Ice Fields and Guanacos

Ice Fields and Guanacos

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The members of the aero club in Puerto Montt showed us some of the most amazing kindness and generosity we had experienced so far on this trip. They went out of their way to help us out and made us feel welcome. We changed the oil, cleaned the plugs and checked over the fuel system.

After getting some good information about places to see in the area we decided to go to Parque Pumalín, one of many new national parks created by conservation stalwarts Doug and Kris Tompkins. The Tompkins’ have a real knack for finding large rural tracts of land that have been damaged by poor farming and ranching practices. They then rehabilitate the lands, encourage the wildlife to move back in after the native flora has recovered and turn them into national parks that the public can enjoy for free.

Doug was a pilot so he put in backcountry airstrips in most of the parks he helped develop. Parque Pumalín had an airstrip so we got permission to land there and set off.

We took off from Puerto Montt and flew over the fjords and sounds of northern Patagonia once again. The park is just down the valley from the airport at Chaiten so we closed our flight plan with the tower there and went looking for the grass strip.

The park is in a large valley of temperate rain forest covered slopes. Towering above the park is Volcan Michimahuida and its glacier, beaming bright white when the sun hits it.

Most of the old growth Alerce trees had been logged years ago and, after tireless conservation efforts, are slowly rebounding. We went on a nice hike in the rain through some pretty dense forest. They get a lot of rain here so things grow well!

The camp site at El Volcan has been well laid out and is very traveler friendly. We made friends with the folks at the park office and they gave us and our camping gear a ride to a site not far away.

This was a perfect place to spend a few days enjoying the forest, the views of the volcanos and the tranquility, despite some rain now and again.

Not wanting to leave too soon we tagged on an extra day and plotted our plan for the week ahead. It was time to make a serious attempt at flying to the glacier at Laguna San Rafael. We took off from Pumalín and landed at nearby Chaiten airport to file our flight plan and check the weather further south. We filed for Balmaceda, oh no not again, and took off under cloudy skies. After some bobbing and weaving we climbed on top of the cloud layer and flew right past snow covered peaks poking through the clouds. The wind in Balmaceda wasn’t too bad but still annoying to say the least. We fueled up, checked weather and filed a flight plan for Laguna San Rafael. This had to be a ‘special’ flight plan since there was no way for us to close it once we landed. We were going to a place so remote that there were no means of communications with the outside world other than a sat phone perhaps.

The flight out to the coast took us through some of the most dramatic valleys we had seen in Patagonia. The mountains seemed massive but not because they were super high but because the valleys are so deep. Rivers, waterfalls, glaciers high up on the slopes all added to the amazing scenery. The tallest peak in the northern Patagonian ice field drifted past the left wing. Ice covered Monte San Valentin at 13,300 feet was truly spectacular. 

We followed the ‘Exploradores’ river out to the coast then turned south and we could just start to see the lagoon about 40 miles away.

We were starting to get excited, we could see that the weather was good enough to get in and our patience was paying off. At first we could see the outline of the lagoon, then we saw the airstrip. Then, after overflying the strip, we carried on around the corner and saw the glacier. We were stunned. What can we say, it was mind blowing. The size. The eerie blue color. The texture of the ice. All too much to take in.

So we turned on all of the cameras and flew around the glacier and the lagoon as much as we could. There were huge chunks of ice floating in the lagoon. We spotted the trail from the strip up to a look out point on the ridge just past the park ranger cabins.

Time to land and set up camp. We walked over to the park cabins, through partially flooded trails, and looked for signs of life. No one there! There was a basic camping area just past the buildings but no one there either. Well, back to the airstrip and we camped right next to the ramp. The wind wasn’t blowing and it wasn’t raining so we were pretty happy to be there. The plane was tied down, the tent was set up and off to explore the trail we went. It was impressive to see the amount of work that had gone into building a trail up the side of a mountain through temperate rain forest. They had created boardwalk type sections with ladders through the steep and wettest parts of the trail. We perched on a big boulder and just stared at the glacier for hours. The sound of the ice crashing into the water was deafening. It was like thunder. There were dolphins swimming in the lagoon, birds darting around in the air, the whole scene was magical.

We were happy, we didn’t mind the horrible noodle dinner that night in the tent! We fell asleep to the sounds of the calving glacier, giant booms exploding in the distance.

So there we were in an awesome place that we didn’t want to leave just yet. Our only conundrum was to figure out when to leave based on the weather. We had no access to weather forecasts so we had to put our faith in the last forecast we had received from Balmaceda. We had given ourselves 3 days to spend at the glacier but we had enough food to stay longer of we needed. Rain was forecast for the 3rd day and the weather on the 2nd day was good enough to get out of the airstrip and head over to Cochrane. We decided to stay, even though it meant we might get rained out the next day. We hiked down to the edge of the lagoon, watched large chunks of ice float by, watched the sea birds come and go. Most of the tours arrive by boat from Bahia Exploradores so we never saw any other visitors on land.

Then on the 3rd day it rained. And it rained some more, on and off all day. This is why it is a temperate rain forest. It’s a strange sight seeing a jungle type rain forest right next to a glacial ice field. The coastal part of Patagonia gets more rainy weather but generally less wind, not a bad trade off if you are willing to put up with some moisture. It still makes for tricky flying weather though.

