Behind the Scenes – Trout Bum Diaries – Volume 1 – Patagonia
I wrote this article years ago for a magazine that never ended up being published. It was written during the filming of the Trout Bum Diaries – Volume 2 – New Zealand. I remember spending a few days in a campground on the West Coast of New Zealand hammering away on it in between multi-day excursions deep into the NZ back country.
This is raw, un-edited, and unpublished – the real behind the scenes story of the 2004 Patagonia Expedition, which resulted in the Trout Bum Diaries – Volume 1 – Patagonia. It has never been published anywhere else! Enjoy!
– Ryan Davey – Adventure Angler – Primal Angler –
In the slow-motion madness that often accompanies a near-death experience, I remember glimpsing a shower of sparks flying seven feet in the air through the drivers-side mirror. The forty gallons of gasoline in jerry cans strapped to the outside of the trailer and the bubble-gum patch of a major leak in our gas tank instantly popped into my mind. Images of our Jeep exploding into a fiery inferno of empty beer bottles, fly rods, and fiberglass distracted me for just a second before we started into an out-of-control concrete grating power-skid.
Only moments before we’d been cruising down the bleak Atlantic Coast of Argentina, headed towards the sea-run brown trout of our dreams. We chugged along at ninety kilometers an hour, the maximum our imitation CJ-7 Jeep could handle when loaded down with five smelly trout bums and dragging a trailer stuffed with enough equipment to start a small fly shop. We were about three thousand kilometers into a five-month road trip down the spine of South America that would take us from flavorful Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital city to Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, and back. We were fishing our way south through Patagonia, exploring rivers and lakes, collecting scientific data, sleeping in the dirt and filming the entire thing.
Chris sat in the passenger seat and we chatted about a steelhead trip to the Skeena that fall while crammed in the back Brian, Mike, and Nick attempted to sleep as best one can with a roll-bar for a pillow. We’d been careening through a curve that wound down an ancient ocean shore when the front of the Jeep began to shake violently. It didn’t alarm me at first, we had over-sized off-road tires, but I didn’t have time to finish that thought before the back left wheel fell off.
Three hundred heart-stopping yards later we sat motionless, none of us daring so much as to breathe. There was a sudden definitive pause, then the rear tire bounced past us down that lonesome, desolate road into a far-off ditch. In the howling winds we collected ourselves, checked to make sure no one was injured, and began to assess the damage. It soon became clear what had happened; a brake pad hung by its spring to the remains of the axle where the axle shaft had snapped clean in half.
Chris reached for the video camera instantly, and aside from all the normal reactions of “What the fuck just happened?” it didn’t faze us as much as you’d expect. We’d already had a couple dozen near-death experiences in the Jeep that we’d nicknamed “El Diablo Plateado”, the Silver Devil. It was a backyard garage version of the American Jeep: the frame of another vehicle cut down, a straight six Mercedes engine with a Holley carburetor and a fiberglass Jeep body roughly bolted over it all.
We ended up being towed in the middle of the night to the nearest town by a mint ’57 Chevy tow-truck with a plastic jug of gasoline hanging from the side mirror, crammed in the front with four chain-smoking Argentineans. We seemed to be frighteningly proficient at finding ourselves stranded in random towns halfway between nowhere, but this was the worst of all. The three thousand residents of San Julian only seemed to appear during hours of darkness, inspiring us to nickname it “From Dusk Til Dawn”. Days dragged into nights that lasted into days; eventually our mechanic gave up on the replacement axle ever arriving and just welded it instead.
We were a motley crew of fish-junkies from all over. Chris Owens, the Alaskan biologist / steelhead bum was often called “Walkabout” for his frequent disappearances. Brian Jill was an old fishing buddy of mine from Colorado, an Archeologist by training he was often called “The Technician” for his crafty handiness with gear. Together we formed the core group of the Angling Exploration Group, which formed into a media production company with the goal of revolutionizing the world of fly fishing entertainment.
Mikey Wier, a professional snowboarder during the winter and a fly fishing guide in Lake Tahoe during the summer had come along to help document the trip on video. His previous experience shooting and producing a couple of fly fishing videos added a different perspective. At the time of the accident Nick Raeygart was also tagging along on our voyage south. We’d met the crazy, nomadic Australian in a bar in Esquel; he was traveling the world with a rolling suitcase he called his “Buggy”, filming a fly fishing documentary.
