Tuesday, January 29, 2013

People on the journey


We are on trail again, this time in Chile. It's an awesome, warm, sunny day and we take a long lunch break right now. It's day 2 of the Dientes De Navarino Circuit hike and I'm thinking a lot about the people we already met so far. Why?!? As they say, it's about the journey, the route, that's the goal, not the destination itself. It's what we encounter en route, the challenges we have, impressions we get, the mountains we climb, the rivers we cross and of course the people we met and will meet. In general folks in Argentina and Chile are really helpful and friendly so far,especially the more remote we got. The first real good impression made Ramon to me. He is the caretaker at Estancia Tunel who offered us a room to stay for the night on our first hike in Argentina. First, he was a little shy but once we broke the ice he was opening up and showed us the Estancia. We learned about the history of woodcutting business there and the shipping of wood all the way to BA from here. He also took us on a 2h hike to show us the route for a hike he highly recommended to us (and we did the next day). Ramon, the sweet little man was also very knowledgeable about nature and the area in general, so his wealth of knowledge started some good conversations (Karen talked with her limited Spanish and I listened and understood most of it due to the additional use of body language). Thanks Ramon!

There are also the people you know that you meet but didn't expect to meet. Just like my friend and former Dresden queo colleague Severin. I knew that he was in BA and had plans to go to Ushuaia at one point. However, I did not know any details of his planned had no idea what he is up to. It was more than a surprise to see him on the 15th as he walked into the cooking area at the campground La Pista Del Andino in Ushuaia that morning. Karen and I just had finished breakfast and were on our way out as Sev came in. It was awesome to chat and to catch up after 7+ years and to hear his stories and tails from the trail. The 3 of us decided to hike to Laguna Esmaralda the next day to hangout a bit more and to have some fun together. The hike starts of route 3 outside of Ushuaia. At the trailhead we met Gato, the first person from South America to run the Iditarod. He has a small tourist business there and offers sled dog rides in the winter. We of course started talking about our dogs,Chhiri and Loki, our mushing experience and our life in Alaska. After seeing his dog yard and after a beer, Gato offered us to be his handler some time in the future. I guess this is something Karen and I can consider but it is just amazing how a day hike with an old friend from Germany to a laguna turned into a local sled dog / mushing experience.

There are many other people we met so far, but these made a special impression on me and are just 3 examples of showing that the route or journey is more important than just the final, final goal. That's what in my opinion a journey is all about. More later...

Isla Navarino: Sun, wind, rain, snow, and feeling at home

After 10 great days on Isla Navarino in southernmost Chile, I feel like I could write a book. However, because we head out into the mountains of Torres del Paine in 2 short hours, I will do my best to condense some of the most poignant thoughts and stories quickly (though perhaps not so concisely :).

Arriving by ferry and bumpy van ride in the small town (pop. 2000) of Puerto Williams on Jan. 17th, it felt like a world away from touristy Ushuaia just 50 km to the west. Kit-style houses and the buildings of a naval base are lined out along gravel streets where you are equally as likely to meet a grazing horse or a dog trotting down the street as you are to meet a person (and much more likely to see any of these than a vehicle driving by). Businesses are non-descript with small signs and shop-keepers who remembered us and greeted us with "Hola, Alaska!" when they saw us again. Walking around Puerto Williams our first day we were struck by its numerous similarities to a rural Alaskan village. Backyards were stacked with crab pots, equipment, and staked out dogs. Primary industries include tourism, fishing, shipping, the military, a scientific research station, and (historically) mining. The town is now the center of the indigenous Yaghan culture, where gatherings of Yaghan craftspeople and an excellent museum and cultural center seek to keep Yaghan language and cultural practices a part of the local landscape and community. But even more than these similarities, it was just the vibe of the village that really reminded Markus and I of parts of rural Alaska we have spent time in. People are personable, doors are open, and you easily find yourself in conversation or, as at our hostal Lajuwa, a part of family life. It is a place that seems arranged much more about living in place and in community than in manicured outward appearances of shiny storefronts and sharp work clothes. I loved being there and would love to return.

