Monday, January 7, 2008

Argentina: Camping in Tierra del Fuego

With New Year`s resolutions threatening less red wine and more veggies, it seemed like the perfect time to pack up the tent and hit the great outdoors. We initially set our sights on Isla Navarino, lured by superlatives like ¨the southernmost trek in the world,¨ but ridiculous ferry prices and rumours of chest-high snow and difficult route finding led us to Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego instead. Argentina`s first coastal national park, much of the 63,000 hectares are off limits to humans, but there are a few stretches that invite exploration. Magellan dubbed the area ¨land of fire¨ in the 1500´s when he sailed through the Beagle Channel. The name does not refer to the warmth of the area (au contraire!), but to the smoke he saw rising from local people`s fires.

Our initial idea was to rent all of our gear, but a little comparitive math made us realize we`d be better off buying a few things since we plan on camping a fair amount in the coming weeks. Unfortunately Ushuaia is better suited to buying a stuffed penguin and some Gucci sunglasses than a tent, but we managed to procure some comfy sleeping bags and pads. And then we got creative. Who needs gaitors when you have garbage bags? We bought a cheap cooking pot, plastic salad tongs (that served as our stirrers and utensils) and a whole lot of instant polenta at the local grocery store, and made our way into the backcountry for five glorious days. Admittedly, we weren`t the lighest packers, as even hardcover novels made the cut (thanks, Patrick!).

Armed with an outdated guidebook and a small map, we took a taxi to the Valle Andorra to begin our quest. And we were lost within fifteen minutes of leaving the car. The book indicated that we had to wade across the river to acess the trail, which was a daunting prospect when there were ice cubes floating downstream. We scoured the river to find the shortest distance and ended up crossing right into a soggy peat bog. With each step, our shoes filled with water as the spongy earth released its muddy goo. Determined not to cross the river again to start over, we spent an hour jumping from tree banch to larger peat mounds trying to find the trail. On the upside, it was beautiful and wierd and otherwordly, as the spongy earth breathed and gurgled as we stood on it. Of course on our way back, we discovered there was a beautiful handmade bridge just out of sight from where we crossed. Doh!

Back on track, we huffed our way up to Laguna Encantada (enchanted lake), a watery jewel ringed by snowcapped mountains, where we hunkered away from the wind and enjoyed amazing Thai tuna curry from Trader Joe`s (a perfect Christmas gift from Eric`s sister and brother-in-law). The lake, while truly enchanting, is also the result of one of Tierra del Fuego`s biggest nuisances, the non-native Canadian beaver that is busily making itself at home without predators. Originally 50 beavers were purchased by the Argentine Government as part of a commercial fur trading endeavor in the 1940`s. The project failed, and the beavers were released into the wild. The eager beavers, now estimated at 50,000 and climbing, have proliferated like mad, chewing through trees, damming rivers, and wreaking general havoc. It`s a serious problem, as environmentalists fear that the beavers could swim to the South American mainland and spell absolute disaster for the Andes. Local farmers, the government, and environmentalists are all scrambling to find a solution.

Camping here was made for our body clocks, as we could sleep until 11am (or later), not start hiking until 1pm (or 3pm), and still have a good 11 hours of daylight ahead of us. Dreamy! Not so dreamy was the really cold weather. We spent the next few days making our way toward the Paso de la Oveja (sheep`s pass). Eric dubbed the place Tierra del Frio, as we huddled in our tents from heavy snow one evening, grumbling self-righteously about the yahoos next to us who had built an illegal fire at one campsite. That is, until they invited us over and shared their flask of pisco and their chocolate. Soon we were fast friends. They were Ushuaia locals (a dad, his teenage son, and his friend), and they were an absolute highlight of our trip. They slowed their Spanish way down, regaled us with Antarctican tales (he did cargo loading and maintenance on a research boat), and we discussed music, food and the outdoors (the universals). The kids were excited to learn that we lived in California and wanted to know if we had met Blink 182 and what we thought of the latest punk music. They kept the fire going all night, getting up in shifts, and invited us to come over whenever we felt like it. This was a blessing at 6am when temperatures were well below freezing, and we needed to warm our aching bones and cold feet. As a parting gift, they gave us some raisins from his wife`s home town. So charming!

We eventually made our way up and over the snowy pass, enjoying splendid views of icy waterfalls and the Beagle Channel. The scenery was much like some of Kathleen`s favorite parts of the John Muir Trail, but decidedly colder, less crowded, and lacking in fat and happy marmots. We were amazed to only see one or two people a day, and three of the four nights, we had a camping area to ourselves. Probably a good thing, as even building a legal campfire sometimes brought out the beast in Eric.

We are now safely back in Ushuaia, where we are quickly breaking resolutions and reveling in central heating.

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