Thursday, November 21, 2013

Navarino VIII: The Feral Swampbeast returns to civilization

Part VIII in the story of my 7-day solo trek on Isla Navarino, continued from Part VII: Blizzards and Beavers. To start at the beginning or to see the full list of Navarino episodes, click here.

My morning view

Although it was cold when I woke up on my final day of my hike, the sun was shining. Having slept a fairly solid 9 hours I was ready for my only early start. I had woken up with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” stuck in my head for no particular reason that I could think of, and so began my day singing out loud in my best gospel voice, alone in the mountains, like a true crazy hermit. After a final breakfast of runny oatmeal while my sleeping bag and tent dried a bit in the sun, still singing, I was ready to go and was on the trail by 8 am.  And this time there was a trail, at least way markers that were more often visible than not for the first few hours.

She's alive!!
Despite the trail, and despite the singing (or maybe because of it?) I was moving slowly. My cold had moved to my lungs and I was wheezing and short of breath, and with my sinuses completely plugged, breathing was hard (and you can imagine how good the singing actually sounded). I would get out of breath walking downhill, when usually I can charge up hills with a pack without too much problem. But I had all day, and although the distance I had to cover was comparable to some very long days I had had, the good weather, spectacular  views, and presence of a trail made me hopeful that I could made good time for a change even at a slow, steady pace.

The hike was beautiful, and the snow lent everything a certain additional air of solitude and romance, but I was very cold and my feet were soaked all day, which they had also been most of the previous days, but the cold made it especially hard. And, of course, I couldn't escape the beavers and once again landed in beaver terrain. Beaverland turned into bog again and my path continued through miles of swamp. I could smell my own feet with each step, which by now smelled distinct from and significantly worse than the bog water in which they had been incubating all week.

Footprints in the snow at the end of the world.
I crested the small pass that marked the longitudinal backbone of the island and suddenly I could see the ocean again, the Beagle Channel. I had returned to vistas where I could no longer say “no humans as far as I can see”. With mixed feelings, I was returning to civilization: looking forward to warming up and drying out my feet and resting off my cold, but very reluctant to leave the delightful solitude I had so much enjoyed. I felt like some feral thing, emerging stinking and filthy from the bogs and peaks and blizzards of the wild south and skulking warily into the habitat of other humans.

And civilization met me that early afternoon with dusty dirt roads and swarms of black bugs that got up my nose and in my eyes and down my shirt and everywhere. And I emerged from the road in the woods into the wood-smoky air of Puerto Williams, simultaneously relieved and reluctant.

My first stop when I returned to Puerto Williams was the info center to ask where I could book a plane ticket, since I needed to meet my friends for my birthday trek in Torres del Paine in a few days. She looked at me and suggested instead that I take the long ferry to Punta Arenas, commenting, “I can see from your face that you have had…an experience. It seems you need time to rest.” I later saw what she meant. I was windburnt, had dark circles under my eyes, bleeding scratches on my face, and matted hair decorated with sticks. And then there was the stench coming from my feet.

View of the Beagle Channel from a crest in the trail

I stopped by the DAP office to ask about the plane anyhow, the ferry would get me to my friends too late. All flights were full for a week, contrary to what I had been told before I left that I should just book when I returned from my hike. But they said to come back in a few hours and check for cancellations. I thought that was a fine idea, maybe I’d have better luck after a shower.

Next I stopped by the Carabineros to register my safe return. The officer on duty seemed surprised when he checked the records and saw when I had left and heard where I had been and asked me about it, saying he had never been out there, or even past the Cerro Banderas. I showed him some photos (my camera having successfully mostly dried out) and told him a bit about the trip. He commented about all of the others who had turned back that week because of the weather and wondered how I got on. “It was cold, wet, and snowy,” I said, “but beautiful. Incredible.” As I was there, two more guys—one a seasoned Pacific Crest Trail distance hiker—showed up. They had also given up on their trek due to the weather and lack of trail.

I walked out feeling like a warrior queen, trailing broken hearts and taking swigs from a flask full of tears milked from her conquered enemies. Although to be fair I had also not finished the Dientes circuit. But give up, tuck tail, and return to town? The thought had honestly never crossed my mind. With the exception of the fall in the swamp, at no point did I feel scared or in over my head. I had only wished I had more time to go back and finish the circuit after my wander to the south. I wondered what it would have taken for me to have actually returned early. A legion of pumas chasing me down off the pass, I decided. Or running out of food. I need to learn how to hunt and clean an animal, I decided, thinking of the beaver. Or a wet sleeping bag that I couldn’t dry out.

Church in Puerto Williams

Finally I returned “home” to Patty’s. I stripped off my gaitors and boots and socks at the door, walked in, and was met by a giant hug from Patty. It was like coming home to mom. “The best time of my life,” was all I could say. Despite the cold, the wet, and the rain, it really had been. Mira!” She responded with a grin. She saw that I had fallen deeply, madly in love with the island that she, too, loved.

I started to unpack and was about to take a shower when I met my roommate for the evening who appeared in the door and asked if I wanted a beer. Beer. Ohhellzyess I wanted a beer. A cold, glorious, delicious beer (Austral Yagán—a very good dark beer). So I sat, sipping and delighting in the beer, looking like a wild creature and smelling worse, chatting for an hour with Fernando about life, careers, and adventures.

