Estero Peel

I was lying in my sleeping bag, hitting the snooze button again and again as the rain pelted the deck above me. I knew all my foulies were soaked, and my beanie and flannel were still soggy. When we all managed to unstick ourselves from our sleeping bags, we sat in the salon, drinking coffee in the driest wet clothes we had, the steam from our mugs rising up and adding to the dripping condensation on all the windows and hatches. 

We climbed into our gear as the engine warmed up. Once the two stern lines were dropped from shore, I motored the dinghy back to the boat, the rain already soaking through the four layers to my skin, as Dirck, my friend’s father, stood on the bow hauling the anchor.

The weather today forecasted  winds worth avoiding outside of where we were anchored, with a convenient bubble of fair weather over us. We were in for some Patagonian sunshine, just a bit less rain, and a little less wind.

We headed north, taking a day off from going south to explore some less charted waters close to the border with Argentina. Continuing up Estero peel, glaciers hung down steep mountain valleys, slowly slipping their way downhill from the Patagonian ice field above. The hours passed as we motored on into a current that never turns the other direction, even at flood tides, due to the constant cascade of water from the dozen or so glaciers and hundreds of waterfalls trickling down the mountain’s granite face. The wind and current against us, we motored north at 2.5 knots with gusts nearing 25 on our nose. As we neared the point where we would turn east, we spotted small icebergs in the foggy horizon. Thoughts of turning back began to arise, but did little to change our course.

Heading north

The ice grew thicker as we continued further into the bay. We moved into the flows, believing there were clear patches of water ahead, only to navigate in zig zagged directions to dodge the sharp edges below the surface. We lowered our anchor just barely on the surface to nudge the smaller bits aside, but the bigger and more threatening icebergs we kept as far out as possible. A fiberglass hull in a sea of razor blades, we continued on with extreme caution.

Into the ice

During the middle of it all, we rounded a corner to see a small fishing boat heading towards us, the first boat we'd seen in two weeks. We tried to steer from its path, but it kept its bow headed directly towards us. With icebergs to port and starboard we had nowhere to turn. The boat swung around when it reached our port side, and tried to tie up against us, scallops in hand, slurping one to prove they were free of red tide.”Quiere viera?” Seriously? I thought.  Now? You're trying to sell us scallops now? Yes, of course I want scallops. I’ve been living with vegans for a year! But we are a bit busy at the moment. No gracias, ahora no podemos. Estamos un poco ocupados.  Lo siento.

Part way through, we talked again about heading back and finding another place for the night, as the ice seemed to grow thicker and bigger, but our wheel never seemed to turn more than a few degrees to dodge the icebergs. We kept going, alternating between saying this is dumb and this is awesome.

I went down below, looked at charts and read the guides for some last minute advice. One stated the anchorage could be blocked by steady ice flows and bergs grounded at the entrance, but turning around at this point would be a risk as we would have to find a secure anchorage for the forecasted 60 knot north winds before dark. Nevertheless, we continued on, the bergs growing larger with each bit of ground we gained.

Glaciers and depth soundings

Just before the mouth of the anchorage, the ice stopped, a clear run of glassy water through a shallow cut. We had read this place was relatively unexplored, but that was proven to be false by the polypropylene line that ran across the bay for security in the unpredictable winds and a satellite dish perched on the small island to which it was tied. Only after we rigged three shore lines and set a second anchor, another fishing boat came in. This time we were in the right situation to barter. They anchored right next to us, again, slurping scallops raw to prove they were free of red tide. Happy to trade a bottle of pisco for five gallons of scallops, I spent the rest of the evening shucking in the cockpit to the sound of the wind and rain on the bimini. The the fishermen did the same, only with the soccer game keeping their minds occupied as their hands busily shucked.

Neighbors with their wood stove raging

The night before we made a deal with Dirck, our resident early riser.  If it's rainy, we sleep, but if through a miracle the sun makes an appearance, get us up. 

At 7am a sharp knock on my door announced the arrival of sunlight. Piping hot coffee crackled my plastic mug, as I came through the companionway to see sun pouring through a light drizzle, the top of the icefield coming out from beneath the clouds. Layered for the cold and rain, we motored the dinghy slowly, shedding layers as we went, finding paths through the ice flow until we hit a long thick patch of icebergs. A fishing boat motored towards us, completely unconcerned with the ice as its steel hull parted the sea. They offered us more scallops, once more slurping a few to prove they were safe. The man who slurped, who we later learned was the captain,  spoke in a pitch much too high for his size. At the time I assumed it was his half inch wetsuit and the cold water tightening around his torso, but later discovered this was not the case.

The diving captain

We told them our plan, to go walk to a glacier and they offered to clear the way. We followed close behind, our bow almost in their muffler, until they broke through  the other side of the ice, waving us off as they continued through to go dive further up the ice flow. A group of dolphins swam under our boat, occasionally smacking the bottom as we slowly moved through the bergy bits. 

Our guide boat

We tied the dinghy to shore in a small cove free of ice, and wandered up the boggy hillside for a better view. Thick beds of slow growing moss softened the tops of the granite shore, sometimes so dense it would pull your feet well below the surface, sinking your legs to the knee. I scrambled up a slippery rock face, trusting the embedded roots of small cypress trees to hold my body weight as I pulled myself upward. Near the top of the hill, the moss thinned, the wind like a sharpened razor, cutting its roots free from the granite surface. Each step upward revealed more and more of the blue ice of a glacier sliding into the valley below. I watched as bits as blue as the sky calved off, creating waves of ice in the sea. With each calving, I felt a tinge of guilt. Each drop of fuel I’ve ever used, each flight I’ve taken, every light I’ve left on in an empty room, culminating before my eyes in the form of a melting glacier.

When I broke from my trance and slid back down the hillside, we reconvened on the granite shore by the dinghy. The ice had now found its way into the cove, and had us surrounded. We motored along, switching between forward, idle and neutral, as slowly as possible, our inflatable craft not being the most durable.  The flow grew thicker and thicker as we pushed towards the anchorage. In the middle of the bay, we tried breaking through, Dirck and I pushing icebergs away with oars as Eli manned the tiller. We could see our anchorage about two miles away, with ice piled in front of it. Our boat could be iced in. My mind started to picture us camped out on the opposite shore, waiting for the wind to clear a path. The end of the ice flow was impossible to spot, the glare from the ocean blending the two. We turned back to where we started and hugged the shore line, hoping the fisherman’s advice from the day before would still hold true. We motored another three miles along the shore, until the ice cleared enough to open up the throttle. Making our way around the end of the flow, we looked back north at the clear sea, between us and our anchorage. Relieved that we could make our way home that night, we throttled down under the clear skies as each mountain peak came out from under the clouds. 

Home safe, with sunshine to dry our clothes