Tuesday, January 29, 2013

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!

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