Feature: Nomads in No-Man's-Land
Osvaldo Anwandter—30ish, tanned, fit, and wearing fishing waders—voices a lament familiar to fishermen the world over. “Sometimes they bite,” says the expedition manager for the Chilean Patagonia–based extreme fly-fishing and ecotourism company Nomads of the Seas; “sometimes they don’t.” Seldom do they not bite during a weeklong, 800-mile round-trip cruise along Patagonia’s fjord- and river-rich southern coastline aboard Atmosphere, Nomads’ 150-foot expedition ship. At times, trout and salmon seemingly erupt from the water around the company’s 12-foot-long fishing boats.
Patagonia rainbows, which were introduced to the region in the early 1900s, and which can grow to more than 20 pounds, are the most coveted prizes. However, on this day, on a 5-mile-long lake, the heat of the low-latitude summer sun has driven the fish to the depths. Nomads requests that guests not divulge the name and exact location of this lake, where it leaves four fishing boats on-site, unattended. (The company has a total of 18 cached all over Patagonia.) But protecting the company’s property is only a minor concern. “Very few people can get up here anyway, and unless someone has a helicopter, they’d have to carry them [the boats] out,” explains Anwandter. “We want to make sure the fishing remains exclusively for our clients.”
For my companions and me, access to the lake—which is set within Pumalín, the world’s largest private park—came via a 40-minute flight in Nomads’ six-passenger Bell 407 helicopter, which embarked from the landing pad at the rear of Atmosphere’s fourth deck. The copter darted through the narrow Comau Fjord (about a hundred miles south of Puerto Montt, Chile) and wound its way east through the mountains of the coastal cordillera. It passed close to the stratovolcano Orsono, which, from the deck of HMS Beagle in 1835, Charles Darwin watched during a nighttime eruption. “By the aid of a glass,” he wrote, “dark objects, in constant succession, were seen, in the midst of a great glare of red light, to be thrown up and to fall down.” Even when the volcano is dormant, as it has been since 1920, Orsono’s jutting, snow-covered cone presents a dramatic spectacle.
After heading high into the Andes, the helicopter landed near the water’s edge on a mile-long stretch of Magellanic moorland. Its rocky ground supports a population of dwarf shrubs and, thanks to the windbreak provided by the surrounding mountains, stands of southern beech. The family raising cattle and goats at the far end of the valley can reach the nearest village only after completing a daylong horse ride.
Although three additional boats carry anglers this morning, the size of the lake ensures that we see no one. The water is still enough to reflect sharply the steep green hills covered by conifers, predominantly alerce (a relative—and rival in size and age—of the sequoia), and the snowfields and peaks of the Andes.
Anwandter tries every trick in his repertoire to lure the trout out of their cool hideouts, providing us with a succession of wet flies and dry flies and several types of nymphs. Eventually we concede defeat by letting out all the line in our reels and trolling the full length of the lake. Stretched out in the boat with our feet hanging over the gunwales, we enjoy the sun and the view. High above us, large birds (possibly condors, but too distant to identify conclusively) trace lazy circles in the sky as I scan the hills, looking for the pumas that are said to live there.
After landing the boat on a beach of glacier-smoothed rocks, we join a small group of fellow expedition members for a lunch of barbecued chicken served with pastel de choclo, a native Chilean corn cake. The meal was prepared by Atmosphere’s chef, Sixto Bravo, who has flown out from the yacht for the occasion.
Following lunch, Anwandter and I try our luck again on the lake. As the afternoon sun falls behind the mountains and the water cools, the fish become active, and before long we both have a pair of brook trout. Their red spots appear iridescent in the water when we release them.
Back on shore, as we sip pisco sours, the Chilean national drink made from a local brandy, the helicopter appears out of the sunlight, dipping below the mountain ridgeline on its way in for a landing. It is time to resume our wanderings.
