By Leo Polk and Christina Iwanski
Three days after arriving in Chile Chico and getting acquainted with Chilean culture and prepping for our expedition through Parque Patagonia, our group of 10 set off on an unbelievable bumpy road circumnavigating a seemingly endless lake. Our minds had plenty of time to build up a healthy level of nerves and anticipation. Questions like “how will we survive 20 days in the notoriously bad Patagonian weather? Can we do without showers, refrigerators, or tearing each other apart?” swirled around everyone’s minds.
Our worries disappeared as we stepped down a cobblestone trail to our first campsite at the star of the the trail through the Aviles valley. Artfully designed shelters dotted a valley resembling something from The Sound of Music. This glamping experience didn’t last long – we left the comforts of the trailhead the next morning to begin our epic journey.
The first day of hiking left every one of our jaws wide open. At every twist and turn, we were met with cascading waterfalls and glacial valleys. The peaks at our sides were jagged and topped with snow. We also were able to enjoy the most defined trail we’d see for our entire 20 days. Things like bridges and cut branches turned into a luxury quickly. We met our first dose of Patagonia weather on day 3. The rain quickly turned to sideways hail and we were lucky enough to find refuge in an old gaucho puesto. We felt grateful that the weather was kind enough to hit while we had shelter.
The next day, we encountered our first of many river crossings. Once through a long and cold crossing, we made camp for two nights to explore a side valley that led to Lago Escondito, a pristine glacial lake. Many of us saw our first glacier here. When we got back to camp, we hiked up the valley a little and watched the sunset.
Once we arrived to the top of the Aviles Valley, we began our journey to several backcountry huts where we planned to do service. On the trail, we were passed by two Chilenos moving quite fast. One called back, “we’ll start water and a fire for you.” The Chilenos were Andrès and Miguel. They would guide us in the huts and teach us about their work in Parque Patagonia. The prospect of warmth and hot drinks drove us the rest of the way to the hut. We were met with a huge deep-blue lake fed by an epic glacial waterfall. There on the side of the lake, nestled in the woods, was our first hut.
At the hut, we all enjoyed the hospitality of Andrès and Miguel. They gave everyone some wild mushrooms they picked on the trail. They also told us that the wood stove would heat water for showers! We all cheered as we had two minute showers under scolding hot water from a stream by the hut. Waking feeling refreshed and energized, we spent the day collecting huge bags of moss and stuffing them in the cracks in the hut walls. We sang and danced as we worked and marveled at how the hut transformed. We had created something reminiscent of a hobbit home. When we went inside, we felt instantly warmer as a result of our moss insulation.
Once we completed this project, we hiked with Andrès and Miguel to the second hut. We all rushed to stay in the front to hear Andrès’ wide knowledge of the edible flora in Patagonia. We also learned a lot about navigation by following gaucho trails through thick lenga forests and snow. At the second hut, we built stairs and campsites by the hut in between dips in the glacial river. At the same time, we waited for our re-ration of food, which was to come in by gauchos on horseback. The re-ration was scheduled for November 22 but never arrived! As time passed, we became increasingly hungry and worried. By the 23rd, we began to realize that we may be needing a Thanksgiving miracle. We created contingency plans if the re-ration didn’t come and found ways to distract ourselves until we finally heard cheers from across the river. In a very dis-organized, hungry crazed fashion, we gathered our food, thanked the gauchos and began preparing our feast. We prepared baked cheesy mac, buttery mashed potatoes, stew, and piping hot apple crisp. We all shared stories and traditions and gave thanks to all the parts of our lives we missed. We all agreed it was one of the most memorable Thanksgivings any of us had ever had.
After a good night’s sleep, fueled by the food in our bellies from our feast, we awoke and got ready for our long hike back to the first hut. In preparation for our self lead expedition, our instructors decided it would be a good idea to let us students take the reigns for navigating and route finding. We were all up for the challenge, but it was still intimidating, as we had only gotten through the dense forest once before with the help of our local friends. With timid confidence, we trudged through bushes, fallen trees, muddy ground, streams and slushy snow in attempt to follow the route. It was a fun and tricky day, and we made it back to the first hut in good time. With another luxurious nights in the hut, we left on a very windy morning to head back down the valley. The wind blew with such force it could literally blow someone away if they didn’t have solid footing. With packs on and our sense of adventure heightened, we were all determined to make it to our much anticipated campsite at Lago Verde.
Lago Verde is one of the most unique lakes any of us have ever seen. Its color, ironically, is the bluest of blue—truly an unbelievable sight. We decided to take a layover day at this campsite so that way we could explore our area with a little day hike and maybe have a few classes. On our day hike, we were pleasantly surprised when we stumbled across bunches of mushrooms, and so our scavenging began. The next day we packed up camp and headed towards Lago Jeinimeni, where we luckily found a beautiful campsite above Laguna Esmeralda, another breathtaking little lake. A few of us even decided to take a quick dip in its waters before having class that day, just to cool off from the sun’s powerful rays.
In an effort to do something that had never before been done by HMI, we tried to explore the San Antonio Valley next to Lago Jeinimeni. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful and had to turn around due to an uncrossable river. But luckily, we were close enough to a great campsite on the opposite end of Lago Verde, with a quaint hut next to a pebble beach and sheltered campsites. Here we cooked good food and shared our personal environmental ethics presentations. But our trip wasn’t over— we had yet to get to Lago Jeinimeni! So we had another hiking day to our last campsite, where the water was irresistibly clear and just the right temperature. Sitting at this campsite, we realized how fast everything had gone by, and just how incredible it was to spend three weeks in such a wild place.