Location: Patagonia, Chile
Distance: 46 km
Camping: Wild camping
People seen: None
Guidebook: Trekking in the Patagonian Andes
The 3 or 4 day trek to Lago Windhond on the south of Isla Navarino is not as popular as the more famous Dientes de Navarino Circuit, but the Patagonian scenery is just as beautiful, the weather just as unpredictable, and the challenge, perhaps, more rewarding. Few people walk this trail to the south of the island and even fewer go beyond to the very end of Isla Navarino.
Now, after failing to reach the Windhond trail from the Dientes Circuit a few days before due to dangerous snow conditions, my plan was to reach the lake via the Rio Ukika valley and, if time permitted, walk around the eastern edge of the lake to truly reach the southern end of Isla Navarino. Beyond that point Cape Horn is the only land before Antarctica.
The very helpful lady in the Puerto Williams tourist office assured me that there was something resembling a path around the lake and was very excited at the prospect of me walking it – a nice contrast to tourist offices in many other places who seem to discourage people from exploring, especially solo, no matter what their experience level. Time was tight however, as my boat back to Ushuaia departed in only 4 days.
So, the day after I returned from the Dientes Circuit I visited the Carabineros to inform them of my return and my imminent departure, visited the supermarket to stock up, and tried to ascertain how to reach the trail head. As it turned out, this was one of the hardest parts of the journey – the tourist office lady and the map hinted at a shortcut, but I only found a gravel road that stopped abruptly in the woods. Rather than get lost on day 1, I went the long way road, following Navarino’s coastal road for a short while, then climbing up and turning south towards the municipal garbage dump. Following this dirt road past the entrance to some land owned by the Chilean Navy (the exit point for the shortcut?), I was soon on the path, which was well worn and clear. The Windhond trail is marked in the same way as the Dientes Circuit, with painted markers on trees and other objects. Like the Dientes Circuit though, the tree markers on the lower lying parts of the trail have often suffered from beaver damage.
For the first half of the day the Windhond trail follows the Ukika valley, gradually climbing to its head, passing several pretty lakes which are the source of the Rio Ukika, and offering magnificent views of the backs of the mountains I walked along only a few days before on the Dientes Circuit. Ahead, the Dientes de Navarino slowly come into view – and to be honest, the views of the mountains were better than those from the Dientes Circuit. The weather was even clear enough that I could see up a side valley towards Laguna del Paso, which was almost completely frozen when I crossed it the previous week. Strange to think that I was so close to the Dientes circuit, but separated by impassible mountains.
After passing a few lakes (unnamed on the maps) that mark the valley’s head, the trail started to descend again, entering the Windhond valley and following the river as it slowly wound its way towards the Lago Windhond. Compared to the Dientes Circuit there was very little elevation change involved, and after my experience on that circuit I decided not to be too fussy about following the path exactly when the markers disappeared because of beaver damage. Instead, with the valley so narrow I decided just to head in the right general direction and pick up the markers again after the beaver ponds disappeared.
Shortly after the descent into the Windhond valley lies Refugio Beaucheff (marked as ‘Ex-Refugio’ on the map!), one of the few areas I had seen that was suitable for camping. Although I could have walked for a few more hours before dark, I wasn’t sure if I would reach the lake in time, so decided to call it a day here and start out early the next day, which would be essential if I wanted to reach the south coast of the island. The refugio had long since blown down, but there were plenty of sheltered camping spots among the trees and a nice little stream for water (as with all the water Isla Navarino, I treated it with the SteriPen because of the presence of beavers). I spent a quiet, sheltered night in the tent with nobody else at the site or even passing by.
The final 10 kilometres or so the next day were relatively easy. There is a river crossing on this section of the trail, but the route crosses at the best possible point with the water slow and at most shin deep – though, of course, very, very cold! After the crossing came a large section of the infamous Patagonian turba – a three kilometre stretch of completely flat bog that marked the final part of the trek to Refugio Charles and the lake. In the morning sun I actually quite enjoyed this section, being able to really move quickly and put the kilometres behind me. Some of the boggy pools looked very interesting indeed, with all kinds of colours – but with no idea of how deep they were, as I really tried to stay a safe distance!
At the far end of the bog some very clear markers mark a change in direction that heads to the Refugio Charles. Somehow I missed these markers completely, and carried on over a decreasingly clear path before I realised I was lost and decided instead to head straight to the lake, which was now visible through the trees. It would be easy to find the Refugio from the lake, I reasoned. Ha! The Refugio is about 400 metres back from the lake, well hidden in the trees, and it was only after about 45 minutes of fruitless searching, after which I decided to retrace my route back to the bog, that I came across the path and the refuge by accident. A welcome sight, but now I had wasted a lot of valuable and wasn’t sure I could make it around the lake to the ocean.
Reading the visitors’ book inside the hut, the last entry as December 26 2013 (the date was now January 5 2014) – could I really have been the first visitor of 2014, and the first person to pass here in over a week? Reading the entries in the book it seemed as though almost everybody had passed through and continued to Bahia Windhond on the south coast. I desperately wanted to go there too, but with only a few hours before dark I wasn’t sure I could do it – plus I had read that a major detour, possibly up to 9 kilometres, was needed at the far end of Lago Windhond in order to avoid a large river crossing and reach the ocean. With that in mind, and having the Refugio Charles area to myself, I decided to give up on reaching the “End of the World” and instead “make do” with Lago Windhond. I put up the tent next to the refuge and headed towards the lake, marking the point where the trail heads to the woods very clearly by hanging my fluorescent water proof cover on a nearby tree. No way did I want to get lost again without any of my gear!
As I sat by the lake and watched the sun go down behind the mountains to the west, I wondered how many other people had been here. The difficulty of getting to Ushuaia and Puerto Williams made it all the more worthwhile and I realised how lucky I was that this trail existed and allowed such free and open access to this amazing landscape.
The next morning I packed up and prepared for the two-day hike back to Puerto Williams. Although the Windhond hike could be done in one long day, or varied by crossing over Monte Bettinelli and joining the Dientes Circuit (as I had tried to do in the opposite direction the previous week), I was in no particular hurry and wanted to enjoy the comparatively gentle walk back to the ex-refugio Beaucheff. After spending the night there, I awoke to find the ground and surrounding mountains covered with a fresh layer of snow – what a great way to end a fantastic hike, walking the calm, peaceful valley in fresh, untrodden snow, and not having seen another person for four days.