Chilean Patagonia, a long, narrow mass of mountainous land squeezed between three tectonic plates—the Nazca, South American, and Antarctic—remains essentially as Darwin described it: “the uttermost part of the earth.” Visit Patagonia, and it becomes obvious why medieval maps of the region show mythical creatures standing athwart the Andes, and why Arthur Conan Doyle selected this as the site of The Lost World. The topography can be staggering. The mainland is a maze of bays, inlets, fjords, and coastal mountains. Hidden inland valleys lie beneath the cones of volcanoes, some active, and the vast glaciers that mark the beginning of the Andes.
The coastal mountains contain one of the planet’s few remaining temperate rain forests. The forest, which receives heavy winter rains courtesy of the Humboldt Current, is so dense that several countries’ militaries conduct survival practice amid its flora. The locals call it cold jungle.
Off the coast is a chain of islands in waters that are home to half the world’s cetacean species—11 types of whales, plus dolphins and porpoises—and an incalculable number of bird species. One of the northernmost of these islands is the 100-mile-long Isla Grande de Chiloé, which contains several fishing ports and enough arable land to support a thriving potato industry. Darwin traveled between towns here in a periagua, a type of native canoe, and complained, as he often did, of the natives. “The stroke-oarsman gabbled Indian, and uttered strange cries, much after the fashion of a pig-driver driving his pigs,” he wrote.
Directly south of the island, the waters of the Golfo Corcovado are largely open to the Pacific. They can, when the winds are blowing from the west, provide rough going—even for the usually smooth-sailing Atmosphere, which displaces 700 tons and is equipped with a state-of-the-art, four-fin stabilizer system. Passage through the gulf on an evening when the wind whipped up substantial whitecaps, and Chilean dolphins rode the ship’s bow wake at 20 knots, sent many passengers, and even a few crew members, to their staterooms.
In the far south, the Chonos and Guaitecas Archipelagos present a delirium of islands with mountains rising as high as 9,000 feet. The large footprints of indigenous nomadic hunters, the now-extinct Aónikenk, prompted Magellan, who explored here in 1520, to name the land Patagon. The name derives either directly from the Spanish word pata, which means foot, or it is a reference to the giant Pathagon (big foot) from the early-16th-century Spanish novel Primaléon. Today, the islands’ only signs of human habitation are the occasional salmon farm (with an attached house on stilts) and fishing trawler. Visiting here offers a true sense of entering terra incognita, but Nomads is quite familiar with this region of the world.
Atmosphere, which has a range of 6,900 miles, departs from Nomads’ headquarters in Puerto Montt (a 90-minute flight south from Santiago) and travels 400 miles south to the base of the Peninsula de Taitao and back.
The yacht accommodates 28 anglers and ecotourists in spacious staterooms and is manned by a crew of 32. The common area is a 60-foot-long combination dining room, lounge, and bar with floor-to-ceiling wraparound windows. On the top deck, a sauna, a treatment room for massages, an outdoor whirlpool, and a thalassotherapy pool, which takes water directly from the ocean, are available to soothe arms sore from casting or legs tired from trekking.
Dinners begin precisely at 8:30 every night and feature Chilean dishes such as salmon with an orange sauce. Rabbit, wrapped in laurel leaves and slow-cooked in white wine, a traditional Chilean dish, is served with Chilotes potatoes and a Chilean grain from the Altiplano called quinoa. All meals are paired with fine Chilean wines. An evening concludes with a slide show featuring highlights of the day’s events and a lecture on the habits of trout, local volcanism, or any number of other relevant subjects.
The yacht serves as a mobile base of operations for the helicopter, which gives fishermen, bird-watchers, and trekkers access to locations high in the Andes or on the tops of weathered sea mounts, columns of rocks that look like mesas dotting the bays. For fishing excursions, the helicopter ferries guides, anglers, and equipment—the latter held in a large net attached to the craft’s underside—to lakes and rivers far inland.
Pilot Francisco Esquivel, who served in the Chilean air force for 11 years and says he has been a helicopter chauffeur for Chilean presidents, believes he has the best job in the country. “The most fun is the environment we fly in. The places are so beautiful and wild,” says Esquivel, a tall, strapping native of Santiago, whose musical taste tends toward 1980s metal rock; he often prepares his passengers for bumpy rides with recordings of Guns N’ Roses.
