Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Biodiversity

It was morning in the forest, sunlight filtering through gaps in the old growth lenga stand, when we heard the drumming. Markus and I paused on the trail, pulling out camera and binoculars respectively, and looked around for the source. Then we saw it: a brilliant, feathery red crest and large, stout bill hammering forcefully against the trunk of a large, old tree. Little chunks of bark sailed through the air and landed on the forest floor nearby. Woodpecker!

Woodpeckers are a favorite guild of birds for both Markus and I, and Feb. 8th on the northern boundary of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares was the first day we saw them here in Patagonia. As we dropped our backpacks and walked into the forest, we heard several of the birds calling to one another and soon saw a second woodpecker fly in and alight on a nearby tree. This one lacked a red crest but had an equally striking and unusual curly-cue of black feathers curving from the top of its head. It was the female Carpintero Gigante (Magellanic woodpecker), chattering back and forth with the red-crested male. As luck would have it, we saw 9 of the birds that day. We traversed 30km from a campsite in the national park to the Argentinian border post north of Lago del Desierto across a mosaic of habitats and land-use designations, from forested national park, past private forests and more open (hot, windy) ranchlands, and along the shore of the mountainous Lago del Desierto rimmed by glaciers and their meltwater cascades spilling off of the southern ice cap--and at several points, always in open old-growth forest habitats, we heard the tell-tale drumming and chattering of the woodpeckers. We probably spent a good hour or more of time and several hundred photograph attempts on observing the birds that day!

Male Magellanic Woodpecker (zoom in for a closer look)

Observing and cataloguing biodiversity has been a consistently rewarding aspect of our time here in Patagonia. Being weight-conscious and eager to cultivate an awareness of the environments we travel though, we don´t carry mp3 players, or musical instruments, or books (though we share 1 Kindle), or even a deck of cards in our backpacks, but we do carry a pair of binoculars and one slim book ´´Aves de Patagonia y Antartida´´. This way of spending our ´´free time´´ is motivated by personal interest, but also by an opportunity to contribute to biodiversity conservation. We planned this year of travel to fulfill our own personal dreams for world travel and wilderness adventure, but as we planned we also looked for opportunities to contribute to something beyond ourselves along the way. That is why we were so psyched to learn of the organization, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. This non-profit fills the much-needed role of partnering adventurers traveling through remote areas or long transects of the globe with scientists seeking data or samples from those very same, hard-to-access places. When we wrote to ASC about our trip, they matched us up with the South American Wildlands and Biodiversity project of the Pacific Biodiversity Institute. 

Recognizing the immensity of wildlands in South America, the PBI´s goals are to collect and communicate information about such places on an international scale to support efforts to conserve global biodiversity. They rely largely on citizen scientists, both local and visiting, to collect the data needed to map the wildlands of South America. Every day we record our wildlife sightings (with a special focus on birds) along with ecological, land-use, and cultural observations of the area. Some days are full of exciting observations, usually when our walking goals and weather allow for dilly-dallying along with the binoculars. Our first day trekking through Cerro Castillo National Reserve was one such day, as we passed by a grassland and wetland full of hundreds of geese, ducks, and black-billed ibises. Other days when the wind howls and we are pelted by icy rain, we don´t observe much (though of course the birds usually seem to be huddled under their own ´´down blankets´´ just like us on those days). We catalogue data from well-studied national parks and from little-studied private lands. It is hard to know with certaintly whether this data will be useful, but it is our hope that this little contribution can help. At the very least, we get the added satisfaction of knowing that all that time staring at birds might amount to something beyond ourselves.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Daily life

Daily Input - Output Analysis
I   - Inputs: oxygen, water, food
II  - Processes: work & body functions
III - Outputs: heat, sweat, "human waste"

I, II, III & cloth + gear allow us to:
A - hike
B - sleep = maintenance

Pretty simple! What else do you "need" on a daily basis? ...something to read?!? ...but books are heavy!


