With its labyrinth of rocky islands, serpentine channels and icy fjords, western Patagonia, in southern Chile, is one of the least-explored areas on earth, with annual rainfall reaching up to eight metres and winds frequently rising to hurricane force. Nestled among glaciers that hug the slopes of steep Andean peaks and drenched by storms that blow out of the southern Pacific, the harsh region deters all but the hardiest explorers.
That has not stopped Cristian Donoso, a young Chilean lawyer who over the past 14 years has ventured almost 40 times into the region’s most inaccessible corners. Just like the indigenous peoples who paddled their fragile canoes here for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, he often travels in a sea kayak, a shallow craft that allows him to manoeuvre around the narrowest fjords and discover their hidden beauty.
"In order to strengthen the protection of this territory, we have got to know what’s there," says Donoso, who reports that today most Chileans have little knowledge of it. Along with team member Richard Vercoe, a naturalist from the United States who has documented the impact of economic activities on Chile’s environment, he warns that such ignorance makes it easier for those seeking commercial gain to exploit the region’s natural resources — seafood, water, virgin forests — with little respect for its biodiversity. Selected as an Associate Laureate for his fearless commitment to exploration and for his plan to gather vital new knowledge of western Patagonia, Cristian Donoso believes that his next major expedition will ensure greater public awareness of the region.
Facing Severe Challenges
Detailed plans for the odyssey include locations to camp each night and a system, designed by Donoso, that will allow the team to sleep suspended from the cliffs rising out of the frigid waters when no suitable campsite is available. The explorers will bring their own food, but supplies will be replenished twice by a boat from Puerto Edén, a small indigenous village where the Chilean Navy maintains a base. The trip will place great demands on the kayakers, who have begun an intensive physical and nutritional training programme and are making three-week training runs into the region.
The team will carry sophisticated first-aid equipment. In case of a serious accident or illness, the supply boat can come to their rescue — though during much of the trip it would take three days to reach them. To enhance understanding of the region’s geological past, soil and rock samples will be collected, shipped out on the supply boat and analysed by university scientists. The explorers will also collect fossils and inspect geological evidence, including stalagmites in caves on Madre de Dios Island, showing how the climate has changed over time. The team’s scientific investigator, Chilean geologist Rodrigo Fernández, participated in a landmark expedition in 2000 to Madre de Dios for which the leader, Jean-François Pernette, won a Rolex Award in 1998.
Illuminating the Past
Scholars of the region’s human history eagerly await the expedition’s reports on the remains of fishing and hunting camps that belonged to the Kaweskars, who travelled the region for more than 4,000 years. Team member Kai Salas, a French archaeologist, will carefully document and site the settlements using GPS units.
A famous incident, the 1741 sinking of the English frigate Wager on the north coast of the Guayaneco Archipelago, will come alive again when the explorers dive into the sea to seek the wreck’s exact location. They will then seek to trace the route narrated in the journal of John Byron, who survived the shipwreck thanks to assistance from two indigenous groups who spirited him and three other survivors through the treacherous waters in their canoes.
Throughout the journey, a website will track the expedition’s progress, with the explorers providing updates by satellite phone. One team member will produce a documentary video for broadcast on television in Chile in 2008.
A Protector of Patagonia
According to team member Mariela González, a professor of physical education at the University of Concepción and a skilled kayaker, Donoso’s comprehensive vision of Patagonia helped convince her to join the group. "He has a deep commitment to showing Patagonia from a wide perspective, combining the different worlds of science, sport, history, photography, ecology and interviews to tell the stories of people who live there," she says. "With profound respect for the significance of navigating through such pristine areas, he wants to know these areas, love them, and, by publicizing their millennia of history, preserve them for many more millennia."
Published in 2006