Tierra del Fuego
Tuesday, November 9—5:56am
The fjords are ALMOST orderly—at least seen from the observation deck in my plush little civilization bubble, with a mug of hot tea at hand. We traveled down the Magellan Straits (which are, for the western half, almost a single straight line) and are now in Admiralty Pass, which is also pretty straight. At regular intervals, we come to “intersections”—places where a different fjord branches off, often at what looks like exact right angles. It looks like you could label the one we’re on “Main Street” and the crossing points are Elm, and Spring, and Central Avenue.
Of course, when I look on a map, the entire area looks like intestines. They squirm and squiggle and loop around and dead-end; there is NO sense or order to them. Whoever explored them first (and Magellan was only the first European) was brave as hell. It’s damned confusing here.
Occasionally we pass the tongues of glaciers stretching from the tops of mountains down to the water. They’re different from the snow fields at the mountaintops; they’re thick and ripply and often tinged blue. Regular old snow is a thick coating of powdered sugar at the crests; a glacier is cake icing. THICK icing. It gets into a crack or crevice and thickens and thickens and thickens, and flows slowly downhill, cracking and groaning, and lifting up boulders like they were nothing. And eventually it lifts up the entire mountain and wears away a gap in the shield wall.
And as entertaining as that is (in a geological sense), I am occasionally aware—with that flash of startling understanding that I can only hold on to for a brief time—that the water I’m on is covering the MASSIVE path of a glacier long gone. A hummer of a glacier. A glacier that looked to all these powdered sugar cake mountains and baker’s icing grooves as if the entire kitchen had been flooded when the dishwasher broke. Or the levy broke. The mountains coming straight down into the sea are so abrupt and startling that they suck up all the attention—but the water—today it’s flat and grey and silvery in the rising sun—is hiding evidence of events that took place on an order of scale far, far more dramatic.
Oh, it’s an education just to sit in this lovely library!
I keep waking up early; I’m not sure why. Actually, I am sure: It’s because the Zodiaks to Karukinka start ferrying us past stinky elephant seals at eight in the morning, so I know breakfast will be from 6:30 to 8 and Lucho will come on the PA system at 6:15 and chant “good morning, good morning, good morning” and wake us all up. I fear being jerked awake; I fear being late; I fear missing the opportunities. So when I wake up at 4:30, I lie in my bunk and think about how annoying it will be to wake up that early. Then I surrender and get up. I am my own worst enemy.
The chairs in the dining room are designed for narrow-assed Norwegians. Most of my fellow travelers are fit and slim-hipped, but I’m not the only one who can resist the Patagonian winds, so I suspect I’m not the only one rocking sore, bruised areas at the tops of my thighs where the narrow chairs’ arms are cutting into me at meals. Today I will endure the humiliation of asking if they have any chairs without arms. If they have one, I will have to stand next to my breakfast victims (“are you saving this seat? May I join you, strangers?”) while waiters scurry to move the furniture for me. If they don’t have one, then I will grin and bear it and these bruised places will get worse and worse. There are 11 more days to go. I may well be crippled before we get to Antarctica.
Broad of beam. I wear my vices on my hips; visible for all to see. Humiliating. A nice case of kleptomania is invisible; I couldn’t have that as my abiding flaw?!?
Karukinka is not only one whopper of a crossword puzzle word—it’s also our only stop (I thin; the itinerary is very flexible) in Tierra del Fuego until we get to Ushuaia at the end of the trip. I love that name—Tierra del Fuego. Land of fire?? Is there volcanic activity around here as well as the Glacier Reconstruction Team? This place doesn’t lack for drama, I must say.
We learned yesterday that Karukinka (and probably all of Tierra del Fuego) is overrun with introduced species. Someone had the bright idea to let north American beavers go here, in the hopes that their fur would make that someone a lot of money. It turns out that it doesn’t ever get so cold here that beavers grow in the lush pelt, but they found Tierra del Fuego very much to their liking just the same. The fur is useless, but the beavers were fruitful and multiplied. From 26 released in 1948, there are now an estimated 110,000 of the little gnawers. And like glaciers, a beaver is a landscape architect, on a smaller scale. They’re a real problem here.
Also a problem: Minks. Like a scene from Gorky Park, someone let the minks go for their fur, too. And now there haven’t been any black-browed albatross eggs or chicks for the last five years. Naughty, naughty minks. Except when the Karukinka biologists set up webcams, they learned that the minks weren’t bothering; the eggs and chicks were being very successfully preyed on by Andean condors, which are even more endangered than the black-browed albatross.
So now in board rooms across Chile, very serious discussions are taking place. What the hell do they do now?? Santiago the ornithologist (we call him Santi because we’re cool like that) says they’re probably going to end up erecting SCARECROWS by the albatross nests.