Trip-technology-corner:
After comparing the e-reader options on the market and looking at our needs, I got us the Kindle Keyboard with 3G and Wi-Fi for our travels; and I´m an even bigger fan of Amazon right now since we have the Kindle.

Here is why:
Compared to a tablet the Kindle has a lighter weight (it only weighs 8.7 oz) has a much longer battery life (up to 2 months) and is way cheaper. It comes with 3G and Wi-Fi, which only Amazon offers (as far as I know) and has an experimental browser to do Internet. Devices like the Kindle Touch or Paperwhite also offer 3G & Wi-Fi, however, 3G on these devices is limited to Amazon´s website and Wikipedia. The Kindle Keyboard 3G has not these limitations, which means we are able to check email whenever we have a cellphone signal. OK, I have to say, the browser is not comparable to standard browsers like Firefox or Opera, but having the ability to write a quick email to family & friends or to find out some information from the middle of nowhere (but with cellphone signal ;-) without any kind of data contract is pretty need.

Top that with Amazon´s excellent customer service and you can only love Amazon. The Kindel Keyboard 3G, an excellent device for travelers, which of course you can also use to read books or .pdf´s with!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Torres del Paine Circus

We just returned from 6 days in Torres del Paine national park after a good hike of the full TDP circuit, but with mixed feelings about the park. TDP is internationally-known for its scenic mountains (rightfully so) with very high visitation, and we originally thought we would skip it. However, enough people told us it was a place we had to see that we decided to go for it. Arriving late afternoon January 29th, and being budget-minded, we headed for the closest free campsite 8km uphill near the Torres along what is probably the most popular trail in the park. Holy, culture shock! Coming from Isla Navarino, we had become accustomed to solitude on the trail.There, seeing another person on the route was a rare occasion to stop and chat. But as we headed up to the Torres, saying a customary Hola to each person we met was impossible without taking breaks to breathe!

We camped that night packed in with 70 or so other tents and I woke up in the morning in a foul mood. The setting was scenic, but what the heck were we dong there? How did a hiking trail that felt as busy as a (steep, dusty) city street meet our goals for this trip? Hiking back down from the Torres to start the circuit, we contemplated ditching TDP, using our return bus ticket that day, and going elsewhere. I was especially sour about the park experience thus far but didnt want to have wasted the money we already spent on bus tickets and entry fees. (Markus, being the economist, said they were ´sunk costs´ anyway...). Ultimately, we decided to hike the circuit but to do it quickly, hiking full days and only doing popular day hikes if weather was ideal.
Us at the Torres

It worked, and the 100 or so kilometers we hiked in the next 4.5 days were enjoyable. We hiked through blustery steppe, vibrantly green forests with moss-covered trees, and rocky alpine valleys; past turquoise lakes, hanging glaciers, and over Paso Gardener with stunning views of the massive Glacier Grey flowing from the Hielo Sur (southern ice cap) into the valley below us. We met nice people along the trail and, after coincidentally running into the same two Germans, Berndt and Jon, for at least the 6th time since the ferry from Puerto Williams, we passed a great evening with them drinking beers and pisco sours at the bar (yes, one of the off-road refugio-campgrounds has a big, schmancy, full-service bar).

Panorama of Glacier Grey from Paso Gardener

I will say though that my often-negative reaction to the lack of solitude in the park surprised me and prompted a lot of reflection on what I value in outdoor travel, and why we are here. Without delving too deeply into wilderness philosophy and issues of wilderness and privilege, I will just say that it left me feeling conflicted. Certainly, national parks have incredible value as protected areas and as democratic spaces - as places that belong to us all and where those without the ability to backpack in rugged country can still access sites of unusual beauty and biodiversity. These places inspire awe, and the more of that in the world, the better. I commend the park for their efforts to confine visitor impacts to a few trails and camping areas. This is certainly a more sustainable strategy than less controlled access, though with the massive visitation I still question its sustainability (you have to wonder at the septic systems they must have to support hundreds of visitors per day at all those off-road campsites with flush toilets and showers!).Still, despite appreciating national parks, and all my philosophical musings on privilege and wilderness access, I just really craved more solitude and silence and open space. Have all my wilderness travels and life in Alaska so conditioned me to expect these things that I can´t appreciate a national park with lots of other people present?! (a side note - this was one of many instances in which Markus and I have been reminded that we are not ´´normal´´ people)