The Bell 407, which has a top speed of 156 mph and a range of 437 miles, is fully equipped for the challenges the Patagonian climate presents. “The weather can be difficult,” says Esquivel. “Wind, rain, and very poor visibility make Instrument Flight Rules flying almost a daily occurrence.” However, he enjoys the challenge of flying in the wilderness. “It is so strange for me to fly into an airport now,” says Esquivel, who spends the off-season piloting the helicopter of Nomads’ president and founder, Andrés Ergas. “The controllers give me the wind speed and direction, the temperature. I much prefer this.”
In addition to the helicopter, Atmosphere has six 23-foot-long jet boats, custom-made by Rogue Jet Boatworks of Oregon, that navigate the shallow and often perilous entrances to Patagonia’s glacier-fed rivers, delivering anglers far upstream, where trout and salmon hunt food. Atmosphere also has a Zodiac Hurricane 920 RIB, a rigid inflatable boat employed by Navy SEALs, Coast Guardsmen, and, on a Nomads journey, whale-watchers—or more precisely, whale-listeners.
At 63 mph, the Zodiac skims the wave crests during a bone-rattling ride to a spot 10 miles offshore. The ocean is calmer here. Reflecting the sky, the water is an oily gray, spotted with bright white riffles.
The Zodiac’s passengers include Professor Gian Paolo Sanino-Vattier, Nomads’ wildlife and research manager. Sanino-Vattier, who—appropriately, given his fondness for electronic gear—answers to the sobriquet GPS, lowers a microphone to a depth of 150 feet. Donning headphones, we listen to the swooshing of waves and underwater currents, and the percussion of raindrops from a quickly passing shower. And then we hear a faint but steady clicking noise. Everyone in the RIB—the professor, his two assistants (both marine biologists), and the four passengers—exchanges wide-eyed glances. After a few minutes it becomes clear that the clicking is coming from two different sources. Sanino-Vattier grins as he removes his headphones and pronounces a preliminary verdict. “I think that’s two sperm whales keeping track of each other’s location,” he says. “But we’ll have to run it through the software back on the ship to be sure.”
His explanation engenders a degree of alarm. Below us swims the species that devours giant squids and was the subject of a novel titled Moby Dick, which, incidentally, Melville based on a real incident involving a sperm whale and the Nantucket whaling ship that it rammed and sank in these very waters. For us, however, the only drama is the appearance of a black-browed albatross, the protagonist of yet another disastrous, though possibly apocryphal, sea voyage.
The tracking of sperm whale movements is not just an entertaining diversion for Sanino-Vattier. He teaches marine biology at the University of Santiago and is a leading figure in the field of conservation biology. He jumped at the chance to work with Nomads. “It is an opportunity to get people directly involved in primary research,” he says. “All observations, whether they are made by us or guests, are recorded. Eventually, they will be incorporated into articles and published in the scientific literature.” Because the area is so remote, Patagonia’s whales and birds are, Sanino-Vattier says, “among the least well understood in the world. Populations and their ranges are not well known.”
On the way back to Atmosphere, we spot a soaring spout a full two miles away. Although the excitement is palpable, all hands resist the urge to shout, “Thar she blows!” Sanino-Vattier immediately identifies the creature as a blue whale, the planet’s largest animal ever. Blue whales, which feed on zooplankton, can grow 108 feet long and weigh 120 tons.
The professor, at the RIB’s helm, approaches slowly, traveling in the same direction as the whale, but slightly faster. (A blue whale can reach 11 mph.) “We need to respect the animal’s space,” explains Sanino-Vattier. Our presence does not seem to bother the whale; it goes on with its feeding.
With the mainland’s volcano Melimoyu as a backdrop, the whale’s mottled gray body continues to rise in and out of the waves. Nomads may lay claim to a lake hidden among the mountains, but this portion of the Pacific belongs to the whale.
Nomads of the Seas, +56.2.414.4600, www.nomadsoftheseas.com