It had taken us a month to find a vehicle, attempt to learn Spanish, and deal with the long beaurocracy filled process of purchasing a vehicle in Argentina while we lived in a hostel in Buenos Aires. At a place called “Senor Trailer” we had a trailer custom built to our specifications for almost nothing: it was jet black, covered in stickers with oversized off-road tires, jerry cans, a roof rack, and at the beginning of the trip the package was complete with a shovel and an axe. You see, this was an expedition of sorts; one of our main goals was to drive the Carratera Austral in Chile, sixteen hundred kilometers of mostly dirt track, and perform stream surveys on previously un-researched rivers that happened to have large trout in them.
After outfitting our expedition-ready (or so we thought) rig in Buenos Aires, we stuffed our equipment into the trailer and headed out across the great expanse of desert that separates the city and the mountainous Patagonian region of the south. It was mid-January, and even with the doors off we still roasted in the near-boiling air. We’d puttered along for almost two days without seeing many signs of man except for the occasional holiday tripper heading back from the mountains and a very random strange white horse where one shouldn’t be. The engine was overheating and we didn’t bother to use the speedometer; we drove by the temperature of the engine.
Just on the edge of that endless desert the brakes overheated for the first time, a problem we would deal with for the next two weeks and an omen of things to come. One of our breakdowns landed us in a strange dirt campground for the night, where a rowdy group of Argentineans partied into the early hours of the morning. The racket was loud enough that it inspired Mike to use two Ibuprofen tablets for earplugs. After some unsuccessful attempts to remove them with hemostats and tweezers the next morning, we had to search the nearest town for a doctor. It was a test of our broken Spanish and charade skills to try to figure out how to explain what had happened!
This was only the beginning, and things got progressively crazier as we went, the brakes problems being a constant theme. One night we were snaking our way deep into the inky blackness of a canyon that allegedly led to a major confluence that held some monstrous browns. Mid-way up a near-vertical hill the Jeep stalled and we hung precariously by slipping brakes over a hundred foot sheer cliff. Miraculously we somehow backed down the hill, turned around, and in pitch black rolled out our sleeping pads beneath a farmer’s old shed. In the morning a mysterious gaucho rode down from the hills and in Spanish asked us if we’d like him to slaughter one of his lambs for us.
A few wild adventures later we pulled into a remote town high in the foothills of the Andes, headed to a lake we’d heard was inhabited by massive rainbows. After purchasing some bread, fuel, and buying the town out of beer, we set off into the darkening hills and narrowing roads. Up and down and on we drove, until finally one hill was just too steep for the amount of weight in the vehicle. We stalled three quarters of the way up the hill, I instinctively hit the brakes and nothing happened, unbeknownst to us the brake lines in the rear had broken three hundred kilometers earlier. Much to our horror we started sliding backwards down the hill in the dark.
I remember looking out the back window past Brian and Mike’s shocked expressions and seeing the trailer, illuminated by our brake lights, begin to jackknife. When I turned back to the wheel Owens had mysteriously disappeared, as he is prone to do, having just jumped out of the passenger side door. Seconds later we slammed into a sand bank that was very luckily there, had it been a cliff like the ones we’d recently passed, I wouldn’t be writing this.
We eventually made it to the bottom of the lake and found a campsite, and two days later the problem was fixed, well sort of. Owens and Mike had taken the Jeep back to town to find a “Gomeria”, as mechanic shops are called in this part of the world. The mechanico’s fix was to jam a nail into the broken brake line, so we ran on three brakes for the next month until the axle broke.
Argentinean mechanics are marvelously innovative; if bailing wire doesn’t fix it they weld it. Amazingly, most of the time these backyard fixes worked. At the beginning of the trip we’d broken two welds on the tongue of the trailer off-roading down to a river. After using chain and a bolt to limp into the nearest town, a local mechanico welded a beautiful repair with two pieces of scrap angled steel as reinforcement. It was much stronger than the original, and never broke on us again.
