Christmas day 1991
Light misty rain continued. Rain had become a regular feature by now, rain for the past 11 days and it would continue, more on than off for the next month. The glacier stretched out at the end of the fiord, bright, stark against the heavy lead coloured sky, the dark water and surrounding mountains. It’s halo of reflected light beaming strongly through the thick weather.
We had found a camp easily the night before. It had been a pleasure to come across a site so simply after the constant hassles we had been having to find suitable places to pass the nights. This morning Angus had pulled out a thick chocolate Christmas cake that he had by some miracle of physics managed to hide packed below his deck. I had known nothing about it; if I had on the day we stuffed two months food beneath our decks, I probably would have insisted that we eat it then, as I couldn’t have justified the weight. But now I was so thankful for the secret Angus had kept.
The fiord’s dark still inky surface parted smoothly beneath our bows. Our boats are empty and they feel so light, easy and pleasant. We had left a base camp on a small island in the fiord where we will return tonight.
We reach the first ice berg, a little cautious first we just circled it and kept a distance but the excitement of this new spectacle is too much and soon we are running our hands over it’s glistening cold surface and Angus paddles between it’s pillars while I take pictures.
We paddle on. There are more and more bergs, the older one are polished by the rain like massive gem stones. We reach the snout of the glacier and cautiously pick our way through the pack ice. The skin of my folding kayak is much more durable than Angus’s, so I bulldoze floaters aside and propel off them with my paddle. Angus is more cautious, his thin nylon hull could be cut by the irregular edges of the floating ice and of course the water is fatally cold.
We continue towards the glacier snout. It towers over 50 metres above the water. Blocks of ice the size of mini-vans regularly peel off from the walls and crash into the water below, and still the granite walls of the peaks and ice dramatically amplify their impact. We know that we shouldn’t get so close but this incredible place, so wild and new beyond our imaginations mesmerises us and we can’t keep ourselves from manoeuvring our boats just that bit closer.
I land on a granite slope, drag up my empty boat and climb to get a good vantage point to take pictures looking down on Angus paddling in the ice below. He nears the snout, the compressed ice at it’s very base is an unbelievable deep blue colour. I quickly click through a roll, sometimes you know through the view finder that a shot will be great. This is one of those moments. Angus pulls up next to a berg the area of a back yard pool. Carefully he tests his weight on it, then slides out of his boat and stands on it. Nothing moves and he walks excitedly about, I can hear the ice crunching beneath the soles of his rubber gum boots.
I put my boat back in the water and when I join him he is also back in his boat and we paddle towards the ice walls. Waterfalls of ice water pour out of it’s sides and tall precarious sculptures tower at alarming angles. We pass close, both nervous and engrossed not saying a word, enthralled at the majesty of this place. We turn away from the wall and head back out towards the pack ice. We are forty metres away when a loud crack rings out behind us. We turn to see a block of ice the size of a house crash down. The sound of the impact hangs in the air. The tallest tower moves. Slowly this chunk of compacted water-ice the volume of a house topples and collides into the water with an awesome force. It explodes and rains ice blocks the volume of bowling balls about us. I scream ‘WATCHOUT!’ . Maybe Angus does too but we both hear nothing over the calamity of tonnes of ancient ice tearing apart.
Ice bowling balls rain down about us. One plonks down between us. Miraculously neither of us is hit. A wave rises up from the displaced water and we both turn so that we meet it head on. We bob over it’s crest easily and the waves continue unabated out to the pack ice where it clacks the floats together as if they were applauding the show.
We are both grinning with the adrenalin of a narrow escape and the zeal of a ring side seat to witness such an event. We paddle quickly heading away from the ice cliffs.
Falling ice had a fair impact on the historical circumstances of Chile’s coast. Magellan in the 17th century had for months made a southerly course through the straits that bear his name and separate Tierra del Fuego and South America. He decided to set about and steer north when he heard what he presumed was surf on a near shore. He was convinced the sound signified an open coast and that he had reached a new ocean. Had he not turn then he would have continued into a hapless dead-end maze of islands, canals and fiords that may well have destroyed the voyage wasted ships. As it was he made way through to the Pacific. Where he heard surf, there is no open shore for hundreds of km. What Magellan must have heard was the rumbling of ice into water from off the steep walls of Mt Sarmiento.
Two hundred years later a young Charles Darwin rescued the party’s long boat from being dashed on the rocks by a wave sent up by falling ice. If not, the bones of the world’s most celebrated naturalist may still remain in the ancient bogs. So grateful was Cpt. Fitzroy to Darwin that he named Tierra del Fuego’s principal mountain after him.
Some one hundred years later an incredible event in my personal history as our own curiosity is nearly our own demise by falling ice. Over the next three months we came upon many more glaciers. All were incredible, dramatic and beautiful. But we avoided repeating this experience. Satisfied with our luck on Christmas day in Fiord Tempano we chose not to push our luck with falling ice again.
The Straits of Magellan, March 1992
The weather has been bad for sometime and we have been cautious to hold a course close to the coast. To the left the last piece of South American continent is visible through the rain of a thinning squall, ahead is the island of Tierra del Fuego, Land of Fire. Seems an ironic name for a place of wind and ice. The country before us is a bleak place, kilometres of steep bare granite, but it is infinitely beautiful in its harsh rawness.
The wind has dropped and to cross a bay we have drifted off shore a way. The water is a mirror. We must be in a thick of krill because there is a concentration of Penguins and other sea birds. Albatross wheel supremely over head and a 10 meter Southern Right Whale is cruising gently among the birds. Each time it surfaces it barely makes a ripple. It emerges less than 5 metres from Angus and it’s blow hole sounds a tubular note like a church organ.
A shaft of sun projected through a break in the cloud sweeps the steely granite. A bunch of Fur Seals is frolicking on their backs enjoying the afternoon calm. They must be an incredibly social animal, gathered in a circle floating; they seem engrossed in conversation. One casually turns his head and spies us paddling by. I can see him saying to the others, “Hey check this out !”.
The others all stop and crane their necks to see us, then they dart at speed swimming straight for us. They leap out of the water, their fins tucked sleekly against their glistening, shiny, wet fur. They quickly reach us and swim rapidly about the boats. They are cheeky but cautious too. Stretching their necks, sculling to get their heads as far as they can above the water for a better look, but if you catch their eye they quickly duck beneath the deep, dark water and surface at your back.
A ripple of wind disturbs the surface, not far on our right over to the west a squall is racing out a deep valley headed this way. In literally moments the sea has transformed from a mirror to a mash. White caps bristle in the stout breeze, the birds, seals and whale have all disappeared. The sea that had just a minute before been so benevolent is now a torment of freezing waves that break over the bow and fill my eyes with stinging salt. We push back towards shore.