Sunday, December 21, 2008

Heading South in New Zealand



Mostly we watched movies on the 11 hour flight to Auckland. Trans-oceanic flights these days have personal video systems and I tried hard to synch mine with Peggy's so we could watch the same movies together.

Once in Christchurch, we rented a car off-airport, then headed south immediately to scope out our first intended packrafting route: Arthur's Pass to Mt Cook, which was now being shortened to Arthur's Pass to Lake Tekapo.

But before dragging her off to another wet, cold, and windy landscape of icy waters and steep mountain passes, I thought I'd give Peggy a taste of the NZ countryside and pinot noir by driving down to Invercargill and Bluff at the south end of the South Island, then taking an hour long ferry to Stewart Island, New Zealand's biggest wild island.

On the way down, Peggy observed that everywhere the land had been touched -- and mostly by sheep! Only on the coast was there any real wildness, and this just a thin band.

At Nugget Point south of Dunedin we watched a loan, yellow-eyed penguin, rarest in the world apparently, waiting for its mate to come beachside with food from the sea. It was about two, maybe three feet tall, standing forlornly among cantaloupe-shaped rocks, staring into the bay.

Our bins also picked out a handful of sea lions, some fur seals and couple of monster pinnepeds we could not identify. It was great animal watching and I got the wits scared out of me by a sea lion mother I thought was a boulder, as I walked too close to her on the beach. Peggy laughed as I stumbled backwards over rocks and driftwood, bowled over by the roar. Her cub had big eyes and a slim dark body. It waddled out to the surf and swam away after watching us long and hard.

The hour long ferry to Stewart pitched and twisted in confused seas. Peggy feared it would turn over in the waves of the roaring 40s, except that the young captain was totally relaxed and half the other passengers were laughing and enjoying the ride. Like Peggy, however, the other half were green and clutching their bellies.

An hour is just about the amount of time it takes to fully trigger the gag reflex when sea-sick. Luckily we made it Sterwart on time to miss that....

Stewart island is famous for its abundance of kiwi birds. We wanted to go on a Kiwi night-spotting excursion, but the rough seas cancelled it. Peggy was too nauseated to go anyway, so it was all good.

In the morning, we caught a short launch to Ulva Island and spent nearly seven hours watching birds, mostly small and exceedingly tame, forest song birds.
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Ulva is unique in that it has no rats, deer, weasels, pigs, cats, foxes, or other exotic predators that have wiped out native birds elsewhere in NZ. Given that safety, New Zealand conservation biologists have reintroduced a number of rare and endangered birds, like the saddleback, Stewart Island robin, and yellow head. On top of all that managed ecology, the sanctuary is open to the public.

It's a marvelous rainforest of southern hemisphere podocarps, trees that I hesitate to call conifers as they have neither cones nor needles, but are nevertheless distantly related to pines, spruce, and redwoods.

The ground is rich with herbaceous plants, those tender greens that elsewhere in NZ the introduced pussums and deer devour. Filmy ferns were abundant, like they are in Borneo's rain-forests. Indeed, the aspect of the place was distinctly South Pacific tropical (Hawaii comes to mind), but cool and wet like the Olympic Peninsula, with penguins swimming out by the beaches, big colorful pigeons in the trees and parrots. And it was noisy. North American and South American temperate rain-forests are surprisingly quiet. Not so here. We spent the next several hours learning who makes what calls among the natural community of 15-20 forest birds.

Being early December, the birds were all in nesting, territorial mode, and so noisily sounding their territories.

The tui, an aggressive flyer with harsh wing beats is a black, robin-sized body with two odd white wattles. It made a cacaphony of sounds, exceeded only in weirdness and diversity of sounds by the smaller, yellowish-green bellbird. The bellbird meowed, rattled, honked, and beeped. It was wonderful.

Three other birds approached us closely. The big, flightless rails called wekas, pecked at our feet and shoe-laces. videoThey stirred up the forest floor with their strong feet and sturdy bills. We saw the most of these bold chicken-like birds out on the beaches where they inspected the flotsam. The beaches had sea birds and oystercatchers, too.

When we stirred up the forest floor with our own feet, the so-called Stewart Island robins, whose bodies are about the size of big chickadees but on long legs, would fly down to the newly uncovered earth, tilt their head, then grab insects and spiders in their short beaks.

The grey fantail also flew near. With its wings hanging slightly,it would swing its body as well as its fanned-out tail in the shrubbery nearby us. It seemed almost acrobatic, this little song bird.

Often there'd be no bird action at all, and then five species or more would be all around us. I've seen this not just in birds, but in mammals and other animals as well: when you're in the animals, you're in them -- with lots of action. Then, in between these hot-spots -- nothing.

We saw a pair of the big, greenish and rufous Kaka parrots loudly gnawing at branch wood, like big aerial rodents, and two fast flying green parakeet species, who'd hang around long enough - sometimes - for us to make out whether their foreheads were red or yellow.
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Anyway, it was a neat place to watch and listen to birds, probably the neatest place for bird watching I'd ever been. There were many birds, exotic for us, and noisy and colorful, too. They were relatively tame, and even better, they interacted with us.

I wondered if this isn't the model of future conservation areas: walk-in zoos, where native species are actively reintroduced while non-natives weeded out. Unlike the zoos of the 20th century that showed us exotic species from around the world, what we'll likely prefer to see, given the common distaste for cages, are wild species in a chaotic garden. And the ones that would fit best in our local climates will be the native animals that used to fill the woods and meadows, now gone.

