Adventures of the Fellowship of the Huemul (Or There and Maybe Eventually Back Again)
March 27, 2014
By Frances Iannucci (University of Vermont ’15)
Sixty days in, and the adventure is still going strong! The group woke up on Saint Patrick’s Day to frosty tents, clear blue skies, and a buzz of excitement in the air as we began the preparations for our backpacking exploration of Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins. While we were partly continuing our search for huemul deer in the park, our main objective was simply to explore new places, traveling where no gringo had traveled before (that’s not an exaggeration- we are literally the first people other than a few CONAF park rangers to explore this region of the park!). The plan was to hike out the first day, do a little exploring and huemul searching, then head home to Fiordo Bernardo on day 3. So after a wholesome breakfast of cake and mote, we packed up camp, waved goodbye to our kayaking NOLS visitors, squeezed in a pre-hike yoga session, and without further ado we were on our way!
The trip began with a leisurely walk along the newly completed 1/2 km of trail, followed by a brief traipse through some prickly shrubbery. By the time no shirt o’clock rolled around, we were rock-hopping our way toward the glacier. Spirits were high as we grazed on calafate berries and munched on glacial ice for a pleasant hour of walking along the fjord, drinking in all the sights and sounds of this unbelievable place we’re living in. The path up to this point was familiar to all of us from previous tours of the area. As soon as the clock struck 12, though, we officially struck out into a totally new part of the Patagonian wilderness.
One of our biggest discoveries of the day was how well The Lord of the Rings has transcended cultural boundaries. It seemed quite fitting, listening to the a capella soundtrack provided by Tyler and Cameron as we trekked across the countryside, although our cast of characters was a little jumbled. Frodo (Felador) led the way throughout our voyage, accompanied by Pippin (Tyler), Faramir (Bolton), and Gandalf (Orlando). I believe Aragorn and an Ent came along for the ride, as well. After several hours of traversing “paths” that only our Chilean guides would know, we even gazed upon the gates of Mordor. Perhaps you would know it as Magellanes, Region XII of Chile. It’s a lot wetter and more vegetated than I would have imagined from reading the books, and who knew that Mount Doom was actually a giant ice field? The largest ice field outside the Arctic and Antarctic circles, as a matter of fact. Okay, so maybe the landscape is a little different, but the spirit of adventure is still very much the same.
As the first couple days progressed, the surprises began to accumulate. It started out with smaller details, like the gun strapped to Orlando’s backpack, and the hunks of sheep that continued to emerge from that same backpack at every meal (we all got to partake in the rack of ribs on the second night). We also received the news that we had permanently lost one of our fearless leaders, as Jonny was returning to the UK for hand surgery and would not be rejoining our Round River family (see previous blog entry). If things go according to plan, a new leader will be waiting for us upon our return to Tortel. Ups and downs, you could say.
Then, we saw a cow pie.
As it turns out, there are a few feral cows roaming around these parts, which has indirect negative impacts on the park’s huemul population. Given this negative perception of the cows and the freshness of the signs we were coming across, the time was ripe for a good gaucho-style cow hunt. Thus, we continued our hike fully armed: Felador with his gun in the lead, and Orlando bringing up the rear with a machete. We even got a lesson in cow safety, being instructed to ditch our packs and run for a tree if we ever faced a charging cow. We were clearly hot on the trail, but the first day of hunting yielded little more than a dead mouse sighting.
Now, were this a trip back in the USA, you would think at this point we would start heading home, and maybe keep an eye out for a cow along the way… but this is Patagonia we’re talking about. Instead, after some confusing and slightly aggravating deliberation, we found ourselves en route to Refugio Tempano, the other refuge in the park. After all, when will we ever get another chance to explore this place? We pressed on through the continual rain, swampy ground, and knee- to thigh-deep river crossings, driven on by the prospect of a roof over our heads, a fire to dry out by, and Chilean hospitality to fill our bellies for the night. The long hike home would be much more pleasant the next day anyway, with sun in the forecast.
We arrived at Tempano after a fairly short hike, but – plot twist – nobody was home when we arrived! Apparently the two resident CONAF park rangers were out and about for the day. We managed to sneak in the back door to dry out, thaw out, drink mate, discuss some restoration ecology (Academics? What?), and cook up some dinner before pitching our tents on the porch in the interest of being polite. I initially lost my tent over the railing in the crazy wind, but a strategically placed box of potatoes prevented any further incidents.
After a very windy night, we set out bright and early with the intention of powering through the 25 km back to Fiordo Bernardo. Things started smoothly: the sun was shining, and the first 6 km went by relatively quickly. What followed, however, was the longest unexpected lesson in Chilean culture, beyond the scope of any of our imaginations.
When in the remote backcountry of Chile, the name of the game is flexibility, hospitality, and giving whatever you can. Plans can change in the blink of an eye, so you quickly learn to go with the flow, make the most of the situation at hand, and trust that things will work out in the end. In this case, our change of plans came in the form of two CONAF rangers tending to a tree decorated with the choice cuts of a recently killed feral cow. The Chileans got talking, one thing led to another, and suddenly half the group was embarking on another cow hunt, while the rest of us loaded our packs with 20-pound bags of raw meat to bring back to Tempano for the night’s Asado.
Hospitality is very freely offered in Chilean culture, and it cannot be politely declined. At first, I thought nothing could display this better than these two men taking in eleven people they had never met in their lives, cooking us a feast fit for royalty, and giving us a house to sleep in for the night, when we could give nothing of the sort in return. Then plans were made to take a boat ride to the glacier and make empanadas the next day, so one day became two. Then the massive rain storm rolled in, and two days became three. Not once in that entire time did we ever want for anything (except maybe some vegan meals for Sarah). It was hard to accept so much, when all we had to give were hands to help set the table or harvest calafate berries, and whatever company we could provide. We just had to settle for helping out in whatever small ways we could, and hoping we could somehow return the favor some day.
Three days at the refuge provided time for plenty of cultural experiences. Our backpacking trip turned into more of an eating marathon, with multiple courses of culinary perfection appearing at almost every meal (not to mention the endless supply of freshly baked bread). Even the vegetarians partook in the feral cow feasts! We learned the intricacies of drinking mate, harvested calafate for homemade jam, tried to learn some Chilean card games, watched Pirates of the Caribbean en Español, and even had a sing-along night of “Hotel California” and Bon Jovi’s greatest hits (it’s amazing what crosses cultural boundaries).
By day 7 of our trip, it was clearly time to begin the trip back to Fiordo Bernardo. We enjoyed one last round of mate around the wood stove, took some group photos for “mucho remembering,” then sent the first wave of hikers on their way for one last round of cow hunting. The rest of us followed shortly after, stopping to pick up a forgotten chunk of meat from the last cow on the way to our campsite. Unfortunately, the last two cows continued to elude us, but we still got to enjoy one last campfire with Tito and Fabian (intentionally started with a pile of trash, some unwanted rain pants, and a healthy dose of gasoline).
We were officially homeward-bound the next morning, determined to make it to Fiordo Bernardo by the end of the day. We set out expecting a long day of drizzle and slick wet rocks. To our delight, however, Felador knew a short cut over the hill, and the end was suddenly surprisingly close! We still had to traverse some tricky terrain, but after about 5 hours on the trail, innumerable slips and butt slides, and a last push through the dense prickly shrubs, we finally arrived at home sweet refugio, with the smell of cooking sheep already wafting down the trail on the breeze.
The adventure continues, as they say, and there will most definitely be mucho remembering by all!