Most of our time on the island, however, was out of town hiking the two main trekking circuits on the island: Dientes de Navarino and Lago Windhond. We arrived expecting the epic winds, muddy and challenging routes, and mid-summer snowstorms that we heard characterized the island. So on Day 2 of our Dientes hike as we lounged by the Lago Dientes on an extended lunch break, basking in the sun and a warm northern breeze, well ahead of our expected schedule on what turned out to be a very well-marked and well-traveled route, I found myself wondering - when is this going to get hard? A big part of travel is getting a little bit uncomfortable, going beyond your comfort zone, facing challenge, and growing from new experiences. So far, Isla Navarino felt pretty comfortable. And not only comfortable but a lot like home. The mountains reminded us a lot of Interior Alaska, the terrain as well, and the town. I awoke one morning, disoriented, thinking I was in bed in Fairbanks and then slowly realizing where I was, a sign I think of just how relaxed I felt there. As we hiked the island, I found myself thinking a lot of the Dawn Treader, which in my childhood was my favorite of the Narnia series. I always remember that book because of its mix of adventure and sense of comfort-faith that things will work out at whatever destination was encountered next (do others who read it remember it that way too? I should really re-read it as an adult). Here on the island, it felt like we had sailed away to the ends of the earth, and though far from the people and routines of home, everything made sense and it was all sunlight, warm breezes, and a clear way forward.

But 10 days is a long time in a place with changeable weather, and Isla Navarino didnt let us get away without experience the full scope of its summer climate. On our second trek, to Lago Windhond, the wind shifted and built into howling gusts. As we made our way toward a refugio at the Lake (a somewhat open shelter cabin with a wood stove) we debated whether to stay there or to camp elsewhere. But by the time we arrived the winds were only growing stronger and we could see fresh snow on all the mountains surrounding us, so I spent the afternoon sitting by the stove talking to new friends while Markus braved the wind and tried fishing. By that night, sideways hail was pelting the cabin and we were really happy to be inside. After several perfect days, it was almost refreshing to experience such weather. The next day as we hiked back north above treeline, we were pelted by snow and stopped frequently to brace ourselves against wind gusts that seemed to grab hold of our backpacks and shake us from side to side. How fantastic, to experience the high passes of the Dientes one day in sunshine with t-shirts and only a few days later in a summer snowstorm in all our warm layers.

Time to wrap up this post, but I will finish by saying just how blessed we feel to have visited and experienced the island. It is a part of the Cabo de Hornos biosphere reserve and the people and the natural areas are vibrantly alive and wonderful to experience as a visitor. There is still so much that is unknown about the area biologically, though the Omora park and research center on the island does a lot of research. For our own part in the meantime, we collected some data on wildlife and land use for the Wildlands South America Biodiversity Inventory as volunteers through the organization Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (more on that in a future post). I left thinking of Isla Navarino as a place I hope to return, whether for work or for a visit.

No time to post photos now, but come back again later and we hope to have some posted!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Hiking the Sierra Valdivieso Circuit

Remember when I wrote in our last blog post that we were told there would be too much snow and wildfire damage for us to hike the circuit we´d planned? That area was the Sierra Valdivieso, and despite the nay-sayers we went anyway and spent 5 glorious days there. We suspected a lot of snow had melted after the string of warm days we experienced, and post-fire forests are landscapes we know well from Alaska, so we weren´t too worried about the hike being too ´´ugly´´ (as we were warned by many). The tourist info center warned against it whereas a local guide and a local rancher told us to go for it, but all in all we couldn´t find anyone who´d actually done the hike in recent years. Local knowledge is probably the most valuable source of information we have here in this new environment and we appreciate the folks who have shared what they know with us. However, this trek was also a good reminder that hiking our way across Argentina and Chile depends largely on our own assessment and knowledge of the mountains. With our base of past experience, if we leave prepared and with whatever information we can get, we should be well equipped to assess the terrain and make our own decisions. 
Okay, enough about planning. Let´s talk about hanging glaciers and wildflowers and a remote patch of earth just outside touristy Ushuaia where you can hike for days without encountering another person (though you may encounter and pack out their luggage tags, sunglasses, and broken trekking poles left along the trail :).