Australia and New Zealand, given that they already have natural islands with which to work and the necessity of using them to protect their species, seem to be leading the way. Meanwhile, Yellowstone is still a controversial experiment in a single-species reintroduction, the wolf. One problem with non-island parks is that their borders are absorbing boundaries: wolves leaving Yellowstone are likely killed, while on true islands, the animals reaching the edges rarely choose to try and leave. They can't.
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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Santiago

Five hours of busses, a late night of packing, then a 5:30 AM taxi to catch a 7 AM flight to Santiago, where we killed 12 hours in town.

A young Chilean guide on the airplane suggested we climb Cerro San Cristobal in the city's Metropolitan Park. On our way there we shared a shuttle with a couple of Stanford girls on their Junior year abroad. They suggested we visit the Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda's house, La Chascona (see photo) at the base of the hill in Bellavista.

The base of San Cristobol is laced with trails, used more by sweethearts than nature lovers. Our route semed to pass through a habitat division of love: first and closest to the base were the young men with older women habitats, centered near the zoo. Farther afield young boys and girls gamboled; then, in a remote area also frequented by sleeping taxi drivers, young girls with young girls held hands and kissed; then, after our stint through the deep woods, we found the high parking lots were frequented by middle aged couples.

As usual, Peggy pointed out, even a walk in the park with me is not always fun and games. I thought that we'd take a "short cut" through the woods, but underestimated just how tall San Cristobol was. On the way up we followed the paths of the destitute whose shacks stood in the woods beneath plum trees.

The hill was made a park over 90 years ago with the intention of turning the dry scrub into a forested arboretum. We contoured for hours in the sweltering sun of their early summer on paths wet from shallow, leaking, irrigation pipes The woods thesmelves were to thick and the hill too steep and dry to actually go straight up.

We eventually found our way out and to the top, where we ate ice cream bars and rested our feet and backs before heading down and splitting a charrusco sandwich, a glass of red wine, and a pisco sour, thus completing our Chilean cultural experience.

After 12 hours in South America's sixth largest city of nearly six million, we were ready to head for New Zealand's South Island, population one million.

And on the 8th day we reached the road.

Peggy felt better in the morning.

The skies were overcast and gray with a low ceiling. Little wind and no rain made for a cool but otherwise comfortable morning. We had neither food nor time to visit the Valle France, arguably the most scenic, what with views of granite needles as well as icy walls. But the weather was bad and we'd have no view anyhow.

We made good time despite muddy trails and literal boat-loads of people coming the other way. A catamaran brings tourist several times daily from the road to Refugio Pehoe, a lodge really, across Lago Pehoe. There were over 40 people milling about Campamento Italiano, at the base of the Valle France.

We'd completed our circumnavigation of the Paine Massif at Lago Pehoe, and from there we were retracing our route back to the Administration Center. It rained most of the way to the Rio Grey, a big river with bergy-bits and a strong current but little drop.
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"This is a Peggy-kind of river!" It was much like the big, fast flowing Noatak River we'd packrafted last June in NW Alaska.

But this time she dressed in her drysuit, and, warm and toasty, felt comfortable.

The river was fast and easy. When we pulled over to put some air in the leaky boat, we found huemul tracks on the beach. These little deer, stocky with simple antlers, are on the national symbol of Chile, yet rare and endangered. We had seen none on our Circuit, so seeing their tracks here was exciting.

We relaxed as best we could with the boat deflating rather quickly. Peggy grew annoyed that we pulled over every ten minutes to put more air in the boat and threatened to walk. I calmed her by just paddling harder and encouraging her to do likewise.

We reached the bridge over the Rio Grey at about 7 PM, just as the wind picked up. Ahh, that good old Patagonian wind. Old man wind just had to come out and say goodbye in his manic way.

We walked a couple miles of gravel road to the Administration Center, checked into the Rio Serrano Posada, and ordered up the local specialty for dinner: rare steak, onions, eggs, and french fries. We celebrated with a half bottle of wine and a shower before sinking into soft bunks.

It had been a good trip on a world-class trekking circuit, with wildlife and whitewater, and friendships made en route. Our packs had been a bit heavy, but we couldn't really complain about the weather. Only the first and last days had rained. The backside of the Massif had been mostly ours and the Rio Paine and Rio Grey completely ours.

In short, it had been what we came to South America to do: a classic, international packrafting trip.

THE ROUTE: video

Day 7 -- The longest, most scenic.


The problem with the "W" is it's all "front-country". Refugios are common and full of party-goers, swapping lies, drinks, and bunks. Great if you're 20 or 30-something, single, and multilingual, but not if your late-40's, married, and tired, with your best Spanish phrase being "Hablas usted Ingles?"

The problem with the "Circuit", the way most people do it, is that you miss the most scenic viewpoints in favor of remoteness and variety. The most scenic sections include the Valle Acsension, Valle France, and the trail linking the two. The two valles get you up into high country with spectacular views of the signature and namesake peaks.

Our intention was to do a full Circuit, all the way round, clockwise (most people go anti-clockwise), a visit into the two Valles.

Jeroon had told us we could make Campamento Cuernos in two hours. Maybe the Roman Dial of Arctic1000 fame could, but not the Roman Dial watching birds and hauling two 6' by 2' by 2" Thermarests around. We dallied in camp until 10 AM.

"Ruben!"

It sounded enough like "Roman" that I spun around to see the lanky form of Lucien and his sprightly girlfriend Carey. This was the couple we'd met our first morning. They'd caught us by walking the full distance from Lago Dickson to here in a day -- 30 km or so.