It was clear that we would not be flying anywhere that day so we stayed put. The only foray out of the tent was to brave the rain and hike to the park bathroom facilities where we heated up some water for bathing and dishes. There wasn’t much at this place, just the few park cabins where we finally met another human! They seemed surprised that we had flown in there and they didn’t mind one bit that we were camping on the ramp next to the plane. We must have seemed like a bit of a novelty to them.

It is hard to describe the sense of this place. It felt like we were truly experiencing Patagonia. These were the places we saw on the maps 2 years earlier in the planning stages of this trip. We had an idea in our minds about what it might be like but it’s only after you arrive and see it does it really sink in. This is it, we were really here. We had flown a small tail dragger plane down to Patagonia and now we were camping next to a glacier. Surreal!

We woke to clear skies the following day, this was our window of good weather to make it over to Cochrane. Time to pack up and go. Another fly by of the glacier on the way out and we set course for Caleta Tortel then up the Rio Baker into Cochrane.

Just south of San Rafael was the San Quintin glacier, spitting giant chunks of ice into the bay. Then, out the left side of the plane, we started to see the main part of the ice field. The ice stretched on for miles, moraine lines flowing like liquid towards the outlet. Chunks of ice floating in valleys of water with no path of escape. It was hard to take it all in, we took lots of pictures and had the video cameras on but nothing can really describe what we saw that day.

 

The expansive ice field finally gave way to the Baker river valley, we turned left and followed it into Cochrane. 

After camping in the rain we decided to treat ourselves to a hotel room and a hot shower. A helicopter pilot was on the ramp at the airport and he gave us a ride into town. It turns out He had gone to school in Pretoria South Africa, his English was perfect.

We needed to stock up on supplies since we were off to another camping spot the next day.

We had found out about a place called ‘Valle Chacabuco’ nearby Cochrane that had an airstrip and a campsite. This was another one of the Tompkins’ properties and we had permission to land there.

We said goodbye to Cochrane, the southern most airport on the trip at 47 degrees south latitude, and took off for Parque Patagonia.

The grass strip was pretty hard to spot at first but we saw the runway marked out in a flat grassy area. Easy to spot were the Guanacos grazing on the strip and our first fly by was to scare them off. The hard part about the strip was the approach to landing. Boxed in by terrain on two sides, we had to come up with a ‘creative’ technique of lining up with the runway and avoiding terrain. It took a few circles overhead to figure it out and we buzzed low through a gully in a curving blind approach to the runway. Always fun when you can pull it off. Some of the guanacos got off the strip but a few stubborn ones hung around to watch us park and shut down.

We met the folks at the lodge, started figuring out a ride up to the campsite and took it all in.

Sara had started walking up to the camping area while I was tying the plane down and a car stopped to pick her up. Turns out that one of the lodge workers, an architect and builder, took pity on her and gave her a ride. They got chatting and before we knew it, there was a new friend and an invitation to dinner at their house that night.

Jésus and her boyfriend Chuck live in one of the cottages on the property. Chuck runs the greenhouse gardens that supply all of the fresh produce to the restaurant at the lodge. His skill and knowledge at growing things was impressive. He used a scientific understanding of horticulture and vegetable production and their yields were amazing. We got a tour of the facilities and helped pick the veggies we were going to eat that night for dinner.

Dinner was great, we met other visitors from the US, good food, good wine and fun conversation.

Valle Chacabuco was an old sheep ranch back in the day that was over grazed and losing money. Today it’s full of wildlife and the grasslands have been restored. The campsite up the valley is a perfect spot in the shade to chill out for a few days.

Up the road from the lodge is a small house on a hill. In it lives Kris Tompkins. She saw Emcinco sitting at the airstrip and was curious who we were. Soon enough we were invited to dinner with Kris and her family visiting from all over the world.

The food that comes out of the kitchen at the lodge was incredible, a large array of grilled meats and vegetables, most of which come from the organic gardens onsite.

We liked it so much that we stayed an extra couple of days, hiking, doing laundry, hanging out with our new friends.

As is usually the case with long term travel, it was time to move on. We could have stayed for weeks but the time had come to head north.

This marked a literal turning point in the trip where we had reached the southern most point, we were going to be heading northwards from this point on.

We said our goodbyes and left Valle Chacabuco with fond memories of a magical place.

Back to Balmaceda for fuel (seriously?) and onwards to Puerto Montt. The engine still wasn’t running quite right. It was tough to diagnose the problem exactly but after lots of consultation, troubleshooting and research, we decided to replace the carburetor.

There were multiple indications that pointed to a problem with the fuel system which may have led to fouled plugs. We had the mechanic from Colorado send us down a replacement carb and went car camping while we waited for it to be delivered.

So again, the amazing folks at the aero club helped out. We got the carb installed and carried on northwards this time stopping at small towns in the Lake District.

We had also reached a point where we had to decide which route we might take northbound. Our original plan was to cross into Argentina and then go up to Bolivia. We had spend more time and money in Chile than we had thought we would. Argentina was even more expensive and Bolivia was experiencing the rainiest season in years with widespread flooding. Coupled with the fact that the avgas supply was uncertain between Bolivia and Colombia, we decided to retrace our route north along the same coastline we had followed south.

The idea was to bee line through some of the countries we had already spent time in so that we could spend more time in Colombia and Central America.

It was sad to think about skipping Argentina but we determined that we had seen the best part of Patagonia from the Chilean side.

Emcinco flies north!

 

Miles to date: 8,000 NM

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