A couple hours into Day 1, near Refugio Bonete

The Sierra Valdivieso Circuit passes through peat bogs, Fuegian forest, alpine meadows, and areas of bare rock, snow, and ice. It is described as a 4-day hike by the Lonely Planet Trekking in the Patagonian Andes guide, and we brought food for 6 days (we lucked out with mostly good weather, but bringing extra is a good idea given the incredibly variable weather). We chose to spend five days out there, including 4 moderate hiking days and 1 day relaxing in camp by the river. We spent the first day climbing gradually from peat bog into forest, and then past beaver ponds into the alpine where we camped in a small grove of trees next to house-sized boulders in the valley below our first pass, Paso Beban. Wind howled that night, keeping us both awake (and grateful for the protection of the trees), but the morning was calm and sunny, perfect for crossing the pass. Sun turned to hail by lunch time in upper Rio Torito, and then back into a mix of sun and clouds for our trek through the valley. We passed the area affected by the fire, which had burned parts of an area approximately 2km x 5 km though we only had to hike through about 1 km. of it. I was fascinated to see the few plants and mushrooms beginning to re-grow already, just 1 year after what appears to have been a fairly severe fire. By late afternoon, we were back into the alpine and camped beside the turquoise waters of Laguna Azul. 

View down to LagunaAzul

Day 3 started with a climb to Paso Mariposa, our highest point along the route (at only about 1000 meters, which believe it or not is right around the permanent snowline in this environment).  The sun was shining bright but it was WINDY. Just 100 meters shy of the pass as we stopped to brace ourselves against a strong gust, Markus´ sunglasses were blown off his face and flew another 50 meters downhill before landing behind a rock. After so many years in calm Fairbanks, the wind here seems amazingly powerful and exhilarating (and challenging once in awhile when we want to sleep, or walk outside…)! Needless to say, we didn´t dwell too long on the pass and headed down to the treeline, up again into a high valley filled with stair-step lakes of blue water, over the next pass below hanging glaciers, and then into a long final descent back into the forested Valle Carbajal. We climbed over downed trees and skirted ponds (all created by the introduced North American beavers), and then found a lovely camp by the Rio Olivia. We woke up Day 4 to rain and decided to spend the morning in camp, which later morphed into a rest day sitting by the river and reading, journaling, and taking photos.

Markus hikes through the peat bog in early morning

We´d read that the Rio Olivia can be too high to cross late in the day due to snowmelt, so we awoke at 5am to try to reach the crossing about 10km downstream by mid-morning. The hike through peat bog was beautiful but long, and with frequent photography, birding, and trail scouting breaks we didn´t reach the river crossing until noon.  The river was deep but, in one spot, exceptionally calm. So we waded across up to our waists with our packs slung over Markus´ shoulders, like wading across the shallow end of a (very cold) swimming pool. Another hour and a half walking a cattle trail brought us to the road, where we chatted briefly with the friendly landowner (who asked if we´d seen any of his cows) and went to stand by the road where we were picked up almost immediately by a very friendly man named Carlos who was returning from a fishing and beaver-trapping trip and gave us a ride back into town. 

Some other highlights:  Birds galore! – we have a bird guide and binos with us and had fun watching new and familiar birds such as parrots, kingfishers, caracaras, chingolos, and house wrens; Daily ´´baths´´ in the ice cold streams; A sunrise hike through the peat bog with mist hanging in the air; and many more.

For anyone who hopes to do this hike: it is a good idea to have route-finding experience in the mountains as the route is not regularly marked and you aren´t likely to encounter other people. That said, we found the route-finding pretty intuitive—in many places as we assessed the lay of the land and picked routes that made sense, we´d come across boot prints in the mud and occasional cairns. In general, the passes are well-marked with cairns. There is no established trail but there are human, cattle, and beaver trails you can follow through the forests and bogs for the most part.  There are (muddy) established trails in the Valle Carbajal at the beginning and end of the circuit, which are marked occasionally by red and white marker tape wrapped around trees. The Lonely Planet Trekking in the Patagonian Andes guide gives a very good description of the route. We found it to be accurate and helpful nearly all the time. The one section we found misleading was in the description of the route from Salta del Azul to Laguna Azul – you don´t need to go very far down valley from the waterfall, contrary to what the guide describes. We overshot the lake by heading too far west but were able to locate it from a ridge and backtrack without much delay.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Back to "normal"


It's our first layover day today. We spontaneously decided to stay another night at our Rio Olivia campsite, in the wood near the river, since we made very good progress on the Sierra Valdivieso circuit and have plenty of food. As expected, things have fallen into place and it feels so normal to hike and camp every day. The routines are down; the backpack packed in an efficient way and the body ready for the daily dose of hiking. But what is even better is the status of mind I am in. At peace, nothing else to focus on, I am 100% here and enjoy every minute. The quite time hiking through the forest, talking to Karen, alpine vegetation, bare rock, the sound of the running river, or just the fresh, crisp air I breathe. It feels very good to be outside and to be enroute.