It was good to see them and Lucien and I shared stories about conditions on the "closed" Circuit.

Our packraft had not, but likely could have, sped up our journey. Instead it had added another dimension. A two-day river trip with wildlife and whitewater, plus a chance to get off of, rather than beat up, our feet.

Yet even among our new friends, Lucien and Carey, Jeroon and Jenny, I was struck by how hydrophobic most hikers are. Similarly I knew how even dorky ducky boaters in inflatable kayaks and pack-catamarans weren't willing to walk more than a single overnight.

Like other amphibians worldwide, it seemed, we packrafters just don't fit in.

Lucien and Carey planned to spend two nights here while doing the Torres look-out as a day trip. We, too planned to see the look-out without overnight gear, but still planned to make it to Cuernos, directly below the signature peaks of the Park and near the shore of its most complex lake, Nordensjold.

This would prove to be a bit ambitious......

We stopped at the new lodge and looked at the bird and plant books to identify all the neat and painful creatures we'd encountered over the last week, putting names to colors and shapes. It's there we discovered that what we thought were slipper orchids were exotic, Patagonian snapdragons.

A mile later we slipped into a wind-stunted nirre grove and dropped our packs, taking just shells, a handful of food, and a water bottle for the three or so hour trek to the Torres viewpoint.

The trail was steep and eroded, crowded with people with big bodies and little gear or little bodies and too much gear. We passed them in bunches of two, four and eight. We jogged down the trail when it rolled along a contour above the steep and rocky Rio Ascension and hustled in the woods upstream, catching Lucien and Carey after the scenicly located Refugio.

I announced our presence and we hiked together, they picking up their pace to match ours. They told of us of their travels around South America and how they had reached into their December dollars to fund this trek. But the Paine Circuit had lived up to their expectations of scenic splendor, and like us they found the closed Circuit challenge especially rewarding.

The crowds were thick, picking their way up the final 1000 foot climb over granite boulders and along a sparking snowmelt stream. But in the intense southern hemisphere alpine light, engaged in conversation with this young couple from South Australia, time and people passed by easily.

They told us of wine tours (free!) by bicycle and Kanagaroo Island, of hiking the Summer Grampians, their local range, carrying water. Lucien was Australian but of American parents, both professors at the University in Adelaide. No wonder we liked these kids.

We told them we planned to be in Adelaide in February or March and they gave us their emails and invited us to see them there. We said we would look them up and take them to dinner.

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Leaving them to soak up the sight of the Tres Torres del Paine, we hustled back down the talus, through the woods, and along the eroded trail to our waiting packs, famished.

The up-and-back had taken five hours and much more climbing than we'd expected. The map was to blame in part. The contours were something like 200 m and the trail locations and hiking times often wrong.

I am a map-reading fanatic, treating their symbology as spatial literature. But this Torres del Paine Trekking map was like bad pulp fiction -- a horrible read with missing contours, misplaced trails, and fragile printing paper to boot, like a novel posing as non-fiction and telling a bad story as it the book itself fell-apart.

We were running low on food, with at least 40 km to go to the bus stop for our return.

The windy trail along a series of ponds and lakes was long, rocky, and empty of other hikers. They must have all stopped early. It was 5 PM when we left our packs' hiding place, and it soon became apparent that the "two hours" Jeroon had promised looked more like five.

It was beautiful, if windy, and sunny. Long views of rugged lake coastlines with grassland foothills and distant, glacier-covered peaks, all the while with the Paine Massif rearing to our right. The walking went on for hours.

"Let's just camp there." Peggy pointed to a bare spot beneath some nirre.

"No. You're not suposed to camp anywehere but the campgrounds, and I don't want to get caught, right alongside the taril.

"It's just another hour." It was 8 PM. "Let's keep going."

As it got late we hustled onward, knowing that the campground might be full when we got there.

We jogged down the hills to find the campground small, rocky, brushy and full.


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"No more racing! Why does every trip have to be a race! From now on we're going to set some new rules."

It was the end of a long day. We were camped at Campamento Cuernos on lumpy grass surrounded by horse-sh*t. A stiff wind blew down the icy Horns of Paine. We'd eaten nothing for hours. Our feet hurt.

"From now on, we're not going more than ten miles a day, we're going to stop early, and we're not running down the trail!"

Day 6 – A short one, off-trail and in camp.


“Wow, Peggy -- six months around the world. You’re going to have a great time!” said our friend Kristin in Anchorage. “Patagonia, New Zealand, Australia, Borneo, Africa. Hiking and packrafting. Watching animals. Cool!”

“Yea, well Kristin, you have to remember who I am going with," she replied. "It’s not all fun and games with Roman Dial."

Today Peggy recounted that conversation to me. This after several hours of picking our way through burned-out nirre woods, and at least three kinds of pokey brush: the long-spined calafate; some sort of Patagonian tumbleweed, with its hollow body but poky pale green spherical exterior; and what looks like a genetically modified cranberry, leaves shiny dark and also pokey, with a sour, orangish berry.

We had the usual Patagonian weather: wind with sun, wind with overcast, wind with rain, repeat.

We stopped often and bird-watched: the tame, little winter wren-like birds hopping through thick scrub along creeks; a pair of noisy, fast-flying Austral parakeets; pale-colored robins called Austral thrush; the ever-present, black with brown-back but otherwise sparrow-like Austral negrito; the flame breasted and noisy long-tailed meadowlark; Chilean flickers, those woodpeckers that spend as much time on the ground eating ants as they do on trees; caracaras of two species (one typical, one hawk-like), kestrels, and condors; a stumpy-tailed buzzard eagle; and an odd plant-clipper, a beefy bird, smaller than a robin with a thick bill used to snip buds and leaves; and the ever-present rufous collared sparrow, with the bold, crested males.

