At the very tip of the world lies an island rich in history where steep ice-clad mountains rise from the sea. Guanaco & foxes roam on land while sealions, elephant seals, penguins and whales feed in the oceans. Glaciers carve house-sized chunks of blue ice into the water with a loud growl. The wind can pick up in minutes and strong gusts descend from the valleys “in a roar of shaken trees and whistling whirlwind on rock”. The exposed east coast has a tidal range of up to 10 metres while 8 knot currents kick up waves several metres high in the narrow channels on the north of the island.
“La Isla Grande” – the big island of “Tierra Del Fuego” lies at the very tip of South America, less than 100 miles north of Cape Horn. It has a rugged coastline of approximately 1,000 miles. The eastern part of the island belongs to Argentina and is mostly exposed and committing. The western part belongs to Chile and most of the paddling is in narrow and beautiful canals with steep mountains on both sides. All areas can be extremely windy!
The narrow gap between mainland South America and ‘Isla Grande’ is historically very important as it was the first passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean to be discovered, shortening the time required to get to Asia for trading. Magellan made the discovery in 1570 and the ‘Magellan Strait’ now bears his name. During this journey, he saw many fires lit by native people and he decided to call the island “Tierra del fuego”, the land of fire.
Over the next few centuries, the Magellan Strait became strategically important and many expeditions were sent from Europe to try to map the area and control the passage. The climate and weather proved too harsh for most and thousands of people died. In contrast, 4 native tribes thrived in the area for 10,000 years, wearing no more than elaborate paint and a fur hat to protect them from the cold. The Yagan tribe paddled their flimsy Beech bark canoes along the coast and out as far as the treacherous islands of Cape Horn. Unfortunately these strong people were practically wiped out by contact with Europeans.
In January & February 2011, Barry Shaw & Justine Curgenven attempted to honor the Yagan spirit and kayak around Tierra del Fuego. We started in Punta Arenas in Chile, and started kayaking clockwise around the island. Before we set off we had to prove to the Chilean and Argentinian navys that we had the right experience and equipment for the journey.
As far as we know, no-one has circumnavigated ‘La Isla Grande’ yet. In 2010 Marcus Demuth and Biff Wruszek had to call off an attempt when they were weatherbound near the SE tip for 12 days. Read about their trip here.
In 2011, we made it almost a third of the way around Isla Grande to close to Rio Grande. Barry suffered from tendonitis which ultimately led us to stop the circumnavigation before we headed into a remote, roadless area. We returned in January 2012 and successfully kayaked around the remaining coastline of Tierra del Fuego. We paddled clockwise from Rio Grande to Ushuaia in 13 days. We then paddled anti-clocwise from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia in 17 days – with no rest days! So the entire circumnavigation took 38 paddling days.
The film of the trip will be featured in “This is the Sea 5″, due out in March 2013.
Where: La Isla Grande, Tierra Del Fuego
Aim: To kayak 1,000 miles around the island clockwise from Punta Arenas, Chile
Who: Justine Curgenven & Barry Shaw
When: Jan – March 2011 & 2012
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