Monthly Archives: January 2011

An Afternoon at the Stone Quarry

To make Patagonia National Park, we need rocks. Lots and lots of them. Why? All our buildings should be durable, to withstand the high winds and severe climate of the region. They should be well-insulated, to minimize heat loss and energy usage. They should be built of local materials, to reduce their carbon footprint.  And they must be beautiful and fit well with the landscape, because we believe that good architecture and design can act as levers for social change.

Moreover, architecture must reflect a local style, to connect them to the history of this place.  Here in Chilean Patagonia, developing an appropriate regional style required some creativity: most of the buildings constructed in the hundred-year history of settlement were transient, poorly insulated mixtures of tin and wood.  However, along the Atlantic Coast, numerous public buildings–train stations, museums, town halls, and the like–offered a model for durable, beautiful architecture on which we could build.

We considered all these requirements, and realized that if we could find a low-impact spot within the Chacabuco Valley to quarry stone, we’d have the solution. Before starting to build, we found a spot where removing stone would leave close to no trace, and where transporting the stone was relatively easy. The quarry sits at the top of a rocky hill; a cart runs up and down a track to bring stone down to the roadside.

Four men from the nearby town of Cochrane operate the stone quarry: Enrique Ernesto Gutierrez, Gustavo Medina, Nicanor Medina, and Jorge Alejandro Sanchez. During the week, they live together up at the La Juanina puesto. I spent the afternoon driving up the valley in the truck that comes every other day to collect their handiwork (about 7,000 kg of it!) and chatting with them about their experience in the park.

Constantly joking with each other, the team enjoys working together even through long days. La Juanina, the site of the future main campground of the park’s eastern sector, serves as a good base for fishing, a popular activity. Jorge explains to me how the winch at the bottom of the hill pulls the cable car up the hill, so that they can load it full of stone and send it back down the hill.

As the conversation turns towards the park and the region, Gustavo tells me, “The project’s good. The buildings are beautiful; animals are happy, and many people from all over the world will come to the park.” The others agree that many people will visit the park. Nicanor predicts that the park will provide appealing jobs like being a park guard.

Quarrying stone might not seem an obvious fit into the “conservation job” category, given that extracting natural resources appears the antithesis of protecting land. But building a park requires doing some actual building, and building anything means materials. We could ship in everything we need and turn a blind eye to the environmental impacts of their creation, far outside the park. However, by operating our own small-scale quarry, we can minimize the impacts of our project, because we can see and control exactly what we’re doing. When all the buildings are complete, we’ll disassemble the track, take away the cart and the winch, and leave the hillside almost exactly as we found it.

Perhaps chiseling stone doesn’t have the glamor of tracking pumas, but it’s a valuable job that involves the park’s neighbors in its creation. With a view out towards the steppes of Argentina, the location is stunning. The team appreciates that their work contributes to the building of a beautiful park for all of Chile to enjoy.

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Building the Berkley Bridge

As soon as its steel beams spanned the Chacabuco River, the new Berkley Footbridge began its career as an enabler of outdoor adventure.  Begun less than a year ago, this bridge now allows hikers to access easily the north side of the Chacabuco Valley from the main road.  Before this season, you had to either bring a boat with you to cross the river, or engage in a serious soggy wading/ swimming situation.  A gift from our dear friend and outdoor enthusiast Forrest Berkley, the footbridge spans the Chacabuco River about a half-hour’s drive east from the park headquarters.

Constructing the Berkley Bridge required engineering a system of floats in the river to access the middle of the bridge.

For the first time, exploring the spectacular mountains and valleys in this area of the park has become a viable and exciting option for a wide range of visitors.  Although some stonework remains, the bridge has seen substantial foot traffic throughout the summer.

The MacFarlands and friends, visiting from Massachusetts/ California, head off on a hike in the Aviles Valley.

At the point where the bridge spans the Chacabuco River, the river’s main channel runs close to the southern edge of the valley.  However, the glacially-formed riverbed extends for another kilometer or so to the north, forming a wide, gravelly plain.  The Aviles Valley begins directly across this plain from the Berkley Bridge.

The confluence of the Chacabuco and Aviles Rivers, just west of the Berkley Bridge.

The thirty-ish kilometer long Aviles Valley offers some of the future park’s mostspectacular hiking and connects the Chacabuco Valley to the Jeinimeni Mountains/ Lago Jeinimeni.  Luigi Solis, head of trail construction, says this valley is his favorite part of the park.  In the next couple years, we’ll formalize the horse track that now runs up the valley, granting spectacular views of Cerro Pintado, called “painted” for its bright red color, of the blue glacier-fed Aviles stream, and of the snowy Jeinimeni mountains.  The first section of the hike up the valley runs along perfectly flat grassy plateaus, remnants of the area’s glacial past.  The unusual and almost comical topography leaves you eager to learn more about the geological history of this region—or play a soccer game on the level plateaus.

Looking down into the canyons of the Aviles River.