Peggy likes leaving the trail -- she says you see more. But it also means wet feet and long steps, thorns in the shins and bushes in the face. She likes the satisfaction of finding her own way.

Peggy led most of the way, with me stepping in when the going got particular pokey or wet, either underfoot with creek crossings or after a rain in the "car-wash" brush.

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As we left the steppe and pampas and burned out woodland, the brush thickened and was cut by more ravines. The rain shadows are sharp in Patagonia due to the ever-present wind and steep and complex terrain. AT one stream we found the pug mark of a puma in the soft, wet sand.

"I'd love to see a big cat!" Peggy commented.

Even though we we were off trail, we were nearing the most commonly visited place in the Park, Torres Grande, with a huge new lodge, a funky old hotel, an expensive hostel (Peso 20,000 per night!), and a clean, green, multilingual campground with hot water, friends, lots of birds, a good view and firm, green grass for tenting.

We'd not spoken to anyone else in days, since leaving the manic Dutchman with his roller-travel pack at Los Perros. It was actually delightful to see all these outdoor people, some wealthy and dour with five thousand-dollar camcorders, others dirt-poor and happy with tattered tents next to beat-up bikes. Everyone had an accent. It was totally international. We greeted Aussies and Frenchmen, Germans and Canadians.

We pitched our bright yellow pyramid on a golf green campsite. Little rufous-collared sparrows hopped at our feet while the Torres del Paine, like sharp, slender Kitchatna Spires, poked through the clouds.

The camping was pricey, but the prospect of a hot shower and conversation convinced us to splurge. The night before we'd camped on an ant hill, the only ground bare of pokey plants we could find. In the morning breaking camp, we'd even found a scorpion under one of our tent anchor rocks -- this within view of glaciers less than 5 miles away



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We looked around. Most people trekked in typically Euro-style with gaiters and zip-on bibs, leather boots, cordura packs, and dome-shaped tents. One tanned and athletic looking man stood out -- indeed he walked past us twice. He wore shorts and a short-sleeved shirt with trail running shoes.

He, alone in this crowded place, came from our tribe.

"Is that a Go Lite tent?" There he stood, right at our campsite. I looked up from pounding pegs. He smiled.

Surprised, I answered, "Yea. It is."

"I have the same one, but it's green." He emphasized the color. "I should've got the orange one." He sounded European.

"What is that? A paddle?" he asked as I erected the pyramid with Peggy's adjustable paddle. "Are you kayaking?"

He waved his arms in paddle strokes.

"Paddling, yes, a small boat. It fits in the pack."

"And you have Go-Lite packs." He was observant and well-versed in gear.

"Do you have a Go Lite pack?" I responded.

"No. Gossamer. But my girlfriend does."

"Where are you from?"

"The Netherlands."

"You can get that stuff there?"

"No, the internet." Ah, yes, the true globalizer.

"Oh."

"Where are you from?"

"Alaska."

"Are you paddling....," he looked for the word, "....packrafts?"

This surprised me too much to speak. I simply nodded. But what he said next shocked me.

"Are you....., " again, searching for the right words in his memory, "....Roman Dial."

It was as if I'd just pulled out at Campground Rapids, 20 minutes from my house in Anchorage.

"I read about you on Backpacking Light -- your, uhhhh, Arctic 1000 with Ryan Jordan. And also in the Patagonia Catalog with.....Carl Tobin."

My eyes were wide. Peggy and I looked at each other.

"Wow, I am really flattered. What a coincidence to meet another Backpackinglighter here, in Patagonia."

We stepped forward and shook hands in greeting.

"Well, hello. This is Peggy..."

His girlfriend was there now. Her accent was a little harder to pin down, "Yes, Juroon has a really good memory for those types of things."

We talked a while while I tightened the tent against the gusts. Jenny and Juroon were on a 15 month trip -- NZ, South America, the USA. She was from Vermont, but raised in the Netherlands.

There on the lawn, in plain view, were our pads. Each pad weighed as much as Ryan Jordan's base weight -- A good 5 pounds of six foot by two foot by two inches pad plus sleeves and poles to turn the pad into a veritable sofa chair. And our binoculars! Each weighed what felt like several days worth of food.

Jaroon had caught me, infamous for traveling light, fast and far, with a veritable metric ton of gear eschewed on BackpackingLight.com.

After dinner, over tea, cookies and chocolate, I found that like us, Jenny and Juroon, carried very lightweight things, so they could add in other gear as well.

We four were, indeed, from the same tribe: the backpacking-light to travel-heavy one!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Day 5 – On which I flip the boat and get my fill of whitewater.


It all began calmly enough, quite relaxing, really, with time enough to watch a beefy Patagonian fox, coyote-sized and rufous, through binoculars in the boat. It sat on the grassy left bank of the Rio Paine, annoyed with the screeching alarm calls of nesting birds in a copse of trees not far away. Downstream a slender rufous hawk dealt with mobbing blackbirds and the waters quickened and made a tight left turn.

“Let’s get out!”

We beached the boat where the river dropped into a canyon with rounded hills tight to each side.

I left Peggy to watch the avian drama through her bins while I followed cow paths through the grassland and scouted the next three sets of rapids.

