The Isla Navarino Circuit

Trip Start Jan 07, 2013
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19
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Trip End Aug 01, 2013


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Flag of Chile  , Magallanes Region,
Thursday, March 7, 2013

When we arrived in Ushuaia we had no idea where we were going for our first backpacking trip. A semi intensive search of nearby treks just led to more confusion, everything looked too awesome. The decision was made due to a note on our hostel bulletin board calling for hikers interested in the Dientes circuit. Dino, a 39 year old Canadian was leaving for Puerto Williams (the starting point) the next day and we took it as a sign that it was the adventure for us. Glad we did. The Dientes was the most remote, beautiful, and difficult hike I've ever done.

Puerto Williams was a short, but expensive, boat ride across the beagle channel into Chile. We planned on hitting the backcountry right when we arrived, but Patagonia had other plans. The sunny weather we had in the morning turned into a torrential downpour right as we left the customs office. I learned they don't even use weather forecasts here, and after a few days I understood why. We ended up getting a room in a local hostel and spent the day organizing food, getting some last minute gear, and relaxing.

The original plan was to do the 5 day dientes circuit, but after talking to some locals we decided to extend our hike to include Lago Windhond. It's a huge lake filled with salmon and trout, perfect for Greg's mission to finally catch an edible fish with his fly rod. So I wouldn't be left out, I bought a local fishing "rod". It's a large spool made of wood with an ergonomic handle in the middle, I ended up getting pretty good with it and almost prefer it to a pole.

The Lago Windhond trail was probably the toughest trek I've ever done. It's not heavily used, so markers were sparse between the numerous peat bogs and thick forest groves. The 10 hour estimate turned into 15 with how often we were lost. I had no opinion about beavers before, but now I can honestly say they are my least favorite animal. An invasive species here (thanks Canadians) they completely decimated the trail. Their dams create vast muddy bogs in the river valleys and a maze of fallen trees in the bordering forests. After making the terrain that much more difficult, they also help get us lost through numerous false trails through the bog. So many times we through we were on the right track only to end up at yet another dam beaver pond.

As the sun set on day two we arrived at Lago Windhond. There we were overjoyed to find Refugio Charles, a Thoreau-esque fisherman's cabin, right next to the lake. It had a roof, small wood burning stove, beds (wood frames with dirty foam pads- don't want it to sound too fancy), some fishing gear, and a logbook. It was the most remote and peaceful place I've ever been. Loving the cabin vibe, and also due to a bit of exhaustion, we rationed our food in order to extend the trip and stay in the Refugio another night. 

The next day was spent relaxing in the cabin at the end of the world. Greg and I woke up early to go fishing after making some cowboy coffee in the little stove. Unfortunately for us, waders were a necessity here with the geography of the lake. You could walk out about 100 yards into the frigid water before the bottom dropped into deeper waters where the big fish were. Not feeling like freezing, I combed the rivers that fed the lakes for good spots not yet ruined by beavers. No luck :/ but it was great exploring without a giant backpack for the day. Back in the cabin I spent the rest of the day reading by the fire, writing, and doing yoga in preparation for the next 4 days of hard hiking. Living in that simple cabin was surprisingly comfortable and made my family's cabin back home seem overly luxurious. I actually prefer the former, it provided a much more direct connection with nature. I could see myself spending a few months in a place like that if I had enough activities to keep me busy and productive.

On day 4 we continued on the lake Windhond trail to finally connect with the dientes circuit. In the cabin logbook some New Zealanders doing our trip in reverse described the connection as a "cunty descent", ascending was almost worse. Five hours of climbing through bog, forest, then skree found us on a snow capped peak overlooking the vast network of lakes below the jagged peaks of the Dientes. A thermos full of hot water, some matè, and a swig of johnnie walker double black helped restore our energy after the rugged climb. 2 more hours and we were finally on the Dientes circuit.

We knew the travel gods were still on our side when we found a half eaten sandwich and some extra meat/cheese under a large boulder Connor and I were attempting to climb. Not having had fresh meat in days, Greg and I ate it without question (Connor is a vegetarian and Dino was already kind of sick). In our excitement we failed to really question why someone would leave a half eaten sandwich under a rock days from civilization. We got the answer at camp a few hours later when we heard the 3 blasts of a distress whistle.

Emma is a 19 year old anthropology student from Chicago doing an internship in puerto Williams. Despite not having much outdoor experience she decided to attempt the Dientes circuit solo. Two nights before her rented tent failed, leaving everything she owned soaking wet. Her map destroyed, she had spent the last two days lost and in a panic. The night before she slept under the sandwich rock with only an emergency blanket (which she also lost somewhere). Had we not found her then I highly doubt she would have made it through that next night, as winter kicked in and it started snowing. Dino let her use his sleeping bag, I made her a warm meal, Greg got her some clean water, and Connor tried to start a fire to help dry her things. It's crazy to think how many decisions and events transpired to allow for her rescue. Our meeting Connor, staying at the hostel with Dino's note, staying the extra day at the lake, choosing that camping spot, etc. Sure some may have resulted in the same outcome and others possibly even a better one, but it's a great example how the little things can have life changing effects.

Day 5 we woke up to a view of the Dientes covered in a blanket of fresh show. As I unzipped my tent a sheet of ice flaked off of the vestibule, same with my boots. It was the easiest day yet, only 5 hours compared to the 8 we had done each day before. Compared to lake Windhond, the Dientes was cake. The trail was well marked and comparatively devoid of beaver induced chaos. We got to the next camp with time to relax, fish, and build a huge fire. The sky was clear and we gazed at millions of stars while Connor played some Ugly Casanova (more 180 south) on my traveler guitar.

By day 6 Dino and Connor were running low on food, it was already 1 day past the original plan and we still had one to go. I happened to bring the perfect amount for 7 days, while Greg for some reason had enough for 10. A man of excess... He offered to share but Dino was actually enjoying the rationing experience. I have done it once before and agree that it was almost enjoyable, at least to look back on. When camping for long periods you really become in tune to everything your body needs and does, helping in odd ways later on in normal life.

Day 6 and 7 were each supposed to be a repeat of the laid back 5 hour day 5. But again, the unpredictable weather of Patagonia had other plans. As we approached the top of the mountain just before day 6 camp a blizzard set in. You know when you watch the discovery channel and see those guys covered from head to toe trying to scale Everest? It felt and looked just like that. Even the Canadians agreed it was a legitimately dangerous situation. The money I spent on new impermeable pants, boots, and gloves was the wisest thing I've done to date on this trip. I'd never recommend anyone do this hike without a complete set of impermeable gear. Unable to stop for fear of freezing we combined the two days for a total of 11 hours hiking. As if to apologize for the blizzard, a rainbow guided the last 2k of our hike until we hit the main road to puerto Williams. Our party of 5 hitchhiked back into town, where a warm pizza and cold beers awaited us.
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