Sea Kayaking for Science: Expedition Patagonia

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Thirty-two-year-old explorer Cristian Donoso planned and led a 155-day, 2,000km odyssey through the ice fjords of Western Patagonia. The expedition had three separate stages, beginning on 17 January 2007 and ending on 24 February 2008. Donoso undertook the initial stage of 47 days alone, carrying out the first navigation and exploration of a large lake formed because of climate change. Four other adventurers accompanied him on one or both of the remaining two stages. They used sea kayaks to navigate the region’s narrow fjords and wild surf, then turned them into sleds that they dragged up and over glaciers.

The other participants in the expedition were Juan Pablo Ortega, a management engineer, kayaker and climber; Mario Sepúlveda, a climbing guide and champion cross-country skier; Ana Bartley, a marine biologist, climber and kayaker; and Roger Rovira, a Catalonian speleologist and kayaker.

The Transpatagonia Expedition, which proved even more difficult than Donoso, a veteran explorer of the region, had foreseen, is providing scientists and historians with a treasure trove of new information about Patagonia.

Most of the journey was across water, and in Patagonia the water is seldom calm. Donoso lost count of how many times he capsized as the team battled waves, wind and tides. As the expedition neared its end in February, heavy surf and a drastic change in the wind prevented the team from landing on the rocky coastline of Forelius Archipelago. The explorers had to spend the moonless night on their kayaks, clipping the boats together with carabiners, stretching a tent over their bodies and holding on to each other’s paddles for stability. When strong winds pushed them too far out to sea, they would paddle back in the dark, using whistles to follow the kayaker in front of them, unable to detect the crisscrossing waves until they crashed over the kayaks.

“Fear helps when you’ve got to be highly alert and concentrated for long periods of time in a scenario full of dangers. But fear that approaches panic is our worst enemy when we confront dangers,” says Donoso, who learned to confront some of his own fears when parachuting with the Chilean Army’s Special Forces.

A stressful night came last October as Donoso and his team descended to Greve Lake from the high glaciers of the Southern Ice Fields. They had survived over a week of heavy snows that repeatedly buried their tents – and trapped them in one spot for four days. Once they made it across the ice plateau, they had to lower the fully-loaded kayaks – each weighing over 100kg – down a snow-covered 600m cliff. The team had to do this in stages, carving out platforms in the snow to anchor their ropes as they descended.

Others difficulties took him by surprise, such as a 10km stretch of jungle that the team had to cross as they portaged the kayaks and supplies overland from Lake Greve to another lake formed at the foot of the Guacolda Glacier. The vegetation was, Donoso says, denser than the Amazon rainforest. The team was already tired after almost a month of demanding work, and this stretch of the expedition was the most challenging time psychologically.

“In order to make it through that part, we had to stay cheerful, determined and well organized as we worked together, demanding the most we could from our bodies,” he says.

In November, near the end of the expedition’s second stage, Donoso led the team into a series of caves on Madre de Dios Island, at times descending through underground waterfalls. Besides carrying out an initial mapping of the previously unexplored caves, the team took samples of a stalagmite that will be studied using radioisotope technology at the University of Trier in Germany.

Donoso, who calls stalagmites “climatic archives”, believes that the sample is likely to yield important clues about the history of the region’s climate, as well as insights into the nature of global climate change, a phenomenon the team members documented as they kayaked through lakes formed in recent years by the rapid shrinking of several glaciers.
The explorers carefully documented the region’s fauna, recording a previously unknown feeding tactic by a species of toad they found riding the waves on Lake Presidente Rios, utilizing the surf to trap mosquitoes and then devour them. The explorers also found a colony of Magellanic penguins in the forest of Surania Island, not the usual nesting place for a species known to settle on the coastline; the birds’ smaller-than-normal size and improved walking skills may indicate the discovery of a new variety or sub-species.

Donoso also documented several traces of the indigenous people – Chonos and Kaweskars – who travelled the region, often in canoes, for more than four millennia before Columbus arrived in the western hemisphere. Scholars of the region’s history are already examining Donoso’s reports on the remnants of tidal fish ponds built of rocks by the ancient nomads along the ocean’s edge.

The expedition also discovered relics that may shed light on the 1741 sinking of the English frigate Wager on the north coast of the Guayaneco Peninsula. The ship’s fate was popularised at the time by the journal of one of the ship’s crew, John Byron, who survived with help from two indigenous groups who spirited Byron and three other survivors through the treacherous waters in their canoes. The ship’s sinking encouraged Spain to increase exploration in the area, accelerating what Donoso dubbed “the encounter of two worlds” in the remote reaches of Patagonia.

“In order to protect this territory, we’ve got to know what’s there,” says Donoso, who reports that most Chileans and the world have little knowledge of the region. “Our expedition has focused public attention on this territory, not in a neutral manner, but from a perspective that puts in sharp relief what the region – an undamaged fragment of our world – means for the present and future of humanity.”
Paul Jeffrey

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