I ran them handily while Peggy walked and videoed, meeting her below, where the whole river folded into a narrow gap plunging over a four foot ledge. It looked runnable, and if I flipped there was a big pool below to catch me.

Peggy encouraged me. “Oh you can do it!”

I had a line in mind, but decide to go somewhat left and, as Peggy would recount afterword, “right in the middle of the worst of it!”

Sliding down the tongue, I backstroked once then twice in an effort to time the breaking of the wave, but it still toppled me, folding the front load over and flipping me.

Unlike the test sticks I’d tossed in while scouting, I was held under for a surprisingly long time. I guess I’d become accustomed to a quick rise with PFD and dry suit, but now with no drysuit and only the back half of my two-piece PFD, I was shocked by cold water and swirling current.


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I popped out and grabbed the boat.

“Are you OK!”

I nodded, but was too busy holding the paddle and the boat to signal back with hand on head as an “OK”.

My attempt to right the boat failed. The pad on the bow and the 50 pounds in the stern stymied me. The left walls broke into a submerged ledge and I swam toward it, struggling to pull myself up its slimy surface. Once on top, I flipped the boat right side up and paddled over to Peggy, who, surprisingly was ready to hop in.

More rapids below we scouted together and I was surprised that Peggy wanted to run them with me, even after watching me swim -- and that superimposed on her stated dislike of whitewater.

So we ran them together and were nearly flipped when “bander-snatched” and swamped in a weird eddy line. But with two of us paddling we muscled free easily of the sucking river.

“Slow down!” Peggy was paddling furiously, too fast for me to keep up and we banged our blades. For the rest of the afternoon, I’d know when Peggy was nervous because her paddles would whip urgently.

We ran a half dozen more drops we scouted, carefully mapping out our line. I encouraged Peggy to pick the line and describe it to me, and she did.

We knew the Paine Cascades were coming up and so got out for every blind corner. The drops over slatey ledges were getting bigger and more frequent as the river left the mountains for foothills and plains.

Eventually we reached another set of three drops that we decided would be best if Peggy walked. Below that I looked ahead and found a Class IV drop followed shortly by a Class V double plunge that I wanted nothing to do with.

It was still early, but I wanted to dry out our gear before packing and making an early camp would give us time to explore the pampas grasslands.

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We made camp and set out for a couple hours walk. The rapids grew bigger and more challenging, with several Class IV drops and then the beautiful Paine Cascades. They looked like a miniature Niagara Falls, horseshoe shaped and split by an island. On the far side was the parking area where tourists snapped photos a dn marveled at the beauty and power.

We walked back through the grassland. There were birds and a handsome skunk, running as we flushed it from a guanaco carcass. Dried by the wind and sun and picked clean by condors, fox, and the grumpy skunk, it had no smell and we inspected the weird creature’s remains.

Guanacos are the wild relatives of llamas and alpacas. We’d spotted two lone males on the hillsides above the river in the last two days. Here we could see that besides their long necks, their long legs ended in strange, padded, two-toed hooves that looked like long callouses ending in claws. Their aws had both upper and lower incisors, unlike sheep, cattle, and deer, and canines, too. While llamas are known to spit, if they had a mouth full of teeth like their wild cousin, no doubt they could bight as painfully as horses.

The pampas were in bloom and while I satisfied myself with their beautiful colors, Peggy indulged in her excellent olfactory sense by sniffing the fragrance of each new flower.

Our favorite finds were what looked to be little yellow slipper “orchids” or beefy, orange ones. Later we’d discover in plant books that these were not orchids, but instead elaborate snapdragons.

The pampas were pokey with dwarf calafate and other spiny plants and we had to pick our way slowly back to camp, finding patches of morels, skulls of fox and skunk and other bones on our way back to our camp. We glassed a cave on a high hill, vowing to visit it tomorrow on our way to the trail. Perhaps a cat cave? We wished very much to see a puma, and Peggy thought this might be a good place for one to live.

It had been another ideal day of packrafting, mixing walking and boating with excitement, adventure, challenge, as well as new plants and insights into wildlife.
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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Day 4 – On which we hike and finally raft.

We left Perros across a moraine, pausing to look at a hanging glacier spitting ice chunks onto an avalanche cone above a gray lake. Steep, 500 foot tall glacial deposits lined the mountain side of the lake, making it look impossible.


We walked through a short section of krumoltz beech into beautiful lenga forest for a few hours. The Rio Perros was too steep and low for rafting. At one point the river dropped into a sieve, then poured forth from a cave in a 20 foot waterfall. Spooky.

The woods were a beautiful, new green, like the east coast of the US in springtime. We made good time, but the distance felt greater than the map suggested.


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The trail broke into woodland. Behind us were skyscapes of wind-whipped clouds and rose-tinted granite walls, a thousand meters high. In front of us the Dickson Glacier fed icebergs to Lago Dickson. Lago Dickson was the source of Rip Paine -- the great unknown: could we float it?

An hour later we struggled to keep out of the knee high, pokey calafate brush. We’d left the trail and moved down to the outlet of the lake. Waves broke over boulders and the river dropped faster than I’d anticipated. I hoped Peggy didn’t think it too scary, but I could sense the bit of trepidation born two decades ago in icy Alaskan waters with rain gear and no PFD.

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The initial part of the river spilling over an old moraine was filled with river-wide but easy rapids and we managed them with back-paddling through wave trains and ferrying round holes and boulders. Peggy was warm and dry in a dry suit, but I wore rain-gear and struggled to keep rogue waves from soaking me.