Ultimately, the TDP trip was a good time and a great reminder that these travels are about our own personal vision and goals. One of my main goals for our travels is to practice awareness and attentiveness in daily life - to not zone out while we walk and think of random things like washing our clothes, which weirdly enough I seem to have a tendency to think about a lot! Attentiveness seems important for really experiencing these places we visit, for being a good naturalist, and for observing the wildlife and landscape features we collect data on for the South American Wildlands Biodiversity Inventory. On our less developed routes, we have enjoyed having to look at the terrain, find routes, choose campsites, and listen to our bodies to decide when to rest. Walking through un-trailed landscapes, whether capital W wilderness or cattle estancias, requires attentiveness and it is wonderful to cultivate skills of observation and awareness. Walking down the well-trodden and well-marked trails of TDP, there was no need to pay attention to anything. However it raised a good challenge for the rest of this trip and, I think, for a future more-settled life (wherever that is) - a challenge to practice attentiveness in all settings, to keep cultivating curiosity about places and appreciate small discoveries along the way.

I hope to keep these things in mind as we head off next to hike from El Chalten, Argentina to Villa O´Higgens, Chile. More from us (and hopefully more opportunities to upload photos) after that!

Say hello to "Ramstein"

01-26

Well, we just finished the Dientes De Navarino Circuit (DDNC) and were excited to connect this hike with a hike to Lago Windhond. We felt good, our legs were strong and we just needed to resupply in Puerto Williams since we already got some basic information about the Lago Windhond Circuit (LWC) before we started the DDNC. After a short shopping trip and rental of a fishing pole we stopped by our hostel, (Hostal Lajuwa in Villa Ukika) to grab some more items.

The one trail option to LW started right at our hostel and our very friendly host Christian confirmed the way. Of we went, up the valley, proud to only stopped in town for ma couple hours so this should feel like a longer, connected trip. After 2 hours of hiking "in the right direction" we started to wonder where the actual trail will start. It started to get dark and we were at a point to choose between a river crossing (old, collapsed bridge) or to go on, further into the woods. The map we had from the DDNC only showed part of the LWC, the start, but not how to get to the trail head :-(. Anyway, we hiked for another 30 minutes, passing several side trails and exploring some of them but non of them were leading to the trail head. At one point we knew that we went to far into the next valley so we decided to turn around and to give the river crossing a try. It´s not to much fun to get your feet wet at the end of a long day when you are tired and ready to camp. However, we saw this as our last option for the day. We crossed the river and after 3 minutes came across a big opening where we encountered several cows. So far, when we met cows, they just ran off but this time a big black bull decided to slowly walk towards us and to let us know that he is not moving by making his deep, loud "muhhh"s. OK, now it was time to leave and to turn around.  From this side of the river we spotted an OK camp spot so we decided to camp there for the night and to go to town again the next day to get precise trail head information.

The next morning we retraced our steps to town in less then an hour and we went to the same outfitter where I rented the fishing gear. Well, it looked like we were in the right place, we just didn´t find the trail head or see it...So after a short stop at the store for a second breakfast we hit the road out of town again, this time also with the map showing the entire LWC. Walking out of town we noticed a dog next to us, following us and being on our side at every turn. At one point I said to Karen " What if he is our guard dog who will come with us to LW to protect us from the wild dogs that are at the lake? (Hikers, who did the trail, apparently sometimes have problems with or at least encountered wild dogs at the lake). He certainly looked like a tough guy with one of hi K9 already missing and his jaw being out of alignment...


