It was New Years Day, 1998, and my brother and I were watching our friend Bob fly fishing in the crystal clear waters of the Cholgo River, Northern Patagonia.
The Chiloé archipelago extended westwards whilst the steep, forested walls of continental fjords stretched to the south. As Bob began the delicate dance of trying to land a 29-inch rainbow trout, I murmured my discontent at not being able to explore the wild beauty of mountains, islands and rivers that formed this backdrop. After a moment of silence my brother Graham suggested that we build a boat so that we could "really get in there where folks can’t normally go". I looked at him ready to laugh when I suddenly realised that he wasn’t joking.
An idea became a reality when I moved to Chiloé, a mythology steeped island off the coast of Chile with a centuries-old boat-building tradition. An isolated and neglected region of the country, Chiloé has fertile lands and plentiful seas with an abundance of natural resources. With this in mind we decided to use only the "fruits of the island", both in terms of native wood and local expertise, to build our boat.
A friend of a friend led us to Don Aladino Quidientes, a man who has been building fishing vessels for over 30 years in the tiny hamlet of Linao. Don Aladino has no telephone and an intermittent electricity supply, with barely enough power to operate one drill. I was in awe of the fact that he had built seaworthy vessels, up to 20 meters in length, with almost no electricity.
In May of 1998, Don Aladino and I shook hands on my boat building project. He disappeared off into the dense forests south of his home with a lumberjack to choose a tree tall and strong enough to serve as our 15 metre (50 ft) keel - the backbone of the vessel. For the next 10 months I travelled every day from my home in Ancud, through the rolling pastures of the Chilote countryside, to Don Aladino’s workshop. Through a combination of hard work, skill and application the hull of the vessel quickly took shape. I was amazed by the expertise of his team of carpenters, welders and plumbers - men with no formal training who were accustomed to doing everything by hand. Electricity to operate hand tools was the exception, not the rule.
By mid-January 1999 the project was complete. We held a traditional pit-bake (or curanto) on the beach in Linao to celebrate the construction. A hole was dug in the sand, lined with hot rocks and covered with 60 kilos of fresh clams and another 60 kilos of fresh mussels. Then came the smoked ribs, chicken, sausages and traditional potato pancakes, all topped off by huge nalca leaves to keep in the moisture. People from the community of Linao, the builders and their families, "city folk" from Ancud and a few gringo friends of ours all gathered on the sun-soaked beach with bottles of wine to celebrate.
The traditional Chilote fishing hull of our boat, Cahuella, hid a luxurious, all-wooden interior painstakingly planned and constructed for the comfort of her passengers. Her 15-metre hull houses four double cabins, two bathrooms and a spacious living area. 2.2-metre- high ceilings mean that Cahuella, unlike so many small boats, does not feel cramped.
After nearly a year of continual work we were finally ready to set off and experience the cultural richness of the Chiloé archipelago and the natural beauty of the mainland fjords. Chiloé may be isolated, but the 40 or so satellites of her archipelago are even more cut off from mainland Chile. Each small, forested island was settled in the last 250 years and partially cleared to cultivate the omnipresent Chiloé potato, as well as a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables. Hearty cattle graze the open fields of green and have made the area famous for its milk, yoghurt and cheese.
Cahuella drops anchor in protected island bays and we go ashore on her zodiac inflatable raft, visiting some of the area’s 150 wooden churches constructed over the last two centuries. Traditional curantos are arranged with local families after we’ve visited their farms to taste homemade jams, cheeses and butter, or sample some chicha de manzana (cider) that keeps them warm throughout the chilly winter.
Most families live in large wooden farmhouses covered in traditional shingles. They will normally have their farm out back and their fishing boat anchored out front. Some members work the land whilst others fish in waters fed by the nutrient rich Humboldt Current. The Humboldt also nourishes the two species of penguin that we regularly observe and the dolphins that sometimes play in the wake of Cahuella. Families and communities frequently gather for outdoor parties during the warm summer months. Copious amounts of seafood, potatoes, wine and chicha are shared. Music fills the air and an occasional cueca (traditional Chilean dance) brings people to their feet.
Several hours’ sailing across the Gulf of Ancud stand the massive green walls of the Northern Patagonian fjords. Hidden deep in the temperate rainforest are 3500 year-old Alerces - the second oldest tree in the world. In order to protect this majestic 50 metre tree from extinction, American conservationist Douglas Tompkins quietly purchased 243,000 hectares of land in 1997 establishing South America’s newest park. This controversial area effectively splits Chile in half, covering 60 kilometres of coastline, rising from the Pacific Ocean and extending eastwards to the Argentinian border at the top of the Andes.
Only the southern corner of the park is accessible by road from the Patagonian city of Chaitén. The other 90%, which includes sea lion colonies, natural hot springs bubbling out of the beach, countless species of birds, glacier topped peaks and dense temperate forest, can be visited only by sea. This is the area that I gazed at that fateful New Year’s Day of 1998; and this is where today, Cahuella allows visitors to experience the unique cultural and natural beauty of Patagonia and "really get in there where folks can’t normally go".