A horizon line and blind corner prompted a bankside scout and a suggestion that Peggy walk.

“Can you handle that big boat by yourself?”

“Sure! Do you mind walking?”

These were questions we both already knew answers to but asked as a means of encouragement, if not permission.

I ran the easy Class III while Peggy boulder hopped.
“Oh man! That boulder hopping’s great! How’s the water?”

“Challenging in the open boat! Do you want to video me while I run this next stretch? It looks good with the Torres in the background.”

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Back in the boat we cruised down the meandering, braided river, lined with nirre scrub. Snow capped mountains ran with waterfalls, geese whistled and lapwings screeched. We saw the slim little torrent duck, a whitewater watefowl with red beak and handsome black markings. It led us down splashy drops.

The river let up and slowed, still moving at 3-4 mph. It looked like we were nearing Lago Paine.

“Do you want to camp here or paddle across the lake? The weather’s nice now, but that beach looks comfy.”

“Let’s go for it, while we have good weather.”

The lake was long and took us an hour to cross. Every 15 minutes or so we’d stop and rest, letting the wind gently push us.

“This is a lot of work isn’t it?”

On the map it looked like there were plenty of other lakes to paddle along the Paine Circuit, but this experience was enough to put us off on any more of that.

We made camp. It had been a great day of packrafting, just what I’d hoped for: good walking and good boating through a variety of scenic landscapes with fine weather and even wildlife.
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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Day 3 – On which we find out why the Circuit is closed.


The wind was manic, pummeling us about the head and chest as we worked our way up the snowbound track. Yesterday’s blue skies had given way to a sinking, gray ceiling and we hoped to get over the pass before the weather shut us out.

So far we’d seen nothing that could stop anyone with even rudimentary mountain experience. But it was clear the trail had to be “closed” to keep out the hostel-crawling Euros who might otherwise require a costly rescue.

Leaving the calmness of Campamento Guardas a ranger stopped us on the trail. I think he asked us where we were going, but as usual when spoken to in another language, my ears seemed to lock up and the words just spilled over me like so much murky water.

“No comprendo Espanol,” I pleaded.

“Paso Campamento?” he replied as simply as he could, referring to the next camp.

“Oh, si, si! Claro,” I replied in half truth, still worried that we might end up in a Chilean jail for hiking on a closed trail.

We moved on and came to another big washout. The one the night before had a length of blue faded perlon knotted and hanging from a large lenga root. This one had a sign: “Trail closed”.

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Next to the sign were two packs and their owners -- an English couple who’d clearly never been to the Alps in Spring, -- were probing the edges of avalanche debris as if it were toxic.

“Are you going for the Circuit?” I asked when we, too, stood on the slide.

“We wanted to,” he said, “but we’re told it’s closed.”

Peggy and I marched by the gal waiting on the slide's edge, following a set of footprints across the corn-snow and upwards to the gully’s bank. From here there was no trail, so we made our way upslope to where the washed out trail reached the cut, calling down to the nervous Brit to follow the rim back up to the trail after they’d crossed.

Beyond, the trail zig-zagged up and down, sometimes through linga forest. Many of the trees were infected by a weird globular fungi that grew on burls. They looked like orange herpes on crusted brown warts. There was no wind yet and the trail was littered with the local Patagonian fox scat, coyote-sized.

The Grey Glacier was big and ablating below us. It looked like so many Alaskan glaciers, more melted than cracked. Who says the warming’s not global? People who stay inside and do little else besides count their money, I guess.


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As we reached the rather abrupt tree and snow line, the wind picked up and we lost the trail under the snow. Two sets of footprints weaved through the stunted nirre shrubs – Frenchmen we’d heard who were the first round the circuit had passed through a few days earlier. Hopefully we followed one set of tracks higher, until we could see trail markers poking through the snow. Most of the snow was ankle deep, sometimes to the shin, but easy.


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By the time we reached the pass, I was chilled and Peggy didn’t want to stop. Over the pass there was more snow, knee deep and what looked to be an hour or more of it. It looked and felt like Alaska but the wind howled in scary Patagonian gusts that threatened to -- and once did -- knock us over.


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“IT SEEMS LIKE IF IT GETS CALM, A BIG WIND IS COMING – LIKE A ROGUE WAVE AT SEA!” I shouted.

“YEA, IT’S LIKE OLD MAN WIND IS TAKING A DEEP BREATH BEFORE HE BLASTS US,” Peggy yelled back.

We stopped behind a boulder to put on another layer, choked down some calories and froze. The boulder did little to shelter us.


No sooner had we left knee deep snow – but not the wind -- than we struggled through shin-deep mud. The trail braided out into a maze of deep, stinky, wet tracks. Like a whitewater river filled with rapids, these mud runs were punctuated by sharp-sticks and undependable rocks, with no means of missing the foot-sucking mires. Poky-spined califate brush filled any dry land to waist height between the muck pits.

“This is why the trail’s closed – they haven’t put in the board-walk yet!”

We endured this for an hour, until the trail-braids coalesced within a wind-ravaged forest, leading us down stream to a rickety bridge across the puppy-sized Rio Perros.


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We crossed the bridge and shortly walked to the Los Perros camp with its run-down refugio, an empty mountain tent, and a green-tarped yurt with voices.

Inside, two Dutch boys smoked cigarettes and jumped out of their boots when we threw open the door.

Wide-eyed and with mixed-English accents they asked us about the route over the pass, whether or not they should attempt it. They, too, had heard the Circuit was closed but had hiked here in two days from the Park entrance.