And then I finally showered, clumps of hair coming out as I tried to shampoo my matted head. I put on clean clothes, brushed what was left of my hair, and even put on mascara. And just like that I went from feral swampbeast to domesticated human, but a domesticated human who had been reunited with her strong and independent heart and fiercely wild soul.

I cleaned my stuff, re-packed, and then had dinner with an older Canadian couple who had cycled all the way from Bolivia to Punto Arenas, including the entire length of Argentina’s legendary Ruta 40. The food and shower and beer having made me feel like a new person, I decided to go out to the Club de Yates for a beer—just one beer, to check in with people, I told myself.

Panorama of the Club de Yates

I ended up staying for much longer than one beer, chatting and laughing and dancing until 4 am with the other wild souls who had also been drawn by the gravity of the romance of adventure of the end of the world to land at that bar (and the entirety of the Chilean navy posted in Puerto Williams…as the only woman at the bar, I was popular that night).

Poor Fernando, who also showed up, was obligated to escort me home (I bullied him into staying later and later for round after round of beer, because I’m a terrible person and a despotic drunk, and also had no idea how late it was). The skies were stunning, with the light just coming up and turning the clouds an eerie pastel.

On the walk back to Patty’s Fernando and I shared the stories of our lives: our dreams, our passions, the lessons we had learned from our adventures that had brought us to that night.  When we tucked into our bunks in otherwise empty hostel, the conversation had turned to our love lives, and he said, “You are an interesting person, I think you will find someone very soon.” 

I laughed and replied that the challenge isn’t finding someone. It’s finding someone who enriches your life instead of tying you town and eating your soul. 

There was a long silence followed by a quiet yes, and we fell asleep.

Or rather we both laid there staring at the ceiling for a while absorbed in our own silent conversations, mine between my heart, which the minute I made that comment ached to find that someone, my head, who countered that it seemed relationships are having another person tie you down and eat your soul, and my soul who wrapped its wings around my head and my heart and said quietly “Sssh, it’s okay now, we’re okay now.” And, reassured and agreeing that, indeed, everything was okay, very much more than okay, (and my soul, being fierce and wild, was not about to be eaten without a good fight) the three of them snuggled into the squishy sack of exhausted flesh that was my body and I fell asleep with a smile.



  1. Well hey there!!
    Thank you very much for this! I've read it over and over and truly felt like I was hiking along!
    Look, Navarino is on my trail list for this year; hopping to hit it on October/November.. after reading this, there's a few questions I'd like for you to answer...
    If you have the time, I'll be very grateful.


    1. Sure, Patricio, ask away! Glad you enjoyed the blog. Navarino is an incredible place, still my favorite on this whole wild journey I've been on. I hope you enjoy it!

    2. Wow!! Aren't you the kindest?!
      Here I go then:

      Is it possible to hit the circuit the very same day you land in Puerto Williams (of course, after the proper shopping for food and stuff is done)? I get the idea from reading your blog that distances are not long between Puerto Williams and the entrance to the circuit...

      Do you think is strictly necessary to use a GPS device to hike the Dientes? The thing is that I have never used one; I read somewhere on-line that there are some "waypoints" that are downloadable to the GPS and would come in handy to "keep the right track", as the trail is most of the time missing.

      The plan is to go down there all alone, just like you did, and of course, way before it turns in a "new" Torres del Paine (don't get me wrong: I LOVE Torres del Paine, but I hate the fact that is too crowded!!!!)..

      Dropping off more questions later on.... thank you so much!!!

    3. Hi Patricio! So sorry for the slow response, somehow I missed seeing this comment until now.

      It is absolutely possible to start the circuit the same day you land. The first day is pretty short, you really only need 3-4 hours to get to camp. Make sure to check in with the Caribineros before you take off though. Shopping options in PW are limited. The best place to find backpacking snacks, dehydrated-type foods, and stuff like vacuum-packed tuna is the camping supply shop across the street from the municipal center. Fresh fruit and veggies are really hit-or-miss, but unless you are coming from Chile (via Punta Arenas), you can't take food across the border anyhow... I survived on a week's worth of spaghetti, bread, and pate spreads.

      Depending on the season, it isn't strictly necessary to have a GPS device for the Dientes circuit, especially if you are confident in your wayfinding and map-reading abilities. In the summer, the waymarkers should be fairly clear. If there is snow, however, that's a different story, and a GPS can help a lot. Also in the boggy/beavery areas, having a GPS to point you in the right direction can be a godsend. I'd definitely recommend it for Lago Windhond because the beavers felled most of the markers. I just used my android cell phone with GPS (with spare batteries packed) and a topographic map app. The weather can get crazy and thick fog or blizzards can make it impossible to find the next marker, but a GPS won't help you much there either--I was only ever able to get a GPS signal when the skies were fairly clear. Do pick up a good topo map, you can buy them at the camping shop mentioned above. The shop owner can also give good advice about trail conditions, etc., and he may rent GPS units.

      Isla Navarino is amazing, and the solitude is truly a special experience, one of the most memorable and influential experiences of my life. There is a lot of beautiful terrain there, and if you're up to it, a lot of even less-marked "trail" (more like general directions) for exploring the island. If you do opt to go off-trail, a GPS would be wise. Renting a satellite phone is an additional safety measure to consider.

      I hope you have a wonderful time there! Say hi to the island for me! And feel free to ask more questions if you have any!