Well, we were still kind of close to town so he must or will turn around eventually, right?!? Anyway, back at our river crossing and close to our campsite there should be a sign that marks the trail head so we were hopeful but also a little bit sceptical at the same time. The 3 of us reached the point where Karen and I crossed the river and after 2 min on our original trail we saw an old, rusty looking 1m x 1m "something". I noticed that "thing" yesterday too but didn´t check it out closer. Now we had a closer look and yes, it was our trail head sign!!! So yes, we already were here yesterday, camped 3 minutes away but went back to town to get more info on how to get here...lesson learned :-).

We took the path, crossed the right river arm this time and we were on our way. We being, Karen, the dog and I. Well, now we were in the middle of the woods and it was more and more unlikely that the dog would just return. What to do? We don not have any extra food for this strong looking, short haired, blue eyed, 60 pound male dog! Well, it´s his choice - we are out here for at least 4 days.

As we continued on this beautiful, remote hike to this big lake on Isla Navarino Karen and I started talking about more and more about the dog, AND, he needed a name too! I suggested  Pelé, like the famous soccer player but Karen didn´t really like this name. My next suggestion was Ramstein, Karen liked it, and that was his name from now on. Ramstein, our hiking buddy and protection-guide dog.

Ramstein resting
He stayed very close to either Karen or me all the time, rested and fell a sleep when we stopped, and made himself a good, cozy bed for the night when Karen and I set up our tent and he was right there in the morning. We arrived at the lake refugio on day 2 of our hike and Ramstein was still in good spirit, besides the the cold, rainy weather. At the refugio we met Manuela, Gabriel, Phillippe from Chile, which we met before we went to hike the DDNC at our hostel, their friend Andreas and John from France. They were at the refugio for several days now but only John managed to catch several fish so far. The rustic refugio had a wood stove but no more door and was a pleasant change to the wet and rainy environment we were in for the last day. We were able to fit our tent inside the structure to utilize the extra weather protection. Ramstein, Karen and I agreed, had to stay and sleep outside. However, that evening the rain turned into hail and Ramstein, who listened very well came sprinting into the refugio to find his own corner to rest. At this point he only had some left-over polenta and some fish skin from John´s fish in his stomach but he still behaved very well and never bagged for anyones food. However, we could tell he was hungry and the plan was to catch a fish for him. One for us and one for Ramstein.

Refugio Windhond
Well, the fishing didn´t work out, for non of us and we all left the refugio that day. The wind picked up in the afternoon again and in the evening, at our campsite at Lagune Salto it was raining hard too. Ramstein found a nice protected spot under some bushes again but couldn´t resist bagging for our mushed potatoes that night. In the morning he got half a package of crackers (that we didn´t like) and we were starting to make plans to buy him a big piece of meat or some sausages, to reward his companionship and trail finding abilities, once we are back in town. Getting closer to town, Ramstein found a quarter of a cow-leg and carried it proud in his mouth but for some reason he didn´t bring it all the way to town.

Hiking with Ramstein
We reached the outskirts of Puerto Williams and he was still with us but closer to the town center he was gone... :-( ... bummer, we thought! We ran some errands in town and got a snack at the supermarket. After finishing the snack we saw him again, walking down the street, and we called him over because it was reward time. I got a big package of sausages in the store and we feed them one by one to Ramstein - he was very happy to get some "real food" (and very hungry, snapping after and catching the sausages while still in the air). Now we were one team again and he followed us all the way top the hostel. Ramstein was even so close to us that he decided to sleep right in front of the hostal´s entry door (for at least 4 hours) while we got clean and did laundry inside. What a companion! Sometimes that evening he must have left but we still saw him the next day in town and if he saw us, he came over and followed us for a while. We told our Ramstein story to our host and several other people we met before and that night we found out that Ramstein was already well missed in town, that his real name was Austral, his owner is a 3 year old boy and that he is know for fighting cars that drive down the road (that´s how he lost his K9 and explains his out-of place jaw).

Well, Austral, you were a good, loyal hiking companion! The lesson learned for us is that we better get ALL the information we need, even if it is only the exact starting point location, BEFORE leaving town but that little mishaps like this might lead to a different hiking experience and might even bring you a special hiking buddy....