One had learned Spanish in Mexico and spoke some English with an American accent, some with a Brit accent, and still more in Aussie. His pack was a travel bag with rollers.

“You won’t be able to pull that over the pass,” I joked, “the mud’s too deep.”

He smiled and asked earnestly, “Do you think we can make it to Grey tomorrow?”

“Oh yes,” I encouraged. “It’ll be hardest at the beginning. The mud and the snow are deep, the wind will be very strong and in your face, but you can do it – unless it snows tonight, you can do it. Just follow our tracks.”

I was glad we’d met no one on the other side who’d told us that.

It would have spoiled the uncertainty we savored.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Day 2 – On which we hike too far, too fast, and hurt ourselves.

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Camp Carretas had a shelter and we hung gear to dry over night, camping in our floorless pyramid shelter in the lee of a pile of logs.

While our first day had been windy and rainy, the cold and wet whispering “hypothermia my pretty”, the next morning dawned sunny and new, elaborate bird trilling and song in the forest overhead. While yesterday I wondered why anyone would come to Patagonia, today I saw why.

We slept in until noon, luxuriating on our two inch thick, full length Thermarest pads (5 pounds each with chair rods and covers) and warm sleep gear. The sun warmed the interior of the ‘Mid. It was the best rest we’d had since leaving Anchorage four days ago.

We slept in long enough that other hikers arrived to make camp before we’d climbed out of bed. A conversation drifted into our tent between an American finishing the W and a young Aussie-American couple just starting.

I heard the words “Circuit” , “closed”, “giving it a go, anyway” and decided to get out of the tent and join the conversation.

Lucien and Carey were at the end of their five month tour, mostly in South America, and, like us, had come to expensive Paine just for the Circuit. And they, like us, were going to give a go.

“It’s only about seven hours to Guardas,” I butted in. “And it doesn’t get dark until nine thirty. Are you guys going to camp here tonight?”

We gave them our spot and hustled out into the wind at three in the afternoon.

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“This wind is bi-polar,” Peggy observed. “It’s just crazy, how it goes from blowing you over to dead calm.”

The trail paralleled the Rio Grey, a high-volume, smooth flowing river that drained Lago Grey, a main Park’s highlight as the huge Glacier Grey dropped off the Southern Patagonia Icecap and disgorged its calving bergs into the lake. Bergy bits floated downstream.

“That water looks nice,” she commented. I was pleased to hear this, as I hoped we would finish our week-long trip with a float down the Rio Grey, the two of us in our big packraft. “It looks like the Noatak.”

The trail wove in and out of thickets of southern beech, bonsai’d and bent from the wind, then through wind-blasted meadows saturated from the spring rains and melt.

The Cuernos – or Horns – were out in full splendor.

“They look like some of that chert we’ve seen, worked into arrow-heads,” Peggy commented and indeed they did, like the big chunk of rock that stone tool makers cleave their heads from.

The first ten km went quickly and we passed through the surprising development of buildings, lodges, eco-camps, tents, and the catamaran dock that made up Refugio Lago Pehoe. Climbing above the small village – not sure what else to call it – we were running late. It was already six and we were coming to a hilly and windy section along Lago Grey.

We moved into stunted nirre scrub. It clung to the raw glacier scraped landscape like alders, but with smaller leaves and smoother bark. The nearby icefield, big glaciers, and icebergs in a glacier-carved, gray colored lake, cast a more Alaskan look than any place I’d ever been. It looked like the Kenai. Hell, it looked like the terrain above Skilak Glacier where it dumps into its own iceberg filled lake. But two aspects said not-Alaska: first was the tourist-choked trail and second were the rime encrusted black spires and white granite towers above.

Peggy, in her always pragmatic way, had insisted we bring the mega-foam pads, our car-camping sized, Deluxe Thermarests. And in her responsible way, she’d insisted on carrying them, because “I don’t want you to hurt your back.”


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But now, with me pushing the pace to get to the Camp Guardas (which was free – most campgrounds in Torres del Paine cost around $7 per person) our camp luxury burdened us. I felt like Col. Randon on the River of Doubt expedition, wishing for lightness but happy to be comfortable. But unlike Pres. Roosevelt I didn’t step forward to help.

So in the fading light of a southern beech, when kilometers feel like miles and hours pass like minutes, a whimper drifted up the trail. Peggy had strained her knee.

I should have taken those pads, I thought to myself. Peggy soldiered on.

Soon after, we crossed a brook bouncing down a rocky gully, and there was Campamento Guardas.

Beneath a gap in the spring green canopy of 60 foot lenga trees, we pitched the ‘Mid, dressed warmly, and ate a Jet-Boil dinner. Soon after I fell asleep, but Peggy, like a horse that had been ridden hard and put away wet, couldn’t eat much and didn’t sleep as I learned in the morning.

But so far we could see no reason not to push on with the Circuit. We headed onward and upward for the most remote part of the Circuit, the pass from Lago Grey to Rio Perros.

Day 1 -- On which we enter the Park

We walked a mile and a half before Peggy hooked us a ride: a late model, double-cab pickup.

Peggy smiled that big, heart-melting toothy smile of hers and we jogged to the vehicle, its cab full of smoke.

"He's a smoker," I warned.

"I don't care. Let's get out of here."

I pulled open the door and tried my favorite Spanish phrase on the driver.

"Hablas usted Ingles?"

"No," came the reply. I breathed deep. This used to be fun. When I was younger. Now it was just a hassle.

"Vamanos Torres del Paine?"

"Si."