Is this a known thing? Are condors scared of scarecrows while black-browed albatross are all “please—it’s old clothes blowing in the wind. Calm down, Harriet.” I am confused. As always, I HAVE QUESTIONS. Santi’s wife works at Karukinka. He’ll probably get to wave at her from a distance, since we’re all in our bubble.
Speaking of which—this morning will be spent wandering around Karukinka. The afternoon will be devoted to a FOURTH COVID test. Lucho insists it’s so we can appease Argentina before we arrive in 11 days, but I’m hopeful it’s the last hurdle before suits in boardrooms at Lindblad and Nat Geo and Disney (which owns Nat Geo) will finally lay down their arms and let us go maskless. Time will tell—but rebellion is fomenting. As previously noted.
I believe we have arrived at the end of the Admiralty Pass; Karukinka is behind me as I sit facing the sunrise. Or maybe I’m turned around. Doesn’t matter. I must get my binoculars and prepare for a wet landing. Like storming Normandy Beach. So exciting.
Tuesday, November 9; 1:21 PM
My world—my North American, Fairfax Virginia world—is dominated by lawyers. I’m constantly told that the contents of my coffee cup may well be hot. That objects in this mirror are closer than they appear. If you SEE something—SAY something. Big brother is always watching, and usually knows best…or at least he thinks he does.
Down here at the bottom of the planet, though—Lindblad has long since run out of fucks to give. Head east and good luck to you. I’ve just been on the MOST entertaining walk; I couldn’t help but giggle the whole time.
The water landing was probably a good example of this, and a joyous start to this adventure. In the rest of the world, authority figures go to huge lengths to make sure no one gets their feet wet. There are bridges and guard rails and STAY OFF THE ROCKS signs. On this cruise the directions are—put on your waterproof boots and make sure the pants are over the top so water can’t get in. If you don’t do that, whatever.
I did that. I was obedient. I sat on the sid of the Zodiak and swung my feet toward the back of the boat and held the hand of the crew members standing in the water and holding the boat. They got me on my feet and pointed me to shore. And found myself walking through knee-high fjord water. Swishing along in my Herman Munster boots. Yes, I was without grace. “Elephantine” would describe it—and would be an appropriate word, as we were surrounded by massive elephant seals. But before that—walking through water. Fully clothed in boots. I could feel the coolness against my shins, but my feet stayed dry. Rocks and pebbles underfoot, water resisting every step—I began giggling. This is so unlike me!
The elephant seals weren’t behind that boulder; they WERE that boulder. A few big males. A harem of objecting females. Quite a few pups complaining that it was time for lunch MOMMMMM. They make obscene farting noises and huff air in irritation and roll over in the sun. I noticed no corpse-like smell. Unlike sea lions, they can’t bear their weight on their front flippers, so they hump their way across the sand in a truly graceless movement. A bull elephant seal could kill you as soon as look at you; they frequently hump their way over pups and females and just kill them; they’re not very nice—and yet their appearance is SO FUCKING ENDEARING that I couldn’t help but coo. Like a fool.
We stood around taking photos for a while and hearing from Mada about elephant seals, and then we set out on the walk. “About a mile,” Lucho had said. “Very easy.”
I buttonholed him later (he drove the Zodiak that I was ferried back in) and questioned his definition of “easy.” He says that what he said and I misunderstood was that there was a part of the walk that was easy and then we could go on from there to a beautiful waterfall…but I didn’t hear that part.
Anyway, I began to grin as we walked along. First we bushwacked across a grassy landscape filled with deadfall timbers. (Somehow this bay in Karukinka is the final resting spot for a LOT of wind; it accumulates blown trash from around the world, which is distressing. It also accumulates downed trees, which lie thick on the ground in places.) So there was a nice flat walk through grass…except that the grass had tumps of earth bumping up to trip you. And downed logs to step over or go around. And random, unannounced holes and even some crevices leading down to hidden places that looked VERY unstable. So already I’m eyeing the more fragile of the gray hairs we were walking with and thinking that the law firm of Dewey, Cheatam and Howe was going to leap out at the first twisted ankle. I had one of the two expandable ski poles I’d rented as a walking stick and it helped a lot. I also cleared a path around me of about five feet as I was prone to swinging it around and chest height when I pushed up my glasses or whatever. People quite rightly gave me a clear berth.
Then we came to the thornbushes. Plus the trail got muddy. So we followed a trail made by the tramping feet of the Lindbladians who had come before us that morning (and otherwise untouched by anyone for almost two years), fending off bushes laced with needles. In a few muddy places, Lucho had thrown down a few logs, but by the time we got there, the logs had been submerged in the mud and served mostly to trip the unwary. The mud was so thick that Ellie, the youngest person on our trip at about 22, got stuck and almost couldn’t get her boot out. 80- and 90-year olds were behind me, approaching the mud bogs through the thorns. More lawyers crowded behind the thickets, hoping for sprained ankles and broken hips.
