Down the Malleco

Many of my readers may wish to know how I use my foldable kayak. Well, I don't cross the oceans with it... rather I use it as a platform for water bird photography, for day trips on lakes, and on rivers. I usually have the boat with me when I do my extensive summer trips. To give you an idea of how the boat is used, here is an example of a trip down a small stream that feeds the Malleco lake, followed by a crossing of the lake, and a hike to the lake's surprising end.

This is the rather untidy interior of my car. The big wooden box is my secret weapon to transform the car into a highly versatile 4WD camping vehicle. The box, custom-made for this car and tailored to make best use of its inner shape, has three compartments: The left side one is loaded from above, and employed to store food and cooking utensils. The front compartment, right behind the driver's seat, is front-loaded and holds all sorts of technical equipment: From mud chains to photo gear, from an air compressor destined to inflate tires to a rechargeable fluorescent lamp and its 12V charger. The top of the box is a flat table, on which I can cook and eat; the table has a 2cm high border, which will contain any liquids eventually spilled. And the bigger of the three compartments, shown open in this photo, stores the boat.

The right side of the car is held free, so that it serves as a bed. With an air mattress and a geese dawn sleeping bag, it is very comfortable. The car is equipped with HF and VHF radio transceivers, GPS, and even a hot shower! But that's material for another story...

The untidy look comes from several dozen empty plastic bags. They serve to hold food, trash, to separate items of clothing from technical stuff, and also as cushions to hold everything in place inside the box during travel, avoiding any rattling sounds. Plastic bags are truly a great invention! :-)

I drove as close to the river as I could get. There I unpacked the boat, carried it in its bag to a place in the shadow near the river, and assembled it. As many people have asked me how the assembly process is done, this time I made a sequence of photos, that will show it.

The disassembled boat is a compact package measuring 120cm length, 35cm width and 25cm height. It stores in a simple blue fabric bag, shown open here. The shiny blue bag on top holds the boat skin and the two safety floats. The green plastic sheet is not a part of the boat, but simply used as a clean surface to assemble the boat on, in order to avoid getting abrasive sand and dirt between the skin and the structure. 

While driving to the river, I picked up a Korean traveler who was sweatily walking up the mountain, carrying a very heavy backpack. He camped next to the place I picked, and served as good company during the ground-based parts of this trip. Here he poses with the disassembled boat, wondering how it will look once assembled. The green plastic has been taken away, and the bag with the boat skin put on the side, so that you can see the compact arrangement of the wooden parts in the package. The inverted boat's floor serves as base for the stack; the two groups of eight runners, tied together by covernyl strips, fill the space between the floor's carriers. This forms an almost perfectly compact assembly. The two stevens with the front and aft sections of the runners attached go on top of that, not as neatly packaged but still compact enough. The ribs go on top of that, the disassembled paddle crowns the stack, with the seat cushion and the back rest leveling the package. The remaining long parts, which are the three keel sections, the cockpit liners and the paddle  center section, are used to fill voids in the sides of the stack, and then everything is bound together with two ropes.  The bag with the wing nuts is loosely thrown between the ribs.

By the way, the paddle center section is now of aluminum. I made this change after breaking the fully wooden paddle for the second time!

These are the two halves of the structure. They are assembled to this extent before inserting them into the skin. The blue bags are the two safety floats, which should keep the boat and any contents at the surface in the event of an accident. Fortunately, so far no such accident has ever happened, and I trust my boat so much that I cross lakes carrying my full reflex photography equipment! Still, the floats may some day safe my life, or at least some of the things I carry in the boat. And they weren't expensive: I used scraps of the same material I made the boat skin from, glued them into properly sized bags, and installed bicycle tire valves. The valve inserts are removed to inflate the bags by lung power. The bags are airtight enough to hold pressure for weeks. I normally inflate them just to a very moderate filling, so that they won't build up too much pressure when hot.

This view was arranged just for the photo. It shows how the two halves will mate. The keel center section, middle rib, the floor, cockpit sides and back rest are installed after putting these halves into the skin. The floats were removed to allow full view of the structure.

The different pieces of the boat are numbered, so that it's easy and quick to find out which piece goes where. Furthermore, the runner sections cannot get mixed up, because the front and aft pieces stay attached to the stevens at all times, while the two groups of center sections are bound together by strips of boat skin material, which also is the only thing correctly spacing the runners -  just the uppermost ones, and the keel,  are joined to the ribs. In this photo, the rear half of the boat allows you to see one of these strips, 2cm in front of the rib. It is tightly stretched. The strength of the material allows to screw it down onto the wood without danger of ripping it open. The front section strip is hidden by the rib.

The structure has been inserted into the skin. The runners still overlap each other by about 10cm, so that the boat skin is loose and wrinkly. It's important to properly align the skin with the structure; if this is not done carefully, the skin will be overstretched in some areas while remaining loose in others.

The second half of the structure barely fits through the opening in the skin, but with proper care it can be inserted without submitting anything to any significant force. On the other hand, bending the longer runners a little bit makes insertion easier, and is perfectly tolerated by the wood.

This is the big trick in most foldable boats: The stretching lever. This piece is engaged to the front and aft keel sections and then pushed down. By gently putting a part of one's weight on the lever, it will separate the structure halves and apply a huge stretching force to the skin. Despite the strength of the skin, the lower part of it (the one in contact with the water) is stretched by 2%, making it feel as hard as an inflated tire. In fact, people often ask me if this boat has inflatable walls!  Thanks to the good stretching, which causes flat, hard surfaces, the boat glides very well through the water and can be paddled fast, with little effort. Such kayaks are among the most efficient boats in existence.