When you pass a vehicle in some parts of Patagonia, you will often see the passenger brace the front windshield with their open hand. Supposedly this keeps the windshield from breaking when a rock flies up from behind a passing vehicle, a big problem in this area of mostly gravel roads.
We’d been poking fun at this for most of the day; apparently we thought it was quite hilarious. On our way to find a campsite for the night, we got what was coming to us. As a tiny golf-cart of a car approached us from the other direction, we watched a baseball-sized chunk of rock fly at us in slow motion. It exploded the front windshield directly between Brian and I, covering us in glass. Now that’s karma!
Following our original plan, we’d head west from Esquel into the mountains to cross the border into Chile, on our way to the fabled Carraterra Austral. At the border officials sternly informed us that without an Argentinean in the vehicle we weren’t allowed to take an Argentine vehicle out of the country. We retreated back to Argentina to regroup, stopping to catch a couple of fish along the way.
This unexpected turn of events threw a wrench into our science plans. It was the rivers on the less traveled Chilean side where we’d planned on doing our research; the rivers and streams of Argentina being well documented and decently managed. Because of this, we were forced to scrap our stream survey plans and focus all our attention on filming.
Documenting an expedition such as this on film is not quite as easy as you’d imagine. It consumed our every waking moments, spending endless nights planning and calculating shots and innumerable hours behind the camera. Our goal was to create a new style of fly fishing video, with no instructional or destination-based content, just pure entertainment. Something that everyone could relate to, something that you could sit down in front of the TV with a cold beer and enjoy. We aimed to capture the essence of the journey, the soul of the lifestyle, and the spirit of the sport.
Being on a trout bum’s budget, a holiday campground was a once-a-week destination to clean up and take a shower. This led to us sleeping in some rather interesting locations, often tucked behind the over-sided tires of the Silver Devil so the bored truck drivers wouldn’t honk at us in the middle of the night. The weather was so nice we hardly set up our tents once for the first two months, instead we just rolled out our sleeping pads under the lights of the Southern Cross.
Continual exposure to intense sun combined with being constantly wet from wading prompted many gas station “sink showers”. It also resulted in some interesting injuries, most commonly deep cracks in the skin that wouldn’t heal. Owens had it particularly bad, his feet became so grotesquely cracked that he would have to wrap them in duct-tape each morning just to be able to walk.
Eventually we did make it to those sea-run browns that we’d been dreaming of. Unfortunately, it was the lowest water year in fifty years, and access for those of us who don’t have $300 a day to spend was limited. The infamous Rio Grande was particularly bad: you had to pay 200 pesos for a two-week license to fish the public water, in addition to the normal yearly license.
The icing on the cake was that this public water was still within the muddy, undefined tidal zone and nearly impossible to fly fish. Tierra del Fuego is a beautiful, windswept, and desolate place that is very interesting to visit, but if you’re looking for affordable fishing options you might think long and hard before making the long voyage down there.
While it is true that the journey is the destination, we had Ushuaia in mind as an end goal. It’s a particularly good one because it happens to be the world’s southernmost city, and it’s the end of the road. I’d always wanted to visit Ushuaia, it’s one of those places often mentioned on the Discovery Channel, particularly so because it’s one of the few ports for expeditions to Antarctica.
I was a little disappointed upon arriving, however, and finding that it was a tourist trap. Throughout the entire trip we’d spent quite a bit of time translating menus, here we found menus in English. The drive in, however, is spectacular; traversing two high mountain passes in an area of deep moss and alpine swamps. With all the strange, unique vegetation you have little problem forgetting that you’re at the end of the world.
Brian and I had stayed at the Loop Lodge (Buitereras) for two days to do some filming, chase some sea-run browns, and clean up. They own some of the best water on the Rio Gallegos, but unlike Tierra Del Fuego they’re conscious enough to allow five km’s of water on each side of there more than fifty kilometers of river for guarded public access. After being in the dirt for so long it was a sudden shock to our systems to have a sterilized bed with sheets and excellent food that didn’t involve pasta. The size of the estancias in this region is mind-boggling; some bigger than a few of our smaller states.