We threw our stuff in the back and hopped in.

The driver sped over the gravel roads, making Peggy nervous. She and I spoke boldly in English. There's no way she'd let me drive that fast, she said. I told her, I knew that, but couldn't ask him to slow down.

Somehow, between drifting through corners and fishtailing down straightaways, the driver and I exchanged names and professions -- Bernardo operated an outboard motor tour down the Rio Serrano, a big river forming the southern border to the Park. The only other packrafters I'd heard of here -- a German couple on a round-the-world bike-tour -- had paddled the 10 km down the Serrano and around the edge of one of the lakes. We planned to hike and raft the 150 km around the Paine massif, paralleling the classic Paine Circuit.

Bernardo dropped us at the bridge over the Serrano, pointing out three Andean condors soaring over the river. We stepped into the weather, an overcast sky wanting to rain but seeming unable to with such an unrelenting wind. The famous peaks were obscured by cloud.

It was three miles of more gravel, into a head-wind to the Park gate. The rain finally made it to the ground when we ducked inside the guard shack. Met by humorless Chileans in uniform, we discovered that the Paine Circuit was closed. We would have to do the much more popular, shorter, and un-packraftable "W".

One guard spoke very good English, and said that the route was closed because there were bridges out and avalanches.

"OK," I lied, "we'll do the 'W'".

We paid our $50 entry fee (as you approach, then enter Paine, all things become more expensive), headed out into the blowing rain, and hiked up the trail toward the first camp, Carretas, about 10 km away.

Pairs of Magellan geese, as big as our Canada geese but colored like a nesting ptarmigan couple -- he in rust and white front, she in rust alone -- whistled like kids blowing through reed whistles. Noisier were the giant plovers, the lapwings that screeched and wheeled over us every 100 m or so.

"So, what are we going to do"" Peggy asked, knowing the answer. I hadn't planned this trip for over five years, nor spent an extra $2000 on our round-the-world tickets for this, our sixth continent, to follow a bunch of Euro-hostel crawlers in their drunken binge tour from refugio to refugio along the "W" trek.

"We're going to do it anyway."

"What if we get caught?" Peggy had visions of us fined or thrown in a Chilean jail for walking a closed track.

"Hablas usted Ingles? No comprendo Espanol, senior, permisso."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

November 22, 2008 – Punta Arenas and beyond.


The skidding touch down jolted me awake. Peggy was there next to me, wide-eyed if not bright-eyed, and certainly not bushy-tailed – rather butt-bruised after days of sitting.

We’d been traveling for 13 hours, that on top of the flights and airports between Anchorage and Miami. And it had all been eastward travel, six time zones east of home to here, Punta Arenas.

Our plan was ambitious: catch a taxi to town, check into a hostel, find out where the grocery store, bus, and outdoor store were; then eat, shop for food, maps and fuel, buy bus tickets, pack, sleep, eat, and catch a bus at 9 AM for Puerto Natales, 3 hours north; then hitch-hike 70 miles further on to Torres del Paine National Park.

All with my very limited Spanish vocabulary: my two most-used phrases being, “Hablas usted Engles?” and “No comprendo Espanol.”

It felt like we were in an adventure race, a race with no other teams, trying only to beat the clock. We were happy that is was so near the Austral summer solstice, and this far south: it got light by five AM and stayed light until nearly ten at night. The late spring light was like a form of amphetamine, getting us up, keeping us moving.

The three hour bus ride was far better than I expected. Peggy soon caught sight of one, then many, rheas (called nandu here) – very cool South American ostrich-like bird -- then flocks of flamingos, the giant plover-like lapwing, and beautiful white-necked, Magellan geese and black-faced ibis.

Twenty-four hours after landing in Punta Arenas, we were in Puerto Natales, the famous Patagonian wind whipping up the blue waters into waves with black-necked swans bobbing like corks.

We hurried out of town, hoping we’d catch a ride with someone who spoke English and was headed all the way to Torres del Paine.

November 21, 2008: So many landscapes, so little time.




Suppose you had just one place to go and just 10 days to do it in all of South America: where would you go and what would you do?

We decided to make it packrafting in Patagonia, and picked the Torres del Piane Circuit as our destination.

Why? Well, the Amazon is too hot and reading “River of Doubt” about Teddy Roosevelt’s epic there has probably forever put me off to that region.

Peru? I don’t like the altitude and Chris Flowers said there’re too many cows, even if the Cordillera Blanca are beautiful.

Ecuador? The Galapagos are too expensive (and there’s no packrafting there) and my memories from the Raid Gauloise adventure race of 1998 left the foul taste of Giardia in my mouth.

Argentina? Been there, done that, at least up ‘round Bariloche, which felt too much like “Patagonia Lite” for a return trip. As for Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, awesome mountains that they are, it just doesn’t look that good for a multi-day hiking and rafting trip Brooks Range-style that we are looking for.

Chile? Now we’re talking! Torres del Paine (“Towers of Paine”) National Park has a compact range of beautiful and unique peaks. It has its namesake peaks, sculpted granite of the cleanest and sheerest variety. It has the unique Cuernos del Paine (“Horns of Paine”) -– those signature black-capped granite monoliths – as well, some more typically alpine looking glaciated summits like the Paine Grande.

And it has a world class circuit trek, which while very European with its trail of pesos, refugios, and Euro-trekkers all around also offers up a series of waters, perfect for an extended packrafting trip.

So given just 10 days in South America, a packraft, and a partner with a penchant for cool weather and mountains, we headed for Torres del Paine.
 
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