed half. I’m no mathematician but even I knew what that meant: we had just enough gas to get back to the lumber mill, if all went smoothly.
Daylight faded quickly. With the darkness came slumber. The plan was to be up early. We wanted as much time as possible to not only kayak-fish the lake but to also wade-fish the river. That last day brought blue skies, light wind, deep thoughts and big fish. It would prove to possibly be the most productive and memorable day of the entire trip. Were the sea run trout real? In the words of Teri Hatcher on Seinfeld: “They’re real and they’re spectacular.”
That was the dream. Now for the nightmare.
In the final daylight hours, we decided to get a head start on the drive back up through Tierra del Fuego to the port town of Porvenir where we will catch a ferry to Punta Arenas.
- Objective 1: get back over the two mountain passes.
- Objective 2: make it to the lumber mill without running out of gas.
- Objective 3: make it to Porvenir by 4pm to catch the ferry, the last one for 2 days.
Objective 1 turned bad very quickly. As light faded and temperatures dropped we navigated the van up the icy pass until it was apparent we would need to put the chains on. These were the old style chains—bulky, heavy and not quite the right size. With hands nearly frozen and chains applied we continued up the pass with newfound traction. The we came to a jolting stop. A quick look under the back right wheel well filled me with dread. It seemed we probably weren’t gonna make that ferry after all. An important link in the chain had bent and the whole thing had come off the wheel and wrapped itself around the brake line severely rupturing it. Brake fluid dripped profusely. My immediate thought was to quickly unwrap the chains, reapply them to the wheel, use whatever we could to cinch them tight and try to make our way over the pass before we lost all use of the brakes. Every second counted as fluid continued to flow. Then it started to snow. Bitter, cold winds whipped across the alpine terrain and right under the van where I struggled to work. Darkness set in. My feeble attempts to fix the situation became utterly futile as my fingers succumbed to pain and eventual numbness. After what seemed like a half hour, I had a legitimate fear that my digits were frostbitten. Ryan played it cool and suggested we park the van and figure it out in the morning. Reluctantly, I agreed. With the wind howling and pelting the side of the van with icy snow, we spent the night parked precariously on the edge of steep drop-off on a mountain at the end of the world. It sucked. But it was the right decision.
Our minds worked much better the next morning. The light of day helped too. With some zip ties and a couple cheap, aluminum carabiners we were able to secure the chains with some level of confidence. There was only one way to find out if our handiwork would hold. With a plea to the gods I held my breath, put ‘er in gear and white knuckled the heck out of the steering wheel. We were off. The chains held as we ever-so-slowly made it to the top of the pass. That was the easy part. Downhill without brakes is not usually recommended. We did have a couple things in our favor though: 1) the van used a manual transmission which meant we could use low gears to keep our speeds down, and 2) we still had the emergency brake. That is all we had to get us home. Well, that, a decreasing tank of gas and a little whisky. Somebody was on our side because we made it! Not only did we make it over that first pass, we made it over the second one too. That first sight of beautiful, brown earth on the other side of that last pass was pure heaven. Objective 1: completed. We rolled in on fumes to the lumber yard and filled up the tank for the final time. Objective 2: completed. We made it to the ferry with 2 hours to spare. Objective 3: completed.
It’s always a little surreal when you finish an adventure like this in a city. It seemed like we were just out there! We were just in it! We were remote. We were dirty. We were soggy. Punta Arenas offered none of those things. Time was spent basically killing time before flying our separate ways where we would deal with luggage, check points, sardine seats, unhealthy snacks, questionable odors and customs officials. Whoa, that sounds vaguely familiar.
Click here to check out the final cut, short film of this epic adventure.
Click here to read about Patagonia travel logistics and fly fishing advice.
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Story by Brock Munson
Photos by Ryan Bonneau and Brock Munson
cofounders, Chasing Scale