It was in this area that I had the absolute worst drive of my life. After picking up our friend Brendan at the local airport, we headed back to our base-camp to meet up with the boys and do a backpacking trip on a remote wind-swept spring creek. Although it had been raining for three days straight, it wasn’t enough to raise the thirsty river and bring in the sea-run browns. The deep potholes on this silt-laden road had turned into swimming pools of mud, and they grew progressively worse the further we went.
Every time we hit one of these puddles the windshield would be covered in thick mud, rendering us blind. As we pressed on into the darkness it got so bad Brian had to lean out the passenger door and splash clean water over the window. The drive that should have taken an hour and a half took over four hours, our trailer whipping around behind us with our wide tires.
We spent over a month battling with low water conditions and the brutal, torturous wind. This wind has been well described by numerous others, but suffice it to say, it’s as bad as you’ve heard. Mike’s dauntless quest for large, chrome sea-run browns had almost driven him mad in the tough conditions; he headed off down-river on a seven-day solo backpacking mission to find some unpressured water. Owens had gone walkabout for good, the last time we’d seen him he’d gotten in the back of a moving van with a liter of beer and rattled off towards town.
In typical fashion, the sea-run brown trout fishing exploded the very day we left. Nick had stayed on afterwards sleeping in his waders with nothing to eat but an onion roasted with a cigarette lighter and the occasional small resident trout. Apparently the sudden onslaught of the fall rains had caused a huge insurgence of fresh sea-runners and Nick’s persistent self-punishment eventually paid off. Brian and I had a task ahead of us that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy: to drive the Silver Devil back all the way back to Buenos Aires.
It probably wouldn’t have been all that bad of a drive if we had a back window. After picking up our friends Ron and Jim at the airport, we’d been dodging potholes on a gravel road in the darkness, telling them stories about all the breakdowns we’d endured. In a lull in the conversation the back window suddenly exploded; Owens wittingly yelled out, “Keep driving, I think they’re shooting at us!” Needless to say our duct-tape and wine box replacement was not airtight. We’re convinced that we have permanent damage from constantly inhaling exhaust fumes.
After fixing the clutch for the third time, we headed out on the non-stop marathon drive to Esquel, roughly sixteen hours if you’re not driving a Jeep. We left at 9 pm directly from the mechanic’s and drove straight through the night. Nothing abnormal happened on that leg of the trip other than running out of gas three times and having to silicon the window while driving through a three hundred mile long thunder storm.
At 2:00 pm we took a quick lunch break and I hopped in to give Brian a break from the wheel. We pulled out of the gas station, made it about fifty yards, hit a speed bump and came to a grinding halt. The rain was still pouring down in buckets and Brian got out to inspect: the axle had somehow rotated from all the bumpy roads and the drive shaft had been thrown out of line. By this time I’d had enough, and almost lost it. Tightening the axle bolts didn’t help, and being siesta time nothing was open. Finally a Gomeria opened, we limped the Jeep in at a crawl, and they welded it.
At a gas station only sixty kilometers from our destination, the alternator went out for the third time. The gas station attendant kindly gave us a jump and we pressed on into the growing darkness. Eventually our headlights became too dim to see and the Jeep stalled from lack of battery power. The rest of the night was a bit of a blur, three jump-starts from strangers later and we had to zip-tie six headlamps to the grill-guard to keep on.
It was raining and we had just enough juice for one swipe of the windshield wipers every couple of minutes. In the end, it was hopeless and we were forced to leave our possessed Jeep on the side of the road and hitchhike, road-worn and weary, into town.
We spent the rest of the month of April in Esquel waiting for a break from the monsoon-like rains, which eventually came. Somehow we managed to squeeze in a trip to a local spring creek for the last four days of the fishing season. The rest of the drive back to Buenos Aires was long but aside from the spider that somehow climbed inside of the camera and built a web behind the front lens, it passed without drama.
All in all it was a journey held together by a passion for the sport and the aspirations to change fly fishing entertainment completely. I doubt any of us will ever forget or live down the many experiences, hardships, and adventures we were faced with. Let’s see, did I leave anything out? Oh yeah, the fishing. From uniquely colored brown trout in wind-swept spring creeks to steelhead sized rainbows in lakes to prehistoric brookies in eerie forests, it’d take another article in itself to describe. Lucky for you, we filmed the entire thing!
– Ryan Davey – Adventure Angler – Primal Angler –