Sonny DID go down at one point and was lifted up again by Mike, the retired OB/GYN, who became the hero of our cluster. He’d wait at boggy places and help people across, for which he received grateful thanks. The next naturalist who wandered by offered him a job.
The thorns were so impressive that I stopped to put my jacket back on, even though I was definitely overheating. The woman behind me lost her hat to a bush and had to retrieve it, yipping from the thorn stings she had to endure.
And then into the forest, where the “path” was marked with red triangles on trees that pointed the way, but how you got from one triangle to the next was your own affair, and THAT was entertaining, too. Do you pick your way across land where roots the size of boa constrictors wandered? The one where you had to climb over the fallen log? Did you cross the stream here, where the mud was thick and sticking but there is a downed log to hold on to, or a little upstream where there is no mud but the far bank requires a clamber of about four vertical feet? In Herman Munster boots many, many sizes bigger than the feet inside?
And THEN we got to the waterfall, which was up a hillside of scree. Loose pebbles, just waiting to shower down on the people below. Most of the people had clambered successfully up to the base of the waterfall (which was; yep. That’s pretty. And high. Dang. Ezra the naturalist says he never treats any of the water in Patagonia; you can drink right from the streams.) I got about halfway up and decided that was far enough; as we know from Tommy the photographer’s experiences on Mount Everest, climbing up is hard; climbing down is even harder. So I watched all the others stand about thirty feet above me and take their photos. And then I watched them clamber back down, which was, in many cases, extremely precarious.
And—go ahead, judge me: THAT TOO was entertaining. More than a few of the older women were quite put out about what they’d had to go through. They wanted to go back NOW. More, they didn’t want to be here in the first place. Lucho’s description of the walk was a lot like the chairs in the dining room: Made for asses a lot smaller than mine.
However, I had no bitching in my soul. I was giggling with delight. The entire morning was a lawsuit waiting to happen—and no one got hurt. This was totally alien to my life. You’re on your own. Rely on your own ankle flexibility and core strength, and on the kindness of people like Mike (who helped me up the hill) and Benjamin (who helped me down). It’s not that Lindblad didn’t have guides on hand to help; there were lots of them wandering around, and always ready with a helping hand—but we got pretty spread out on the “trail” and they couldn’t be everywhere.
So it was wild and random and sun-filled and gorgeous and made me want to laugh out loud. I walked in several streams for the sheer joy of getting my boots wet. Look at me—I’m walking in a stream with my boots on!
Nature girl, I am not.
And I really liked that after two or three hours, we got back on the Zodiaks and were driven back to (sporadic) internet access and (sometimes delayed) toilets and a kitchen staff to ply us with tiramisu. (Yes, I WILL have a second dessert—thank you! It’s not like denying myself will suddenly make the chairs more comfortable.) This is exactly as much nature as I like—and as much wildness as I prefer. PERFECT.
I had lunch with Mike, Jean, and Craig in the observation lounge (the other half of the library). Then they went off to sit on the sundeck (since I have no sunblock, I’m already roasted enough by this morning), and I’m sitting in the library with a panoramic view of Jesus God This Country Is Stunning.
I wish I’d brought shoes other than my sneakers. I’m not sure what I should have brought, but the sneakers are TOO MUCH. I wore them up here unlaced and without socks and kicked them off as soon as I could. We’re waiting for our COVID tests. “You’ll be called to the Chart Room by your Zodiak groups” (I’m in Group A by virtue of signing up very early that first morning, but they rotate which group is called first, so it should be Delta called first and Alpha second) “After your test, please wait in your cabin for 20 minutes. If you don’t get a call in that time, then you’re free to go about the ship.” Interesting.
I’m hoping to see Dr. Rita; I can ask her for some sun block. Yes, I know that’s a stupid detail, but not every blog paragraph can be glaciers and elephant seals and pumas sleeping 20 feet off the path, you know.
I’m hoping to upload three photos. The first will be the Andean condor feather I found. I know it’s from an Andean condor because there’s a naturalist behind every tuft of grass here, and Santi knew. I left the feather there, of course; we don’t take things from the wild. And what would I do with it??
The second is Mike the Hero with Lovely Rachel the Scottish Lassie. Among my favorite people on the cruise.
And the third is my action shot. Doesn’t look like action? Look again. That’s Tommy Heinrich the Nat Geo photographer lying fully on his belly with his camera, where he lay for five or ten minutes just waiting for the elephant seal to do—something. I don’t know what. But I bet we’ll see that photo at the recap tonight, and it will be spectacular. This photo entertains me—like the rest of the morning.