I am curious about the other transitions Karen and I will go through during our adventure. The start was awesome so far and Karen will write about Sierra Valdivieso circuit in her update. Our spotty SPOT updates of the route can be found here.

We are carrying a SPOT 2 with the tracking feature on our travels, mainly for safety reasons but also to track our routes. However, the coverage in southern South America isn’t great according to the map (but as we found out, it sometimes works ;-). Also, the tracker will work more and more as we make our way up North. The good thing is it will do its magic in Europe, Alaska, Canada and/or Western US without any problems. So we decided to bring it to South America to know that we have at least the “SPOT option” in case of an emergency. I highly recommend the SPOT for any longer trips.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Going with the flow in Ushuaia

We´ve been in Argentina for 1 week so far but it feels much longer with all that we´ve done. First, 3 days ambling through the hot and crowded streets of Buenos Aires in a subtropical urban environment that felt very foreign and new. Then, to Tierra del Fuego and a landscape of mountains and a sub-Antarctic climate that feels much more familiar. Flying into Ushuaia, Markus and I were already giddy before we´d even set foot on the ground. Outside the airplane window we saw snowcapped peaks descending straight into the ocean: hanging glaciers, rocky towers, the yellow-green of alpine vegetation above the dark green of forest, and valley bottoms dotted with blue lakes and the red-orange of peat bogs. I have always loved flying into Alaska and this felt pretty similar. We had read up on all the established multi-day alpine hikes that could be done in the area and were ready to hit the trail that day.

In Ushuaia by 1pm, we headed straight to the tourist info office to find trail info and maps, with plans to hit the grocery store and then get on the trail by late afternoon. Once there, however, we were told that the Paso de la Oveja hike was closed by the national park due to an unusually heavy snowpack for early summer. Furthermore, the other hike we planned was also likely to have heavy snow and had experienced a major fire last summer that likely made much of the route difficult or impassable. Just as quickly as our expectations had soared looking out the plane window, they plummeted. Markus and I were both disappointed. But it was funny then and is even funnier now, because how often do expectations and plans actually come to fruition when you´re planning wilderness travel? It was a great reminder that ultimately the landscape and the weather are in charge. When expectations aren´t met, it opens you up to something different, and that´s what adventure is all about, right?

Going with the flow
We quickly deduced that Ushuaia was a tourist town where your money just seems to evaporate the longer you spend there so, being ultra thrifty and eager to get out camping, we decided to buy some food and gas and head out of town anyway that evening to someplace where we could camp for free. At 6pm, we took a bus to the edge of town, then hiked along the coast on a road that became a trail. It was sunny and practically hot with not a hint of wind and the view across the Beagle Channel was stunning. We hiked over green rolling cattle pastures interspersed with southern beech forests, watching seabirds circle over the glistening ocean, and found a place to camp. The next day it poured rain and the wind howled - we left our camp once to walk to the coast, where the wind was so strong we could lean horizontally into it. Needless to say, we headed back to the tent. I tried to read but kept falling asleep and each time I woke up, I´d say ¨we´re so lazy!¨ and then promptly fall back asleep. That evening, we packed up and hiked further until we came to an Estancia and met the caretaker, Ramon. My spanish is pretty rusty but Ramon was incredibly friendly and invited us to spend the night in the unfinished guest house. That evening,we hiked with Ramon onto the ridge so he could point out a historical cattle and wood-cutting trail that would lead us into the mountains the next day. He pointed out guanaco and condor scat, and we watched a fox trot slowly ahead of us. The next day we headed up into the valley, first following an established trail, later a network of muddy cattle trails, and finally bushwhacking slowly through a forest full of downed trees. We camped beside the river that night in utter isolation, except for a lone cow downstream who bellowed throughout the night, probably trying to locate some other cows we thought. Yesterday we hiked back to the coast, identifying birds like the Southern crested caracara, the chimango, and the rayadito along the way. All in all, it´s been a fantastic first few days in Tierra del Fuego and a great warm up for our muscles, our spanish, and our budget-minded brains to prepare for the months to come.

Love to all of you friends and family reading this back home. We´ll try to post another update in a week or so.