Once the keel is pushed down, it's locked in place with small aluminum flaps secured by wing nuts. Then the runners are joined; when necessary, I use a simple stretching tool, built much like the keel center section, to stretch the upper section of the boat in order to be able to effortlessly join the runners. 

Then the middle rib is installed, the side pieces of the cockpit are inserted into their skin flaps, and bolted to the ribs #2, 3 and 4. These pieces do not have any stretching mechanism, so that the boat skin on the top of the sides remains loose and wrinkly. It may not look ideal, but does absolutely no damage

The last parts to be fitted are the floor, partly visible in this picture, the seat cushion and the back rest. After joining the three parts of the paddle, and attaching a small rope which is useful to guide the boat while wading in shallow water before getting in, the boat is ready for use.

Depending on the kind of trip, more or less cargo is stowed below the front and rear decks. This can include food, clothing, tent, sleeping bag, photo gear, radio gear (XQ2FOD maritime mobile!), and other odd things. Usually I use the back cargo area for those things I will need only when stopping, such as the sleeping bag, while the front area is used for things that may be needed during travel, above all the photo gear, but also the radio, some food and drink, and so on. I also always bring along a towel. When getting into the boat, I usually have to do it from the water, so that my legs are dripping, and I hate having any water in the boat! So I place the towel over the boat floor before getting in. Later, the towel can be a useful sun shade over my legs, which otherwise tend to change color into alarmingly red tones...

One of the nice things of a boat like this is that it can go where few others can. With me and some cargo inside, the boat needs little more than 10cm of water depth to stay free.  It was mid summer, and the river was very low, so much so that in some places it was not even 10cm deep, and  I had to get out and wade while letting the boat float free. Without me, 3cm of water are enough to make the boat float, and even water jumping over some rocks can carry the boat over them!

The paddle was very carefully impregnated and varnished, so that it holds up even after hitting the ground many times. In fact, often I use the paddle more like a pushrod than a paddle, when traveling waters as shallow!

This idyllic view was photographed during the first rest along the river. I had just carried the boat over a place where the river went underground... But from here on, I could stay in the boat until reaching open waters.

In the marshes, where the river opens into the lake, I found my Korean friend, who had hiked and waded there and was enjoying the sunshine. I also rested a while on this firmer ground, after being surprised by quicksand a little before. Quicksand is nasty stuff: It's firm enough to hold a boat captive if it runs aground, but not firm enough to allow the traveler to step out of the boat and pull it off! So one has to stay inside, and rock the boat until the sand gives way and the boat floats again.

For the next three days I explored the lake. A few times I went into deep waters, but most of the time I stayed close to the shore, as there is more to see in such places. 

The reeds are an ecosystem with many small wonders to discover. For example, this abandoned dragonfly skin. Insects have rigid skins instead of an internal skeleton, and their skin cannot really grow. So when the insects grow, they form a new skin inside the old one, and one day they crack open the old skin, slip out of it, and quickly expand before the new skin hardens in contact with the air. The old skin was left parked on this reed, when its owner flew away, clad in a new outfit. And days later came this crazy kayak-based photographer and shot a picture...

Reeds are a good parking place for a kayak. It's easy to slip in and out, and while one is in them, they will keep the boat reasonably anchored. When I get hungry during a trip, and there is no landable shore nearby, I often park the boat in the reeds while eating.

By the way, staying at a fixed place in the reeds for longer than a few minutes is almost a guarantee to see some more wildlife. The reeds are full of all kinds of insects, birds, and other animals. I can stay there for hours and just watch.

This kind of duck is very common on Chilean lakes. Along with other ducks, assorted wild geese, several kinds of cormorants, black-necked swans and a few other birds, they are the crowd of the lake's feathered population.

The boat allows to silently and smoothly come close to them. Unfortunately these birds already had learned that some humans are dangerous, and didn't let me come closer than this, as soon as I moved to make a photo. On other lakes, harder to reach, I have found birds to be more trusting.

Towards the end of the lake, the terrain is lower and the forest is a little less dense. The forest at the shore is typical Chilean evergreen temperate rain forest, while further up on the rocky mountain the conditions are suitable only for specialist trees, like the characteristic Araucaria trees growing far up on the crest, defending their foothold against storm, snow and time.

Evening is a good time for photography, and so I spent several evenings out there, looking for lightings like this one.  Noontime, with its bluish light and burning sun, was mostly spent lying under some tree and reading.

At the end of the lake there was this place. Like usual, the draft was noticeable even outside this bay, but in here it got quite strong. Very soon it developed into a fast flowing river.  Note how the trees in the background seem to be below the water! Obviously the terrain there takes a sharp drop.

It's always a good precaution not to get too close to such a place. I stored the camera and very slowly went closer, until the noise told me that there was either a rapid, or something more. So I went back, parked the boat and went ashore, to explore the area.

You can lure children with sweets, and you can lure photographers with light! The setting sun gave a great illumination through the slightly misty air, so I ended up climbing the forested hill rather than checking out the outflow of the lake. After shooting some evening photos, I had to return in what soon became almost complete darkness. I found back to the boat, but just barely, and crossed the lake, again, but this time in the faint light provided by the stars.

The next day, I did my exploratory trip to the "rapids". And this is what I found! It's the little-known  Malleco waterfall. I think it was a good idea to stop the boat before being sucked over the ridge and down into this hole! When boating down a river, such care does pay, specially when the river is unknown!

I spent three days boating the Malleco. Then I went up the shallow river, the same way I came, and folded down the boat for the drive to another body of water. I used the boat on several other lakes that summer.

Back to the homo ludens nauticus index.