MY CHEEKS STING. I MEAN THE SLAPPED – IN – THE – FACE – WITH – A – SHOVEL KIND OF sting. Icy waves are breaking over the front of the kayak. Headwinds at 15 knots push against the three of us as we labor through the Beagle Channel between Argentina and Chile. It seemed like a fun idea to kayak to islands that few people have seen. But then our guide, the supremely fit Dany Urizza, told my husband, Douglas, to sit in the middle and me to sit in the front. And now I’m being pummeled. The winds are so strong that I can’t hear Dany shouting from the back. “What?” I yell. Behind me, Douglas shouts, “Aggressive leopard seals! Paddle harder!”
To a leopard seal, I’d be vac-packed chorizo. I’m swaddled in a wetsuit, neoprene hand protectors and booties, balaclava, fleece and a waterproof skirt. On top of all that are foulweather gear and a life jacket. And I need every bit of it as we claw our way toward a lofty island view that promises to be like none other. Lunch will be served there. How nice.
Dany? Our rugged rock of a local guide? Can’t see him. Can’t even hear him. I’m thinking he’s sitting back in the rumble seat, licking a lollipop. All while buckets of glacial seawater are hitting the little woman up front, flush in the jaw.
“I’m not sure why those seals are so far north,” Dany shouts.
“They’re Antarctic carnivores.” Meat eaters. How comforting.
I have no idea how close they are. But the thought of them sniffing around us has me worshiping the kayak. It, and the strength of our trio, are the only things keeping me from i) full submersion in 30-something-degree water and 2) becoming a leopard-seal treat. Pushing through thick bull kelp, my muscles on fire, we gain on the Beagle, pull by pull. The seconds pass as slow as minutes. The same thoughts go through my mind over and over: Somewhere ahead is an uninhabited archipelago of tortured little islands. This is the region that Douglas and I had read about and talked about seeing with our own eyes for years. Getting there would be half the fun. Here we are, getting there What were we thinking? This goes on for more than two hours.
And then, through watery eyes, I’m pretty sure I see something other than whitecaps ahead. I can make out green hills covered in calafate bushes. This has to be how explorers felt centuries ago when they came upon colorful islands deep in the cold seas. Skuas fly overhead – a good sign since they nest on the ground. And – thank you, Jesus – the beach.
T he strokes come more easily, and the kayak glides into the island’s lee. Everything becomes calm as we drift up to the beach.
“So, this is ‘summer’ in Patagonia,” Douglas says, extracting himself from his foxhole in the middle of the kayak.
“El fin del mundo,” Dany says. “Welcome to the end of the Earth.” We haul up onto the beach and tie the kayak to an unidentifiable metal structure. It’s massive and mangled. The Beagle must have coughed it up during some weather calamity.
“Hey guys, here’s an idea,” I declare, unloading dry bags. “When we start back for home later, I’ll sit in back.”
“Those leopard seals attack the back of kayaks,” Dany says.
That’s the thing about Patagonia. The scale of everything is enormous.
The life-and-death explanations, the robust wildlife, the breathtaking panoramas of ice meeting mountain. Life is writ large here. Yesterday I saw a hare the size of a toddler. Today, I ‘m looking at the same horned peaks and great ice fields that Magellan saw in the 1500s, and standing at the top of an island that Darwin must have sailed past on HMS Beagle in 1833. I drop the paddle with a thud. I’m never leaving.
We hike to the top of the island, past a grove of trees growing sideways in the unrelenting wind. In the distance we see our payoff, the Chilean island of Navarino. Glaciers are clawing down its clefts, bursting with waterfalls, like the whole place is springing leaks.
Ducking behind some rocks, we stretch out and thaw in the sun. There are no leopard seals. I peel o f f a couple of layers of clothes. If there was any doubt about how cagey Dany is, that doubt disappears when he reaches in his dry bag and pulls out polenta, tomatoes, onions and ham, which he chops and sauces over a magically produced propane camping stove. It’s clear that he’s a product of this environment – hard and fearless and prepared for anything. We talk about his marathon-running wife, three teenage daughters, the five-week kayak travel adventure he just finished from Ushuaia south to Chile – around Cape Horn!
We heat water for mat. Argentines share the herb tea from a traditional gourd cup. They drink it day and night, at home and at work, on buses and in cars, inside and outside. Everywhere.
“Even here,” Dany says, honoring us by drinking the first, bitterest sips. He refills the gourd and hands it to me Refills it and passes it to Douglas. We’re warm from new friendship, and from a tea that symbolizes national connection.
“Today is such a gift, weather-wise,” Dany says, leaning back. Not my exact thoughts an hour ago, but he’s right. The Beagle wrestled with us, sure, but allowed us a scene so stunning that, for a few precious moments anyway, I’ve forgotten about hungry leopard seals and having to paddle back home.