Before the summer’s over, we’re expecting more explorations and fun hikes to begin at the Berkley Bridge.

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Huemul-Watching with Daniel

This week, a group of us set out in search of the elusive huemul, the rare and shy deer living in the forests of the future park.  On our own, we probably wouldn’t see any huemul: the 150 or so animals living in this area camouflage themselves well as they mosey through the woods and thickets.  But we were headed to Daniel’s puesto.  We had a chance.

Daniel Velasquez, now a park guard and huemul tracker, worked herding sheep when Estancia Valle Chacabuco was a livestock operation.   Over ten years ago, he began working with CONAF, the Chilean forest service, taking censuses of the huemul population in Tamango National Reserve.  When Conservacion Patagonica, in conjunction with Chilean biologists, developed a VHF monitoring study for huemuls, Daniel put his field knowledge of huemul to use as the head tracker.   At this point, Daniel has logged more hours watching the movements and behavior of huemul than almost anyone.  He offered to take us with him so we could see these deer for ourselves; we jumped at the chance.

Some on horseback, some on foot, we spent around three hours heading from the estancia, east down the main road, and then south and downhill towards Lago Cochrane on a dirt track.  We radioed Daniel—the only way to get in touch with him—to check if he would be home.  A new windowpane, some chainsaw oil, and a stove part were the housewarming presents we brought.

What initially appears an isolated and basic living situation turns out to be a lively and well-functioning center of activity for this sector of the park.  In a simple but newly reconstructed house overlooking Lago Cochrane, Daniel lives with his wife, Bella, and two sons, Cristian and Daniel.  Running water comes from a hose system set up in a nearby stream.  The large wood stove in the corner of the kitchen provides heat for the house and hot water for washing in addition to cooking food for the family and their many visitors.  Volunteers, visiting scientists and interns, and other guests frequently enjoy spending a day or two with the family, not only to see huemuls but also to drink maté, share an asado, and hear the family’s perspective on the creation of the park.

As soon as we arrived, Daniel told us he had located a deer earlier in the morning.  With the VHF radio tracker, we could determine the direction and proximity of the deer, so we began walking downhill into a small valley near the lake.  Daniel paused often to listen to the beeps from the collar, telling us how close we were and which direction to head.  As we approached, he cautioned us to walk quietly and keep silent.  In the middle of a cluster of lenga trees, a huemul nibbled daintily on dandelion greens.  She lifted her head to listen to us approach; then, reassured that we meant her no harm, she returned to eating.

We sat watching her undramatic performance for the next half hour, her rare presence a reason to sit still and observe the life of the forest.  When she wandered off, we returned up the hill, where Bella had cooked some sopapillos (fry breads) and the boys had started a fire for an asado.  Over countless rounds of mate, we talked about the transition from estancia to park and the region’s future, with HidroAysen’s planned damming of the nearby Baker River looming large.  Bella and the boys spend part of the year in the nearby town of Cochrane, so the boys can go to school; they speak openly about how HidroAysen tries to ingratiate itself through providing visible, short-term handouts to residents.

They believe that as the future park provides and creates more jobs for its neighbors, it becomes a more powerful alternative to the hydroelectric future.  Daniel emphasizes how he prefers his new job to his previous work with livestock, mostly because he’s constantly learning now.  Young Daniel describes the beauty of growing up in the park: he can detail the habits of the huemul and articulate the need to protect them.

With full bellies, we head up the long hill to return to the park headquarters, savoring our day.  Visiting Daniel and his family reaffirms the overarching vision of park building, making it more tangible and personal, more than glowing sunsets and glacier-covered peaks. This emerging and unusual community of people chipping away at various projects creates the energy and camaraderie that keeps the work moving forwards.

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Establishing the Lagunas Altas Trail

This summer, trail building is a hot topic at the future park: the time had come to make our first official trails.  During this stage of the park’s development, we’re constructing three networks of trails in different areas of the Chacabuco Valley, giving visitors to the park a range of opportunities to explore its marvelous landscapes.

Wildlife Director Cristian Saucedo leads a group, including Kris Tompkins and board member Rick Ridgeway, on a hike.

The Lagunas Altas Trail makes a loop from the park headquarters up towards Tamangito peak, along the ridge, around half a dozen alpine lakes, and then down the ridge back towards home.  The first part of the trail, leaving from the future Los Alamos campground, heads up an old dirt track towards the Tamangito peak.

After a few kilometers of switchbacks on the grassy/ shrubby hillside, the trail enters the forests–a dramatic change from wide-open views to mossy tree trucks.  The forest opens up here and there to give views of the valley below.  At this elevation, you begin to see over the various ridges in the valley down to the Chacabuco River.  Where the forest has remained intact, it creates a lush green sanctuary for hiker and wildlife alike.   Further up the hillside, however, the trail winds through a patch of dead tree trucks, some still standing, others creating a jungle gym of logs–a reminder of land clearing practices that often resulted in wildfires decimating entire hillsides.  Restoring this landscape will accompany our trail building work.

Bright blue alpine lakes lie on top of the ridgeline/ plateau, a perfect reward for the hike up with a tremendous view towards the Jeinimeni Range.   From here, the trail re-enters the forest, heading slightly downhill and around several more lakes, some more marshes than swamps, others deeper and more lake-like.  After reaching a great lookout over the valley, the trail winds back downhill towards home.

It took dozens of discussions—largely conducted on hillsides and lookouts, not in the office—to decide on the route and construction process for the first long trail, Lagunas Altas. Turns out making a scenic, accessible, durable, and ecologically responsible trail takes some thinking, and some walking around, seeing how the map actually compares to the terrain.   A GIS specialist and veteran trail builder joined us for several months, thanks to the enthusiasm for trail building of our long-time partner Gilbert Butler.  Along with Luigi Solis, head of trail building, and Doug Tompkins, they formed an opinionated and experienced team for jumping into this trail project.

Some key players in the trail building effort: Sebastian, Bruce, Gil and Luigi

Once the process began in earnest, however, los senderistas, aka the trail builders, have been cranking out kilometers of trail at a shockingly fast pace.  To create the trail, they are removing a layer of grass and topsoil to reach a base level, which they compact a bit to form a stable surface for walking.  Carefully designed switchbacks up the steeper sections of the trail work to minimize erosion.

During these months of trail building, los senderistas live and work out of a shady base camp halfway up the slopes of Tamangito.  The five-man team, all from the nearby town of Cochrane, wakes up early so that they can share maté and make a big breakfast before heading up the hill.  Evaristo Jara, son of park guard Delmiro Jara, heads up the team, which includes his younger brother Rody.  When asked about their experience on the Lagunas Altas project, they remark on the beauty of their surroundings and the positive spirit of their comrades.  They joke around and laugh as they work, but take pride in the effort they make to minimize the impact of trail building.  If you hike the loop once on Monday and once on Friday, you’ll get to walk on a whole new stretch of trail at the end of the week that did not exist at the beginning—and can marvel at the hard work of this impressive team.

Although not entirely complete, the Lagunas Altas has proved itself a big hit in the future park.  Many of the various visitors to the park this summer have enjoyed spending a day making the circuit, not a short hike but very rewarding.

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Breaking Ground on Aysen Center

Yesterday, construction of the Aysen Natural History and Education Center officially started, as the building team took up their shovels and began digging out the foundation area for this building.  A cornerstone of the main park headquarters, the Center will contain permanent interactive exhibits about the region’s flora, fauna, and culture, and the restoration work in the transition from estancia to park.  Another wing of the building will house temporary special exhibits.  Films and slideshows will play in a theater area, which will also serve as a forum for community gatherings and educational events.

We plan for construction to last two to three years.  At the end of that time, we’ll have a fantastic space for hosting park ranger  and guide training programs, celebrations with our neighbors, classes for local schoolchildren.  Visitors to the park will have a chance to enrich their first-hand experience of the area with some in-depth information.  It’s an exciting moment in the park’s development!

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Nature Hike with School Group from Cochrane

Almost thirty kids from Cochrane, the closest town to the future Patagonia National Park, just loaded back onto the bus after a whirlwind visit to the park.  Ale Bardavid, the teacher at our elementary school  in the park, led the group through a quick tour of the park headquarters.   She explained how visitors from all over the world will visit this beautiful area that these kids call home.  After some sandwiches, everyone–students, teachers, Conservacion Patagonica park rangers and town officials from Cochrane–set out on a hike.

Hiking on the first trail completed by our trail crew, the group drank fresh water from the clear streams, watched guanacos, and learned about the landscape’s transition from sheep estancia to national park.  Some of the students had visited the park many times before while others got their first taste of the area today. January is a vacation month here, but the kids still enjoyed the chance to learn about the wildlife of the region.

Daniel Velasquez, the CP park ranger monitoring huemul deer, helped the students use a telescope to watch wildlife up close, a big hit.  His two sons, who go to school in Cochrane, pitched in as tour guides for their classmates.  All in all, the day proved a great success.  We’re looking forwards to hosting more school groups here in the future.

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Welcome to Conservacion Patagonica’s Blog

Hello, friends of the future Patagonia National Park!

Here in the Chacabuco Valley in Chilean Patagonia, we’re hard at work building the future Patagonia National Park, which will be a 650,000-acre expanse of grasslands, mountains, wetlands, and forests in one of the world’s most beautiful places.  We’re protecting land, restoring ecosystems, working to recover endangered species, building trails and campgrounds, developing the park headquarters, and working with local communities.  And much more–creating a new national park work on many fronts.

We’ve started this blog to document the creation of this park and to celebrate the many people–staff, supporters, volunteers, community members, friends–involved in this project.  If you have a story, photos, or videos you’d like to add, send them to nadine.lehner@conservacionpatagonica.org and they may become part of the blog!

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